HISTORY & HAUNTINGS OF
HAUNTED WINTER QUARTERS MINE
From Troy Taylor's 2003 Book -- Down in the Darkness
Utah is one of the most beautiful states in the Union and also one of the strangest and most haunted. Between the Indian spirits, the lives of pioneers lost and the unusual lore of the Mormons, it has come to be regarded as a place where hauntings are easy to find -- but not often talked about. In this land of mountains, wondrous deserts and mysterious ghost towns, haunted mines are simply realized as a part of the wonderful landscape. About 13 years ago, I had the chance to spend an extended period of time in Utah, working in the book business. During the time I was there, I became fascinated with the region and spent almost all of my free time hiking, exploring ghost towns, half-heartedly looking for lost treasure and of course -- tracking down legends of ghosts and haunted places. It turned out to be a great experience for me and many of the adventures that I went on are chronicled in this book for the first time. On occasion, they were not for the faint of heart.
When the Mormon settlers first arrived in Utah in 1847 and took up residence around the Great Salt Lake, it was quickly realized many of the things necessary for carving a life out of the wilderness were missing. There was little timber for lumber or fuel and it was also soon apparent that coal would be needed. There was none close to the valley and so the pioneers directed their search toward the cliffs and mesas that would come to be known as Carbon County.
By 1849, extensive coal deposits were found in the canyons of the region but were too far from Salt Lake City to be mined economically. In 1854, Brigham Young offered a reward of $1,000 for the discovery of a coal vein within 40 miles of the city. While a number of mines were started in the vicinity, none were close enough to gain the reward. After the railroad was completed in 1869 though, the distance did not matter quite so much and almost overnight, towns like Nolen, New Peerless and Coal City became booming mining camps. Almost all of the coal mines were within the borders of Carbon County.
Sometimes, hunting for ghost stories can not only be a lot of work -- but a lot of driving as well. There was no direct route to get from Latuda to the site of the old Winter Quarters Mine, so I had to take Highway 6 to the north and swing around through Colton on Route 96 to get to Scofield. When I got there, I still had to travel by way of a rutted dirt road, over a fence and along an abandoned railroad grade to the ruins of Winter Quarters. Once again, it was a tale of ghosts and hauntings that brought me here.
The area, once known as Pleasant Valley, was a welcoming place in the 1870’s. There were a number of settlers who lived in the area, most of whom grazed cattle on the lush grass here. Coal was discovered in the dark canyon beyond the valley in 1875 and two years later, a small mine was opened on the western slopes of the canyon and the coal was transported out along narrow roads. The winter of 1877 came early and was very severe, stranding the miners in the coal pit and keeping them snowbound until the following February. The ordeal led the miners to name their forced camp “Winter Quarters” and this became one of the first commercial coal mines in the state.
The new town became a thriving one and one of the most impressive cities in Utah. It is hard to imagine, from the ruins that remain, just how important this town once was. The business district was said to be more than a mile long and boasted dozens of substantial stone buildings, many of them as fine as any in Salt Lake City. As the mine and the community grew, new and more efficient methods were sought to move the coal from the mines and so the Utah & Pleasant Valley Railroad was constructed, running from Springville to Winter Quarters and Scofield. It connected with the Denver & Rio Grande line in Colton, which was about 20 miles away. Its businesses included Covington’s Hotel, Higney’s Store and five saloons. The town actually burned and was rebuilt three times but Colton’s future as a bustling city was tied directly to that of Winter Quarters. Unknown to both of them, the future was not very bright.
In 1882, the Utah Fuel Company took over the mine and town and it soon became a subsidiary of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. The region continued to thrive until 1900, when there were several hundred men in the mines and residents that numbered as high as 1,800. The mine was considered to be the safest in the region and according to reports, was free from the gases that plagued so many other coal operations. But that was not enough to save it from disaster….
On May 1, 1900, an errant spark touched off the fine haze of coal dust deep underground and the Winter Quarters #4 mine exploded with fury. Exactly 100 of the men were killed in an instant and another 99 died from the poisonous afterdamp, making this one of the worst coal mine disasters in history. That one moment of time left 105 widows and 270 fatherless children behind. Men from all over the area descended on the city and began to pull the mutilated bodies of the victims -- and a few survivors -- from the debris. The town’s boarding houses, churches, hotels, school and barns were cleared out to receive and identify the victims. As imagined, trying to cope with the disaster stretched the town’s resources to the limit. Mistakes were made when the bodies were identified and many of the men were buried under the wrong names. Grave markers were made up in such a hurry that many of the men’s names were misspelled on them. When word spread, every available casket in Utah was sent to Winter Quarters. This did not prove to be enough to hold the dead though and another carload had to be sent in from Denver. Almost 150 of the slain miners were buried in the cemetery in nearby Scofield and two special funeral trains carried the rest of the victims to burial grounds in Utah and in other states.
The terrible tragedy cast a pall of sorrow over the entire town and the deaths of the miners seemed to signal the slow death of Winter Quarters. The gloom never lifted, although the mine remained in operation until 1928. The coal became suitable only for inexpensive locomotive fuel though until finally the transportation costs doomed the mine. By 1930, many houses had been moved to Scofield and Winter Quarters was abandoned. Only caved in cellars and broken foundations remain today.
To reach the site of Winter Quarters, you have to pass through Scofield, which is only a shadow of the boomtown that it was decades ago. It is not a ghost town, but it’s not far from being one. When I traveled this way, I was told that I might also want to see another former coal camp at Hale, which is just north of Scofield. Its site was marked by the remains of a few shacks at the edge of a hillside. Some of the mines here at Hale were located downstream from the Scofield Reservoir, while the lake covers the upper part of it. I was told that if I planned to camp overnight, I might consider the lakeshore near the site of Hale rather than the shadowy canyon at Winter Quarters. “The ghosts of the dead miners,” I was told by a man that I met, “are not likely to make good company”.
But of course, that was exactly the company that I was looking for! I knew that there had been stories told about ghosts at Winter Quarters for years. In fact, less than a year after the disaster that claimed so many lives, an article appeared in the Utah Advocate newspaper in January 17, 1901. It read:
The superstitious miners, who are foreigners, have come to the conclusion that the property is haunted, inhabited by a ghost. Several of them have heard strange and unusual noises, and those favored with a keener vision than their fellow workmen have actually seen a headless man walking about the mine and according to their statements have accosted the ghost and addressed it or he. At other times the headless man would get aboard the coal cars to which mules and horses are worked and ride with the driver to the mouth of the tunnel when he would mysteriously vanish and again reappear in the mine. Many supposedly intelligent men have claimed this and some twenty-five or forty have thrown up their jobs in consequence. These same people and others have seen mysterious lights in the graveyard on the side of the hill where many victims of the explosion of May are buried.. Efforts to ferret out the cause have been fruitless though close observations have been made by reputable citizens of the camp. These lights are always followed by a death, so it is alleged by others than the miners who might be disciples of the supernatural. Tombstones where the light appeared have been blanketed but the light remains clear to the vision of those who watch from town.
I found Scofield easily enough and then had to ask for directions to the dirt road that would take me out of town. About a half mile along, I had to leave the car and cross an old barbed wire fence and walk another half mile or so along the railroad bed to reach to reach the town site. There wasn’t much left by the time I arrived, although there were sections of the walls that made up the former Wasatch store, which was once the center of town. Antique photos show stacks of coffins outside the store in the days following the 1900 disaster. I walked through what was left of the town and started up toward the mine site.
(Right) The remains of the old Wasatch Store as it looked in 1990. According to recent reports, it still looks this way today.
However, I soon found that I was not alone. The ghost town remains very popular with treasure hunters due to the fact that so many of the men who were killed at Winter Quarters were bachelors. It is thought that many of them had what were called “post hole banks” dug into the ground near their cabins and so the money they had secreted away was never recovered. When the town was abandoned, who knows how many other caches may have been left behind, unknown, hidden and forgotten?
This is what I was told by two young men who had hiked into the site with metal detectors. They told me that they had been coming out to Winter Quarters for a couple of years and just a month before had found a metal box that contained old silver coins. In the past, they had also turned up odd coins, a few tools, a pocketknife, a hand mirror and even a rusted straight razor. I explained to them what I was doing around the town site and asked them if they had ever heard or seen anything strange in the area.
One of the young men, Mike, looked at his friend and I could tell they were both a little uneasy about the question. If anything, they seemed to be unsettled by it. “Actually, yes,” Mike finally spoke up. “We were camping out here one night last spring and heard some pretty weird sounds coming from the direction of the mine.”
“Weird sounds -- like what?” I asked them.
Mike’s companion, Josh, spoke up. “I woke up in the middle of the night and went outside the tent to go to the bathroom and I heard voices coming from the canyon. At first, I just thought that maybe someone else was camping out here but…”
“We never saw anybody and we were out here all day,” Mike interrupted.
Josh added. “And we didn’t see any fires either. I woke up Mike and well, you just never know who might be out here. Then it started to get a little stranger. The only way that I can describe the sounds is that it was like people moaning and crying.”
“It sounded like a big group of people, moving around, talking -- real weird,” said Mike. “I know there was some sort of accident out here or something, I don’t know -- maybe that had something to do with it.”
His friend agreed. “I have to say that I never really gave much thought to ghosts and stuff, but I don’t know what else this could be. I guess if you decide to camp out here, I don’t suggest that you do it up the canyon anywhere.”
I talked to Josh and Mike for awhile and then wandered off on my own, contemplating the fact that this had been my second warning about camping in the canyon beyond the town site. I had heard that the cemetery where the miners were buried in Scofield might be haunted (see the newspaper article from the Utah Advocate) but now the ghostly sites seemed to include the area around the mine as well. I became determined to spend the night in what turned out to be a rather frigid canyon. I had hoped that my search for these ghosts might turn out to more successful than my hunt for the Lady in White in Latuda -- and this time it was.
To say that it was cold out there that night would be an understatement. The tent that I had brought with me offered little shelter from the wind that came blowing through the canyon and even huddled close to the fire, my sleeping bag offered little comfort from the cold. At one point, I turned quickly to see what the strange noise behind me was and then realized that it was my teeth chattering! I stayed up most of the night and while largely uneventful, I do believe that I heard the weird sounds that had been described to me by the treasure hunters.
By this time, it was well after midnight and the sounds that I heard came from the darkness near the old mine site. The best way for me to describe it is to say that it was an odd crying sound, almost like an animal in pain. I wondered for a moment if it might actually be a wounded coyote or something that was out beyond the light from the fire but then I dismissed this. The sound was further away than that and then it seemed to be joined by another voice, then another, until there was a chorus of them. If I am completely honest with the reader, I would have to say that perhaps my imagination was at work (or perhaps not?) but it sounded to me like a group of woman crying and moaning. I envisioned the dozens of women who must have come to the mine on the day of the explosion, weeping for the dead and searching desperately for their husbands as the victims were pulled from the depths. The sound faded and dipped and then came back strong again.
Was it the wind? I don’t think it was -- but whatever it was, I have never forgotten that sound and for more than a year afterward, I would awaken at night having dreamed about it. It was not the most chilling experience that I would ever have searching for ghosts (that would occur years later in an abandoned tuberculosis asylum in Kentucky) but it was one of the most unnerving. To this day, I cannot give you a rational explanation that would explain the eerie keening that I heard that night.
And yes, I did search for an explanation. I gathered my courage and armed with only a flashlight, I set off in search of a source for the sound. As I started up the hill toward the mine site though, the sound abruptly ceased. It did not return that night, leaving me to ponder the mystery of what lingers at Winter Quarters, even after all of these years.
© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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