A few miles away from Zion National Park, one of the most photographed ghost towns in America can be found. Grafton is located about 3.5 miles off of Highway 9 through the town of Rockville. To get there, be prepared to drive on unpaved road, which during flood season can sometimes be impassable. Head south on Bridge Lane which crosses a historic single-track iron lattice-truss bridge. Then head west and stay to the right when the Smithsonian Butte Road branches off. As there is active preservation of the town going on, the signs are fairly easy to follow.
In December 1859, 5 Mormon families from nearby Virgin, were led by Nathan C. Tenney at the direction of Brigham Young to establish a town they called Wheeler to plant cotton, which would have been a profitable commodity during the Civil War. After only 2 years, the town had grown to 28 families and about 168 residents, but then tragedy struck. A massive flood starting on January 8, 1862, washed away the entire town. However, the pioneers did not give up that easily and moved about a mile upstream and founded a new town, this time named (New) Grafton, by 1864.
They grew cotton, alfalfa and wheat, but life was harsh and many residents died due to disease, such as diphtheria, consumption (tuberculosis) or scarlet fever and various accidents. The infant mortality was also extremely high, which accounts for the about 50 child graves of about 77 total graves in the nearby cemetery.
The first few years seemed especially harsh, with a 9-year-old boy getting dragged to death by a horse, two girls, Loretta A. Russel, 14 and her friend Elizabeth H. Woodbury, 13, dying when a beam broke over their swing. 1866 was the worst year with about 13 deaths. Robert M Berry, his wife Isabella Hales Berry and his brother Joseph S. Berry, were killed by Indians and in a matter of 2 months. 6 people died of diphtheria, including 5 children under the age of 10 (3 children of the York family, ages 10, 5, and 3, as well as Sarah Ann Brookfield and her two daughters, ages 5 and 7).
Black Hawk War
During the Black Hawk War (1865-68), most families fled to nearby Rockville to form a town of more than 150 residents in order to defend themselves. Grafton was almost completely abandoned. However, many families returned after 1868 when the conflict ended and several Native Americans, Paiutes, joined the outskirts of the community by setting up their tepees nearby. They became part of the Grafton community and several of them are even buried in the town’s cemetery.
Revival and Downturn
The town flourished for a while, despite recurring floods (1868 and 1909) with a church and adobe school house being built in 1886. However, when the Hurricane Canal was built in 1906, many families started to move to Rockville and Hurricane. The last class in the school house in Grafton was taught in 1918-19 with only 9 students, after which students had to go to Rockville to attend school.
By 1920 only 3 families remained in the town. In 1944 the towns last residents, Frank Russell and his wife Ellen moved as well. No electricity or plumbing was ever introduced into the homes in Grafton.
On May 23, the town was purchased by movie producer Harry Sherman as a film location site. Even before that the town was used as a movie location when in 1929 “In Old Arizona” was shot there. It was the first “talkie” filmed outdoors and was nominated for five Academy Awards. Various other films were shot there over the years, including “The Arizona Kid” (1930), “Ramrod” (1947), “Child Bride of Short Creek” (1981), and “The Red Fury” (1984). Most notably “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, which won four Academy Awards, was filmed in Grafton.
Of the originally 30 structures of the town, only about 5 remain now. The Mormon church and school house, the John Wood home built in 1877, the Alonzo Russel home (a two-story house with veranda), the Louisa Russel home as well as a barn with outhouse.
In 1997 the Grafton Heritage Partnership Project was founded as a non-profit volunteer organization. Its “purpose is to preserve and enhance the outstanding historical, agricultural, scenic, riparian, and cultural values of the Grafton historic townsite for the benefit of present and future generations.” The structures have been restored and are now maintained by the organization. The cemetery also received some updated grave markers as many of the original ones were fading or damaged. The surrounding farmland and orchards are still used and are on private property and under 24-hour surveillance. Descendants of the former residents still gather for annual reunions.
And although the town is now well maintained, it’s dark past can still be felt when exploring the area. People have reported hearing ghostly disembodied footsteps over the creaky floors in the empty buildings as well as a breath of ghostly souls on the back of their necks. In 1927, a 12-year-old girl named Vilo Demille was playing hide and seek and supposedly saw the two young girls that died on the swing. The entire town gives visitors a feeling as if being watched and shadowy figures can sometimes be spotted in the windows. There are even rumors of a “Skinwalker” in the area.
When we explored the basement of the Russel home, we found a chair sitting in the middle of the basement with a mark on it as if someone had recently sat on it. We had been exploring for over an hour at this point and had not encountered a soul on the way to town or the entire time where were there. Yet for some reason the print looked brand new, with not a single speck of dust on it. After filming for a few moments and recording into the silence, we felt a rush of air, as if someone had just walked past us, which admittedly scared the crap out of us and we decided it was time to leave.
On the way out, we explored the old cemetery for a little while but unfortunately, we started to lose light fast. The cemetery itself has many reports of babies crying, children laughing and chilling screams, especially late in the day and when it is overcast.
There is definitely a very uncomfortable feeling creeping up your bones while you walk among the gravestones, which is no surprise knowing the sad history of the people laid to rest there. Some people have even seen a woman in a calico dress with her hair in a bun, walking around he cemetery, sobbing, but when they approached her, she disappeared into thin air. (For some footage of the cemetery, watch our video below!)
As always, please be respectful when exploring the town and abide by the no trespassing signs posted. It is a great place to explore history and the paranormal alike. If you can, please support the Grafton Heritage Partnership Project with a small donation, so they can preserve this fascinating piece of frontier history for many more years to come.
To support and donate the Grafton Heritage Partnership Project, click HERE.
Some of the former residents of Grafton buried at the cemetery: