Beneath the Surface

Keetley, Utah | Wasatch County’s Sunken Atlantis

My first introduction to the lost town of Keetley came from a story my dad tells about him and his high-school friend, driving along the old stretch of highway 40 that then bridged Park City and Heber, before the dam was constructed in the late 80s. They had a tradition that as they approached Keetley, my dad would kick his 1964 Buick Special into neutral, turn off his engine, and coast down the hill towards Heber; then, as they approached the Keetley town limits, as indicated by a small road sign reading “Keetley,” they would take a deep breath and hold it until they had passed the corresponding “Keetley” sign on the opposite end of town. To this day, my dad asserts that he has “never breathed Keetley air,” and that’s never ceased to amuse me upon each retelling.

In the mid 90s, Jordanelle reservoir was completely filled up; obscuring Keetley to this day.

Aside from my dad’s story, the submerged town has remained somewhat of a curiosity and a mystery to me. I always wanted to know what was down there, and if there is anything left. Upon learning about this sunken city on my local doorstep, Keetley achieved something of a mythical, Atlantis-like status in my young mind. Whenever my family would drive by, I would imagine scuba diving through in-tact, fully submerged, buildings at the bottom of Jordanelle.

Perhaps comparing the aquatic ghost town of Keetley to the fictitious sunken city of Atlantis is a bit of a socio-economic exaggeration, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that part of our not-so-distant history now rests beneath more than 13 billion cubic feet of water in the Jordanelle reservoir (give or take a few, depending on the season).

Diving into Keetley’s History

Let’s explore some of Keetley’s story! Though in its latter years the town didn’t seem like much more than a tiny agricultural community, there’s significant history there! The town’s genesis has its roots interwoven with the silver boom in Park City. In 1872 prospectors opened the Ontario claim to the east of town; dubbing it Camp Florence, for the first ‘lady’ to visit the camp. In 1875/1876 the Park City Mining District chose the area for a drainage tunnel; the tunnel took six years to build and by the time it was finished, little Camp Florence had become a large mining community. The town was eventually named after the local mining project supervisor, John B. (Jack) Keetley, a former pony express rider with an impressive reputation; the numbers vary, but it’s said that he covered 300 miles in just shy of 24 hours.

Miners were not the only ones who were interested in what was fast becoming a busy town. In 1917 brothers, George and Donald Gail Fisher, purchased a 4,000-acre ranch near Ontario Drain Tunnel No. 2. Gail and his family worked the ranch while his brother George was involved with politics; he was elected to the Utah State Senate in 1922. 1922 also brought some major improvements like: electricity, water piped to homes, and telephone services, which enhanced and improved the living conditions in Keetley. In 1923 the United Park City Mines Company built four bunkhouses and a boardinghouse to house the almost 600 men that worked there. They also constructed new offices, shops, and a commissary. Children of the miners and farmers who had found their way to Keetley attended Elkhorn School, a small wooden building that housed grades K-12. The largest class had a whooping four students and the graduation class of 1924 numbered — one. Eventually, there were more students and a two-story school was built; however, by 1929 it was too expensive to keep the school running and it was closed down. The almost 90 students were bused to Heber; for evening activities the bus would transport both students and their parents.

Keetley experienced a momentary glimpse of progress and rise in population, when, in 1923, Union Pacific constructed the Ontario Branch, “which left the Park City Branch about four miles east of Park City at a point that the railroad chose to name Keetley Junction. The station at the Ontario drainage tunnel at Keetley soon became the major traffic point on UP’s Park City Branch. The new branch to Keetley meant that locomotives did not have to move up the steep and curving spur from Park City to the Ontario mine, situated above the town, improving safety for the railroad and for the town’s citizens. The new location also allowed larger locomotives and cars to be used, allowing for increased traffic.”

Local entertainment in Keetley began to increase as well when two men from Butte, Montana showed up asking to lease some land. Remembered only as Big and Little Joe; the two men built an amusement hall called the Blue Goose. The Blue Goose was painted blue and had a marble-topped bar and stained-glass barroom doors. It was a happening place and quickly developed a “reputation that rivaled the dance halls of Park City.2” The Blue Goose attracted both out-of-state and local boxers, wrestlers, and dancers, for matches and dances that they hosted. Gambling was a popular past time for those visiting the Blue Goose and its card rooms and pool and craps tables; hiding whisky around the grounds of the Blue Goose was also popular during prohibition. Eventually, all the partying came to an abrupt halt when the Great Depression hit and the Blue Goose closed its doors. It was used for a while to show movies or host Boy Scout activities, but sometime between 1937 and 1941 it was torn down. Ultimately, the railroad and mining productions would also succumb to the depression with most mines closing or operating with skeleton crews. “By 1952 the golden days of mining in the Keetley area had faded. The ore no longer earned top dollar on the market, and the coming of the unions brought lengthy strikes. Many miners could not afford to wait the strikes out and sought work elsewhere.”

In the wake of the events at Pearl Harbor and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s February 1942 executive order 9066, many Japanese Americans began fleeing persecution on the west coast, which eventually culminated in large populations of them being relocated and confined in U.S. internment camps. Some of the somewhat more fortunate individuals of Japanese descent found their way to Utah’s small town of Keetley, where they worked to build a farming community from what was apparently the largest group of (somewhat) voluntarily resettled Japanese descendants at the time. Their hard work, especially considering the rocky soil of the appropriately-named Rocky Mountains, yielded a significant contribution of produce for the surrounding areas, which was viewed as a noble and patriotic venture during the war effort. Though some were skeptical of the incoming Japanese-descended farmers, the proverbial and literal fruits of their labors earned the trust and respect of their neighbors. One such remarkable individual was named Fred Isamu Wada. Fred’s wife was born and raised in Utah, which surely was a major factor that led to the selecting of Keetly as their place of refuge. Fred was, it turns out, the leader of the whole farming venture, which he seems to have led with an astonishingly honorable spirit, despite the difficult circumstances. After the war, most of the farmers moved back towards the west coast and the rest dispersed elsewhere.

The Great Buyout

If we fast-forward to the late 80s and do a little research on the Jordanelle reservoir and building of the dam, which eventually sealed Keetley in its watery grave, you’ll find that it was a fairly contentious subject at the time. There seem to have been heated council meetings with some local unease. Some geologists felt the dam would be unsafe, while others approved the project. It’s reasonable to understand the perspectives of both those who were wary of living downstream of a large man-made dam and those who saw benefit in storing more water along the water channel between the Duchesne tunnel and the Wasatch front. In the end, residents and ranchers in Keetley were bought out, relocated to other areas, and the valley was flooded.

Now, it should be noted that Keetley wasn’t the only town that was relegated to the status of Historical footnote by the reservoir project; it’s simply the one I’ve heard the most about. The two other towns were called Hailstone and, you guessed it, Jordanelle. Keetley was the largest of the three towns.

Quite by chance, after visiting the Park City Museum earlier this year, I discovered a display of the Ontario drainage tunnel. On my drive home from the museum, I couldn’t help but pull over and trek down to the shoreline of the reservoir (which seemed lower than I ever remember seeing it). I was hoping to catch a glimpse of some relic of Keetley with enough height that it might have survived to peek up through the low surface of the water. Walking along the windy shore, I found a short section of what seemed to be the old stretch of highway 40, made of badly cracked and crumbling asphalt. I took a picture and couldn’t help but imagine my dad coasting down that very road and holding his breath.

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