History of La Plata, Utah

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A HISTORY OF La PLATA by Larry D. Christiansen

Mining developed late in Utah primarily due to President Brigham Young’s strong pronouncements against the pursuit of quick riches in the search for precious metals. Then in the 1860s, with the arrival of the California Volunteers, prospecting and mining for silver and gold began and was stimulated by the arrival of the railroad in 1869. The mountains, valleys and even Fremont Island were searched for precious metals and copper, also lead and other metals of value. The vast majority of the successful mines were within a 35 mile radius of Salt Lake City, and by 1890 mining became big time in Utah. But northern Utah had not produced any substantial mining properties north of Salt Lake City. In Cache County the nearby Wasatch Mountains and its canyons had been probed and explored for valuable minerals, and then they were prospected again. There were always "finds" with some excitement and mining districts and companies were organized. But until 1891 it was mostly talk and excitement with very little valuable ore located. Then came the most important silver and lead mines associated with Cache County in the rugged mountains at the southern tip of the county. The resultant find quickly produced a boom of some magnitude accompanied by a fast collapse to the bust phase.

In the summer of 1891 a sheepherder by the name of P. O. Johnson while tending his flock picked up a rock and placed it in his pocket. Apparently he guessed it was valuable enough to save and check out. He showed the find to his boss, W. H. Nye, who confirmed Johnson’s belief that the find was valuable. Nye quickly talked Johnson into a partnership upon the condition that the sheepherder show him the location of the discovery [editor's note: estimated Long. -111.40.42, Lat 41.26.42]. Johnson agreed and took Nye back to the site of the find southeast of Paradise at the head of Bear Gulch. Johnson and Nye made some surface explorations looking for signs of ore, and then with their only tool, a broken shovel, dug a trench. All signs indicated to them that they had discovered a rich strike of silver ore. They returned to the sheep camp where another sheepherder oversaw the flock, and then the two men proceeded to the county seat of Logan to stake their claim. The claim was recorded by H. C. Jackson in the Paradise Mining District with the founding date of July 20, 1891, with the original finder as "Jno. O. Johnson." On July 22nd the Logan newspaper acknowledged the find, and told how the two finders had brought to the county seat for display a "specimen of galena ore that was almost pure." Although Johnson and Nye refused to pinpoint the location of their find, the whereabouts of the find either leaked out or was guessed close enough to produce a rush to the area. In a short time the usually quiet mountain valley became the attraction of hundreds of prospectors and miners searching over a five-mile area for the signs of glittering silver ore. They quickly homed in on the primary area of the ore find. News along with inflated rumors of the rich strike spread beyond the immediate areas of Cache and Weber counties.

By early August of 1891 H. C. Jackson, the recorder for the Paradise Mining District, had relocated his residence and official recording office from Logan to the small mountain valley of the strike. He was joined by at least eight miners living in the area which became the mining camp. On August 13, 1891, the miners in the new camp formally named the place "La Plata"--Spanish for silver with the feminine definite article as a preface--after the name of the original claim. At this point the camp consisted of tents, dugouts and a couple of log cabins scattered up and down the small mountain valley. In the latter part of August attempts were made to organize the camp and establish some sort of order. A definite center [editor's note: estimated Long. -111.40.44, Lat. 41.26.38] of the camp was established and here was erected a "Liberty pole" where camp residents could inscribe their names if they so chose. Informal camp meetings were held to decide issues and the rules for the camp as it turned itself into a town. To facilitate the desired settlement pattern several streets were laid off, named (Harrison Avenue after Tom Harrison of Ogden who was important in the mining in the area, Logan Avenue, La Plata Street and Washington) and then graded to turn them into streets in fact. In the process of grading one of the streets a vein of ore was uncovered causing the Logan newspaper to proclaim about the silver in the strike area that "the whole country is full of it." Soon lots in the new townsite were sold. The tents, dugouts and cabins moved in and around the La Plata designated townsite. At the same time businesses were established to provide the goods and services the miners wanted. Among these were sawmills, stores, saloons and lodging places.

By October the number in the new mining camp was roughly estimated to range from 400 to over 1,000. In mid-October the Ogden newspaper reported that La Plata consisted of 28 log cabins and the same number of tents. By January 1st when the cold weather and deep snow forced most of the inhabitants to move out the place, it was reported to contain 70 buildings with an established population of 150 including 19 women and 13 children. During the early boom period it was estimated, probably wildly, that between 1,200 and 1,500 people visited La Plata daily either seeking to see if they could find a place for themselves or just satisfying their curiosity.

Many of the people drifting in to look were from the nearby settlements, but the news of the boom brought in those that were considered by most the first arrivals as vagabonds, rascals, speculators and those loosely called "loathsome peoples." The influx of transients disturbed some of the residents to fear for their town the fate of many boom towns that low paid foreigners would come in and dominate the work force. So early in the boom La Plata posted notices of a typical mining camp rule that "Chinamen and Dagoes" were not allowed in the new camp. On January 1, 1892, after the first short season of mining and the camp’s existence, the Logan newspaper declared that La Plata was "the most quiet and orderly mining camp ever established." There were in fact no deaths in the place, and a cemetery was never needed or established there.

In the actual mining the first horde were the prospectors seeking to find a strike and stake a personal claim. The recorder for the Paradise Mining District was kept busy filing all the claims. But no matter how rich their strike it took capital to turn the ore into a form of silver and lead that was truly valuable. Almost as fast as the individual prospectors came so did companies made up of investors from Logan, Ogden, Salt Lake City and Park City along with capitalists from far afield. While these companies probably staked some claims themselves, they bought out or leased the claims of many small-time miners, and soon they were operating the larger more productive mines. From Logan, George and Moses Thatcher with their Thatcher Brothers Bank bought out the sheepherder’s original claim (one account had it for $10,000, while another placed the amount at $600) and eventually obtained the portion claimed by W. H. Ney. Soon their operation became the Sundown-La Plata Company, and they consolidated many other productive claims under its control. Their primary competitors were stock companies such as the Ogden-La Plata and the Red Jacket-La Plata. These companies had the needed investment capital required to take the ore from the mines, transport it to a crusher and smelter many miles away. They were thus able to transform the mineral potential of La Plata into a profitable operation.

One of the major obstacles was to freight the ore from its high 9,000 foot elevation to the nearest railroad access. The accesses to La Plata were mere trails, one from Logan and the other from Ogden. Once the boom began and prospectors, miners, businessmen and the curious flocked to the area, a stage line began operations running three times a week turning the trail into a light use road. After ore was extracted there was a need for a road so it could be freighted out, and the miners appealed to the government of Cache County to establish a true road to the La Plata. The county inspected the terrain and decided to build a new road to the mining camp. While waiting for this new road, the mines operated and extracted the ore and placed it in dumps. When the road was sufficiently completed by mid-September the ore was hauled by wagon to Logan and loaded on the railroad and transported to smelters in Salt Lake, Omaha, Nebraska and beyond. Before the 1891 mining season ended some 280 tons of ore was shipped out of La Plata. Most of it went through Logan but eventually a road from Ogden took some of the loads after its completion on Oct. 30th. In fact those two towns competed fiercely for the benefits expected from the silver boom. The rivalry boiled down to the better way in and out of La Plata. The mining camp in its high canyon was just inside the Cache County line one mile from the Weber County line. The distance from La Plata to Logan [editor's note: northwest of mine and Ogden [editor's note: southwest of mine] was approximately the same and both over rough terrain. But the argument raged over the way with Logan claiming it was 22 to 24 miles from La Plata and for the loaded freight wagons it was "down hill all the way." Ogden countered with its boast that its road from La Plata to Ogden was 22 to 23 miles in length and of "gradual descent." Both sides countered the other’s view of their route’s descent with hyperbole of steep descent that scared birds to one akin to a Canadian toboggan slide. Both newspaper editors in the two towns were guilty of what one charged--"thinking with their lungs."

The winter of 1891-92 forced most of the residents out of the mining camp when temperatures fell well below zero and the snow piled up deep. During the long cold winter the road to nearby Paradise and on to Logan was kept open while the road over to Weber County and Ogden was snowbound during winter until May. With the arrival of spring in 1892 the bustle of the previous season picked up and intensified. In July the population reached 600 citizens residing in three rows of cabins on the west side and two rows on the east side of the narrow canyon hillside at La Plata. Prior building had been of logs but now frame buildings made their appearance with even a boardwalk along the main street. The town businesses came and went with dizzying speed but at different times there were several selling mining provisions, dry goods and grocery items. There were two or three boarding house calling themselves hotels, along with barber shops, butcher shops, restaurants and as many as eight saloon or liquor establishments. Among the latter was the Miner’s Exchange serving the multi-purpose of an exchange office, gambling hall and drink house. The settlement had a branch of the Thatcher Brothers Bank plus a combination post office and stage line office, blacksmith and hardware shops. It also possessed a makeshift jail and perhaps a photographic studio along with several sawmills located down the valley. For a short time in late 1892 it boasted its own newspaper, the Special Courier.

No formal government organization was set up in La Plata, just a continuation of the early camping meetings where majority rule set the course. In these meeting A. B. Hayes was elected chairman of the town with Gid R. Propper as secretary. The Cache County Court did appoint a deputy marshal, C. K. Westover, and as postmaster and justice of the peace, James P. Laws, in late 1891. The last appointment did cause some dissention from the residents of the town "because he is Mormon." Anticipating the expected summer increase in population, and probably assuming more permanent residents, La Plate petitioned for a school district to be established in the mining area. They were granted their request and became school district #221 on March 8, 1892, and the following year a five mill school tax was assessed, but no school was established as the bust came first.

While a continuing boom was expected and a July 18, 1892 quote in the Ogden newspaper appeared on target with the comment--"Everything is lovely and the goose hangs high"--it was never as good as it looked. The day of the prospector had passed, and if they had been lucky enough to have found a good claim they were forced by circumstances to have sold or leased it to the mining companies. If they remained in the area they worked for the companies and were paid $3.00 a day for work in the mines or $2.50 a day for work on the surface. While not bad it was not what most miners of the day dreamt about. Therefore, the population of La Plata was restless and transient, perhaps forced out by bad winters or lured out by news of strikes in other areas. In the spring of 1892 La Plata had a brief outflow of people when reports of a mineral strike at Porcupine reached there. Because the new find was only eight miles away and proved not as good as expected some returned to La Plata. Also the place was by nature extremely limited in its agricultural and grazing possibilities. It was high, cold, isolated and prone to be snowbound in winter. There were few residents committed to make the place a permanent settlement.

Then came La Plata’s real problems. The first wave began on June 23, 1892, when John H. White filed suit in the Ogden District Court against the Sunrise Group of Mines for trespassing and removing valuable mineral deposits from his land. White had purchased the land in question in 1887 from a D. P. Tarpey who four years earlier had purchased title to the area from the Central Pacific Railroad. The railroad had received the grants of land from Congress in twenty square mile alternating sections as incentives to build the transcontinental railroad and telegraph line with one restriction--mineral lands were excepted. White argued that the land had been classified as agricultural-grazing when he bought them, and the subsequent discovery of minerals did not affect his title. The mine owners and miners contented that the area was obviously mineral land and they had a right to its use under federal law. The problem became more complex when Central Pacific Railroad began trying to regain the original patents on the land it once owned using the same argument as White. Therefore some of the La Plata mines brought a suit against the railroad in the Salt Lake Land Office.  Because the series of suits and appeals lasted from 1892 until 1895 mining at La Plata was seriously affected.   Part of the time court restraining orders closed most of the mines, and those that operated did so only by posting bonds. White finally settled his case out of court for the $5,000 bond the mines had put up to work. But the larger dispute over the classification of the land continued. In late 1892 the Salt Lake Land Office ruled in favor of the miners and upon appeal was upheld by the General Land Office in Washington, D.C., in 1894. But even then it was not until the following year that the Secretary of the Interior settled the classification matter ruling in favor of the miners.

The law suits and threats of appropriation of the land in and around La Plata created an uncertainty along with loss of jobs and faith in the place.   Minor problems also arose in a series of disputes among the various mines as there were frequent crossing of claim lines and running into each other in their underground shafts and tunnels. Still, if these were the only difficulties the mining town could have persisted.

Then came an even more crushing blow as silver was dealt its hardest blow since being demonetized in 1873. In 1893 the a severe depression hit the United States as many banks and railroads went down in failure along with mills, factories and mines shut down. This Panic of 1893 brought a drain on the gold reserve. The theories for the economic straits ranged from high tariffs to too much cheap money. The new president, Grover Cleveland, seized upon a simple explanation and remedy. To stabilize the economy he committed the country to the gold standard and obtained the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890. This stopped the U.S. Treasury’s obligation to purchase 4,500,000 ounces of silver each month and to issue treasury notes redeemable in bullion. The move against silver did not alleviate the depression and by the end of the year 500 banks and 15,000 business firms went into bankruptcy plus the drain on the gold reserve worsened. But the demand for silver dropped immediately as did its price. With businesses failing the demand for products such as coal, iron, lead and silver used in many areas of industry dropped. In La Plata with its resources of silver and lead ore, these were hard times and the basis of its boom and economy were knocked out. Capitalists and local businessmen pulled out to find more stable investments for their money.

Finally, La Plata had its own weaknesses. Its geographic location created problems especially with the long hard winters and the difficulty of shipping ore out. Transportation costs though canyon roads were too heavy to successful compete in the declining markets. Also the veins of ore began to diminish or end in many of the smaller mines. The larger mining companies using powerful hoists and pumps kept working deeper and lower into the mountainsides but began to encounter more and more water in their shafts and the ore veins dwindled. In the end the boom times of La Plate lasted only a couple of years and by 1893 the bust had arrived and the place was no longer a town. On July 18, 1895, the Logan newspaper, still trying to promote cheer at the prospects, sneered as in error the supposition "that the camp has been dead for the last three years." It reported that claims had been worked periodically both during the litigation times and afterwards, but did not go on to record that little progress or, and more significantly, profits were made. The newspapers had helped spike the initial boom fever, but were powerless to revive the town--the boom had passed and so was La Plata.

Beginning in 1894 the mines were worked by small local firms and some from Iowa, New York and Boston, but none prospered as leases and ownership frequently changed hands. The discovery of copper in 1896 at the Sundown Mine raised hopes. The Logan newspaper was off again declaring that "copper . . . will make La Plata great." In all, the mines yielded silver, lead, copper with some gold, zinc and quartzite but never in profitable quantities. The last concerted effort at La Plata came in 1902 with the La Plata Consolidated Mining Company out of New York. They employed twenty men and before long were shipping $2,000 worth of ore to Ogden each month for several months. During this time Ogden finally came to monopolize the output of the mines, not because they had the best road, only the cheapest freight rates. The renewed activity caused Logan to want to get in on the increased activity. They talked of improving the road to La Plata but did nothing more. During this time the Logan newspaper had to take one more crack at restoring La Plata with words as it reported: "There are prospects, and good ones too, of La Plata becoming a big mining camp. . . ." While the big and good were overstatements, the La Plata Consolidated Mining Company continued in its small ways. In 1906 they re-leased the mine it worked for two more years at twenty per cent of the profits. Just before or after the resigning the company discovered a high-grade vein of galena ore, but it ran out quickly. After 1907 only a few individual prospectors worked the area. It has been estimated that the mines of La Plata produced some $3,000,000 worth of ore.

La Plata’s brief heyday brought no lasting mining economic importance in the county, and its historical significance was minor. After two or three years it was close to ghost-town status. Today even the remains of its physical existence are almost gone; only a few obscure shacks and pieces of mining equipment, and here and there piles of tailings indicating the location of the mine shafts openings. The abandon place lies on private property obscured from the sight of all but a few who travel with permission the extra mile to see the old mining camp-ghost town. Nevertheless an echo from the past from local newspapers perhaps has more truth and perception now than the exaggeration of when first published. The Ogden Examiner avowed on September 6, 1891--"the truth about la plata is quite as strange as any fiction that the ordinary scribbler can invent." While The Journal of Logan on January 1, 1892 recorded in verse form the yearnings of the eternal seeker:

"We know not why nor where he went,
But on one place he seemed intent;
He lashed his team and drove pell mell,
And now and then would loudly yell
La Plata.

He may have reached his promised land,
And may have wealth within his hand;
He may have long since ceased to shout,
But still this echo rings about:
La Plata."

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Sources:
David R. Lewis, "La Plata, 1891-1893 Boom, Bust, and Controversy," Utah Historical Quarterly, (Winter 1982) Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 4-21.
F. Ross Peterson, A History of Cache County , Utah Centennial History Series (Utah Historical Society), pp 181-185.
Richard C. Roberts and Richard W. Sadler, A History of Weber County, Utah Centennial History Series (Utah Historical Society), pp. 211-215. The Journal (Logan, Ut.), July 22, 1891, Jan. l, 1892, July 16, 1895, Aug. 27, 1896, Sept. 27, 1902.
Ogden Examiner (Ogden, Ut.), Sept. 6, 1891.

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