Coalville doesn’t have a traffic light, but the city did recently get a Subway. The sub-sandwich franchise represents a big change for a small town that not long ago considered putting up hitching posts for horses.
While nearby Park City has grown by leaps and bounds, the Summit County seat is still a small town.
“There’s always been a rumor that Coalville’s had a curse on it, and that’s why it doesn’t grow,” said NaVee Vernon, Summit County’s history director.
The rumor is tied to the 1867 shooting of Isaac “Ike” Potter. Potter was believed by many to be a thief allied with the Utes during the Black Hawk War. Potter family histories say he was a good man who simply helped American Indians, and that wasn’t popular at the time.
In the Coalville area, where his father lived, Potter was first accused of being hired to haul grain to Fort Bridger, but keeping it to sell. Later, he was accused of stealing livestock.
“They (Potter’s group) had killed somebody’s oxen or cow, and that’s what they got them for,” said Vernon. He and some companions were locked up in the town’s schoolhouse. “Supposedly ... they escaped, but when they escaped, they were shot and Ike Potter was killed.”
Several locals were brought to trial, accused of giving Potter the opportunity to escape for an excuse to kill him. The state’s Mormon population generally sided with the locals in the drawn-out legal process, saying they were defending themselves against a dangerous man, but some of the non-Mormons cried murder.
“Nothing came of it,” Vernon said of the trial, but one man was angry over what he saw as a lack of justice. “He threw a curse on the leaders of Coalville.”
Since then, the biggest Coalville has been was in 1910, when the U.S. census put the population at 1,445. One hundred years later, the population was 1,363.
Coalville may be small, but Vernon says it’s not a curse — it’s a blessing.
“It’s a great little secret,” said Jerre Holmes, superintendent of North Summit School District. “It’s 40 minutes from Salt Lake, 40 minutes from Ogden, and 50 minutes from Provo, and yet we get to live in the country with great people.”
Chalk and coal
Coalville was settled in 1859, after freighter William Henderson Smith noticed that wheat spilled from wagons had grown there.
“It was first called Chalk Creek,” after the small river running through town, said Vernon. “It think it’s because of the white clay that comes down the creek, and also the white rocks.”
Needing fuel for the growing pioneer population, the territorial legislature offered a reward of $1,000 for the discovery of a good coal vein within 40 miles of Salt Lake City. The first mine in Chalk Creek opened in 1859, but Vernon says legislators measured the distance at just outside of 40 miles to avoid paying.
More mines were opened, and the town name was changed to Coalville. Railroad spurs hauled coal from the mines, and the area was growing when Union Pacific started applying the brakes.
“From what I have read and understood, they got their own mines up in Wyoming,” said Vernon. “They raised the prices here ... to freight it out.”
Over time, more than 20 mines were opened in the area, including one in the middle of town.
“They all worked in the coal,” said Kay Crittenden, who lives three miles south of Coalville. “In the summertime they farmed a little, but everybody worked in the coal in the winter.”
Crittenden worked in the Weber Mine. “You had to dig that out and load it in a car and push the car out,” he said.
He left to fight in World War II, and didn’t go back to mining when he returned.
“You had to be careful what you did,” he said. “Two people got killed with gas — that blackdamp, they call it. That’s a gas that’ll kill you dead.”
The death of the mines was also related to gas, according to Crittenden.
“Natural gas came to Coalville, and the mines were gone,” he said. “Gas is a lot easier to burn than coal, and you don’t have to haul out the ashes or shovel the coal.”
Vernon says she’s read that the coal burned cleanly, but was soft, making it less desirable for some purposes.
Now there’s no real sign of the mines, she said. Locals tried to open one a few years ago, but couldn’t make a go of it.
“I guess the production and everything just costs too much,” she said.
The Summit County seat was originally in Wanship, but moved to Coalville in 1871.
“The Wanship people joined with Coalville, and they voted to come here, over Park City,” Vernon said.
Park City residents tried to get the county government moved to their town in 1895, and again in 1902. Over the years, there has been more talk of moving the county seat to Park City, said Vernon. The justice court was moved there, but most of the other offices are still in Coalville.
Vernon doesn’t think the county seat is likely to move, but she won’t say it’s impossible.
“I don’t know what it would do to Coalville if it was taken out,” she said.
The people of Coalville won the fight for the county seat, but lost the fight to keep their tabernacle.
The Coalville tabernacle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was started in 1879. The elaborate building took 20 years to complete, with multiple spires, stained glass windows from Belgium, opera seats and decorative painting on the walls. It was demolished in 1971.
“The church had outgrown itself,” said Vernon, explaining that the balconies had been removed and a second story installed. “The women had to cook in the basement of the church, and then you had to go up one flight of stairs and then another flight of stairs to get to the main floor upstairs to have their banquets.”
Some people supported the plan to replace the tabernacle with a modern building, but others petitioned against it. The fight drew statewide attention.
“There was a lot of anger. It got so bitter,” said Vernon. “The old church was built by the people, by our ancestors … where the new building wasn’t, and that’s where I think they kind of forgot what it was and how hard it was to get it here.”
The stained glass windows, and some of the paintings on the walls, were installed in the new building, and Vernon takes consolation in believing other historical buildings were saved because of lessons learned in Coalville.
Several old buildings are still standing in Coalville.
The county courthouse, built of stone quarried from the ledge that dominates the city’s landscape, was restored to show off the original tin panels on the high ceilings. Pioneer homes, also built of stone from the ledge, are still around. The old co-op is now apartments, and the meat locker building was transformed into a dental office.
The historic drugstore, in which Vernon says Utah’s first licensed pharmacist worked, is a sandwich and ice cream shop where customers can sit on stools at the old soda fountain.
The county saved Coalville’s closed-down hospital, turning it into a library with emergency room and operating room lights still in place.
“My grandfather helped with getting it built,” branch manager Yvonne Judd said of the hospital. “It’s kind of special to me to be able to be in here.”
A building that hasn’t changed much in 104 years is the Summit Furniture & Mercantile. There hasn’t been any furniture sold in the store for more than 50 years, but the mercantile still has everything from groceries and clothing to hardware.
“The meat counter is probably the biggest draw,”
said co-owner Jim Blonquist. “People make regular trips from Salt Lake, Ogden and Evanston to stop here and buy burger and other meat.”
The store, which locals refer to as “The Summit” or “The Merc,” is more than a place to shop.
“There are townspeople who come in here multiple times a day,” said Blonquist.
Co-owner Chet “Spug” Blonquist says the store is so much a part of town that people call to ask the score of the high school game or where a firetruck went.
In an agricultural community, people may get paid just once or twice a year, so generations of the Blonquist family have extended credit to customers.
“There were times, 20 to 25 years ago, that it used to scare the hell out of me,” Jim said of the balances due.
Credit cards have changed things, but some longtime customers still have active accounts.
Coalville residents don’t claim their city is perfect. It’s not crime-free, and Chalk Creek can flood, but most of the time the town is very peaceful — sometimes too peaceful.
“If we go to the mail, we’ve been to town,” said Linda Grant. “That’s our big day.”
Businesses in town tend to close early, Vernon said, shutting doors between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
The old Loma Theatre is gone, so taking in a movie means driving to another city.
Going to work also involves a long commute for many folks.
“It’s a bedroom (community) — people live here and travel to Salt Lake, Ogden and Park City and Kamas,” said Crittenden.
In Coalville, many people work for the county or teach in the schools. There’s still the farming and ranching, and there are construction companies. The area is also known for mink ranching.
“For 12 years it went down, but the last three have been really big,” said Vernon, noting that many mink buyers are from countries such as China and Russia.
Small businesses, including food stores and restaurants, a pottery business, a taxidermist, a quilt shop, a Mexican market, florist, gas station, motel and even a karate school, line Main Street.
Jim Blonquist says he’s made a comfortable living in Coalville. “If you want to make a lot of money, and that’s what’s going to make you happy, you best not live in Coalville — that’s not what it’s about.”
What it is about, say locals, is living a peaceful life in a beautiful setting, with good neighbors.
Many of the families in Coalville trace their roots back to the town’s early days.
“They’re proud of that, and keep those traditions going,” said Andrea Hewson, a member of the city council.
Karrin Cornia moved to Coalville about seven years ago, and figures she’ll be considered new in town for about another decade.
“I moved here 11 years ago in September, and I’m referred to as a ‘move-in,’ ” Hal Hardin said, with good humor.
A retired general who moved more than 30 times, Hardin says he and his wife haven’t regretted coming to Coalville from Alabama.
“The people, I’ve found, are very open, and if you’re willing to talk and make friends, they’re very, very friendly,” he said, adding they’re willing to leave you alone if that’s what you want. “They seem to be color blind, in the sense that I’ve run into no matters of discrimination, and they’re just good people.”
Patsy Clark, a move-in years ago, says she became a true Coalville resident. She knew she was “in” when her son was injured in a rodeo.
“The next day, my husband and I were downtown, and everyone stopped us on the street to see how he was,” she said. “That’s when I felt like we belonged — everyone just cared so much.”
Hewson says Coalville is growing, but the rate of growth is, at least partially, intentionally slow. The people love their town small.
Looking at Coalville through the window of his office, Dr. Wain Allen spoke of the beauty of the area and the nice people.
Then realizing his words might encourage too much growth and change, he said with a laugh, “Just scratch all those nice things I said. It’s not that great.”