Fact or fiction? Exploring the rumored haunts of Old Mill
Oct 25, 2023, 5:23 PM | Updated: Oct 31, 2023, 5:55 pm
COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — It’s hard to miss. The looming multi-story stone structure with a tower slowly decaying into ruins at the base of Big Cottonwood Canyon has long been the source of legends and folklore.
The surrounding area has even been named “Old Mill” after the ominous building.
The Old Mill has seen a lot of changes throughout the years. The historic building has been a paper mill, a recreational center, a dance hall, and a haunted house.
None of those things kept the mill running and in business for very long, leaving the Old Mill abandoned to rot.
The wide variety of uses may be the reason the mill became surrounded by legend. Often the subject of ghost tales, the Old Mill is often listed as a haunted place in Utah.
The “Haunted Old Mill” is referenced in multiple newspapers as an attraction for seasonal hauntings from 1978 through the 1990s.
After that, it seems the building fell victim to local lore.
In an article published in the Cottonwood Heights City Journal, it states, “Many individuals — residents, neighbors, workers and visitors — have reported doors opening and closing on their own, lights being turned on and off long after the building was disconnected from electricity, cold spots, a woman’s voice, a barking dog and general eerie-ness.”
Another website claims three deaths occurred there in the 1940s, though there is no record of that — at least none in any newspaper archives.
Cottonwood Heights Police are aware of the haunted stories, as well as the visitors the stories bring.
“People come in there all the time and we cite people regularly,” Sgt. Gary Young with Cottonwood Heights Police Department said.
Young said he knows it’s a popular thing to do with teens, to explore places like this, but urged them to stay out.
“Word gets out and people say ‘go to Old Mill!’ and then they jump the fence and get arrested,” Young said.
Fact or fiction?
It’s possible that the many different uses of the mill began some of the tales that are told today.
Cory Jensen is a National Register Coordinator and Architectural Historian and since the old mill is on the National Register of Historic Places, he knew a bit of its history.
“I know there are a number of different people that used it as a paper mill and it went through several ownership or uses over a decade,” Jensen said.
Not long after it was built, a fire broke out.
“It was open in 1883 and then fire got it in 1893 and then it sounds like it sat until it was refinished in 1927,” Jensen said.
Local resident Nathan H. Staker was foreman of the mill when it caught fire on April Fool’s Day 1893, it is not clear if he was in the building at the time, but there is no record of a death occurring in that fire.
“I mean the fire happened initially overnight – I think everybody was out when that happened,” Jensen said.
Interestingly, some newspaper sources claim it took fire departments longer to respond because they initially believed the fire to be an April Fool’s Day joke!
Following the fire, the building sat vacant for many years.
“From the 1920s through the 1940s it was a nightclub and used for dancing and there was a restaurant I think that was inside. From what I can understand, they used the open area as a dance hall,” Jensen said.
At the time it was listed on the National Register in 1971, it was a discotheque. By the 80s, it had become “The Haunted Old Mill.”
“Haunted houses, that was starting to be a thing in the early 80s,” Jensen said.
But is there any proof of hauntings? Nothing has been recorded officially.
Articles mentioning the old mill mostly reflect what was happening there at the time, there’s a large spike of articles mentioning the haunted house held there from the 80s through the 90s, and from the 2000s on, articles begin to mention possible haunts in the now abandoned building.
“I haven’t seen anything in there,” Jensen said with a laugh. “I’ve never seen anything in any of the information we have that notes there anybody has died there or any other major tragedy happened while people were there.”
Even articles written in the last few years only mention mostly “stories” of what people had seen, but don’t quote any direct sources. Actual hauntings there may be the work of fiction.
The history, then and now
The mill was built in 1866 by Henry Grow with granite from nearby quarries with mortar of clay and stone grindings.
“It was constructed of granite I think it came from the temple grounds since that was the main supplier for that area,” Jensen said.
It took approximately three years to build.
“The whole reason they built it was just because like everything else that was happening in the territory at the time, they wanted independence on manufacturing the things here rather than relying on the outside to pay a lot of money to bring them in,” Jensen said.
The mill was bought in 1880 by the Deseret News Corporation.
“I would say that it’s almost what we call a Romanesque Revival architecture,” Jensen said. The tower was an elevator tower, the power for the mill came from water forced into three separate power wheels and then I’m assuming they were inside one of the main structures there. So the water, the creek did power it.”
The plaque that stands in front of the Old Mill states, “The 1860 paper machine from Sugarhouse Mill and some new machinery was installed; a 1500-ft. race brought water through the penstock to encased turbines. The plant could yield 5 tons of paper a day. Chas. J. Lambert, manager, sold to Granite Paper Mills Co. 1892; destroyed by fire 1893; restored 1927 as a recreational center.”
The Deseret News sold Cottonwood Paper Mill to Granite Mills Paper Company in 1892.
The building went through a pattern of being restored and then falling into disrepair.
For 34 years the mill lay in ruins until 1927 when J.B. Walker, a trucking contractor, renovated it into the “Old Mill Club.” It was an open-air dance hall until WWII.
Then as previously mentioned it functioned as a discotheque and then later a haunted house.
It has remained in the Walker family, but the structure was condemned in Cottonwood Heights in 2005 due to earthquake building codes.
While it is listed on the National Register, Jensen explained there are no real restrictions that come with that listing.
“There’s nothing in the listing that says you can not alter or demolish this building. Instead, rather than regulatory language, there’s incentives to encourage people to keep their buildings,” Jensen said. “The primary one is there’s a tax credit for rehabilitating the building or maintaining it.”
Perhaps the biggest reason the stories and rumors continue, the building continues to sit vacant.
“In 25 years I’ve probably seen about five different occasions and say ‘hey we’re interested in this building we want to do something with it,’ and we say, ‘Yeah, I mean it’s already listed in the register so that much is done you can get the tax credits if you can come up with a viable plan that meets certain historic standards, but then I think they start to look into it and say whoa there’s way too much work here.”
However, despite the vacancy and structural issues, interest in the Old Mill continues.
“I think people find these buildings you know these large ones you know these old stone buildings, they’re kind of romantic,” Jensen said. “That’s why I think this building garners such interest. I would be fine if they kept it as it is as kind of a ruin in place. But you know, in this society it’s hard because people worry about someone could go in there and get hurt.”
According to Young, people going in there is exactly the problem.
“It’s an all-around dangerous place,” Young said. “Go to a haunted house in Tooele. There’s plenty of fun things to do out there. There’s nothing of value here, it’s just an old mill.”
“Do I believe in hauntings? I’m always open to the idea…I haven’t seen anything ever,” Jensen said. “I’d be curious to see something though. Something like this, who knows?”
Throughout October, KSL TV will be exploring haunts and legends around Salt Lake County. We’ll share with you what we learn – what’s fact and what’s fiction. Other stories include: The Rio Grande Depot, Ted Bundy’s cabin/cellar, Sugar House Park and Allen Park.