In the late 1800s, prospectors walked throughout Utah with their noses to the ground, searching for valuable minerals. Utah’s hills and mountains were rich with copper, gold, silver, lead, iron, and zinc just waiting to be discovered.
In 1866, a prospector named John Kemple combed southern Utah in the hopes of finding something that he could mine. While prospecting near what is now Leeds, Utah, Kemple found flakes of silver embedded in sandstone. Such a combination of minerals was an extremely rare discovery; silver was almost never found in sandstone. To prove the veracity of his find, Kemple sent a sample to the Smithsonian Institution, but they called it an “interesting fake.” The silver remained in the ground for nearly a decade until later surveys of the land proved Kemple had told the truth.
In 1875, William T. Barbee, a mining agent for two Salt Lake City bankers, staked several mining claims to the region and established a town called Bonanza City. Many miners and business owners moved to Bonanza City, and property values increased. Several other miners and business owners looking for cheap land set up a tent city north of Bonanza and called it Rockpile. When mines in nearby Pioche closed in 1875, many workers moved to Rockpile. The residents then changed the town’s name to Silver Reef to make it more appealing.
By 1879, about 2,000 people lived in Silver Reef, and the town had a mile-long main street home to many businesses including a cosmopolitan restaurant and a Wells Fargo building. That same year, a fire destroyed many businesses in Silver Reef, including the restaurant and a hotel. Silver Reef’s residents were resilient, and they quickly bounced back and rebuilt. However, as the worldwide value of silver declined during the 1880s, the value of endeavors in Silver Reef declined as well. Most of Silver Reef’s mines closed by 1884, and local businesses followed suit. By 1901, most business owners had either dismantled or relocated their enterprises. After the gradual decline of Silver Reef, the mining operations there traded hands between many large corporations. Eventually, after multiple failed attempts to revive silver mining there, Silver Reef was incorporated into the nearby town of Leeds.
Only a few buildings remain at the old Silver Reef site today. The old Wells Fargo building has been converted into a Silver Reef mining town museum. The cosmopolitan restaurant, dismantled in 1894, was rebuilt in 1987 as a tourist attraction serving European cuisine until it closed in 2010. The Silver Reef Jail remains standing, as well as several building foundations. Latter-day Saints living nearby dismantled other structures in Silver Reef for building materials to construct new buildings.