Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Jewish Ghost Town of Utah

As a dry wind blows across the dusty plains just south of Gunnison, Utah, a traveler might be shocked to stumble upon a small, gated Jewish cemetery. Indeed, the burial ground is so small that it is comprised of only two tombstones. This cemetery, along with the broken walls of an old water cistern and some foundation remnants, mark Utah’s Jewish ghost town, Clarion.

Clarion’s first settlers arrived by train from Philadelphia on September 10, 1910. The 12 colonists were part of the Jewish Agricultural and Colonial Association (JACA) and included the Association’s organizer and president Benjamin Brown. Along with Isaac Herbst, Brown was part of a group of co-religionists who felt Jews needed to leave their urban trades and begin working the land. They gathered potential settlers and began searching for the right place to start a settlement. When leads in states such as Wyoming and New Mexico did not work out, they heard that Utah was actively seeking settlers.

When Brown and Herbst arrived on their scouting trip, the Utah State Board of Land Commissions led them to a tract of land along the soon-to-be Piute Canal. With the prospect of a reliable water source and seemingly fertile soil, it seemed a perfect choice.

At its peak, Clarion was home to 156 Jewish residents. The Jews who joined JACA did so for a variety of reasons, and thus Clarion had a wide-range of Jews as residents - from Orthodox to political anarchists. Few of them had any farming experience.

Alas, as often happened with these small agricultural settlements, the initial success could not be sustained. While the soil was fertile, the growing season was short. Natural disasters and a lack of consistent water in the canal led to multiple crop failures. Soon the settlers of Clarion moved on. After the majority of Jews had left, other people moved in and tried to make the town work, but World War II (and the internment of Japanese citizens, a community of whom had moved into Clarion) put an end to further development.

Utah became the 45th state of the United States on January 4, 1896.

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