Grafton – a Utah ghost town

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Tumbleweeds and rotting fences

In 1847 the first wave of Mormons arrived at the top of Emigration Canyon and gazed down at what was to be the last leg of the journey that would end in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Led by Brigham Young, the Mormons were leaving the religious persecution they faced back east and were searching for a place where they could practice their beliefs without harassment. Utah back then was a Mexican territory, and Young was determined that he could settle the area and create the “state” of Deseret. The argument for and against any religion is left to the evangelicals, and unless provoked mightily, I try to bring to these pages an accounting of our journey through these great areas of our country, and leave social and political issues out of it.

The church and schoolhouse -built in1886

Brigham Young had to fund his new “state” and in a clairvoyant moment realized that the climate in Southern Utah could be conducive to growing cotton. Thus was established the “Cotton Mission”, an endeavor that created eight farming settlements along the Virgin river, one of which was New Grafton, named after a town in Massachusetts. They had immediate success and in the two years following the establishment of the community the groundwork was set for the inevitability of Grafton becoming a ghost town.

An old barn, still standing – classic fencing
The accompanying shed

Despite their intrinsic beliefs and hard work, these early missionaries were not farmers and they made two grievous errors that doomed their settlement. First, the success of the cotton growing effort led them to overplant the town with cotton to the detriment of having enough goods to feed themselves. Secondly, the Virgin River, while seemingly a benevolent benefactor was in reality no such thing. Coursing out of Zion Canyon, only some 12 miles away, with no natural or manmade impediments to its flow, the Virgin was prone to flooding and in 1862, a short three years after the town was established, a flood wiped out the entire town.

as any other river, the Virgin can be inviting – or nasty

These people had the foresight to move the entire town upriver about a mile to an area that seemed a little more conducive to safe farming. They realized that dams and irrigation ditches were essential to their success, because if the river ran unchecked it would only be a matter of time till disaster would strike again.

Zion Canyon to the east – the source of the Virgin River

They soon realized that the the river was so full of silt, mud and debris that the irrigation ditches, so critical to their survival, would clog and impede the flow of water to the fields. Cotton by now was of little importance and the fields (each family had the rights to about an acre of “arable” land), were the lifeblood to their survival.

Grafton Mesa – a great hiking trail – in the background

By 1866 – a mere seven years after its founding – Grafton became a ghost town for the first time. The upper Virgin Valley had been inhabited by native Southern Paiute people way prior to the arrival of the “Cotton Missionaries”, and inevitable conflict became the norm. Further to the east the Navajo people had relocated due to socio-economic pressures from the south (Arizona) and the west (Utah), and they too became aggressive. In 1866, after a series of deadly raids, Brigham Young ordered the settlements along the Virgin to unify into towns of at least 150 men. Grafton and its sister cities merged in Rockville, a mere seven miles away, and the settlers continued to work the land though not living there.

1866 was a busy year for the Grafton cemetery.

The conflict ended some two years later and the former residents returned to Grafton and continued to eke out a meager, but sustainable existence. In 1896 Utah became a state and life continued along the river until a final death bell rang in 1906. The Virgin had never been able to be tamed at the path it took near Grafton, but some twenty miles to the south, in Hurricane, a canal was built that delivered water to the Hurricane bench, a wide, flat and now sustainable stretch of land that doomed the efforts of the original farms. Without potable water, electricity, and really with little population, Grafton became a ghost town for the second time as almost the entire population left for the better living conditions of Hurricane.

Walnut trees were common
Apple trees still blossom and belie the harshness of the land

As with other ghost towns, Grafton has had its share of movies shot on location. In Old Arizona was filmed in 1929 and was the first “talkie” filmed outdoors. A portion of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed there in 1969, giving the film one of its iconic moments as Paul Newman and Katherine Ross ride a bicycle together to the music of “Raindrops”. The TV Child Bride of Short Creek starring Diane Lane and Helen Hunt was filmed there in 1981. Numerous other movies and shorts were filmed there as well.

In addition to the church/schoolhouse, the Alonzo H Russel house has also been renovated

Restoration of the town’s buildings has been slowly taking place, but most of the surviving structures are intact from the days when they were used by a hearty bunch of pioneers.

Pretty much as when it was abandoned
The John Wood Home – pretty much intact as well

A view of Zion National Park from the John Wood Porch.

Food-wise this post we’re keeping it simple. This recipe is cool because you can save it in a jar for months while saving you money. I found this around Cinco de Mayo while checking out Mexican recipes. While perhaps not Mexican authentic, this recipe for taco seasoning is certainly All-American – you won’t want store-bought packets ever again. Enjoy.

3 Replies to “Grafton – a Utah ghost town”

  1. Great History lesson on an overlooked facet of America expansion into the Far West. It certainly wasn’t an easy life there but will have to admit that the scenery was gorgeous! and still is. Great travel!! XO Michael


  2. Interesting history of that area, those folks lived a rough life! But oh that vista…just beautiful!

    Thanks for sharing, Nancy and Joe


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