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Cottonwood Heights History

Big Cottonwood Canyon was the main source of logs and lumber for the homes of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley, and this area became an overnight stopping point for the lumber wagons. The area also became an overnight stop for the wagons bringing granite out of Little Cottonwood Canyon for the building of the Salt Lake Temple and many other buildings. Soon there was a store, post office, brewery and tavern along Big Cottonwood Creek near the place where the Old Mill stands today.

Old MillAmong the earliest settlers of the area were six colorful brothers, the “Butler Brothers” who were lumbermen – complete with wagons, teams and sawmills. There were also four McGhie brothers and their families. Legend has it that they called a town meeting to organize their community and there was one more Butler than McGhie at the meeting, therefore the community was named “Butler” rather than “McGhie”. Natives differ on this name; some say it was named “Butlerville” and other say the “ville” was just a nickname. Officially the area is called “Cottonwood Heights” by Salt Lake County, but it is still called Butler or Butlerville by some.

Lumber wasn’t the only natural resource taken out of “them thar hills”. Millions of dollars worth of gold, lead and silver have been mined. Underground water, the high cost of production and diminishing veins all contributed to the closure of the mines. The communities in the canyons are flourishing today as recreation areas. The “Greatest Snow on Earth” and some of the best winter sports facilities are there. Picnic and camp areas abound.

The Butler region has been a fine area for fruit growing as well as dairy feed. There was also some poultry and (later) mink farming. These have almost entirely given way to homes and families. Cottonwood Heights is an extraordinary place to live, work and raise a family.

One of the highlights of this area’s history was the Deseret Paper Mill – the “Old Mill” situated along Big Cottonwood Creek about a mile below the mouth of the canyon. It was built in 1861 to make paper for the Deseret News. The paper was made with wood pulp taken from the canyons and rags gathered by families in the valley.

It was an immense pioneer undertaking. The finest paper making machinery was hauled across the country by team and wagon, and the mill was the pride of the community as well as the territory. It operated for many years, furnishing employment for the people of Butlerville and paper for the territory. But on the morning of April Fool’s day 1893, the cry echoed through the community that the mill was on fire. Most people said to themselves “April Fool” and turned over in their beds and went back to sleep. But it was no joke. The mill burned down and was never rebuilt as a paper mill. In the meantime the railroad had come through and it was cheaper to bring paper in by train, than to manufacture it.

One day Philander, the oldest of the Butler Brothers, was driving a wagon load of lumber down the canyon, and also coaching his younger brother, Eri, who was driving a second load. When they approached the “s-curve” Philander shouted back to Eri, “Now Eri, watch this closely and do everything just like I do. I was coming down this curve yesterday and dumped the whole load over into the can. . . Oh no! Here I go againnnnnn.”

Another legend is of the Ferguson Mine. An early pioneer and ancestor to many of the present Ferguson ancestors, did some prospecting in the canyons east of Butler and came out one day with some very rich gold ore. He said there was a whole ledge of the stuff. He went first to Brigham Young and reported his discovery. President Young asked him to go back and cover up the gold and forget it for the time being – because a gold rush would end the isolation the Mormons came here for, and they certainly needed corn more than gold. So Brother Ferguson complied. Years later, after Brigham Young had died and Salt Lake was becoming the “Cross Roads of the West”, Brother Ferguson took his family and started up the mountain to show them were the gold vein was. Before he could reach the spot he had a heart attack and died. The Ferguson Mine has never been found.

One area of Cottonwood Heights is located on a large sandbar left over from the ancient Lake Bonneville that filled the Salt Lake Valley centuries ago. It is located between the two most majestic features along the Wasatch Front – Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. This sandbar rises hundreds of feet above the valley floor. On the North it tapers gently to the valley floor allowing a gradual, nearly nondescript access from the lower to the higher ground.

Because it was high and very dry, the earliest settlements in the area were located along the Little Cottonwood Creek, which lay will below the South and West bluff sides. It was along this creek that the old Union Fort was built (the first settlement in the area – behind the Wal Mart Store) to accommodate the first day’s travel for wagons carrying block from the quarry in Little Cottonwood Canyon to build the Salt Lake Temple.

Cottonwood CreekSince water is always critical to the development of an area, the top flatland of the sandbar was too dry and desolate to attract settlers. And while the Little Cottonwood creek was the closest, it was also the least available because of the high bluff. It was apparently this problem that earned this particular portion of Cottonwood Heights its first name – “Poverty Flats.” Water was then brought from the Big Cottonwood creek down from the mouth of the canyon to enable farms and orchards to be established where we now live. Early settlers established small farms producing hay, wheat and a variety of vegetable crops. Yet, the area was most widely known for its fruit production: even to the marketing of the fruit out-of-state.

While the name “Poverty Flats” continues, the undaunted families who settled here went on to produce an inordinate number of college graduates in law, business, medicine, engineering and education. The name was changed from Poverty Flats to Butlerville and then changed when the area became a part of a larger community now known as Cottonwood Heights.

Our neighborhood is in a highly unique location. We have ready access to medical facilities, fire, police and a vast variety of business establishments. We can readily access the freeway system, the major ski resorts and we are only about 15 to 20 minutes away from major events and destinations anywhere in the valley. While at the same time most of us enjoy beautiful views of the mountains to the East and/or overlooking the valley to the North, West and South. As one resident continually insists: “We have a wonderful location here!”

High among elements of our historical heritage, coming down from the earliest settlers, is a strong, binding comradarie among neighbors – something that we wish to preserve.