Ghost towns still standing in Utah, but barely

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Scroll down to the bottom of the story to hear Clint Thomsen’s firsthand account of a night at haunted Mercur cemetery.

Utah’s West desert region is haunted. Legends whisper of restless spirits, the victims of cursed gold, greed-inspired violence or nature’s unrelenting wrath. In some locations, the landscape is dotted with the near-spectral remains of forgotten boom towns. Though these settlements once bustled with the energy of promised wealth, the decrepit structures are often all that remains, each ghost town a shade of its former glory.

Few such towns remain in the Provo area, where old structures have been cleared to make room for modern development. But more than two dozen ghost towns remain within driving distance, and some are popular destinations for ghost town enthusiasts and explorers, or “ghost towners.”

A home lays in ruins in Thistle, Utah, up Spanish Fork Canyon.

Mercur

This town, located near several other historic attractions, is popular among ghost towners and thrill seekers. At its peak in the 1890s, when the population hit 6,000, Mercur was an icon of the Old West, complete with moonshine, back room brothels and shootouts in the streets. Mercur’s fortune, however, would be short-lived, and in 1902 the bustling town vanished overnight in a devastating fire.

“Towns during that period, being mostly built of wood, and the structures being built really close together like that — it was not uncommon for fires to occur,” Clint Thomsen, an avid ghost towner and author of “Ghost Towns: Lost Cities of the Old West,” said. “When a fire would happen, it sometimes would wipe out the entire town.”

Mercur was ultimately abandoned in 1913 when the cost of mining and rebuilding exceeded the going price for gold. Today, nothing of the town remains except the graveyard, which is renowned as a paranormal hot spot and has been the subject of numerous paranormal investigations.

The Mercur cemetery remains accessible to the public, and Thomsen, a skeptic, wanted to see whether or not the cemetery was haunted. On a cool Halloween night in 2010, he and his two sons went to the cemetery and found the grave of Annie Jones, a little girl who often receives dolls from visitors. When his brand-new LED flashlight began malfunctioning inexplicably, he and his boys packed up and headed for home.

Thomsen still doesn’t believe in the cemetery’s ghostly inhabitants, though he said the town might be the site of another sort of haunting.

“Sometimes people say that some places have such emotional scars that were so vivid or of such great magnitude that they leave some sort of paranormal mark, and Mercur may be one of those places,”  Thomsen said, adding he never again had a problem with that flashlight.

Thistle

Thistle could be called Utah County’s own Atlantis. According to the Utah History Encyclopedia, the town was founded in 1883 as a small farming and ranching community, but when the railroad came in 1890, the settlement became a junction on the route between Denver and Salt Lake City. For nearly 100 years, the town’s fortunes rose and fell with the railroad; in 1917, Thistle boasted 600 residents who managed a large railroad depot, several stores, a post office, school and a saloon. As demand for railroad services dwindled in later years, the town did likewise, and by 1983, Thistle’s population dropped to 50.

“I remember that it was a kind of quaint little town that was a railroad center at a time,” Robert Carter, a historian from Springville, said.

In April of 1983, disaster slid into town. Unusually wet weather triggered a massive landslide that formed a natural dam across the nearby Spanish Fork River. Efforts to clear the debris from the river and drain the rising floodwaters failed, and floodwaters eventually inundated Thistle, rendering the town uninhabitable, bringing about its early demise.

According to Mark Milligan, a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, Lake Thistle was ultimately drained, revealing what remained of the town — the walls of the town school house, a few intact homes and broken fragments of buildings deposited on the lake’s eastern shore.

“Roofs became rafts, and those roof-rafts can still be found on what used to be the shoreline of Lake Thistle,” Milligan said.

Ophir

Ophir’s location near Mercur makes this so-called “semi-ghost” another popular destination for ghost towners, and the 12 remaining residents welcome visitors who respect the town’s heritage.

“As far as I’m concerned,  we’ve got something to be proud of and we should share it,” Ophir City Mayor Walt Shubert said.

Shubert, who was elected to his position during a write-in campaign that thwarted his attempt to retire in 2007, and some remaining Ophir residents maintain the Ophir Historic District to preserve their community’s history and to tell their story to visitors. Ophir was officially founded in 1870, but the town got its start five years earlier when soldiers from the U.S. Army discovered silver while checking for illegal behavior among the Mormons living in the area. Ophir boomed a year later in 1971, and at its height Shubert estimated the town had a population of nearly 4,500. By the 1880s, the excitement in Ophir began to settle, but mining continued on a lesser scale until the last of the nearby smelters closed in 1976.

“I doubt it will ever reopen, but you never know,” Shubert said.

The historic district is closed for the season but Shubert said he will set up a tour for those who call him in advance at 435-882-0603.

According to Thomsen, one needn’t be an expert to explore ghost towns, but novice and experienced ghost towners should take some precautions. Explorers should make their first trip to an unknown area in daylight, and should go with the right attitude of respect. More importantly, he said ghost towners should do their homework to gain a historical perspective as well as to find out who owns the land and whether or not the town is accessible, and ghost towners should never enter any sort of mine shaft or tunnel.

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