Something seemed odd about the Navajo sandstone that formed a cliff at the bottom of the Pine Valley Mountains. John Kemple had done a lot of prospecting around Washington County, Utah Territory, between 1866 and 1874. He had applied years of prospecting experience to this beautiful area, but had found very little ore that would assay to a level that it could be mined.
John was born in West Virginia in 1835 to a poor family. Added to this destitute condition was a mother who, under the stress of trying to make ends meet, seemed to be in constant conflict with her restless son. They argued almost constantly until finally John, one day out of the blue, jumped on his horse and rode away. He never looked back and headed for the California gold fields, as many “49ers” did.
John Kemple spent a few years panning for gold in the rivers that flowed west from the Sierra Nevada range near Placerville and made enough from his work to encourage him in the trade.
In 1866 he traveled to Southern Utah arriving with little but the shirt on his back and a few dollars in his pockets. Luck was with him, as it usually was, and he stopped in the small Mormon settlement of Harrisburg about 15 miles from the newly formed settlement of St. George. With the money he had left over from the gold rush, he rented a room from the Orson Adams family. Since the cabin only had two rooms, John took up half the space.
During the next few weeks, Kemple rode over the hills. He noticed the volcanic and ash cones to the west and the remnants of heavy lava flows near the village of Santa Clara. But one geologic formation really intrigued him. There were interesting folds in the sandstone ledges just west of Harrisburg. Here the sandstone was standing, not layered in pink and coral striations. These strange formations appeared like ocean reefs. Over eons of time the areas between these folds had filled with sediments most likely from the Pine Valley Mountains just to the west and north.
To John Kemple’s knowledgeable eye the spaces contained not only petrified wood, but large sections of valuable ores — silver deposits along with some copper, lead and even gold.
Geologists and other mineral experts refused at first to believe the news that silver had been found in sandstone. When an actual sample from the area was taken to the Smithsonian Institution they called it an “interesting take.”
John, filed a claim for a mining section in the area. He called the site “Silver Reef.” The area became the Union Mining District. In 1874 he reorganized the claims under the Harrisburg Mining District along with some other prospectors and miners.
The mining at Silver Reef lasted until about 1884, but John Kemple was long gone — he had sold his mining claims.
There are some stories around that a man known as Metalliferous Murphy, an assayer from Pioche, Nevada, had come across a grindstone (used in a spinning wheel to sharpen knives, axes and other instruments) being used by some miners in that city to sharpen their mining tools. Words was that the grindstone had some unusual sharpening characteristics. Murphy took a look at the stone and determined that it contained silver that would assay over $200 per ton if enough of it could be found. Murphy was amazed that the silver seemed to be imbedded in a wheel of sandstone. That grindstone had come from Silver Reef.
So, the area known as Silver Reef can lay its discovery at the feet of John Kemple: a young man with restless feet but an eye for silver ore.