Tucked down a bumpy, 3-mile partial dirt road, sits a little known and extremely cool ghost town. Located in the southwestern corner of Utah, not a soul lives in this completely deserted place, which is probably very creepy at night (there are ranch homes nearby, but nobody actually lives inside Grafton). Known as “the most photographed ghost town in the West”, Grafton is as rustic and legitimate as a “Wild West” ghost town can get. Other “ghost towns” like Calico in California, or Jerome in Arizona, claim the title because they once were legitimate western mining communities, later abandoned by their mining populations. However, both of these towns quickly found reclaimed fame (or a reclaimed population), with the former as a totally fabricated tourist attraction which thousands visit per month, and the latter as an artist-y mecca with a year-round population that promotes a dash of haunted on the side.
Grafton, on the other hand, can really claim the title of “ghost town”. Founded in 1862, and abandoned 83 years later in 1945, it’s totally desolated of life, with only a handful of the original buildings still standing. They’ve been restored and are managed by the Grafton Heritage Partnership. These buildings include the schoolhouse (built in 1886; it doubled as the church), the Alonzo H. Russell Home (1862), the John and Ellen Wood Home (1877), and the Louise Marie Russell Home (1879), along with a few original barns and sheds.
This town was birthed from Mormonism, after Brigham Young and his followers settled in Salt Lake City, Utah. Brigham declared the need to spread the word of Mormonism, as well as expand Mormon self-sufficiency by planting cotton. He ordered multiple settlements built along the Virgin River for these reasons, with the first Grafton settlement built in 1859 by five families. Unfortunately, just three years later, a massive flood destroyed the settlement, along with their crops, so they moved a mile downstream and built the new Grafton, which is the one we know today.
Life in Grafton was extremely tough, and extremely short lived, as is evident by the Grafton Cemetery. It’s located about a half-mile up the road, before you enter Grafton, and is rather creepy – at least it was to me. There is just something about being in this small, barren, and forgotten graveyard, looking at graves of many who never even made it out of childhood. The oldest person buried in this cemetery was 70, and the youngest… just 6-months.
A sign outside the cemetery tells a bit of its history, as well as lists a few of the people buried there, all of whom died in 1866. Saddest is the unsettling number of children buried here. On the sign alone, 9 children are listed, aged 6 months to 14 years. Most died from diphtheria (a bacterial disease) or scarlet fever, with a couple being killed in a “swing accident”. Three adults listed on the sign were killed by “Indians”. Two other adults were killed by diphtheria and an “unknown” cause. There are other graves from the 1800’s not listed, as well.
Both the cemetery and the gates to the “town” are locked at dusk. The hours for Grafton are “dawn to dusk” and it’s under 24-hour surveillance. This is made immediately and abundantly clear by a large sign strapped to a gate, visible literally as soon as you pull up. You won’t find an actual address to Grafton online; however, when we put it into my GPS after leaving Zion National Park, it quickly popped up. The GPS lists the address simply as “Grafton, Rockville, UT”, but it will take you there, and that’s all that matters 🤷🏻♀️. It lies just 15 – 20 minutes outside the west gates of Zion and is a quick and easy drive. It sits about 3.5 miles off the highway, with the first mile of the road paved and “normal”. However, the last 2.5 miles are all dirt, and it’s a very bumpy, and at times, rough, ride. It’s not something I’d recommend doing in a small or low vehicle, nor when it’s raining or has rained.
We started our journey to Grafton around 5:45pm, which offered plenty of light, and meant fewer people. There was only one other car there, a family, and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. An awesome thing about Grafton is you can walk into and explore the inside of the homes and buildings, as well as walk amongst the graves at the cemetery. The only building you cannot go inside is the schoolhouse. You can enter the two-story Alfonzo H. Russell home and even walk upstairs. It is by far the largest and most “opulent” home, with multiple rooms, two fireplaces, a walk-in cellar, and an upstairs.
A unique thing about this home is the trap door in the living room, which would’ve been used to hide from Native Americans or other Wild West pioneers looking to start trouble. My friend pointed it out and was pretty certain that was what it was, but it was confirmed when we found the basement door and saw the preserved steps going down into the cellar. There were also holes in the cellar walls, which would’ve been used to point rifles for self-defense.
Another home that’s fun to explore is the Louise Marie Russell home, which sits right “across the street” from the Alfonzo H. Russell home. Oddly enough, Alfonzo and Louise Marie were married, and Alfonzo built this home for his wife between 1873 and 1879. Why she needed her own home 50 feet away from the large home she shared with her husband, your guess is as good as mine. It is much smaller, and much more ragged looking, than the big home. Upon walking in, I immediately noticed how short the ceiling was, standing a mere few inches above my head (I’m 5’8”). Also, quick fun fact about Louise Marie: she owned one of the first weaving looms in Grafton 💁🏻♀️.
So, why did they all leave? Well for starters, Grafton sits in a desert, in an isolated area prone to floods. They continually lost their fields and harvests, usually being forced to survive on bare subsistence. After the Hurricane Canal was completed in 1906, many Grafton residents packed up and moved approximately 35 minutes west to Hurricane, Utah. Eventually there was an insufficient amount of children to justify a school, and the town still lacked clean water for cooking and electricity, both of which had become standard in other larger communities. This prompted all residents to leave, with the last one finally throwing in the towel in 1945.
Overall, Grafton is well worth a visit. If you’re ever visiting Zion National Park (blog on that coming up!), I strongly suggest making the time to check out this wonderfully preserved piece of American Wild West history. It’s about an hour’s long outing, at best, and only about a 15 to 20-minute drive from Springdale, right outside the park’s west gate. If you are interested in experiencing an authentic ghost town and immersing yourself in a small slice of American history, Grafton, Utah is the place for that!