Orange Dust and Dead Flies: The Ghost Town of Grafton

February 22, 2018 — As we readied ourselves for our road trip throughout the Southwest, I realized I was terrified of the desert. I imagined us getting stuck on the side of the road at high noon in the middle of nowhere in microwave heat with dead phones, our mouths stuffed full of cacti as we gnawed them for moisture and gazed at the circling buzzards overhead. I assume it’s the same panic when friends from the South visit me during the New England winter (“Hey, I’m buying things for the trip. How do sizes work in snow shoes and how much of me needs to be covered in actual animal fur?”). To assuage my fears, I got a AAA membership, filled the back of the rental with a mega-pack of bottled water, and chose the month of January for our foray.

And nothing bad happened. Not in Death Valley. Not outside Area 51. Not on the vertiginous cliffs of Walnut Canyon. The only time it felt even kind of dicey was on a rutted dirt path through rocky terrain somewhere off the highway in southern Utah. But I guess towns can’t help where they die. And it was worth it to see this ghost town.

Grafton was settled in 1859 as part of a Mormon initiative to grow cotton in the region. It was originally called Wheeler and then was wiped out three years later by the Great Flood of 1862 when the nearby Virgin River blew its banks. It was rebuilt as Grafton and grew to a population of a couple hundred or so. But the place still struggled with flooding and isolation and Native American attacks and soon gave up the promise of cotton for the demands of survival. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made the place godforsaken in 1921, and then the last family ghosted the town in 1944.

Our first site of this husk of a town was of its dead, as we came around an outcropping of rock and found ourselves in a rust-colored pioneer cemetery—the rocks, the dirt, the fences, all shades of brown and orange that gave the landscape a beautiful but unforgiving-seeming cast. The cemetery began as a place of earthly deposit for the first settlers of the region in 1862, as well as for a handful of Native Americans, some of whom worked with them as settlers and some of whom battled them as encroachers. As many as 84 bodies are believed to be under that hard desert crust, perhaps the most heartbreaking being the two young teenagers whose cause of death was merely: “Accident—Swing Broke.”

The town was just beyond the cemetery, with town being defined as a handful of buildings in that same rusty color scheme, backdropped by striated mountains and buttes. Picturesque enough for it to have been used as a filming location, most famously for the 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Robert Redford would return again ten years later for The Electric Horseman.

However, that empty sheet of a ghost town was well maintained, having crossed the line decades ago from abandoned habitation of the cursed to preserved historic site for tourists, a far different feeling from the abandoned mining town of Rhyolite that we had visited in Nevada a few days earlier. The buildings were mostly residences, including the Russell Home, a bright orange brick house that was the last to know human occupation. Some of the buildings were locked. Others were open and empty and you could walk through them, tracing the footsteps of a vanished population.

The most noticeable building was the steepled edifice that had been used as a meeting house and school and church. It had been built in 1886 and was locked up tight on our visit, but peering through the windows, I saw the wooden floorboards covered in large, black specks: a carpet of dead flies, like Beelzebub himself had suffocated inside and dissolved into his constituent parts.

Placards told the story of the town, where the empty buildings and rocks and silence did not, but that information was quickly gleaned. The place felt less forlorn as just somebody’s property who was out for the day, somebody who would return at any time driving a covered wagon with a rifle across his knees.

Eventually we put Grafton in our rearview, where it disappeared in a cloud of dust. No buzzards flew overhead, all of our phones were charged, and I still don’t know what it feels like to chew on a cactus.