Silver Reef is situated in Washington County, eighteen miles northeast of St. George. Its elevation is 4,000 feet above sea level. It once was a bustling mining town, and there are many folklore stories concerning the founding of the town. Silver was discovered by John Kemple in spring of 1866 in a rock formation to the west of Silver Reef. However, unable to find the source of the silver vein, Kemple moved to Nevada. In 1874 he returned and set up the Harrisburg Mining District. Kemple went on to locate many claims; however, none were ever developed.
By 1875 there was a furry of prospecting in the area. News of silver ore in the local sandstone rock drew the attention of the Walker brothers, Salt Lake City bankers. They grubstaked a noted prospector, William T. Barbee. By late 1875, twenty-one potentially rich claims were staked, and Barbee set up a town called Bonanza City.
Although there was a small cluster of business operations in Bonanza City, property values were high. Miners, finding land cheaper to the north, set up a tent city on a rocky section of land known as the "Rockpile."
In November of 1875 the mines in Pioche, Nevada, were closed, and miners and merchants came to the new silver fields, renaming the "Rockpile" Silver Reef. A town sprang up almost overnight. Sturdy buildings were erected for nine grocery stores, six saloons, a newspaper, and five restaurants.
Chinese laborers fresh off railroad work drifted into Silver Reef, setting up their own Chinatown. The town's population advanced to over 1,500 during the peak years of 1878 to 1882. There were six mills in operation, averaging over a million dollars output per year.
But, as was the case with most western mining towns, the day of reckoning came. Three factors came into play in 1881 to bring the end of the boom. First, the world silver market dropped. Second, the mines filled with water faster than it could be pumped out. And, finally, the mine stockholders lowered the miners' wages. Most of the mines were closed by 1884 and the town died. Attempts to revitalize came in 1898, 1909, 1916, and 1950. All failed. Today, remains of historic Silver Reef can be seen, while a few modern houses have been constructed in the vicinity.
See: Andrew Karl Larsen, I was Called to Dixie (1961); Washington County Chapter, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Under the Dixie Sun (1950); and Paul Dean Proctor and Morris A. Shirts, Silver, Sinners, and Saints: A History of Old Silver Reef (1991).
Bart C. Anderson