The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is currently one of the most active practitioners of missionary work, and things weren’t much different in the second half of the 19th century. One area where the church found success in converting people back then was Polynesia – to the point where, by 1889, about 75 Native Hawaiians had immigrated to Salt Lake City to join the main body of the church.
Unfortunately for them, it was still the 19th century, and the area they had come to – if not the whole country – was wildly racist. The Hawaiians were prohibited from staying at white-owned hotels or eating at white-owned restaurants. Seeing that the situation was untenable, the church stepped in and set out to set up a new place for the Polynesians to live.
Most of the land in the immediate vicinity of Salt Lake City had been claimed by that point, so a team of three Hawaiians and three missionaries were given the task of finding another location for the enclave. The landed on an 1,920-acre site about 75 miles southwest of the city. The named the town “Iosepa,” after the Hawaiian form of the name “Joseph,” in honor of Joseph F. Smith, the nephew of the founder of the church and one of the first Mormon missionaries to Hawaii. The first 46 settlers arrived on August 28, 1889.
Despite the obvious differences between Utah and their homeland, the residents of Iosepa put their hearts into colonizing the area, buying a sawmill and building a church, a school, a store, and homes. They constructed a small reservoir and an irrigation system to water their fields, lawns, and flowerbeds – the town became known for the yellow roses that lined its streets and won a prize for the “best kept and most progressive city in the state of Utah” in 1911. In addition to raising pigs, carp, and trout, the Iospeans experimented with growing their own seaweed (at 4,400 feet in elevation) and developed a flour and cornstarch substitute for poi.
A few years in, though, Iosepa started to get hit by one calamity after another. The town had deaths from diptheria, pneumonia, and smallpox, and in 1896, several residents contracted leprosy (a house was built on the edge of town to isolate the lepers). After several crop failures, many of the men began working at nearby mines to make a living – but the town grew nevertheless. By 1915, it had a population of 228 and had welcomed Maori, Portuguese, Samoan, Scottish, and English immigrants. The goal for most of them continued to be to eke out a living somewhere relatively close to center of the LDS Church.
In 1915, though, Smith – by then the president of the church – announced that a temple was to be constructed in La’ie, Hawaii. The church asked the denizens of Iosepa to remain where they were, but also offered to pay for passage back to Hawaii for anyone who needed it. Most of the residents took the church up on the offer and returned from whence they came. By 1917, the town was empty.
Today, only the foundations of the houses, the cemetery, and the fire hydrants of Iosepa remain. On Memorial Day weekend, however, hundreds of Polynesians, including some descendants of the Iosepans, gather at the site for an elaborate luau. Visitors are welcome and camping is encouraged. The governing body of the LDS Church has dedicated a monument of a Polynesian warrior at the cemetery and added a pavilion and restrooms for the yearly festival. The ghost town is located on Utah State Route 196, wets of Salt Lake City on Interstate 80.