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Grafton, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Ghost Town Sleeps in the Shadow of Zion National Park


By —— Bio and Archives--October 22, 2009

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imageMost visitors lured to Zion National Park in southwestern Utah by the sheer towering walls of red sandstone, narrow slot canyons and shady cottonwoods that line the Virgin River have never heard of Grafton. They are unaware that a few miles before the park’s southern entrance, on the south side of the river tucked behind the trim and proper rural enclave of Rockville lie the remnants of an historical gem that has earned its place on the National Register of Historic Sites, and for good reason. Not only is it one of the most photogenic relics of pioneer heritage, but its history and the sweat and tear-soaked tale of struggle that Grafton’s hearty settlers endured is the stuff of Hollywood movies.

As a matter of fact, Hollywood did come calling on numerous occasions to film, for instance, In Old Arizona (1929), the first talkie filmed outdoors, The Arizona Kid (1930), Ramrod (1947) and of course Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Whereas the specially-built house where Butch and Sundance stayed has long been removed, those green fields where Paul Newman pedaled his bike haven’t changed in forty years.

But that’s make-believe. The real story is found in the pastures one drives by on entering the abandoned settlement, the weathered and beaten-down log cabins, the beautifully restored adobe school house that doubled as a church and social gathering place; the Alonzo H. Russell home, and in particular the small cemetery that will pull at your heart strings when you read the crumbling headstones. This small sliver of a valley takes on a heightened meaning when you realize the amount of grueling labor that was expended on behalf of that not-so-simple task of survival we moderns so casually take for granted.

Grafton’s earliest settlers, members of the persecuted Mormon faith, were part of the contingent of Latter Day Saints under the leadership of then-president Brigham Young who embarked upon an ambitious effort to establish approximately 500 villages throughout the West from 1847 to 1900. In 1859 five families gained a foothold at the original town site a mile downstream from today’s Grafton. But that lasted only until 1862 when a massive flood obliterated the village and several others along the Virgin, sending houses floating down-river like furniture, as one resident recalled. Undaunted, the people of Grafton resettled upstream where we find it today.

Although the town’s people fared, numbering 164 by 1864, it was tough living even by Wild West standards. There was little farmland, irrigation ditches were routinely clogged with silt and demanded constant maintenance, and when it rained the roads in and out turned to impassable gunk. Difficult to imagine in this corner of the West, but cotton was grown initially and sold during the Civil War years when that commodity became scarce. Although crops and fruit trees found a solid foothold, the same can’t be said of the people whose deep faith no doubt helped sustain them through the worst of those precarious times.

Death was a constant reminder of life’s frailty in those desert environs. It hit the young particularly hard during these years; six children under the age of one are buried there. Two young girls, best of friends, were killed when a homemade swing they were playing on broke. Their shared headstone can be seen up at the cemetery where they lie side-by-side. Settlers killed during confrontations with Native American Indians in 1866 also found their final resting places in the diminutive cemetery, a sober reminder that paradise isn’t always what we imagine it to be.

Resources were limited and understandably resulted in confrontations with the local “native” residents who inhabited the valley when the settlers first arrived. The southern Paiute already dwelled in the upper Virgin River valley and when the southern Navajo people were squeezed between white settlements friction escalated. In 1866 Mormon settlers were killed near Kanab by Navajo discontents. This in turn led to the abandonment of Grafton as the community merged with nearby Rockville to seek the protection that safety in numbers can provide.

These war skirmishes did not spell the end of Grafton because tensions eased a few years later allowing the locals to return and resume their ways of life. In time the small town bustled as the inhabitants grew in number. The schoolhouse serves as a testament to their sense of community (enjoying weekly music and dance) and resolve when one realizes that the builders hauled timbers for the schoolhouse’s construction from Mount Trumbull, 75 miles away.

But Grafton is, after all, a ghost town, a consequence of hard subsistence living and a new irrigation canal Graftonians helped build to irrigate the Hurricane bench twenty miles downstream. Nature and the hard life, it seems, won in the end as one by one families packed up their belongings and resettled to the more hospitable irrigated lands. Fortunately for us they left the remains of their day to infrequent tourists who now wander the quiet dirt roads under the shadow of Zion National Park and think back to an honorable life that time has not yet forgotten.

Grafton Photos
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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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