Early History of Silver Reef
Historians aren't entirely sure when the 19th century discovery of silver in Silver Reef was made, but most accept the story of John Kemple. In the fall of 1866, John Kemple passed through the area on his way to Nevada, possibly to do some mining there. While in Southern Utah, he stayed with a friend, Orson B. Adams. Although Southern Utah was an unlikely place to find any kind of pay ore, Kemple brought with him some basic prospecting and assaying tools.
Two stories describing the discovery stem from this point. One says that on a cold day, a fire was lit in the Adams's fireplace, and a silver stream came oozing out of one of the heated sandstone rocks that made up the fireplace. Kemple immediately identified it to be pure silver, and the next day he managed to locate where the sandstone rock had come from.
The other story says that while walking around the Adams's property, Kemple came upon some silver float material. The assay value of this initial discovery is unknown, but it apparently wasn't enough to keep Kemple in the area, as he soon left for Nevada.
Regardless of which story is true, Kemple returned to the area in February of 1871 with a group of miners and established the Union Mining District. Only 16 claims were staked, however, and the Union Mining District, for reasons unknown, was abandoned. Three years later, in 1874, Kemple returned again and reorganized the old Union Mining District as the Harrisburg Mining District. A few months after the Harrisburg Mining District had been organized, Kemple hadn't struck much high-grade silver, so he sold his claims. He remained in the area until 1879, when he moved to Beaver County.*
In 1875, the Walker brothers, bankers from Salt Lake City who often invested in mines, sent William Barbee to the Silver Reef area to stake claims. Barbee had staked claims for the Walkers in Ophir, another Utah mining town, a few years earlier, and had much experience in the field of prospecting. Soon, Barbee had staked over 20 claims, and in December, he wrote a story for The Salt Lake Tribune describing his finds and encouraging miners to come to the area.
Anticipating a silver rush, Barbee established a town near the mines and called it Bonanza City. By early 1876, Bonanza City had become a sizable locale; however, property values there were too high for the average miner to afford, so most miners set up a tent settlement north of Bonanza City. As more people came into the area, the tent settlement grew larger, and the place was called Silver Reef.
Next time, we'll discuss the boom period of Silver Reef, so stay tuned!
*According to an autobiography written by John Kemple's son, John Orson Kemple