The Founding of Tropic
Contributor: GlacierSiren Created: 1 month ago Updated: 1 month ago
The following is an excerpt from The History of Garfield County, Utah Centennial County Series, found on pages 199-207.
The photos are both courtesy of June Shakespear. The first is a snapshot of one of the earliest stores in Tropic, that was also used as a cafe. The other is a shot of the first meeting house built in Tropic in 1895 for religious, educational, and social activities.
The first community east of Bryce Canyon along Utah Highway 12 is Tropic. The town's residents considered a number of possibilities for its name. Jesse W Crosby suggested Erastus—for LDS church leader Erastus Snow; someone else proposed the biblical name Ur; still, another wanted it called Hansen, after Tropic's first bishop, Andrew James Hansen, but Hansen himself objected to that idea and suggested the name of Tropic because the area's climate, while not tropical, was at least warmer than that of Panguitch. Even Panguitch was not as cold as the high meadow country along the East Fork of the Sevier River between the two towns. Through the years Bishop Hansen would often be quoted as saying, "The coldest night I ever spent was sleeping between my two wives on the East Fork"; one was in Tropic, the other in Panguitch.
The actual founding of the town of Tropic came about as a direct result of two water projects. First, John Hatch sold the water rights to Spring Creek and some springs west of the future town in 1889. This was followed by the construction of a canal about ten miles long that would take water from the East Fork of the Sevier River over the east rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau and drop it 1,500 feet down to the upper Paria Valley.
Several earlier attempts to divert this water from the Great Basin drainage area to the Colorado River drainage system had failed. William Lewman (Luman) and others revived interest in such a project in 1889. They formed the East Fork Irrigation Company of Cannonville, with Andrew J. Hansen as president, Abe Workman as vice-president, William Jasper Henderson as secretary, and K.A. Fletcher and William Lewman as directors. The company incorporated on 5 May 1889. It used revenue received from stock purchases to buy simple survey equipment and tools with which to dig the canal. Lewman, Henderson, Henry Mecham, Emery Mecham, and Ole Ahlstrom completed the survey of the canal by early July 1889. The actual digging began in September of that year.
Anticipating the benefits of a reliable source of irrigation water, James Ahlstrom and Ole Ahlstrom built homes in the area in 1890 and 1891, respectively. They were followed by Charles W Snyder and G J. Simonds, but the actual organization of the community had begun when William Lewman, Andrew Hansen, and James Ahlstrom surveyed the townsite in the spring of 1889, shortly after the Cannonville meeting. It included sixteen blocks of four lots per block, each lot measuring about one and a quarter acres. The lots sold for $7.50, and this low price attracted additional settlers. William, John E, and Dan Pollock; John Ahlstrom; Joseph and James Robert Ott; Will Chatwin; George Shakespear; William and John Spendlove; Levison Hancock; Henry and William B. Mecham; John F. Manwill; Orin Mangum; Seth Alvin; Sena Schow Johnson; and Andrew Perkins all came to make their homes in Tropic.
Ole Ahlstrom listed thirty-nine men who worked on the canal. The builders, most of whom were or became residents of the new town, completed the canal by the spring of 1892, a remarkable accomplishment considering the tools they had to work with. Hansen recalled finding a group of people camped on the East Fork about the time the workers were ready to send water down the canal. He explained to them that water would be coming down near their campsite and suggested they move to higher ground. They didn't believe him, and he reported that he enjoyed hearing them shout expletives in the night when their camp flooded.
In modern-day vernacular, Garfield residents often refer to Tropic as being located "under the dump," meaning it is below "where the East Fork water was 'dumped' into the channel of Water Canyon, falling about 1,000 feet in less than two miles." Others maintain that stockmen called the area the dump as they drove their livestock over the rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau to take them to their winter range. As the water began to flow into the valley on 23 May 1892, residents of Tropic and other already established communities that would benefit from this new life-giving water celebrated at the home of Caroline Hansen, A.J.'s second wife, with a feast of barbecued beef, veal, and mutton. One participant in the gala event recalled: "A country, they said, had been born, and so they sang out praises and prophesied great things about our future We danced all night till broad daylight and went home with the girls in the morning."
The next year, 1893, the two water systems, Spring Creek and East Fork, came under the administration of the newly organized Tropic and East Fork Irrigation Company. Residents used the Spring Creek water for culinary purposes and for irrigating town lots from ditches dug along the streets. The water that came over the dump from the East Fork of the Sevier River irrigated the fields. For several years Seth Alvin Johnson served as water master for the company; he also served for a term as president.
As had been the case with other communities in the Paria Valley, newcomers brought cattle and sheep herds with them as they established their new homes. Tropic was well situated between summer and winter ranges. These suitable conditions attracted Hyrum and Joseph Hilton and the Hintons from the Dixie area and brothers William and Henry Jolley from Long Valley. The depression of 1893 hurt the stockmen, but their animals could be traded for other commodities and thus they survived the hard times.
Despite the depression, 1893 saw the beginnings of a new enterprise in Tropic. A man from Iowa brought a load of fruit trees to the settlement and traded them for horses. These trees became the nucleus for fine orchards established within the community, especially the apple and plum orchards. Also, the Jolley brothers brought in several wagon loads of trees from Long Valley, and most of the townspeople planted some of them on their land. Residents also grew grains, alfalfa, and corn. Tropic did not always live up to its name, however. Some years killing frosts in the last part of May or the first part of June would ruin the gardens and fruit crops that year. Animals were also vulnerable. During the early spring of 1900, for example, when John Johnson and Maurice Cope were herding sheep for Ole Ahlstrom, it turned very cold and began to snow. By the next morning, the snow was three feet deep and 300 sheep lay dead. In early May, men from Tropic arrived with teams and, by dragging trees behind them to make a path, got the remaining sheep out of the snow.
A number of Tropic citizens including Thomas McClellan, George William, and Joe Shakespear had homestead s in nearby mountains. Whole families would spend the summer months tending their dairy herds, milking the cows, and making cheese and butter to sell or trade.
The James Robert and Janet M. Johnson Ott family purchased the Yellow Creek Ranch, located about two miles from Georgetown, the village where Janet's parents resided. Their son, James A. Ott, fondly recalled spending most of his summers on the mountain with the family. He experienced adventures common to other children of that era and circumstance—enduring scary pranks of an older brother, getting bit by a rattlesnake, climbing boulder-strewn hills, searching for arrowheads, helping to milk cows and irrigate the fields, hunting small animals with a "flipper," or slingshot, and enjoying the bountiful yield from summer gardens—especially the watermelons and muskmelons, about which he wrote:
We went often during the day and stuffed ourselves to the fill….It was astonishing the
amount of these things we could "put out of sight." Our clothes became so stiff with
watermelon juice and dirt that about all we needed to do was to stand them in the
middle of the floor at night and then run and jump into them in the morning.
During these summers away from Tropic, the Ott children relied on one another for playmates; occasionally cousins visited. The isolation of Yellow Creek allowed their imaginations to flourish. Ott described other playtime activities:
In the shade of the old cottonwood trees in front of the house, we used spools to make
wagon tracks over roadways and dug roads we constructed. We sometimes used onion
tops put together and buried in the ground as pipelines through which we ran water.
We built corral and pasture fences out of little sticks and had shiny hard rocks for the
cows and horses. Sometimes we built little rock houses and log cabins.
Neither isolation nor hard economic times dampened the settlers' enthusiasm for recreation. Afternoon dance s for the youth and evening dances for the adults furnished plenty of social interaction in the town of Tropic. John Pollock and David B. Ott played their fiddles. A later dance "orchestra" included Jack Pollock on the violin, William Pollock on the accordion, Lizzie Pollock Reynolds on the drums, and Lizzie Mecham Barton and Hortense Cope Munson on the organ or piano. They even played some popular LDS hymns to which the participants danced. Horse races, wrestling, and boxing matches, footraces, rabbit drives, and, when the snow was deep, sleigh rides, all provided a needed diversion. Groups of young people would sing together on street corners. Newlyweds were given "bundle showers," social occasions when friends and family would gather together things they could spare and present the "bundles" to the newly married couples to help them set up housekeeping. Theatrical productions came under the direction of Alvin Seth Johnson and Charley Pinney. Most of these early events, along with church meetings and school, took place in the Johnson home. Nineteen children received an elementary school education beginning in 1892 from Phoebe Cox. Murray E. King and Sabina Chidester succeeded her as local teachers. The county organized the Tropic School District on 8 June 1893; John A. Spendlove, Levison Hancock, and William W. Pollock became its trustees.
At first, members of the LDS church in Tropic constituted a branch of the Cannonville Ward. By 1895, thirty-five families lived in the area, so on 23 May, when the town celebrated its birthday, Panguitch LDS Stake officers joined in the festivities and organized the Tropic Ward. Unlike present-day practice, the townspeople cast votes for their first bishop. They chose Andrew Hansen for the position, with William J. Jolley and Hyrum Hilton as his counselors. The members also laid the cornerstone for their first meetinghouse that day.
This event stimulated the purchase of a sawmill near Flake Meadows by the Ahlstrom’s, George Bybee, and Andrew Hansen. Their first order for lumber was for the proposed meetinghouse. When the men went out to cut logs for the mill, Louisa Bybee went along to cook for them. Under C.W Snyder's direction, nearly everyone in town helped in one way or another to construct the building, which was made up mainly of two-by-six planks. When completed, as with other settlements in the county, the finished structure served multiple functions for the community.
With all the tourists flocking to Bryce Canyon today it is hard to believe that for a long time Tropic remained a fairly isolated community. An early road, built in 1893 into the valley, extended from King Springs and down through Little Henderson Canyon. One of the county commissioners, however, Allen Miller from Panguitch, refused to grant needed maintenance money for this steep road. According to a lifelong resident of Tropic, Wallace Ott, the commissioner looked grudgingly on those who left Panguitch to settle in Tropic because of the "climate." As far as he was concerned, the people there would just have to climb through the canyon. Among those who had moved from Panguitch to Tropic in order to raise gardens and fruit trees were the William, Joseph, Richard, and George Shakespear families, the William Marshall family, and Heber and Frank Riding.
Finally, in 1898, the state granted road funds, and Mahonri M. Steele, Jr., received the contract to lay out a road from the top of the dump down Tropic Canyon. Tropic resident John Ahlstrom, then serving as commissioner, secured additional funds to improve the existing road.
As Tropic grew and attracted more families, a rivalry of sorts developed between it and what remained of the east valley settlement of Clifton, where the mail for Tropic was sent. On 5 June 1893 Tropic's citizens asked the probate court in Panguitch to designate their community as a polling precinct. In spite of a protest by Clifton residents, after hearing testimony on both sides the court granted Tropic's petition. It appointed the following officers: Joseph Hilton, justice of the peace; John F. Pollock, constable; John A. Steele, road supervisor; and John A. Spendlove, Levison Hancock, and William W Pollock as trustees for the new school district. Ira C. Schow became the first postmaster for Tropic.
According to the 1900 census, the population of Tropic had grown to 379. The residents felt they needed to devise further means of protecting their rights; they, therefore, decided to incorporate their town. They presented their petition of incorporation with ninety-six signatures to the court on 24 June 1902. After the request was granted, the following individuals acted as the town board: Andrew Hansen, president; William J. Jolley, Jr., Ole Ahlstrom, John Ahlstrom, and Hyrum H. Hilton as trustees; Joseph A. Tippets as town marshal and pound keeper, and Thomas R. Cope as justice of the peace.
Early business conducted by the board included the adoption of policies and regulations and the improvement of the town's infrastructure. By 1904 town officials even adopted a curfew policy that by today's standards seems rather strict: between 15 October and 15 March anyone under the age of sixteen had to be off the streets by 8:00 P.M. unless accompanied by an adult. During the warmer months, the curfew hour was relaxed to 9:00 P.M. In October 1910 the town board addressed the problem of unsafe water conditions—they passed an ordinance prohibiting the watering of any horse or mule in town ditches if the animal suffered from distemper, glanders, or other diseases that could taint the culinary water. The board also began to plan toward installing a new water system, which they accomplished a few years later.
In 1893 Tropic had its own militia company, organized as part of the National Guard of the Territory of Utah. Company L, First Infantry, had a roster of seventy-five men, with John M. Dunning serving as captain, Andrew Hansen as 1st lieutenant, and George W Johnson as 2nd lieutenant. This organization lasted only three years, however, being discontinued in 1896.
Residents of Tropic experienced a particularly devastating diphtheria epidemic during the winter of 1902—03. Before the disease ran its course, it had claimed the lives of fourteen children. Then, in early winter 1905, a scarlet fever epidemic broke out, taking the lives of other Tropic children. How many actually succumbed to the disease is unknown, but James Alvin Ott recorded that four children in his family, including himself, contracted scarlet fever, and two of his older sisters died as a result.
Twenty years after its founding, the population of Tropic had stabilized and the community progressed along with its neighbors in the upper Paria Valley, remaining the largest of the three towns. Along with the businesses already mentioned, Ole Ahlstrom and Jedediah Adair operated early stores. Tropic also had a general merchandise store established by Seth Johnson. Later, another store was owned by Seth's son George and C.D. White. Two Johnson half-sisters, Janet Matilda Johnson Ott, and Lydia Ann Johnson Jolley were among the clerks at these establishments. Such enterprises strengthened familial ties that remained important as the village grew. Although life could be precarious for its settlers, Tropic offered a close-knit community and peaceful atmosphere in the midst of scenic beauty.