A Budding Archaeologist

Yesterday, we visited Silver Reef, Utah. Silver Reef is a Ghost Town about 15 miles northeast of St. George, Ut. It was populated by miners who were there for the silver and by the businesses supporting them. There were three groups of people in Silver Reef; Catholics, Protestants and Chinese.


If you were Chinese you worked in the Chinese mine. If you were Catholic, you worked in the Catholic mine and if you were Protestant, you worked in the Protestant mine. If you were caught crossing those lines, you were shot!

The town had a Catholic church, three (designated by religion) cemeteries, a saloon, a restaurant, and a Chinese laundry. A fire burnt most businesses down in 1879, only 8 years after the town came into existence, but the miners rebuilt and resumed their mining. The mines began closing in 1884 for various reasons and the wood and bricks from the buildings were salvaged for buildings in Leeds and in 1908 what was left of the town burned to the ground.

Silver Reef was a typical mining town. Labor disputes, gambling, prostitution and shootouts were common place.

In 1901 a man purchased one of the buildings for the salvage that it contained, and found $10,000 in gold coins hidden in the walls. After that, many of the buildings were torn apart in search of more gold.

The mines closed after the silver market dropped and also after the miners dug below the water table and the mines began to fill with water. Business owners went bankrupt and lost everything as the town declined.

One of the Chinese business owners left Silver Reef and made his fortune in San Francisco. Many years later, he returned to Silver Reef and had all of the bodies in the Chinese Cemetery exhumed and returned to China. (Note: The Chinese often leave offerings of household goods and food for their dead on the graves. This practice was discontinued in Silver Reef because the local Indians caught on and made nightly raids of the graves. Being buried in foreign soil is also looked down upon, and so this man was honoring the men by taking their bodies home!)

After the decline of the town, the Wells Fargo Building was used as a residence, but in 1940 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and was transformed into a gift shop and museum.

Silver Reef as used as the backdrop for two films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Electric Horseman.

We arrived at Silver Reef and decided to check out the museum first. We were looking for a map of ruin locations, etc. Even though they didn’t have a map we found many things that caught our attention. We saw clothing, safes, tools, money, silver, buttons and a full size loom. Xuxu, in particular, was most interested in the display of Chinese artifacts. They had dishes, oil lamps, Chinese coins and a photo of the Chinese Mayor, Sam Wang.

Xuxu retrieved my iPhone from the car and started working on translating the Chinese writing on the bowls. She soon garnered the attention of the curator who spent the next hour with her writing everything down while Bella copied the characters onto paper. We never did find the main character that was so prominent on the bottom of a large bowl, but knowing Xuxu, she will continue to search. During the exchange we learned several fun stories about Silver Reef and the Chinese who lived here, including the story about about the Chinese Cemetery (above).

According to the census there were only 9 Chinese in Silver Reef, but other mine records claim that there were about 400. The Mayor, other prominent businessmen and a few house workers from prominent households were the only ones recorded on the census.

While Xuxu and I were chatting with the curator and the guide, Da took Pie out to explore the scene across the street from the museum. There weren’t gone 5 minutes before they were back, and Pie had an old rusty key in her hand. (See photo at the beginning of blog.) She was grinning from ear to ear because of her find and the curator was just as tickled! They got out a piece of paper and recorded the find, along with Pies name, age and the location of the find. Originally it was thought that they found it behind the old Saloon, but with a little more conversation, they discovered that it was behind the Chinese Laundry. How fitting! ;o)

We then walked around the remaining ruins near the museum and then drove out to the Protestant Cemetery. Restoration projects have obviously been underway at different periods, but we wondered if any of the projects had ever been finished. Some graves had wood crosses but others were simply marked with huge nails in the ground. One grave, that of a one year old girl who died in 1886, was still kept neat and was white washed regularly. A fairly new large fence was around the property.

The girls were fascinated with each headstone that they found. Most of the folks buried in this cemetery died between 1880 and 1890, but there were two graves dated 1991-2002 and a fresh grave (maybe a couple of days old?) that didn’t even have a head stone. I wonder if this is personal property now?


Our last stop was the Catholic Cemetery. The date ranges are approximately the same for the burials, which makes sense because of the life span of the town. We had heard the story earlier about the grave in the photo below. (The story is related differently on Wikipedia, but I’m going to tell you the story that the Curator told us!)

On December 1, 1878, Henry Clark and Sykes Griffin were gambling at Cassidy’s Silver Reef Saloon. Henry was a famous gambler who had made a fortune in Silver Reef. Sykes was a Faro Dealer at the Saloon. Both felt that the other was cheating and so each man pulled his gun and shot from underneath the table. It was determined that Henry Clark was in the right. The monies from his winnings were used to build a monument on his grave and the monument was surrounded by a rot iron fence. No one remembers where Sykes Griffin is buried.

The alternate version (just as interesting) can be found here.