FEATURE – Many visitors driving to Zion National Park on state Route 9 might notice two restored, historic-looking buildings standing prominently across the Virgin River while crossing the Coalpits Wash approximately 4 miles before Rockville and wonder what they are and how to get to them.
Little do visitors realize they might have seen those buildings before – on the silver screen or on television. Those two structures, an old schoolhouse and the Alonzo Russell home, were part of the backdrop for one of the most famous scenes of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” in which Butch Cassidy, played by Paul Newman, rides a bike through town with Etta Place, played by Katherine Ross, sitting on the handlebars to the tune of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
Grafton’s early settlers, most of whom came from the green rolling hills of England, did not think much of the town’s surrounding scenery and had to brave the travails that the sometimes inhospitable landscape dealt them without modern conveniences. However, that very scenery is the reason Grafton is easily the most famous ghost town in Utah and one of the most photographed ghost towns in the country.
Much of the town’s fame came from its use as a backdrop to Western movies, and its history reads like one of the scripts that made it famous.
If those two structures – and three others in the immediate vicinity – could talk, they would tell a stirring story of Indian troubles, floods, years of disrepair and neglect and ultimately resurrection. They stand both as testaments to pioneer ingenuity and hardship and as proof that a group of people with the same goals can do wonders.
First established in 1859 by Nathan C. Tenney and five other families from Virgin, the settlers were attracted to the area’s fertile soil and abundant water supplied by the Virgin River. They cooperated well in planting crops, digging irrigation ditches and building homes.
In 1861, during Brigham Young’s quest for a self-sufficient society at the dawn of the Civil War, settlers of Utah’s Dixie began to grow cotton. In that year, Grafton’s residents were too obedient to their prophet’s call and did not plant enough other crops to feed their families.
The next year, in January 1862, a horrible flood destroyed much of the town, forcing its settlers to re-establish a townsite on higher ground 1 mile upstream. Tenney named his daughter, born during the flood while he and other settlers had to move his home to higher ground, Marvelous Flood in honor of the catastrophic event. This flood, however, was a foreshadowing of what was to come, as Grafton residents kept fighting a losing battle with the river.
The river repeatedly washed out irrigation dams, sometimes twice or three times in a single year. In addition to washed-out dams, irrigation ditches needed constant attention to remove debris, especially sand, enough so that one early settler remarked, “Making ditches in Grafton is like household washing; it’s a weekly chore!”
Interestingly, the first post office was known as “Wheeler” because there were Graftons in other states, including Massachusetts (for which the town was named), Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio and West Virginia. The town served as county seat of Kane County from 1864-66 and remained inside its boundaries until 1882.
Much like the formulaic plotline of many Western films, Indians sometimes wreaked havoc on the townspeople. Settlers’ cattle and sheep overgrazed, which wiped out the grass whose seeds the Indians used for part of their winter food. The Indians’ resentment prompted them to kill or steal this livestock, resulting in settlers establishing military units to protect against Indian theft and attacks.
Near the height of the conflict, brothers Joseph and Robert Berry, and Robert’s wife, Mary, were killed by Indians on April 2, 1866, as they returned to Long Valley (today’s Orderville) from Grafton by way of Short Creek (today’s Colorado City). Some cautioned the Berrys not to take that route, knowing they would be easy prey for Indians, but the Berrys did not heed the warning. Today, the Berrys’ graves are the most recognizable in the Grafton Cemetery – tall obelisk-like markers surrounded by a fence.
At the Berrys’ funeral, Paiute Indians stormed into town with war paint on and bonnets donned, laughing and saying “wino manik,” which means “very good.” According to Lyman and Karen Platt’s book “Grafton: Ghost Town on the Rio Virgin,” a captain in the settlers’ military establishment, James Andrus, quickly left the services to fetch his rifle, saying “I will make them think ‘very good.’” Andrus’ actions worked, as the Indians, knowing who he was, fled before he had a chance to use his weapon.
In addition to the Berry deaths, 1866 was especially grim for Grafton with 14 deaths (in a town with a population of approximately 168), most from diphtheria and scarlet fever. Two deaths were teenage girls killed in a swing accident.
These Native American hostilities led to Grafton being a ghost town for the first time. Church leaders decided to consolidate settlements until the whole thing blew over. Grafton’s farmers still tended their fields despite the farther distance, and by 1868 most moved back and Grafton thrived, for a time.
Social center and decline
One thing Grafton residents were good at was dancing. People would come from miles around, even as far as Milford, to attend dances that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
“Grafton had more music than any place I have ever seen,” Mary Bertha Wood Hall, who grew up in Grafton, recorded in her recollections of the town. “Nearly every night and every few nights, everybody in town with music would get out there in front of the school/church building and start playing. Everybody would sing and everybody would dance. There was really a lot of pleasure that we got out of the hours we spent there.”
By the early 20th century, Grafton farmers and ranchers grew tired of fighting a losing battle with the Virgin River. After the settlement of the Hurricane Valley in 1906, made possible by the construction of the Hurricane Canal on which many Grafton residents worked, much of Grafton’s population moved to Hurricane.
By 1930 only six families remained in Grafton, the last one leaving in 1944.
The near-deserted town caught the eye of movie makers starting in 1929 with “In Old Arizona.” The film was the first “talkie” filmed outdoors and starred Warner Baxter (who won the Academy Award for this role as The Cisco Kid), Edmund Lowe and Dorothy Burgess. One of the stagecoach drivers of the movie used profanities to instruct townspeople to get out of the way during the filming of a high-speed chase.
“Many of the locals left, shocked because their womenfolk had been exposed to such vigorous language,” wrote the movie’s director, Raoul Walsh.
A less-successful follow-up to “In Old Arizona,” “The Arizona Kid” used Grafton as its sole backdrop approximately a year later. Locals benefited tremendously from the filming and were paid well as extras.
The next movie of note filmed in Grafton was “Ramrod” in 1947. Dubbed “Utah’s Centennial Film” because of its year of production, it starred Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Preston Foster, Charles Ruggles, Donald Crisp and Lloyd Bridges and earned the title the “first adult Western” because it included a significant amount of violence and sexuality by 1940s standards.
The most recent film to use Grafton as a backdrop was “The Red Fury,” an independent film directed by Lyman Dayton which came out in 1984. It tells the story of an Indian boy who overcomes prejudice and learns important life lessons with the help of a washed-up rancher, a school teacher and a horse.
After visiting Grafton, Dayton knew it was the ideal filming location for “Red Fury” because of its scenery, self-contained location and existing buildings. Crews erected false fronts next to the schoolhouse and Russell home.
Ironically, a minor flood knocked down those set pieces during filming, of which, Dayton said, the cast and crew – including stars Wendy Lynne, Calvin Bartlett, William Jordan, Katherine Cannon and Juan Gonzales – learned firsthand what the original settlers experienced. The unfortunate part of filming in Grafton for Dayton and his crew was that looters descended on the town to haul off souvenirs just as shooting ended.
By far, however, the most famous movie filmed in Grafton is the 1969 classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively, in the title roles. The movie broke the norms of the formulaic Western script with the protagonists the ones being chased. It is commonly thought of as the birth of the “buddy film” and garnered four Academy awards for best original score, best original score, best cinematography and best screenplay with witty dialogue written by William Goldman.
It is ironic that all of the structures built for Western movies filmed in the town are gone, including the home built for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and the barn built for “The Red Fury,” yet five pioneer structures remain, a testament to pioneer hardiness.
With Grafton’s remaining structures wasting away, some real estate developers in the late 1980s and early 1990s set their eye on Grafton to turn it into a haven for vacation and second homes. However, a group of preservationists started to form to thwart their efforts, convincing Rockville’s Town Council to reject any such proposals.
That group eventually became the Grafton Heritage Partnership, a nonprofit organization formally established in 1997 to preserve Grafton for “the benefit of present and future generations.”
The Grand Canyon Trust became an important ally to the partnership with its interest in preserving the floodplain and animal habitat. With the help of Washington County, the Bureau of Land Management and several other foundations and private donors, the partnership raised enough money to purchase the Russell home and 150 acres surrounding it. A couple with Utah ties from the Los Angeles area, Robert and Linda Attiyeh, became vital allies, buying up other Grafton land to ensure its preservation.
“It is kind of a miracle we put it all together and saved the town from development,” partnership president Jane Whalen said.
After securing ownership of the land, the partnership restored the Russell Home, and Washington County, which owns the schoolhouse, restored it as historically accurate as possible. The Attiyehs restored the Louisa Russell home and the John Wood home. The partnership chose to preserve Grafton as a ghost town, deciding not to provide electricity or running water to the site, two things the town’s residents never had.
The group also decided not to openly promote Grafton as a tourist attraction because its fame is so widely known as it is.
In addition to its restoration efforts, the partnership placed interpretive signs near the site and printed an informative brochure, which is available on site and provides a brief sketch of the town’s history. The partnership was also integral in listing Grafton on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
At one point, the partnership planned to construct a footbridge to Grafton for easy access to the town from SR-9, thinking that visitors walking into town would do less damage than people driving in. That proposal failed because the partnership didn’t have the blessing of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for easements on the river.
Recently, Grafton received an additional structure, placed on the corner across the street from the old schoolhouse on a lot where Sarah and William Hasting built a dugout home when they first moved to Grafton in 1861. The cabin, brought in from Beaver for the filming of “Ramrod” in 1947, was recently restored thanks to the Attiyehs, who brought in expert craftsmen to ensure the home was restored as historically correct as possible.
That brings Grafton’s historic buildings up to six, including the other five, whose stories are listed below.
As it stands now, Grafton is an excellent culmination of two Wests: the “real” one, in which families struggled to eke out a living, and the “reel” one, in which outlaws and Indian exploits made fascinating stories.
Whichever “West” guests are seeking, Grafton won’t disappoint – both in its history and its surrounding scenery.
Grafton’s remaining historic buildings
– Grafton schoolhouse (1886)
Probably the West’s most photographed ghost town structure, the school was built on a solid foundation of lava rocks quarried from a nearby hillside. The settlers made the adobe bricks from a clay pit west of town and cut the lumber for the building from Arizona’s Mount Trumbull, 75 miles away.
– Alonzo Russell home (1862)
This restored adobe home displays an attractive handcrafted front porch where the family often met to socialize, sing and listen to Alonzo Russell play the guitar. A blacksmith by trade, Alonzo Russell supplied the town with farm tools and eating utensils and made hobbles for his cattle that Indians could not undo. Frank Stephen Russell and Mary Ellen Ballard Russell, who lived in the house from 1917-1944, were the last residents to leave Grafton.
– John Wood home (1877)
A farmer and rancher, John Wood made horsehair ropes and hackamores in his spare time. The property, surrounded by a historic split-rail fence, features two other structures, a raised one-room log granary and a large log barn.
– David Ballard home (1907)
David Ballard made his living ranching cattle, which became Grafton’s principal industry because of the difficulty and unpredictability of growing crops. The home and nearby barn appear prominently in “The Red Fury.”
– Louisa Foster Russell home (1879)
Louisa, Alonso’s third wife, raised her six children in the log home, which sits across the street from her husband’s adobe home. She owned one of the first weaving looms in Grafton, which she brought from New Hampshire.
Grafton is located approximately one hour west of St. George via SR-9, as if heading toward Zion National Park. Take a right on Bridge Road in Rockville then follow Bridge Road across the single-lane Rockville Bridge. When the road forks a short distance after the bridge, keep right and follow the road for approximately 3 miles to Grafton
For more information about Grafton’s restoration and its history, visit the Grafton Heritage Partnership Project’s website.
Photo gallery follows below.
About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.
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