Is the Old Mill haunted?
Sep 30, 2019 11:15AM
● By Cassie Goff
The Old Mill on Big Cottonwood Canyon Road is speculated to be one of the most haunted places within Cottonwood Heights. (Cassie Goff/City Journals)
By Cassie Goff | [email protected]
While driving along Big Cottonwood Canyon Road at night, the frequent curves of the road and the sparse street lighting provides a feeling of unease. Almost directly at the halfway point of the road, the faded rooftop and bricks of the Old Mill come into sight. Its age gives it character, even though it looks like any part of the building could fall off or apart at any moment. Drawing near, the light from the night sky falls in eerie directions. It’s the only thing in view, aside from the trees and other plants along a nearby trail. The only thing that can be heard is the hum from car engines and the slight sound of water running from the nearby creek. Hopefully. It has been rumored that silhouettes of ghostly humans can come into view through the glass-less windows, and that the faint sound of a dog’s bark may be detected.
Whispers of the Old Mill being haunted have been heard for years. 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.
The Old Mill’s history does suggest a sort of strangeness. It was originally built as the Desert News Paper Mill by the Deseret News Company. Construction of the mill began in 1881, designed by engineer-architect Henry Grow, and completed in 1884. The mill was a 110-acre site, with the main building measuring 85 by 160 feet, with an additional 65-foot wide addition. It was three stories high, with a basement. During construction, some of the granite used to construct the mill was left over from the construction of the Salt Lake Temple. The mill was originally powered by a waterwheel. Remnants of the concrete head gate can still be seen on the hill east above the mill, even though the tank was removed in the 1950s.
The Deseret News Paper Mill thrived for a few years. According to an advertisement published in 1887, it had “the best facilities in this line of any house in the territories” for newspapers, books and records. It had a machine room, engine room, rotary boiler room and an extension for a chemical and cutting room. Soon, however, the mill’s operations became too costly. After attempting to sell the mill for a two-year lease failed, it was sold in 1892 to trustees of the Granite Paper Mill Company.
In 1893, many members of the Butler family worked for the Granite Paper Mill Company. Leander “Neri” Butler was one of the most unfortunate Butlers. In 1893, his face and hands were badly burned by the flash of a shorted circuit in the mill. Afterward, he had an accident in the canyon that resulted in a crushed shin bone. Then in 1918, he lost his life in an electrical accident.
This is where it gets weird. During the last week of March, the mill reported that it had the most successful run in its bumpy history. The manager at the time, George Lambert, allowed the 30 employees to have a long weekend, perhaps as a reward for a job well done. During the extended weekend, there was about four times the amount paper inventory stacked, due to bad roads preventing transport of paper into the city. The mill was full of paper, and empty of its usual occupants.
On April 1, 1893, at 3 a.m., the mill’s night watchman, Mr. Ayers, who was sleeping in the attic, was awakened by the sound of crackling flames. A fire had started in the rag room on the second floor. Ayers quickly called Lambert and a few other workers, who tried to put out the fire with the available water. They were unsuccessful in stopping the fire, but they were able to salvage three and a half tons of paper stock. It was reported that employee Nathan Staker was injured trying to save the paper.
Unfortunately, they were the only ones to respond in a timely manner to the fire. Since it was April Fools’ Day, many thought the alarms were a prank, so help did not arrive until the fire was no longer manageable.
The fire was devastating — destroying the building’s interior, including most of the equipment and the stockpile of paper. The amount paid by insurance would not cover the complete damage, so operations were suspended. The cause of the fire remains unknown, though it is speculated that it was ignited by soot sparks on the wood shingle roof.
From then until 1927, the mill passed through a variety of different owners. “Commenting on the mill’s ill-fated history, Wendell Ashton (publisher of the Deseret News) concluded that the mill ‘was born in travail, and it lived through trial,” wrote Allen D. Roberts.
In July 1935, there were reports of another small fire. However, there are no known reports of any injury or death.
Partial reconstruction and renovation was paid for by the Old Mill Tavern company, and soon the Granite Paper Mill was converted into a dance hall called the Old Mill Club.
On Sept. 30, 1969, Steve Poulson, an entertainment writer for the Chronicle, reported that the Old Mill reopened six months ago with the intent to be a dance and concert hall, featuring the best musical talent available. Not only did the Old Mill feature music, but visually accented full-scale light shows, the Old Mill’s Coffee Gallery (which served coffees, natural fruit drinks and soft drinks), a leather shop, gift shop, pool room and silent movies. The Old Mill was open Thursday through Sundays, with music beginning at 9 every night. However, Sunday nights were exclusively for listening audiences.
At the time, it was illegal to dance on Sundays in Utah. One night a group of police cars showed up with an empty bus and tried to raid the Old Mill. “There was a single incident in the parking lot, but no known arrests,” reported Ed Huntsman.
During those years, the marquee featured bands such as Wishful Thinking, Foremost Authority, Holden Caulfield, Spirit of Creation, Sunday, Crabby Appleton, Flaming Groovies, It’s a Beautiful Day, Sea Train, Animals, Zombies, Electric Prune, Black Pearl, Sons of Champlin and Alice Kooper.
After it was declared a historic site in 1966, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Old Mill remained a place of entertainment. It eventually became a popular disco dance hall on the weekends. And during the Halloween season, it intentionally became a haunted house, soon renamed the Haunted Old Mill. It also briefly was an arts center and crafts boutique.
Many residents still remember the Old Mill being a haunted house in the ’80s. “Around the year 1989, my dad took a bunch of friends and I to a haunted house there,” said Rusty Lugo on Facebook.
“When I was a kid, it was a haunted house. Scary as crap,” said Shauna Knight on Nextdoor.
In addition to music and events, the Old Mill has made many appearances in movies, including “SLC Punk,” “Team Alien,” “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers,” “Hereditary,” “Bleep” and “March of Dimes.”
Two other stories, not as well documented, involving unfortunate night watchmen add to the strange history and current eerie-ness of the site.
On the morning of June 27, 1933, the night watchman living on-site was awoken by the sound of breaking glass. He went to investigate on the north side of the building, and found a teenage boy attempting to get in through the broken window. He asked the teenager to stay put so he could call the police. As any teenager might, he started to run. In response, the watchman shot the teenager. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition, but lived, and sued a few months later.
A story with even less evidence occurred sometime in the 1970s. It has been said that a night watchman committed suicide in front of his wife.
In addition, many paranormal websites most commonly report the story of two nomads and their dog being killed by a fire at the site.
If you’re one to draw connections between the history of a site and the reported hauntings, there’s a few strong correlations. There are a handful of reports about seeing shadows or silhouettes of a hanged man. This could be the night watchman from the 1970s. Many rumors surround a woman, either waiting at the top of the stairs, playing, walking, or crying. This could be one of the nomads who was lost on this site. As with many haunted locations, there are a variety of reports of lights acting strangely. This is peculiar for the Old Mill since it lacks electricity. Maybe this is Neri Butler. And the most common reports of strange happenings might be traced back to the nomad’s dog. The sound of an invisible dog barking is frequently heard. Sometimes, real-life dogs with their owners have appeared to be playing with an invisible dog as well.
Or perhaps the rumors of Old Mill being haunted are merely spoken ghosts of a previous Haunted Old Mill from the 1980s. “I have always called it ‘the Haunted Old Mill’ and now my kids call it the same thing!” said Amy Bertrand on Facebook.
Either way, 67% of residents and visitors (polled through social media) believe the site to still be haunted.
Thank you to everyone who shared their stories, including Brian Mounts, Rusty Lugo, Laura Williams, Erin Alexander, Steve Gerber, Amy Bertrand, Jade Velazquez, Chris Evans, Kimberly Kraan, Angie Meredith, Shuana Knight and Erin Nelligan.