Creation of the City
The Human History
[Written by Nicholas Vaughn]
CITY HISTORY, 1857 – 1896
The settlement of Buchanan in the Utah Territory was founded on July 28th, 1857 by Catholics incensed by the “Mormon Menace” corrupting the Utah Territory. Led by Nathaniel Drummond, a law professor from Yale University, a group 400 strong settled Buchanan some 200 miles south of Salt Lake City in what is now Piute County. Drummond named the township after sitting president James Buchanan in a ploy to gain favor with the current federal administration and to try and steal influence from the Mormons of Salt Lake City.
Though Drummond had a mind for politics, he was not the ideal man to spring a town up out of nothing. He wrote back east to his friend, Cornelius van Houten, a prominent merchant in New York City, asking for guidance. Van Houten always preferred to do his deals in person, and by summer of 1858, the merchant had taken up residence in Buchanan, thinking it would be a fine challenge and an excuse to trust his own affairs to his oldest son Pieter. In short order, Buchanan became a hub of trade for the fledgling farming and mining communities of southern Utah Territory.
Buchanan’s nearby mountains proved to be replete with metals. It seemed as though a new foundry opened each month in the late 1850s. The town’s population swelled as its steel industry flourished. The American steel industry was in full force supplying the ever-hungry railroad industry with thousands of miles of track each year. In a macabre twist, Buchanan experienced a boon at the onset of the Civil War. An enterprising young steel manufacturer, John Benjamin Arsenal (often called Big Ben due to his large stature and almost comical obsession with checking the time on his opulent pocket watch), devised a cannon with impressive durability and accuracy. Arsenal leveraged Utah’s status as a territory and not a state and sold the cannon to both sides of the great conflict.
The end of the Civil War saw a marked downturn for Buchanan. Arsenal’s decision to support both the Union and Confederacy drew the ire of many in the post-war political climate. But much of the attention on Arsenal faded when an unscrupulous young journalist acquired correspondence between Abigail Drummond, wife of Nathaniel, and Nathaniel’s friend and partner Cornelius Van Houten, incriminating both in a long and passionate affair. Van Houten had returned to his permanent home in New York City in 1864 but had kept in touch with the Drummond’s. Accounts vary, but several suggest one of the scandalous letters was opened by a member of Mr. Drummond’s staff, thinking it to be matters of business between the two partners.
The political fallout was devastating to the Drummonds and to the town of Buchanan. Nathaniel Drummond had founded the town leveraging what he felt was the moral and spiritual superiority of Catholicism over Mormonism. News of an affair within his own marriage evaporated all of his political capital and all but guaranteed Buchanan would fail to beat out Salt Lake City as the primate city of the Utah Territory.
No longer held in esteem by the Catholic Church or the Federal Government, the town of Buchanan suffered. Over a third of the population abandoned the town between 1865 and 1870. As businesses closed up and people moved away, the city became something of a ghost town, threatening to fade forever into obscurity after barely a decade in existence. To add insult to injury, 1869 saw the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point – just north of Buchanan’s rival Salt Lake City.
When it seemed all was lost for Buchanan, it was thrown a lifeline by Arsenal Steelworks and persona non-grata “Big Ben” Arsenal. Arsenal saw potential in the town and acknowledged his own role in creating its current predicament. In an effort to support the town and rebuild his own reputation, Arsenal flooded the town’s coffers with his own money. He bought supplies from shops even when he didn’t need them, and funded improvements to the town’s infrastructure. Though no records of it now exist, it is said that Arsenal paid for all of the telegraph lines that were connected to Buchanan.
His burden turned out to be almost too much to bear. By 1877, Arsenal Steelworks was on its last legs and Big Ben’s own finances were effectively gone. The man, and in turn the town, were saved once again when one of his employees happened upon a vein of silver in one of the Steelworks’ mine shafts. Word quickly spread and a many similar discoveries were made by other foundries or enterprising prospectors. The silver boom revived Arsenal Steelworks and by extension, the town.
In the years that followed, John Arsenal had a successful political career. He ran for mayor of Buchanan and won in such a landslide he may as well have run unopposed. Some time later he set his sights on a seat within the Territorial Government and won, proving his popularity was not simply regional. It was over a decade later, in 1896, that Arsenal would become one of the new State of Utah’s first senators. In recognition for all he had done, the Buchanan City Council passed a resolution and postdated it January 3rd, 1896 (the day before Utah’s statehood went into effect), renaming their town to Arsenal after its savior.
Big Ben Arsenal meets with a group of the Victorian Ladies
The Human History