Grafton, Utah: A Picturesque Ghost Town with Rich History
As a historic settlement nestled near the magnificent Zion National Park, Grafton, Utah, is a picturesque ghost town that has stood the test of time. Its serene surroundings and rich history have made it a popular destination among history enthusiasts, photographers, and movie buffs.
In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the captivating story of Grafton, Utah, its tumultuous past, and the remnants of this once-thriving community that continue to inspire awe and admiration.
The Beginnings of Grafton, Utah
1847 West of the United States in Mexican Territory
Grafton’s story begins in 1847 when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons, sought refuge from religious persecution in the United States. Led by Brigham Young, the Mormons ventured westward, eventually settling in the Utah Territory, which was then part of Mexican Territory.
Young’s vision for this new settlement, which he called Deseret, was to create a haven where Mormons could practice their faith freely. After the Mexican-American War in 1850, Deseret became a U.S. Territory.
Mormon Settlements and the Pursuit of Self-Sufficiency
Between 1847 and 1900, Mormons established around 500 villages throughout the west to claim territory and secure resources for self-sufficiency. Skilled craftsmen and volunteers were called on colonizing missions, such as the Iron Mission in 1851, which led to the founding of Cedar City and Parowan.
Brigham Young believed that the warm land south of Cedar City could produce cotton, a costly and U.S.-dependent staple. His vision proved accurate when cotton flourished in an experiment at Santa Clara in 1854, prompting Young to send numerous families to Utah’s “Dixie” as part of the Cotton Mission.
However, farming in the Utah Territory was no easy task, with settlers requiring flat land and sufficient water for irrigation – both of which were scarce. Despite these challenges, ten farming settlements sprouted along the upper Virgin River between 1857 and 1862, including Grafton, which was established in 1859.
Grafton, Utah Territory, 1859 to 1862
In 1859, Nathan Tenney led five families from nearby Virgin to a site one mile downstream from today’s Grafton. The small community cooperated in planting crops, digging irrigation ditches, and building homes, focusing on community and faith rather than profit. As the U.S. Civil War began in 1861, cotton became scarce, and Brigham Young’s vision of Utah’s Dixie started to bear fruit.
However, Grafton’s first year of cotton cultivation proved challenging, as farmers did not plant enough corn, cane, and other crops to feed their families. In the following years, Virgin River farmers scaled back cotton production in favor of food crops, devoting their attention and land to survival in this arid region.
The Impact of Flooding
Grafton’s early years were fraught with difficulties, particularly due to the unpredictable nature of the Virgin River. In January 1862, a devastating flood destroyed most of Grafton and other nearby settlements like Duncans Retreat, Adventure, and Northup. The flood forced Grafton’s settlers to relocate to higher ground one mile upstream, where the current townsite now stands.
Grafton, Utah Territory, 1862-1866
Even after relocating, Grafton’s settlers faced continued challenges. Irrigation dams were repeatedly washed out, sometimes multiple times in a single year. Furthermore, irrigation ditches frequently filled with sand, requiring constant maintenance. Despite these hardships, Grafton’s settlers remained optimistic and, for the most part, healthy.
During this period, death came in its usual manner, taking the old, the sick, and the very young. The Grafton Cemetery holds six babies from these years, all under one year of age. Mary Jane York, 28, died of consumption (tuberculosis), and Byron Lee Bybee, 65, died of “poor health.” Accidents also claimed lives, like that of nine-year-old Joseph C. Field, who was dragged to death by a horse.
Despite these tragedies, life in Grafton continued. Crops and fruit trees thrived, and music became a part of everyday life, with dances held every Friday night. Grafton’s population grew slowly as settlers from the burgeoning Salt Lake City joined the community effort.
Grafton, Utah Territory, 1866-1868: The Ghost Town Era
In 1866, Grafton became a ghost town for the first time due to conflicts with native Southern Paiute peoples. Pioneers who settled in the upper Virgin River valley inadvertently competed with the indigenous population for land and scarce resources, leading to tensions and, eventually, violence. Also, Navajo people living south of the Colorado River were squeezed between Arizona and Utah’s pioneer settlements.
When Mormon settlers were killed near Colorado City by Navajo raiders in 1866, Brigham Young ordered southern Utah’s villages to consolidate into towns with populations of at least 150 people. As a result, Grafton and other Virgin River towns were deserted, with residents consolidating in Rockville. Farmers from Grafton continued to tend their fields daily, and by 1868, the town was resettled as the “Indian Problem” subsided.
Grafton, Utah Territory, 1868-1945
In 1886, Grafton residents constructed the adobe schoolhouse, which still stands at the heart of the town, using lumber and clay from the surrounding area. Utah became a U.S. state in 1896, and Grafton thrived until 1906, when a newly built canal diverted Virgin River water to the Hurricane bench twenty miles downstream. Worn of the struggle for survival on limited acreage and facing repeated floods, Grafton families helped build the Hurricane Canal and relocated to Hurricane.
In 1929, Grafton, now mostly intact but barely inhabited, became the setting for the first outdoor talking movie ever filmed,In Old Arizona. The film starred Warner Baxter, who won the Best Actor Academy Award for his role as The Cisco Kid, Raoul Walsh, Edmund Lowe, and Dorothy Burgess.
Grafton, Utah, United States, 1945
Despite its idyllic location and strong community spirit, Grafton’s decline was inevitable. Irrigated land was severely limited, and the first generation of settlers claimed it all. As children grew up and started their own families, there was no available farmland, forcing young men to seek livelihoods elsewhere. Grafton gradually became a ghost town for the second time – uninhabited but not forgotten.
Today, Grafton’s remaining buildings stand as a testament to the early settlers’ perseverance and industrious spirit. Such towns are rare and becoming rarer, as most pioneer villages either lose their historic identity as they grow into modern towns or are washed away in flash floods. Grafton’s legacy lives on through annual reunions held on the last Saturday of September, where former residents and descendants gather to share stories, memories, and a sense of community.
Films Shot in Grafton
Grafton’s picturesque setting and well-preserved buildings have made it a popular location for filmmakers. Some of the movies shot in Grafton include:
- In Old Arizona (1929) – The first talkie filmed outdoors, nominated for five Academy Awards. Starring Warner Baxter, Raoul Walsh, Edmund Lowe, and Dorothy Burgess.
- The Arizona Kid (1930) – Starring Warner Baxter and Carole Lombard.
- Ramrod (1947) – Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Preston Foster, Charles Ruggles, Donald Crisp, and Lloyd Bridges.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – Starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katherine Ross; winner of four Academy Awards.
- Child Bride of Short Creek (1981) – Starring Diane Lane, Helen Hunt, Christopher Atkins, and Conrad Bain.
- The Red Fury (1984) – Starring Wendy Lynne, Calvin Bartlett, Katherine Cannon, and Juan Gonzales.
- 1847: Mormons arrive in present-day Salt Lake City, fleeing persecution in the United States.
- 1850: Utah becomes a U.S. Territory.
- 1859: Grafton is settled by five families from nearby Virgin.
- 1862: Grafton is destroyed by a flood and subsequently relocated one mile upstream.
- 1866: Grafton becomes a ghost town for the first time due to conflict with native peoples.
- 1868: Grafton is resettled as tensions with native peoples subside.
- 1886: Grafton’s adobe schoolhouse is constructed.
- 1896: Utah becomes a U.S. state.
- 1906: Grafton residents relocate to Hurricane due to flooding and limited resources.
- 1945: Last resident leaves Grafton, marking its second transition into a ghost town.
Southern Paiute Indians
The Southern Paiute Indians, who originally inhabited the upper Virgin River area, played a significant role in the history of Grafton. They initially helped settlers with farming, tending livestock, and other tasks, but increasing competition for land and resources eventually led to hostilities.
The Black Hawk Indian War was the most destructive conflict between pioneer settlers and Indians in Utah history, and Grafton was abandoned temporarily during the height of the conflict.
Despite the troubled past, peace was eventually established between the Southern Paiute Indians and Grafton settlers, and many became friends. Some Southern Paiutes were even buried in the Grafton Cemetery, alongside the settlers they once called neighbors.
Visiting Grafton Ghost Town
A visit to Grafton provides a fascinating glimpse into the past, with its well-preserved buildings and serene surroundings. Located just outside of Springdale, near Zion National Park, Grafton can be reached by turning at Rockville on Highway 9 and following the dirt road to the end.
The best times to visit Grafton are during the spring and fall, when the weather is more pleasant. Summer temperatures can be quite hot, while winter conditions may make navigating the unpaved road to Grafton difficult.
While visiting Grafton, be sure to explore the cemetery, the restored buildings, and the picturesque surroundings. Remember to respect private property and adhere to any No Trespassing signs.
Grafton, Utah, is a testament to the resilience and determination of early settlers who braved difficult conditions to build a community in a challenging environment. Today, Grafton stands as a well-preserved ghost town that offers a unique glimpse into the past, while its picturesque setting continues to captivate visitors worldwide.