Ghost Towns: Let Your Spirit Guide You
Cool historic buildings, a close look at the railroad tracks, railroad history, beautiful high desert scenery, wildlife
by Donna M. Brown
A gypsy soul.
WHAT: A neat ghost town that is still sparsely populated by holdouts who love the peace and serenity of the desert life; and, a wonderful old hotel that once served livestock men, dignitaries, miners and travelers from all corners of the country. You’ll get a good, close look at the railroad tracks and feel the spirits of days gone by with the passing of a train (if you’re really lucky). Enjoy the desert plants and wildlife.
WHERE: Modena is located in Southwest Utah so far out there that it is almost on the Nevada/Utah state line. From Cedar City head west on SR-56 and drive until you just can’t believe it any more. It’s only 55 miles and will take you about an hour on a good two-lane highway. From St. George, take SR-18 to Enterprise, UT (about 37 miles), turn right at the stop sign when you reach Enterprise and take SR-18 to Beryl Junction (about 10.7 miles). Turn left and go west to Modena (about 16 miles). If you get to Nevada, you’ve gone too far. From Panaca, Nev. take Nevada Highway 319 to the Utah border where the road will turn into Utah’s SR-56. Modena is about 29 miles east of Panaca and there ain’t nothin’, but nothin’ in the way of services once you reach this destination.
WHO: Take the whole family! Heck, take the kids, the pets and most importantly, take your grandparents because they just might remember Modena’s heyday!
WHAT YOU CAN LEARN: Let your spirit guide you on this one. Meander through the seemingly deserted streets and listen to what the buildings here have to tell you. Imagine a busy railroad town where livestock men gathered their animals in pens to ship to consumers on the railroad. Close your eyes. Can you feel the pounding of horse’s hooves? The music from inside the old hotel? The whistle of a train? Remember the spirits of miners who gathered in Modena to catch a ride on the railroad or maybe just wet their whistles with a cold drink from the local saloon. Here, you can learn to be in touch with the spirit of history. Hopefully, it will inspire you to read all about the glory days in what might seem like an unlikely place to you.
REMEMBER: There are no services in or around Modena. The closest gas station is about 16 miles away. Take plenty of food, water and sunscreen. Fill up your gas tank before you leave the last gas station. Make sure you have a spare tire and a leash for your pet. Modena is right on an active railroad track so make sure you know exactly where your children are at all times. Although many of the buildings are old and abandoned, people do still live in Modena. Please be respectful of all residents — the dead and the living.
What’s in a Name?
I don’t know where Modena got it’s name; but, I do know I have been enamored by this funky little railroad town since I was a child. My father loved it so and I inherited his appreciation for all things historic. People joke that those who live in Modena are either hidin’ from the law or hidin’ from the IRS. While I am not one to say who is who, I will tell you the people who choose to live in the desert love it fiercely and take great pride in their individuality and freedom.
Many times I have heard variations of the story of how Modena got it’s name. I’m pretty sure not one of them is true. Yet, the legend goes something like this: An old Chinese cook (and what a dang good cook he was) was in charge of feeding the railroad laborers in town. He would stand at a crossroads between the railroad tracks and the main street in town and ring a dinner bell calling, “Mo’dinna, mo’dinna.”
Don’t buy that one? Some people say it was named by an Italian laborer after Modena, Italy. However it got it’s name, it started out as Deseret Springs (perhaps because it was originally a place where the old steam engines could stop and quench their thirst?)
Workin’ on the Railroad
The railroad came to Modena in about 1899. Brigham J. Lund and his partners E.M. Brown and Jose Price are said to have started the first business there; and, why wouldn’t they? The town was a major stop on the railway and thus a hub of activity for people cashing in on the opportunity to ship their products to parts previously unknown.
Brigham J. (B.J.) Lund apparently bought his partners out and became a primary business owner there. One hotel blatantly labeled the “B.J. Jund & Co. General Merchandise & Hotel” is a landmark to many. Because the upper floor has collapsed in many places, please don’t enter the hotel. Heed the no trespassing signs. There is no way of knowing how much longer this old friend will remain standing and the liability of an injury could bring it tumbling down (not by Mother Nature, but by the modern-day human nature to avoid a lawsuit.)
Modena once served as a U.S. Weather Bureau office established in Modena in about 1903. The town’s population began to dwindle when steam engines were replaced by diesel engines and trains no longer required a stop for water in Modena. The town did continue to serve miners camped in the surrounding hills until the activity there even dried up and blew away.
Be sure to stop by and see the old Modena Elementary School while you are in town. The building is a work of art and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Iron County.
A Centennial Celebration
In 1996 Utah celebrated its centennial anniversary of statehood. I served as the chairman of the Iron County Centennial Committee. Knowing Modena’s rich history, we planned a celebration there and at first people laughed and swore no one would come. On the contrary, at least 1,000 people showed up to a good old-fashioned country party with mountain men, Dutch oven dinners, cowboy poetry and treasured memories. People came from hundreds of miles away to remember.
So, when you walk the streets of this town and commune with the spirits of neighbors there, remember you are walking where loving memories wrap their arms around those old decaying wooden buildings.
When you visit any ghost town, let the spirits guide you (including your own).