The unlikely discovery of silver in sandstone in the neighborhood of Silver Reef, Washington County, Utah, is usually credited to a prospector named John Kemple. He never hit pay dirt, however, although he organized the Union Mining District in 1871 and the Harris Mining District in 1874. The first real strike occurred in 1875 when Elijah Thomas and John Ferris found silver in a ledge on the Northwest side of White Reef. Another strike was made in 1875 by Judge William Tecumseh Barbee, and the silver rush started in November 1876 from Pioche, Nevada and surrounding areas.
The first town was located at the east end of the hill by Barbee, and named quite unimaginatively “Bonanza Flat”. He hoped to sell land at somewhat inflated prices, but a merchant from Pioche who refused to pay the price, Hyrum Jacobs, went up to the higher rocky ground to set up his store and called the town Silver Reef.
The boom was on, and almost overnight a town of 1500 sprang up. Five mills were running and 33 claims were being worked. To support them were nine groceries, two drugstores, five restaurants; the Harris House which provided board and room for 50 men; six saloons, one billiard hall, two dance halls, a Citizen’s Hall, and a Catholic Church with a hospital in the basement. The weekly paper, The Silver Reef Miner, carried ads for 40 businesses, including a blacksmith, shoemaker, undertaker, lawyers and a doctor.
Across the street from Wells Fargo was the Louder store, and the Miller Saloon, with a dance hall adjoining. Stores and saloons lined the street. Miners’ cabins and cottages extended clear up to where the water for the three towns was taken out of the original Quail Creek Channel.
The fluctuating price of silver and depletion of high grade ore cut the boom short, and the last mill run was made in 1908. In 1916, Alec W. Colbath raised $160,000 to buy most of the mine properties to take advantage of the World War I rise in silver prices. He leased part of the property to a New York company in 1920, which planned to build a mill, but cancelled their plans when silver prices again dropped.
The Wells, Fargo building was later used as a mercantile and mine supply store by Woolley, Lund and Judd, around 1886. Later it served as a residence for the Colbath Family and then was partitioned into offices and laboratories for the Western Gold and Uranium Company. It is now vacant and reportedly has been acquired by Washington County for a museum.