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Grafton Ghost Town: An Inspiring Utah Treasure

by Katherine Bailey

Red Rock Rondo with Vilo in Grafton.
Red Rock Rondo with Vilo in Grafton.

Our family and friends enjoy visiting Grafton ghost town in southwestern Utah often, and we especially delight in introducing new people to the area. The pioneer history of the town, the ongoing preservation work, and seeing where filmmakers shot the bicycle-scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid enchants us each time we explore the town site. The fact that the real Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid used Grafton as a hideaway surprises many visitors. Grafton also provided the setting for the first “talkie” movie filmed outdoors, 1929’s In Old Arizona.

The pioneers who settled Grafton were the embodiment of grit and fortitude. Between 1859 and 1862, people from nearby Virgin struggled to establish the original site of Grafton (about a mile downstream from the current town site). Primarily cultivating cotton, they had trouble planting enough food crops to sustain themselves. Then the worst happened in 1862 when a terrible flood destroyed the town. From 1862 to 1866, the people settled the present town site, but floods continued to plague them. As more settlers traveled west to Arizona and Utah, conflicts with Native Americans led to the need for small settlements to coalesce into towns with at least 150 people. As a result, Grafton became a ghost town for the first time in 1866. Hearty people reestablished the town in 1868, and the local inhabitants persevered until 1945. The constant struggle with flooding finally ended the life of ruggedly beautiful Grafton.

Following one of our visits, we watched the two time Emmy award-winning musical documentary, Red Rock Rondo: Zion Canyon Song Cycle, which includes a song about Grafton. For this evocative folk song, well-known quilter, Vilo Demille (b. 1915 d. 2010) tells her Grafton ghost story to Phillip Bimstein and the Red Rock Rondo chamber folk ensemble. Their song Back and Forth (a Ghost Story) beautifully captures Vilo’s experience.

Oil painting by Katherine Bailey.
Oil painting by Katherine Bailey.

In 1927, twelve-year-old Vilo Demille lived in Grafton before it became a ghost town. One evening she was playing “run sheepie run,” the game we would call “hide-and-seek.” She was it, and after she did the countdown and opened her eyes, she saw two girls in long white dresses running toward a fence. Vilo thought it strange that she had never met these girls in such a small town. She gave chase, and one girl went right through the fence and the other flew over it in ghostly fashion. Dumbfounded, Vilo ran home to tell her parents. They looked at each other and said, “Ooh, that must have been the ghosts of the girls who died in the swing accident of 1866.” Loretta Russell and Elizabeth Woodbury were swinging on an old-fashioned swing tied to a branch when it collapsed and killed them. Their graves can be seen in the Grafton cemetery where they lie side by side, and Vilo sits in front of the graves as Red Rock Rondo performs Back and Forth (a Ghost Story) for her.

One time after we watched Vilo Demille and listened to the poignant song, my husband, David suggested I paint the picture we imagined. My 24” x 36” oil painting appeared as a header for the Fall 2016 Grafton News and the article Ghosts. Jane Whalen, President of the Grafton Heritage Partnership Project, wrote the article and used the picture after reading my description of Vilo’s story and Red Rock Rondo’s Back and Forth (a Ghost Story). The Grafton Heritage Partnership Project works to preserve and restore the town and the historic Rockville Bridge built in 1924. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it serves as a gateway to Grafton and stands as the last steel bridge in Utah. Also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Grafton rewards visitors with inspiration, beauty, and a reminder of the challenges pioneers faced and overcame.

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