Silver Reef Logo

WASHINGTON COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY     (Washington County, Utah)

SILVER REEF, UTAH

LOCATION

Silver Reef Location Map

37° 15' North Latitude,   113° 22' West Longitude
37.25° North Latitude,   113.37° West Longitude
3,807 feet (1,160 meters) MSL

Maps
1879 Silver Reef Plat
Old Silver Reef Plat
Old Silver Reef and Bonanza City Plats


HISTORY

Silver Reef was a mining town situated 15 miles northeast of St. George and less than a mile west of Leeds. There are many stories pertaining to Silver Reef's origin, but the most commonly accepted one is of John Kemple. In the winter of 1866, Kemple was traveling to Nevada from Montana, hoping to strike it rich in the silver mines there. He stopped to rest at the home of Orson Adams in Harrisburg, south of Leeds. While he was staying there, he did some casual prospecting. At a site a few hundred yards south of the Orson Adams home, Kemple discovered silver float in a sandstone formation now known as White Reef. Estimates of the exact value of the silver vary from $100 to over $10,000 per ton. Regardless of what that value was, Kemple apparently did not find enough to stay, and he instead continued on to Nevada as he had originally planned.

In 1871, after five unsuccessful years of prospecting in Nevada, Kemple returned to his silver discovery in Utah and organized the Union Mining District. Several local farmer and ranchers from Harrisburg and Leeds staked claims, most of them using the names of their wives for reasons now unknown. This early mining district was not successful, but in 1874, Kemple organized the Harrisburg Mining District. At this time, he was able to attract the attention of prominent mining interests in Pioche, Nevada. However, as silver in sandstone was unheard of at the time, many were skeptical of Kemple's mining venture and were unwilling to invest their time.

In early 1875, news of the mining district reached the Walker Brothers, who were prominent Salt Lake City bankers that took a particular interest in investing in mining ventures. They sent one of their most experienced prospectors, William Tecumseh Barbee, who had previously staked mining claims in the Ophir Mining District of Tooele County, to the region. Barbee arrived in late spring and began to search for big prospects. Soon after arriving, Barbee discovered several rich silver deposits along the White Reef and another sandstone formation called the Buckeye Reef. After briefly returning to Salt Lake City for more supplies and manpower, Barbee began developing his claims in earnest.

The Walker Brothers provided financial backing until they were incorrectly advised by mining experts and geologists that the new mining district was a hoax, as silver could not occur in sandstone. They advised Barbee that they were withdrawing their support but that he could maintain ownership of his claims. By the end of 1875, the district was developing well. Barbee advertised the budding mining district in The Salt Lake Tribune and The Pioche Weekly Record as a regular correspondent. Incoming miners initially set up tents on the outskirts of Leeds; this changed when Barbee used some of his land holdings to build a settlement. The settlement was named Bonanza City, and Barbee sold town lots for high prices. He hoped to control the real estate market as well as the mining interests.

Barbee's town lot prices were so steep, in early 1876, miners began setting their tents and building their homes north of Bonanza City, closer to their mines. A businessman named Hyrum Jacobs, unable to afford the lot prices in Bonanza City, set up his shop amongst the miner's tents. From there, other businessmen lined their businesses up on what was fast becoming the main street of a new settlement. Most of these miners and businessmen were from Pioche, which was experiencing a steep decline in the production of its own silver mines. The tent city grew much quicker than Bonanza City, and in April 1876, it was christened Silver Reef City.

When Barbee realized that his efforts to take control of the real estate market were futile, he donated his remaining lots to Silver Reef. A race track and two cemeteries were built on this donated land. As the city continued to grow, mining companies from San Francisco and New York City were taking an interest in the mining district. The Leeds Mining Company of San Francisco was the first to be organized in the district; by 1880, three other large mining companies and several smaller companies joined the Leeds, among them the Barbee & Walker and Stormont companies of New York City and the Christy Mining and Milling Company of San Francisco. At its peak, Silver Reef had between 1,500 to 2,000 permanent residents.

The town of Silver Reef was a lively place. Over 100 businessmen did business along the town's mile-long Main Street. Among the businesses were six saloons, several assay shops, a newspaper called The Silver Reef Miner, several restaurants, hardware and general merchandise stores, and a Chinatown that mostly consisted of tents rather than permanent buildings. Silver Reef also had a brass band, Catholic and Protestant churches, a Masonic fraternity hall, a shooting enthusiast's club known as the Silver Reef Rifle Club, and even a baseball team called the Silver Reef Dirty Stockings. There was also a small encampment of Native Americans just north of Silver Reef. The town's population was predominantly Irish Catholic and Cornish Protestant.

Silver Reef's residents attempted to have the town officially incorporated in 1878 by petitioning the territorial legislature. The request passed both the House and the Senate but was vetoed by the governor. This was no hindrance to the town's development, as it continued to grow and prosper regardless. By this time, there were five mills and over three dozen profitable mines operating, in addition to dozens of smaller mines that were turning smaller profits.

As a mining settlement, Silver Reef had some issues with crime, although crime rates in town were lower than in most other mining towns. In 1878, a prolific gambler by the name of Henry Clark was involved in a game of faro, a popular card game of the time, with a man known only as Saxy. The exact details of their confrontation are unclear, but it is generally accepted that the two had a disagreement and Saxy killed Clark. Following the murder of Clark, Saxy attempted to flee but was stopped and beaten to death by several onlookers, including John Clark, Henry's father.

In October 1880, a popular mine foreman from Cornwall, England named Michael Carbis was murdered by Thomas Forrest after Carbis fired Forrest for unruly behavior. Forrest was quickly captured and locked in Silver Reef's small jail. Lynching threats were thrown around and the Washington County sheriff was called in to escort Forrest to a more secure location. A lynching party followed about a mile behind the sheriff, and when night fell, they overpowered him and the night guard and hung Forrest on a cottonwood tree. None of the men who participated in Forrest's lynching were ever tried.

As was the case with all other mine settlements before and after it, Silver Reef eventually fell on hard times. In 1879, a small fire was discovered underneath the boardwalk on Main Street. Unable to reach the fire, it quickly spread and destroyed half of the town's business district. Most of the town's residences and the east side of Main Street were spared by the fire, but it caused over $250,000 in damage. The town recovered from this fire and went on, business as usual.

In 1881, the Barbee & Walker and Stormont companies agreed to lower daily wages from $4 per day to $3.50 per day. They made their employees aware of this change during a shift change in February, stating that they should accept the change or be fired. Most of the miners chose to walk off and go on strike. The Silver Reef Miner's Union, which had been organized in 1880, took action. The mining companies shut down operations and business in Silver Reef grew stagnant. When the labor strike ended in April 1881, over half of the labor force of the district had left. These men were replaced by local laborers, who were inexperienced miners and mill hands and had to be trained. This put a strain on the mining district that it never fully recovered from.

Ore values began to decrease at this time as well. From an average of $35 to $40 per ton of rock, the mines quickly declined into $20 or less per ton of rock. The less profitable companies, starting with the Leeds Mining Company, withdrew from the district. The Barbee & Walker Company crumbled due to poor money management; although they operated the most profitable mine in the district, they failed to make payroll in 1882 and all of their assets were sold off in March of 1883. Two mining companies, the Stormont and the Christy, remained, but the town was clearly not as profitable as it had been in the past.

It is believed by some that Silver Reef was abandoned around 1884; however, an 1886 business directory indicates that there were still over two dozen businesses and two mining companies in operation. The Stormont Mining Company did not cease operations until July of 1887, and the Christy shut down operations in 1889. "This practically closes up the camp," wrote a Salt Lake Tribune correspondent. A few businessmen and miners roughed it in town during the 1890s, but by 1900, the town was almost completely abandoned. A mining company from Cleveland, Ohio called the Brundage Mining Company operated on the former Barbee & Walker mining ground for several years; the last run of the Barbee & Walker Mill was made in 1907.

The Silver Reef Consolidated Mining Company was organized in 1916 by Alexander Colbath, a miner formerly of Park City and whose father was a mining engineer that frequently wrote about Silver Reef. Colbath believed that Silver Reef's miners had not hit the motherlode and that it could still be located. In 1928, the American Smelting and Refining Company purchased most of the Silver Reef Consolidated property and began operations; however, the stock market crash of 1929 caused the company to cease operations in the district. Control of the properties went back to Alex Colbath.

Colbath and his family continued to operate the mines on a small scale throughout the Great Depression. They lived in the Wells Fargo and Rice buildings in town and were the only permanent residents left. In 1948, a company called Western Gold & Uranium purchased Colbath's properties and began mining uranium. Uranium was discovered in Silver Reef in 1880, but it was initially discarded as a useless byproduct. A flotation mill was built near the former Barbee & Walker Mill in Barbee Gulch. Over 5,000 pounds of uranium oxide was shipped out of Silver Reef by 1952, and currently, Silver Reef is the only place in the world where silver and uranium have been mined from the same rock strata.

When Western Gold & Uranium left, Silver Reef was completely abandoned. Local ghost town enthusiasts often visited the town, and although it was abandoned, it never lost its charm. In the 1970s, a real estate project was started which continues into the present day. Silver Reef is now considered a part of Leeds, and its distinct history is being preserved by the Silver Reef Foundation, which operates the Wells Fargo Silver Reef Museum. Silver Reef's time as a lively mining community has come and gone, but through preservation efforts, its legacy will be remembered for generations to come.

Population
1,013 in 1880       For the 1880 census, click here


PHOTOS

Photos from the web:
1885 (?) photo of Silver Reef
1875 photo of Stamp Water Power Barbee Mill, with Pine Valley Mountain in the distance
1898 photo of the Silver Reef Mine
1949 photo of the Wells Fargo Express office in Silver Reef
1949 photo of large stone slabs on which passengers alighted from the stage coach at the Wells Fargo Express office
1949 photo of Mrs. Grime's restaurant ruins (foreground) and the express office ruins (background)
1949 photo showing several old ruins at Silver Reef
1890 (?) photo of George Miller's saloon and Louder's store in Silver Reef
1949 photo of the ruins of the saloon and Jordan's store in Silver Reef
1949 photo of the ruins of Captain Lubbeck's home in Silver Reef
1949 photo of the remains of Captain Lubbeck's cut stone house in Silver Reef
1949 photo of the ruins of the old drug store with arched doorway and part of Harris Hotel wall
1949 photo of the John H. Rice Bank building with arched doorway
1949 photo of the ruins of the Harris Hotel in Silver Reef
1949 photo of the ruins of the Harris Hotel in Silver Reef
1949 photo of the ruins of the Silver Reef jail
1949 photo of an unidentified ruin in Silver Reef
1949 photo of the Pine Valley mountains as seen from Silver Reef
1949 photo of Sandstone Reef at Silver Reef
A collection of Silver Reef Ghost Town photos
Leeds and Silver Reef photo tour
Photo of the ruins of a rock building
Photo of the ruins of an old rock wall
Photo of some graves in Silver Reef
Photo of the restored Wells Fargo Express office
Photo of a mining tunnel at Silver Reef
Photo of a "Milltown 1877-1886" sign and ruins of an old rock building
Photo of Mrs. Grimes who ran the restaurant in Silver Reef
Photo of Tim Quirk, an Irish boy who came to work for his older brothers in Silver Reef

Also see the undigitized photos in the Mark A. Pendleton Photograph Collection.


REFERENCES

Silver Reef Website
Wells Fargo Silver Reef Museum
A history of Silver Reef
A history of Silver Reef
A history of Silver Reef
A history of Silver Reef
A history of Silver Reef
Silver Reef Interpretive Trail Guide
Silver Reef Interpretive Trail Guide
A driving tour of Silver Reef, Leeds, and Harrisburg
In The Desert article about Silver Reef with photos
Silver Reef Interpretive Sign: Three Historic Towns
Silver Reef Interpretive Sign: Mile-Long Main Street
Silver Reef Interpretive Sign: Silver in Sandstone: A Geology Anomaly
Silver Reef Interpretive Sign: On-site Mills: A Silver Reef Necessity
Silver Reef Interpretive Sign: Mining, Milling, and Men: Barbee and Walker
St. John's Catholic Church

Silver, Sinners & Saints: A History of Old Silver Reef, Utah
by Paul Dean Proctor and Morris A. Shirts
Palmer, Inc., 1991

Saga of Three Towns: Harrisburg - Leeds - Silver Reef
by Marietta M. Mariger
Panguitch: Garfield County News, 1951
Also see   http://www.ourlittlecircle.com/journals/saga_three_towns.html

Washington County Chapter, Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, Under Dixie Sun
1950 with 1978 Supplement
Page 126

Memories of Silver Reef
by Mark A. Pendleton
Pages 99-118 in " Utah Historical Quarterly (Volume 3, Number 4, October 1930)"

Silver Reef
Pages 33-35 in " Selected Topics Related To Hurricane, Utah"
Written and/or compiled by Victor Hall, 2003

Silver Reef Project: Creation of a "Historic Ethnography" For a
    Nineteenth Century American Mining Town on the Western Frontier
University of Pennsylvania, University Museum Research Projects, pp. 61-63
http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/PDFs/.../Silver.pdf

A Historical Study of Silver Reef, Southern Utah Mining Town
by Alfred Bleak Stucki
Brigham Young University,   M.A. Thesis,   1966,   146 pages

Silver Reef’s Petrified Forest: An eggnog inspired tale?
An investigation of the legend by Jacob Oscarson
Dixie State University,   Spring 2015

Ghosts of Silver Reef
Article by Earl Spendlove
Desert Magazine, May 1966, pp. 6-7

The Carbis-Forrest Affair: Vigilante Justice in Frontier Utah
Paper by Jonathan Alvey
Talks about frontier justice and vigilanteism in Silver Reef. And then documents the
    murder of Michael Carbis by Thomas Forrest and the subsequent lynching of Forrest.

From the Ground Up: The History of Mining in Utah
Edited by Colleen K. Whitley
Logan UT: Utah State University Press, January 1, 2006
Pages 10, 32, 36, 44, 83-85, 165, 212, 250-271, 299-302, 439-443