After Brigham Young and his group of
Emigrant pioneers settled in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in
1847, the Mormon President determined that church members would
populate the region, which he hoped would become the "state” of
Deseret and a place they could practice their religion without
For the next 50 years, the Mormons
established some 500 villages in an effort to claim the territory and
secure resources for self-sufficiency. Young saw farming opportunities
in the southern part of what would later become
Utah, which he
referred to at the time as "Dixie.” Reasoning that the warmer land,
if irrigated, could produce cotton, the Mormons experimented at Santa
Clara in 1854 with success.
Young, then began to send
numerous families and single men, who were advised to immediately marry,
south as part of what was called the Cotton Mission. Soon, a number of
cotton farming communities sprouted up along the upper Virgin River,
including Virgin in 1857, Wheeler/Grafton in 1859, Adventure in 1860,
Duncans Retreat and Northup in 1861, and Shunesburg, Rockville and
Springdale in 1862.
In 1859, five families
from Virgin established the small settlement of Wheeler; however, it was
soon destroyed by a week-long flood of the Virgin River in January, 1862.
Moving about a mile upstream, they built another settlement which they
named New Grafton, after Grafton, Massachusetts.
Two years, later the
small settlement was called home to some 28 families and supported about
168 people. The town boasted a number of log houses, a post office, a
church, and a combination school and community hall. Each family farmed
about one acre of land in narrow strips along the sides of the Virgin
River, dug irrigation canals, and planted cotton, orchards, and private
However, life in the
fertile valley was not easy. Though the Virgin River was their very life,
it was untamable and often betrayed them, leaving their dams, ditches and
crops destroyed during periods of intense flooding, and at other times,
leaving their crops susceptible to erosion from previous flooding. And,
though they were able to grow cotton, most of their small parcels of land
were given over to simple food production to sustain themselves
Though the work was hard,
the families also enjoyed social activities, including swimming,
horseback riding, picnics, and holiday parties in addition to Sunday
worship services and other religious activities. In addition to the
unpredictable river, residents also experienced difficulties with the
Indians during the Black Hawk War (1865-68.) In 1866, the Indian attacks
became so problematic, that the people of Grafton were evacuated to nearby
Rockville. Though they returned daily to work their farms, the settlement,
they did not return permanently until 1868.
After another devastating flood of the Virgin River in 1868, many of the
residents gave up and left the community. When church officials visited
many of the towns along the river the following year, in order to boost
morale and reinforce the religion, they arrived to find many of their
flock had deserted.
In 1886, Grafton
residents built a 2-story adobe school house, which they also utilized as
a church, and a community center where social activities and meetings were
held. The preserved structure continues to stand today, and is one of the
most photographed ghost town buildings in the American West.
By the turn of the century, the nearby towns
of Duncan's Retreat and Shunesburg had been completely abandoned, but
Grafton still maintained a few residents, most of whom had by then given
up farming and turned to ranching due to the unpredictable river. However,
when the Hurricane Canal was built in 1906 that delivered the river waters
to a wide bench 20 miles downstream, many Grafton families packed up and
moved to Hurricane.