July 5, 2020

Iron City – Old Iron Town

The Irony of it – Utah’s first ghost town will become the site of Utah’s first state monument.

According to the Utah Place Names record, Iron City was established in 1850-51, with it’s one claim to fame being the Iron that was found there by Peter Shirts in 1868.  An article in the Utah Historical Quaterly, volume 50, 1982,[reference] Iron City (now known as Old Iron Town) provides a unique perspective of the town and its growth from 1868 to 1874.

From the Mormon influence to the need for outside labor and financial support, the journals of the many Mormon men describe this unique hideaway in the Escalante desert valley.  One such journal described it as “beautiful, healthy location sufficient for a city of 5,000 and large iron works, plenty of good, pure spring and well water, coal and charcoal.  We have also plenty of building rock and clay for brick building.”

In June of 1878, Ebenezer Hanks, a wealthy merchant, organized the Union Iron Company – the first of four such companies to mine in Old Iron Town.  Their immediate challenge was “to make decent fire brick”.

By 1868, Iron production in Cedar City had ceased.  In fact, the best recorded run was in April of 1855 when the Deseret Iron Company produced nearly 9,000 pounds of good iron from the “Noble Furnace”.  Journal records state the run was stopped because they ran out of stockpiled fuel.  The foundry closed in 1858, deeply in debt and having produced only about 25 tons of pig iron used for making stoves, bells, machine parts, farm implements and much needed nails. That left production demands to the Union Mine Company to fulfill.

By 1870, Old Iron Town was well on its way to meeting Peter Shirts’ assessment.  The 1870 census taker recorded 19 households and 97 residents.  Being 25 miles of wagon roads from its closest town, that was a great success, which included their own post office.

In 1871 a 2,500 pound capacity furnace was installed and a major reorganization in 1873 led to the construction of a blast furnace, air furnace, pattern shop and company office.  Union Mine directors, which included Peter Shirts, continued to push for improvements sand the town grew as jobs became available.  Cedar City continued to grow and prosper with 1879 census number of 2,000 people residing in a town named after the Juniper bush that grows in the Great Basin (locally known as a Cedar and the natives called their seeds Cedar Berries which they used for jewelry).

Over the years, efforts to keep the iron mining in full production met with one road block after another:

  • The right mix to charge the furnace
  • Building a furnace with inadequate materials
  • Furnace designs
  • Equipment breakdowns
  • Floods
  • Indian hostilities
  • Manpower shortages
  • Insufficient funding
  • Severe poverty among residents

The Mining Company of Old Iron Town was incorporated four times:

  1. 1868 – Union Mining Company
  2. 1870 – Utah Iron Mining Company
  3. 1873 = Great Western Manufacturing and Mining Company
  4. 1874 – Great Western Iron Company

Old Iron Town closed permanently in 1876.  Utah State Parks has overseen management of the town since the 1960’s and was designated and added to the National Historic Register in 1971.

At its height it had a schoolhouse, a coal furnace, an arrastra for grinding fine sand for molds, a blacksmith shop, general store, the charcoal kiln (that still stands) and worker cabins.

It is this story that encouraged Utah State Parks to nominate it for recognition through a new State Monument Law enacted in 2019.  The Iron County Commission passed a resolution of support for its nomination in September of 2019 and the Utah Legislature, through HCR002, was passed by both houses and signed by Governor Herbert in March 2020.

Old Iron Town was a place of extreme poverty, incredible dreams and hope.  Though this recognition is a story that will live on. it is  a fitting story for Utah’s First State Monument.


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