23 October 2021

The Witch's House in City Creek Canyon... Is Really the Empire Mill

SLC urban legends tell of the “Witch’s Cabin” (or house or hut) located in City Creek Natural Area above Memory Grove Park (about where 11th Ave would cross City Creek).

Foundation of the Sudbury House (and later Bandstand),
part of the Empire Mill complex, Oct 2021.
The tales vary but usually include disembodied lights and voices. Sometimes it is a bad witch, sometimes a good witch, and sometimes the witch turns into a tree. Often the stories get muddled with other tales of Memory Grove.

The actual history is that this stone foundation is the remnants of the Empire Grist Mill complex, specifically the house of Samuel J. Sudbury, the miller employed by Brigham Young.

The Empire Mill was constructed in 1862 by mill architect Frederick Kesler for Brigham Young. Kesler also designed the Chase Mill which was similar in design. Samuel J. Sudbury operated the mill for 17 years for Brigham Young.

The mill’s primary business was to convert tithing wheat (10% of a Mormon farmer’s grain harvest) into flour which was then sold at the Tithing Store on South Temple and Main Street.

The mill was 3 stories tall with a stone foundation and wood frame superstructure. A massive 30 ft diameter waterwheel powered the machinery which produced 100 sacks of flour a day with its 2 pairs of French Burr grinding stones. The adjacent house was occupied by the Sudbury family and had a large garden and orchard.

On May 22, 1883, the mill burned to the ground destroying the mill and $8K of wheat and flour (~$217K today). The equipment that could be salvaged, including the millstones, were relocated to the Chase Mill, which is now in Liberty Park.

In 1902 Salt Lake City purchased the upper part of City Creek Canyon from the family of Brigham Young, which included the ruins of the Empire Mill and Sudbury House. In 1913, the SLC chain gang demolished the remaining walls of the mill complex.

In 1914 the SLC Parks Department built a new bandstand on the foundation of the old house as part of the grand opening of the new City Creek Boulevard (now North Canyon Road) and the construction of a footpath up the canyon (now the Freedom Trail).

The building of the bandstand explains the current configuration of the ruins: the concrete capped walls and stairs, the stone pillars along the walls, steel posts within the pillars, and entrances on all 4 sides of the foundation.

Throughout the 1920s the ruins of the old mill, by then mostly known as Sudbury’s Mill or Sudbury’s Flat, was a popular spot for picnics.

From what I could determine, by the 1970s memory of the old Empire Mill and house had been mostly forgotten and the urban legends of hauntings became more prevalent.

In fact, in a Facebook post on Utah’s Haunted History, Meretta England says that in 1976 she and her friends haunted Memory Grove as a prank and are responsible for the Ghost Bride stories.

If you are interested in the paranormal aspect of this area I found that The Ghost Box podcast Episode 2 “Memory Grove Never Forgets” was a good balance between the skeptic and the believer. 

The ruins of the old Empire Mill are located on land owned and administered by Salt Lake City and is within the City Creek National Historic District and the local City Creek Local Historic District. This means that the Salt Lake City government (and the SLC Historic Landmarks Commission) is responsible for the oversight, preservation, and interpretation of this site.

Deseret News 1883-05-23; Salt Lake Tribune 1891-07-19; Salt Lake Herald 1913-07-27; Deseret News 1914-04-29; Salt Lake Tribune 1920-04-30; Salt Lake Tribune 1921-06-12; Salt Lake Tribune 1925-05-10; UDSH Liberty Park site file; SLC Plat D; Utah’s Haunted History Memory Grove thread 2020-05-17.

Foundation of the Sudbury House (and later Bandstand),
part of the Empire Mill complex, Oct 2021.

Foundation of the Sudbury House (and later Bandstand),
part of the Empire Mill complex, Oct 2021.

Detail of foundation walls. Note the concrete cap and steel pipe post. 

Composite image of Empire Mill photograph and SLC Plat D Map, both from UDSH

Colorized photo of Empire Mill with labeled notes.
Composite image of Empire Mill plans, from UDSH.

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