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Bingham Fort Area Rich In History

Pioneers' descendants working to preserve land, lore of old fort Sun, Dec 28, 2003


Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN -- Anna Keogh used to walk around her parents' farm on Ogden's north end and wonder the sort of things most children on Western farms wonder:

Did the Indians walk here?

Did the pioneers walk here?

Were there any human hands buried around here?

Erastus Bingham Farm

A sign along 2nd Street in Ogden marks the northern boundry of the old Bingham's fort.

OK, she didn't wonder that last one. Who would? But she did wonder about the first two and never quit. It was while researching them as an adult that she made her discovery of the third, which, as it turned out, was under her father's house.

As a bonus, she also found out about the dead priest buried down the street. It wasn't his hand they found, either. That was someone else.

Such fun digging up history.

Keogh now lives at 301 W. 2nd St., in what was, until a few years ago, a backwater of Weber County pioneer heritage known, depending on what part of history you're talking about, either as Lynne or as Bingham's Fort.

Keogh, her cousin David Montgomery, who lives next door, and a few other hardy souls, are doing their best to preserve the area or at least its memory.

They do so because, they say, it is a unique remnant of pioneer and agricultural history. To demonstrate how, Keogh likes to challenge people to "name a pioneer location in Weber County," one where a visitor can still see the past.

Fort Bueneventura? Nope, that's mountain man era, before the pioneers.

Union Station? Nope, that's railroad history, after the pioneers.

Mound Fort?

If you are talking about the school with that name, it's in the wrong place. There's the mound itself, which is north of 12th Street, but the mound is Native American, not pioneer.

There was a Mound Fort, a pioneer fort built along the lines of Bingham's Fort or the wall that later became Wall Avenue in Ogden, but of it, like 20 of 21 other pioneer forts along the Wasatch Front, nothing remains.

Only Bingham's Fort is still there.

The fort wall is gone, but there is a collection of farms and farm houses, including a couple of original buildings, which the wall protected. There are even bits of original ditch and an original Cottonwood tree on which pioneer children swung. While 2nd Street was being reconstructed over the past several years, sections of the foundation of the original fort wall were even dug up.

And all of it is threatened.

Bingham's Fort survived because of Defense Depot Ogden, which was built before World War II. The U.S. Department of Defense purchased a huge tract of land west of the railroad tracks at about 400 West, cutting off 2nd Street to public use with its own fortlike fences. The street on which Bingham's Fort sat became, for all intents and purposes, a dead end.

Historically, that was a good thing. It kept progress out.

The area was settled in 1851 by Erastus Bingham who came north from Salt Lake valley at the behest of LDS Church leader Brigham Young.

Bingham came first to Ogden and then farther north to the town of Lynne, in the area between Wall Avenue and about 400 West. In 1853, with Indian troubles brewing around the state, Young issued the order to "fort up," and Bingham built a wall all the way around his community.

Young later moved the settlers south to Ogden, leaving Lynne and Bingham fort as an agricultural backwater. Over the decades, as Ogden developed, Bingham Fort stayed the way it was, a dead-end street with a few farms and a handful of very old homes.

"Until 1995, there were four pioneer farms here," said Keogh as she stood out front of her house, which is on the only farm remaining on the street.

"There were no new houses on this street until 1995, and that's why we have 12 pioneer houses here. We couldn't have anything here new; we couldn't even have sewer."

That quirk of history preserved several layers of history, and it is those layers that Keogh and others hope to preserve.

There is pioneer history, with remnants as random as a ditch and an old cottonwood tree. Several different projects around that are under way.

Keogh said the Ogden walking tour guide of the fort area is being rewritten to update it with new data. There are also at least two books about the area are being prepared, she said.

One, a project by a member of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, is an effort to collect biographies of all the people who lived in all the forts in the Ogden area.

"When they get it finished, anybody who has any interest in the early pioneer stage, it will be an invaluable resource to them," Keogh said.

The other is a book based on the journals of Mary Eliza Hutchins, who lived in Bingham's Fort and left a 100-page journal, which is where a lot of the lore of the fort has been found over the years.

Steve Johnson, South Ogden, is another branch of the family pursuing the preservation from a different angle. He is descended from Erastus Bingham and has set up an Internet Web site to try to collect all the family history.

He would like to make an educational film about Erastus Bingham, he said, and work to better mark the location of the fort. A monument to Bingham, now located near the Bank of Utah building on Washington Boulevard in Ogden needs to be moved west to the actual fort site, for example, he said. He is working with the Daughters of Utah Pioneers to arrange that, although no date is set yet.

There is also the area's agricultural history, of which Keogh and Montgomery, and their relatives, own a big chunk.

The agricultural history is actually more threatened at this point.

Of the four pioneer-era farms that were there in 1995, she said, only one remains, that owned by her family. The rest have been sold to housing developers.

Keogh's family farm was established in 1851 and is, as far as she can tell, the oldest continually operated farm in Weber County. It is 40 acres, still used, complete with a cooler on the front porch from which she and Montgomery sell eggs on the honor system.

Called the Stone Farm, it is original enough that the family has applied to register it on the National Register of Historic Places. Getting listed there would help them apply for grants to use the farm for educational purposes, preservation and as part of their larger goal of preserving the area from development.

Keogh said the family is also trying to raise money to purchase the development rights.

Like most large family farms, this one is now owned by half a dozen different descendants of the original owners and they know they can make a lot of money selling it as housing lots. Instead, they have agreed to relinquish all development rights to the state for $1 million.

"If it doesn't work it will just be homes like everywhere else," Montgomery said.

"But if it does it will be history," Keogh said. Weber County used to be a farming and food processing center for the state and Bingham's Fort is all that's left of that.

That history still may hold secrets. They found one while building Keogh's house.

Her mother still lives in the house, which her grandfather built, she said. It was while digging the foundations for that home, using pioneer-era stones from the fort wall, that they found a human hand, she said.

"It was perfectly preserved, they said you could see the veins and everything, but when they just touched it, it fell apart," she said. Nobody ever knew who that was.

Digging uncovered another mystery down the block.

Back in the 1930s, she said, neighbors east of her house dug up a grave of Roman Catholic priest.

All they found were teeth and some articles used during the mass that were buried with him, and those disappeared after being loaned for display half a century ago. Nobody knows who he was, or why he was buried there.

Keogh and Montgomery like to point to the ancient cottonwood tree across the street from their houses as one of the most visible, and impressive, links between the pioneer and farm heritage of the area.

It is north, just in line with the original Bingham Fort west wall, now marked by a brick crosswalk across 2nd Street. The tree was alive until a few years ago. Montgomery said the five-year drought finally killed it, but it still stands, massive and stark, about 100 yards north of the street.

It used to stand just outside the fort wall, Keogh said. Pioneer journals talk about Indians camping in the area and using the cottonwood tree to hang meat to dry. Children later played in it, swinging on swings hung from its branches.

Keogh said she knows about the Indians because her uncles got so good at finding arrowheads that they could spot them while plowing.

One, Harvey Stone, had a whole shoebox full. He showed them to her, she said, and even let her keep a couple, but she said he later buried them back on the farmland.

"He felt they belonged," she said, "which is also why they never sold anything off. They had the same feelings that this is sacred ground, pioneer ground."

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