“Then thou shalt lay up gold as dust, and the gold of Ophir as the stones of the brooks”
About 4 miles up a deep canyon on the west slope of the Oquirrh Mountains is a town that was too tough to die and that town is called Ophir. In this article I will give a brief history of the place and pay tribute to a town that really epitomizes the old west and spirit of a growing Nation. It all started back in 1863 when General Patrick Edward Connor granted leave for a large number of his soldiers at Fort Douglas to go and prospect in the mountains of Utah for gold.
Mr. Lineback, a soldier in Connor’s prospector army located the first claim about 300 feet up Graveyard Gulch from what would become the center of town. Soon afterwards many other claims were located by soldiers hearing the stories of claims as rich as those of King Solomon’s mines in the land of Ophir from the Old Testament. The soldiers were lured to the Oquirrh Mountains by the fact that the local Indians for years had been making lead bullets and crude ornaments out of gold and silver from ores they found in the mountains. Mr. Lineback with the help of a Mr. Moore, laid out the town of Ophir and continued working his claim and even though it never paid the dividend’s he had hoped for, he ended up operating a lucrative property near the mouth of the canyon where he had several orchards of fruit trees.
The population of Ophir began to swell with miners, prospectors, merchantmen, gamblers, women of ill repute, and outlaws swarming in from California, Nevada, and Colorado. Many claims were staked and numerous profitable mines were opened. The names of these mines were interesting in and of themselves, some of which were the Ophir Hill, Cliff Mine, Chloride Point, Buckhorn, Montana, Hidden Treasure, Miner’s Delight, Pocatello, Wild Delirium, and Velocipede.
The usual collection of buildings sprang up in the deep narrow canyon, stretched out in a ribbon. Ophir had several saloons, 2 general stores, 2 hotels, a post office, churches, jail, and all manner of other establishments one can imagine. One miner described the town when viewed from above as a fantastic collection of shacks, saloons, brothels, and dance halls. The leading business was the Ophir Mercantile which was said to carry a most complete line of general utilities. As increasing amounts of ore came forth from the mines, and enterprising individual named Mack Gisborn opened a toll road Stockton to Ophir and heavy, ore laden wagons rumbled back and forth along this road nearly all hours of the day and night. Some of the ore went to the Stockton Smelters and some of it went to Lake Point where it was put on barges and floated across the Great Salt Lake to Corrine and the Railroad.
In 1873 traveler and writer John Codman visited Ophir as part of his research for his book “Mormon Country – A summer with the Latter Day Saints”. As his stage wound up the steep canyon towards town Codman was surprised to find the following tucked away in the mountains of Utah. “As we approached town we saw a French Sign in the wilderness stating Café et Restaurant kept by a Monsieur Simon. He and his wife were fresh from Paris and were trying to keep up Parisian style in the mountains of Utah complete with white apron, menu, and white cap”.
Several very prominent men made their fortunes in Ophir and went on to become famous. One of these individuals was Marcus Daly. Daly was fired for some reason or another from the Emma Mine at Alta and drifted as miners did in those days from camp to camp until he landed in Ophir. The Walker brothers decided to take a chance on Daly and hired him as superintendent of their “Zella” claim. With money earned and saved from this rich mine Daly went on to Montana to open up a new prospect which would later be known as the “Anaconda Mine” and he would become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. Daly was eventually elected to represent the people of Montana as a United States Senator.
Another individual who struck it big and quite possibly did more for Ophir than any other person was Mr. William A. Clark. Clark made his fortune from Ophir’s largest and oldest producer – The Ophir Hill mine, and was instrumental in bringing heavy machinery and state of the art mining technology to Ophir including intricate tram systems that would carry the ore from the mines high up in the hills down to where it could be processed and sent via wagon or train to far away smelters. Mr. Clark interestingly enough would also become a U.S. Senator for the State of Montana. Even more interesting than that is the fact that Marcus Daly and W.A. Clark both married the daughters of a Mr. Evans of Ophir.
While these two gentlemen made their fortune and fame in Ophir and then went on to bigger and better things, some prospectors, even when they struck it rich, could not stand to leave the place. The following tale comes from Codman’s book “A poor German named Hirsch discovered what would become the Kelly Consolidated claims. He worked himself weary, starving himself so that he could employ necessary assistance, and then selling his ore to develop still further with the proceeds. Finally he sold his property to Col. Kelly for a very high price which would enable him to live in luxury for all his remaining days. But now he insists that the little hut, half stone and half log, in which he has lived the life of a hermit for so many winters and summers, shall remain his property, for he cannot live anywhere else. Here then he will remain, prospecting for another mine. He has mining on the brain. He can think, nor talk of nothing else. Mines are the idols to which he is joined and he prefers to be let alone”.
Some of the hardest workers in the mines were not miners but mules. If you go to the Northwest Utah Heritage website you can read the interesting story of old “Jeff” of Ophir who was a hard working mule for sure. Another hard worker who loved the mines at Ophir was a horse named “Old Charlie”. Charlie’s story is told by Mary Helen Parsons in “History of Tooele County – Vol I”. Charlie used to haul ore cars out of the mine to the mill at the Ophir Hill mine. He worked at this job for many years with only the light of a candle placed in a gallon can to light his way. Even though it was dark in the mine Charlie knew all the stations along the drift. Charlie was very business like and he knew where to go to be loaded, how fast the cars should be going and he would use his hips as breaks if they started to get out of control. He slept in a barn very near the entrance of the mine every night.
When the company finally installed an electric pump to take the place of Charlie’s labor, the mine manager arranged for Charlie to live out his remaining days in a green pasture in the canyon bottom. The next day after Charlie was taken to the pasture however, when the miners arrived at work, Charlie was standing tall at the mine ready to go to work. He was then transported back down the canyon to the pasture. The following day he showed up again at the mine. This cycle repeated itself until finally one day Charlie died, many of the miners believe of a broken heart because he loved his work and loved the mine from which he was separated.
Miners and mules were not the only residents in Ophir however. Gamblers and card sharks a plenty there were too. One of the most notorious tales of the wild days of Ophir was that of a famous poker game where the stakes got really high. One evening a man named Frank Payton sat down to a game of Poker with a miner named Digger Mike. Digger started betting with a poke of gold dust. Payton raised him $250.00. A friendly game this was not. Digger saw it and raised Payton $500.00 in gold dust. This exchange continued until there was more than $12,000.00 in various denominations and collateral heaped in the middle of the table. Digger, being out of cash called for a showdown. By this time many people had gathered all around the table. Payton had been bluffing and laid down a pair of “4’s”. Digger had run an even bigger bluff though and angrily slapped down a pair of treys. Payton happily and lustfully scooped up the pot. Unfortunately for him however, Payton was found several days later in a ravine outside of town with his skull bashed in. He had been drygulched and all his money was gone. It is said that no culprit was ever arrested.
As Ophir continued to grow, it settled down a bit from the crazy days and men like W.A. Clark got serious about making improvements to their properties. His main dream was to have a rail spur built into Ophir so that he could haul more ore to be processed and make a better profit. Finally, primarily through his hard work and capital, the St. John and Ophir railroad was finished in 1912. In some areas its grade reached 7% and was very steep. In order to deal with this type of incline, two climax type locomotives were used to haul trains 2 times a day each way. This service lasted for 16 years when in 1928 the railroad ceased operations. In 1938 the tracks were taken up and an old combination car that was deemed unsafe to travel the rails, was left in place and it’s skeletal remains can still be seen today on the south side of the road as you enter town.
Throughout its lifespan Ophir’s mines produced nearly 50 million dollars in Silver, Lead, Zinc, and Gold. In those days the mountains were a wild place where journals talk of how the residents would hear the Mountain Lion’s scream at night as they ventured near the settlement looking for food. The large number of catamounts that lived in the area are the reason Lion Hill has its name.
After the railroad left town, Ophir dozed into a state of lazy rest for over 70 years with the weeds, and elements reclaiming old mining shacks, homes, and structures one at a time. In recent years however, Ophir has seen a revival, due in great part to the hard work and community service of several preservation minded individuals. Through generous donations from local citizens and Mr. Leo Ault in particular, a picturesque and quaint little historic village has revived the center of town, not far from where Mr. Lineback made his first claim.
If you go there on a Saturday before 3pm you can usually find friendly people there who are more than willing to walk you through the collection of historic structures that have accumulated there, including an original caboose from the St. John and Ophir Railroad which was donated by Mr. Ault. A walk through this old rail car is a fascinating step back in time.
On the occasion of my visit, a Mrs. Maxine Shields walked me through house #5 and explained how generations of her family had lived in it for years and years. She then told me a tale of how in 1910, her grandfather, Patsy Vario emigrated from Italy to America at age 7. It was a classic tale of a young boy who couldn’t speak a lick of English, hit the shore alone and the people he was supposed to meet never showed up. Somehow he made his way to Ophir and there have been generations of Varios in Tooele County ever since. This tale and many others were related as Maxine walked my family and I through many other old structures including the post office. Several other family names live on in the canyon from the earliest days of Ophir including the relatives of early camp pioneer George St. Clair who operated and worked in the Chloride Point mine on Lion Hill.
I also visited Minnie’s which is the only type of store or establishment in the town. It is owned and operated by the current Mayor Walt Schubert. He is a laid back old fellow who is obviously enjoying life up in Ophir and has put in many, many hours of work making Ophir the wonderful place that it is today. The town council still meets in the old city hall building which dominates the center of town. This structure which was built around 1908 is quaint and charming inside. The council members hold their meetings here every Tuesday as they have done for many, many years and there is an antique ballot box, and old wood stove in the corner. Across the street in the park you can see the old fire apparatus that used to be housed in this building.
One article is not nearly enough to describe the history of this place or the interesting things that one can still see in Ophir today. As always, do a little bit of research before you go up there and your visit will be much more meaningful. 90% of the Canyon is Private Property so be respectful of that fact and always request permission from land owners before you enter such places. I have found that the people there are friendly and willing to answer questions about their pretty little town.
To get there, take Utah Highway 36 south out of Tooele, through Stockton to the Junction with Utah Highway 73. Turn left on highway 73 and in about 5 miles you will come to a sign at the edge of a ravine which points the way east to Ophir. Turn left on this road and follow it for about 4 miles up to town. Along the way up the canyon, look for the old remains of a train trestle that can still be seen in the wash.
As you stand in the middle of town, gazing up at the towering limestone cliffs covered with pines, think about all the stories of Old Ophir. Visit the sites and take it all in, remembering the old adage, “take nothing but pictures – leave nothing but footprints.”