Episode 5: Cottonwood Paper Mill
Paper, who hasn’t heard of or used a mountain of paper in their lifetime?
I know just from where I’m sitting in my home I’m surrounded by paper. From the post-it notes in various shapes and sizes each different one belonging to a different book I’m writing, To the printed books that line the shelves around me. To the hard copy research directly to my right. We live in a world surrounded by paper. Before we had the technology to communicate electronically, it was the only way you could get information anywhere.
It’s no wonder then that after Brigham Young settled the Salt Lake Valley, after setting the most vital things in motion, he set about to find a way to make paper more readily accessible and affordable for the churches growing needs.
Welcome everyone to episode 5 of Strange & Unexplained: Utah The Cottonwood Paper Mill. Now I know the last time we talked there was a lot of conversation about camera man Thomas coming on as bigger part of the show. Unfortunately, that hasn’t panned out as of yet. So for the moment it’s just me. Sorry guys, hopefully in a little while we might have some more voices on the show.
Late in the 19th century when Brigham Young led the LDS people into the Salt Lake Valley, he did so while following the vision of church founder and prophet Joseph Smith. Now Smith had a very specific vision for his people when they found this promised land. And while many things were discussed between Young and Smith, chief amongst those things was the self-sufficiency of the faith. This land they had been promised in the vision Smith describe to Young would be a bountiful place, it would be a place where the LDS people could set up homes, be safe from persecution, and erect their temples to the Lord. While in that valley, the church founder wanted his people to be as self-reliant as possible. So once they were settled in, and construction on the Salt Lake Temple had begun, as well as with the laying down of city streets as discussed in episode 3, Trolley Square station, Church leaders set about instituting businesses and buildings that would help the faith run on their own. With a goal in mind that they would need very little from the east to be brought into the Salt Lake Valley via ox and wagon.
One of the businesses they had in mind, was the Deseret Papermill. When you think about Mormons, or the LDS, a lot of people automatically associate them with genealogy or the study of a person's family history. Due to the extensive records that Mormons kept, as well as the massive amount of publications they put out monthly, the church needed a lot of paper. And while paper was still relatively cheap on the East Coast, having it shipped all the way out to Salt Lake City was not. So once the city was running and functioning like it should, they set about to putting up a mill to help them make their own paper.
Hoping to add another prosperous industry to the Salt Lake Valley they began construction on the Deseret Paper Mill in 1881 and it was completed two years later in 1883. The cost to build the mill was a whopping $150,000. Or by today’s standards well over $3 million dollars. A fun fact about the walls of the mill if some of that granite looks familiar that’s because a lot of leftover granite from the building of the Salt Lake Temple was used to build the mill. Waste not want not.
The building was designed by engineer architect Henry grow. The mill sat on a 110 acre site with the main building measuring 85 x 160‘with an additional 60 foot wide edition. The mill is three stories tall and also sports basement. Originally, it was powered by a water wheel. And according to her article “Is the Old Mill haunted?” Originally published on September 30, 2019, Cassie Goff states that; “remnants of the concrete head gate can still be seen on the hill east above the mill, even though the tank was removed in the 1950s.”
At the height of its capacity the mill could produce roughly 5 tons of paper in a 24-hour period. Making it both very successful, and crucial for the Salt Lake Valley. During his first few years the mill would often put the call out for people in the valley to bring in rags. Since the kind of paper they made was called rag paper they needed extra scraps of fabric to help make the paper stronger to last longer. So, you could take a pound of rags into the mill and trade it for a whole nickel. It was even said that if your rags went missing, there was a good chance the mill was putting out a fresh batch of paper.
Despite having what was cutting edge technology at the time, it soon became too costly for the Mill to be run. With rail travel rapidly coming to the west, it made the cost of paper shipped from the east much cheaper than the price of running the mill. The church tried to sell the Mill on a two year lease but there didn’t seem to be any takers. So in 1892 it was sold to the Granite Paper Mill Company.
On March 31st of 1892 the Mill was on the rise again. Producing more paper than it ever had, making this the most efficient and productive run in the it’s life span. Which was certainly helping to offset the cost that had been paid for the building. At this time the mill was being managed by George Lambert, who, after seeing the piles and piles of paper and the rising numbers in productivity, gave most of the employees leave to head home early and take a long weekend. Given that it was March and still very much a part of Winter out here in SLC that meant they were looking at intermittent rain and snow, making the still dirt roads that led to the Mill near impassable.
Which also meant the storeroom was full to bursting with reams and reams of paper.
George must have thought that given the surplus, as well as the bad roads making any shipments over the weekend impossible, there was no reason not to reward the mill employees with a little extra weekend.
What could possibly go wrong?
In the wee hours of the next morning, around three am as the story goes, a fire broke out in the rag room on the second floor. Now no one knows exactly how or why the blaze started, although there are several theories about it, we will just never know the true cause. The leading theory at this time is that soot sparks somehow made their way down from the roof igniting the paper below.
The night watchman, a man named Mr. Ayers was asleep in the attic when he heard and smelled the fire. Waking at once he called George and as many employees as he could to help. Those who had phones and were able come, made their way to the mill to help fight the fire. The real tragedy for the mill was the date.
It was the first of April, April fool’s day.
When the men at the Mill called the fire department to help, they thought it was a prank, and sent no one to aid them. By the time fire officials realized their error, it was too late. The building was completely engulfed. What little they could do they did. But the Mill was a total loss with only the outer walls and some of the interior ones remaining. All of the cutting-edge machines were gone, along with most of their stock pile of paper. The blaze claimed it all.
There is a report that does claim that about three and half tons of paper were salvaged by the men working that night. Though a man named Nathan Staker was reportedly injured in the attempt.
After the fire had finally been put out, the task of assessing the damage started. It was plain to see that the entire building was a loss. The insurance company came and evaluated the remains and agreed with previous assumptions. The business and building were non-salvageable. Despite the policy they had for the building, the payout wouldn’t cover the cost necessary to get the building up and running again. So, work at the plant was suspended indefinitely.
A side piece that is interesting to note here, after looking at everything from the fire it raises the question, for me at least, of arson.
Think about it for a minute here.
They wouldn’t ship any of the paper, claiming the roads were too bad. But they still kicked production up trying to make the mill more productive than it ever had been. Then, when the building was inundated with paper, the manager sends pretty much everyone home. Go, he says, enjoy the long weekend. All but ensuring that the fire would break out when the mill was primed for it and there was no one there to stop it.
Then there’s the call to the fire department.
When have you ever heard of a fire department not taking a call seriously? Especially at three in the morning? Wouldn’t you send someone just to make sure? Unless you were told not to. Or, maybe paid off.
While there is no official report of misconduct it does seem a little shifty to me that these things all seemed to coincide on the one day of the year where there would be a plausible excuse for help not to come.
Can I prove my theory of arson? No. Does that make me think it’s any less likely an arson? No. I’m fairly convinced.
After that the mill sat empty for years. Passing from one owner to another falling deeper and deeper into disrepair and disuse.
For thirty-four years it just sat there, all alone and unused at the outskirts of a growing town like a looming hulking shadow of the cities past and the terrible tragedy that fire had wrought.
Then, in 1927, a young man named J.B. Walker purchased the building and began a partial reconstruction. Some of it would never be restored to what it was. But through hard work and dedication to the details and nuances of the architecture, Walker managed to restore the building and turned it into an open air dance club, aptly named, The Old Mill Club.
And it prospered that way. Seeing only a small decline during WWII when the lack of people, money and time made running the dance club just not feasible.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s it transitioned from a dance hall to a Disco. They had all kinds of music there. Groups like Spirit of Creation, Wishful Thinking, and even Alice Cooper. Music, lights, a coffee bar, even a little gift shop called the Seventh Son Leather works. There was much and more goin on at the Mill during that time. A little later it even began hosting an annual haunted house that donated all the proceeds to local charities. There was a coffee gallery, a pool room and they even showed silent movies.
It was a happening place to be man, can you dig it?
Of course, back then it was literally illegal to dance on Sunday in Utah. So they would gather and listen to music instead. Not that that stopped the cops from showing up to shut down what they assumed was illegal dancing and goings on. It had a very Footloose feeling if you know what I’m saying.
In 1966 the site was declared a Historic Landmark in Utah and the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. In 2005 it was condemned by the city of Cottonwood Heights due to the building not meeting earthquake safety codes.
Since then the mill has faced other tragedies. Including vandalism, graffiti, squatters, and even some criminals breaking in and making off with over $20,000 in copper wiring.
So those are the facts. There are some other stories I’m going to share with you, but it comes with this disclaimer: These are stories I have come across in my research, however, I cannot verify these details. So I will share with you what I know, but I don’t know how true they all are.
The first such story is about a night watchman. It goes like this, on the morning of June 27th, 1933 the night watchman who lived on site was woken suddenly in the dark to the sounds of breaking glass somewhere on the property. He got up at once to see what was going on. As he investigated the Northern side of the building, he found a young man attempting to enter thought a broken window. He attempted to get the boy to stay where he was, but the boy ran. The watchman, who had gun drawn from what I understand, shot the boy in the back.
The young man, just 18 years old, was transported to the hospital in critical condition. He later recovered and sued the Mill for roughly $30,000. A staggering amount even by today’s standards.
The next story is also about a watchman who supposedly committed suicide on the grounds in front of his wife. This one sounds especially suspicious to me. Most people that take their own lives, don’t usually do it in front of an audience. Or so I assume. It does seem that most people attribute this to stories from the haunted house the Mill used to host.
Another big story being circulated out there is about two homeless men and their dog that were squatting in the Mill. From what I’ve found they had lit a small fire to keep them warm and then some time in the night the fire got out of control and kill one or all of them. Some people claim to hear the sounds of a spectral dog barking near the mill, but I suspect that has more to do with the houses near there than with an actual ghost dog. No records of any kind that I can locate right now substantiate this claim.
Now if you want to talk about people seeing thing in the broken windows, or hearing strange noises around the property, there are tons of those. Some people claim that they see lights turning off and on inside the windows despite the power having been turned off decades ago.
I can tell you from personal experience that the building has a presence. It’s large and stone and so imposing. But there is also something about it that calls to a person. Maybe it’s the walls that are part of the stone quarried for the temple. Maybe it’s just the tragedy of so beautiful a building no longer being utilized.
Personally, I would love to purchase the property and return it to something of the beauty it once was. Imagine being able to eat at the Old Mill again. To rent a room there or get married there. Oh the dreams I have for that place.
Tragically I have been unable to find a way to reach the person who currently owns the property. I know that it was purchased by John Basil Walker and that now his great-grandson in law manages the property. But I can’t seem to get in contact with them. I’d love to be allowed in to take a few pictures and look around for the podcast.
Well my friends we have reached the end of episode five of Strange & Unexplained: Utah Cottonwood Paper Mill.
I really appreciate you guys taking time out of you day to listen to the show.
For a full transcript of this episode, and all other episodes, as well as photos from each location and information about the podcast, you can visit us at www.strangeutah.com
We now have a pantheon if you want to support the show. And I’m currently working on stickers and other merchandise from the S&U team. So check us out on our webpage, facebook, or Instagram for more information.
Another little fun side story here.
A few nights ago while I was asleep in my bed, I was laying on my left side, facing my door, dead asleep. No lie, I was out. And then very suddenly I wasn’t. I stared at the door and watched as an older woman came walking somewhat sideways into my room. She was with a man, larger and younger. He was so tall that her head came up to his chest. Anything above that was darkness. I could see the vague outline of his shoulders and head, but nothing in detail. He had a hand on the woman's shoulder and something about the way they stood told me that he was not friendly to me or to the woman he was holding.
She was older, late 70’s early 80’s, short white hair with just a bit of curl in it, she had on glasses, a sweater and light pants. She looked at me with fear in her eyes, frantically signing at me. But I don’t speak sign language. She was so afraid.
I stared at them, blinking, looking around for my phone. I broke eye contact, grabbing my phone off the nightstand and looked back. Still there, I pushed the button and opened the phone and quickly turned on the flashlight. I saw the woman look at me as I brought the light up and as soon as the beam touched them, they were gone.
This is by no means the first thing I’ve seen in the room, not even the first thing I’ve seen in that exact location. But this was the first time it was interactive. I really felt like this woman needed me to understand what she was trying to say. But between not having my glasses on and the dark, I couldn’t see enough to even guess at what she was saying.
I was pretty much wide away after that and decided it was a great time to catch up on some reading, lol.
Well guys thanks again for sticking around for these episodes, I know they are random in coming, but your continued support is amazing and I thank you for it. Until next time, stay safe, if you can, stay home, and as always, stay strange.