SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Like many western states, Utah is home to many ghost towns. Three of those towns draw visitors from all over the world due to the nature of the heritage they still maintain even when the population is gone.
Three of Utah’s ghost towns are related to people who worked hard to establish the towns before all was lost. Though there may no longer be people left in the towns, their shadows hold memories and artifacts of Utahns creating communities.
TERRACE, Box Elder County, Utah
Terrace was a once-thriving railroad community in Box Elder County. Now all that remains is a cemetery and a few artifacts spread across the site that once was the home to upwards of a thousand people.
The town was established in 1869 as a halfway point between Nevada and Ogden along the Transcontinental Railroad. When the railroad changed its route south in 1904, the town began to change and people began to leave. By 1910, the town was a ghost town.
Dr. Chris Merritt, the State Preservation Officer, led an excavation of Terrace and said what remains tells a story of the people who lived in Terrace.
“People aren’t used to towns disappearing in 2023,” Merritt said. “The ghosts of the people are still there and the stories they share are there for us to listen to.”
He also said the emptiness adds to the peace left behind and the ability to ponder on what happened in Terrace.
“There’s nothing. It’s extremely peaceful, and you’ve got to think about how that one event helped transform not only our state, but the nation and the world by the confluence of cultures here in Terrace, Utah.”
Merritt goes on to explain that about 20 percent of the town’s population was Chinese Immigrants and those who died in Terrace were not buried in the town cemetery and were left to be forgotten. He hopes that by studying the artifacts and things like ceramics, hair, and fishbones their legacy will live on. He cautions others to leave behind any of the artifacts they may come across while visiting Terrace.
“These are someone’s stories that are left on the ground. Leave them where you find them because if they are taken away or moved, we lose the ability to tell the story I am now able to tell about the Chinese community.”
IOSEPA, Tooele County, Utah
Like Terrace, outside of a cemetery, not much is left of the town of Iosepa in Tooele County. For the descendants of those who called this place home, this is sacred ground because the spirits of those who were laid to rest here continue to live on within the earth.”
Leis, coconuts, seashells, and painted stones line many of the graves in what is left of the tiny town of Iosepa. Settled by Hawaiian members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, islanders came to Utah in support of their faith and looking to be closer to other members of the church.
Descendants can travel to the ghost town to feel the spirits of those who marked a path in the faith journey of their ancestors.
“A lot of people go there just to connect again to our ancestors and to appreciate their sacrifices they made to make sure we had the gospel. The bones of our ancestors are the strength and the foundation for us,” said Charmgne Wixom, former President and current Secretary of the Iosepa Historical Society. “It’s just a healing place. You can drive on that road and once you get to a certain point, it’s like you’re going through to another dimension. That’s how it is for me.”
Hawaiians had to come to Utah to be part of the Church but had a hard time fitting in to the culture of the western U.S. during the time.
“The cultural differences were so great. They spoke a different language, they had different customs, they had different color of skin. All of those things played a factor into them not assimilating well into the existing population at that time,” reports Dr. Ben Pykles, Director of Historic Sites for the LDS Church.
Pykles said due to all these factors church leaders began looking for a place Hawaiian members could settle and in 1889 chose Skull Valley. Church history reports show there were similarities in some of the terrain to parts of Hawaii that allowed for the Saints to settle and work the land and an abundance of fresh springs provided water.
The settlers called the town Iosepa, meaning Joseph, after Joseph F. Smith, a missionary to the Hawaiian Islands who was an apostle for the Church during the founding of the town and who would later become Prophet to his followers.
When the town was thriving, there were about 128 people listed on the census. They had built homes and stores, and had begun farming operations.
The town was one of the first in the state to have pressurized water. A fact memorialized by the remains of an original fire hydrant still standing in the now-abandoned town.
In 1915, Joseph F. Smith asked the settlers to return to Hawaii to build a temple on the island of Oahu and so they did. Many reluctantly left, sad to leave the town they had built and become proud of.
THISTLE, Utah County, Utah
About 65 miles to the southeast of Salt Lake you can see the remains of the town of Thistle. Many of the homes are just roofs peeking out of the settlement of a geological disaster that claimed the town in 1983.
Thistle was first settled around 1848. It is one of the earlier settlements in Utah’s history. Around 1880, the sleepy little agricultural town benefited from the boom of the coal industry and became a bustling railroad town.
The change was short-lived with diesel engine trains replacing stem train engines and the town once again became the sleepy little agricultural berg.
Then in 1983, the costliest landslide in U.S. history headed for the town. In the process, the slide damned up the Spanish Fork River and destroyed the rail line that connected Salt Lake to Denver. The water and mud began rising in the town. Residents were evacuated and within weeks the town was unrecognizable. It was buried beneath a lake 200 feet deep.
The lake was drained but the town never recovered. It sits quiet and eerie of the side of the highway. Just another ghost town of the West.