The Fascinating Story Behind Tooele

With a history that stretches back 11,000 years, Tooele County is full of historic sites and legendary places to explore.
With a history that stretches back 11,000 years, Tooele County is full of historic sites and legendary places to explore. Bonnie Sterin/Bureau of Land Management
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The second largest county in Utah, Tooele (pronounced too-will-uh) offers a rich history that stretches back 11,000 years to early Native Americans living along the western edge of the Great Salt Lake. The county offers numerous historic sites and places that evoke its role in the California Gold Rush, its Mormon pioneer past, the legendary Pony Express Trail, and rowdy mining days in the late 19th century. When you roam about Tooele on its highways and backroads, you’ll discover that its past was determined by a rugged landscape of mountain ranges, broad valleys and basins, and an empty salt desert that’s the flattest land on planet earth. Here are some of the special places that still resound with the echoes of Tooele County’s vibrant history.

11,000 Years of Prehistory at Danger Cave

Danger Cave, lying near the Nevada border in Tooele’s west desert, is one of North America’s most significant archeological sites. The dusty shelter cave on a barren mountainside seems like a hard place to survive, but Native Americans flourished here for thousands of years after the end of the last ice age over 11,000 years ago. The ancient ones, living in groups of 30 or so people, left items on the cave floor, which accumulated in five distinct layers. The artifacts, forming a time capsule of human life, include twine nets, leather scraps, bits of baskets, bone and wood tools, grinding stones, fabric, coprolites or dried human feces, animal bones, and plant remains. While the cave entrance is gated, Danger Cave State Heritage Area is open for ranger-led tours a couple times a year.

The Hastings Cutoff in the West Desert

Tooele County figured in the great California migration in the 1840s with the Hastings Cutoff, a shortcut on the California Trail, crossing the salt flat desert. The route skirted mountains and valleys across the county to the desert’s eastern edge. From here, guides told wagon trains to "ride like hell" for 80 miles across the salt desert, preferably in the cool of night. The infamous Donner party used the cutoff in 1846, losing valuable travel time when their wagons were stuck in salt mud and had to be abandoned. After traversing Hastings Pass, the old route crossed the flats near Interstate 80. Discover the Cutoff by driving a rough road over Hastings Pass and by visiting the Donner-Reed Museum in Grantsville.

The Pony Express Trail

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The famed Pony Express Trail crossed Tooele County in 1860 and 1861 when riders delivered mail between Missouri and California in a 10-day relay race. The route traveled 1,840 miles on treacherous trails over mountains and across valleys and deserts, including a long section in Tooele County. It’s easy to recreate those halcyon days by following the Pony Express Trail, a national historic trail and backcountry byway, across 133 miles of mountains and basins in Tooele. The 133-mile byway follows paved and dirt roads from Lehi to Ibapah in eastern Nevada, including a long section through Tooele County. For a taste of the Express days, take a half-day, 50-mile round trip across southern Tooele County. Start at the old Faust Station in Rush Valley and drive southwest over Lookout Pass to remote Simpson Springs Station with a reconstructed station house, reliable springs, and a campground. Keep an eye out for wild horse herds along the trail.

Mormon Pioneer Historic Sites

A few years after the first Mormons immigrated to Utah in 1847, settlers fanned west in search of lush pastures for livestock and fields for crops. They found both in the Tooele Valley. The pioneers began growing hay and grain and running large herds of cattle and sheep across the broad valleys. Tooele City, the first town, was settled in 1849 with two sawmills built to provide lumber and a grist mill. Life was hard with cold winters, infestations of Mormon crickets, and hostile Goshutes, but by 1853 a townsite was surveyed with wide streets in a grid pattern and a post office established. Tooele County offers plenty of historic sites that recall the Mormon pioneer days. For an overview, start at the Tooele County Museum, then visit the Pioneer City Hall built in 1867 and the Pioneer Log Cabin, one of the first erected in the county. Other good sites include the Pioneer Cemetery, the old Tooele County Courthouse, and Grantsville Fort.

The Ghost Town of Ophir

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The town of Ophir got its start after soldiers discovered that Goshute natives had picked up bits of silver and molded them into bullets and trinkets. They traced the silver to a nearby canyon and filed the rich Silveropolis claim in 1870. By 1880, many mines dotted the hills, including the rich Shamrock Mine with a horn silver deposit valued at $27,000 per ton, and the town flourished with a hotel, general store, saloons, livery stables, two schools, and even a Methodist church with 100 members. To the south, the town of Mercur also boomed and had a population of 10,000 residents. Some even thought that it would supplant Tooele City as county seat, but eventually the silver ran out, mines closed, and folks moved away, leaving both Ophir and Mercur as ghost towns. Now, Ophir has new life as a living ghost town, with a population of 40 people living in the town’s historic district. It’s a great place to make the mining days come alive by walking around town to see crumbling miner’s cabins, the old City Hall, the first post office, and railroad tracks to shuttered mines.

Originally written by RootsRated Media for Utah Office of Tourism.

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