A Brief History of Mackay

Mackay was the location of an active railhead, and was established as the center of the valley’s agricultural industry. By 1926, the area was home to some of the largest Holstein dairy herds in the state, and cheese factories were constructed both at Mackay and Darlington to process their harvest. At that time, Mackay was also the leading shipper of livestock in the entire state. The first pumping of ground water for irrigation came in 1927, along with the introduction of major potato crops.

With Prohibition in 1916, many a Mackay entrepreneur was able to find profit in distilling a little “shine.” “Mackay Moonshine” became so well known throughout the country that it led to Mackay’s dubious honor of being a “Moonshine Capital.” It took the repeal of prohibition in 1933 to put an end to Mackay’s notorious moonshine industry.

By 1918, the dam creating the Mackay Reservoir was completed and the canal system to the lower valley was moving significant water, but not enough to maintain all the valley’s ranches and farms. On June 22, 1933, during a time of desperate water conditions, dynamite was used by unknown individuals to destroy the dam’s control tower and diversions. Following that incident, Utah Construction Company, which owned the dam, reduced the asking price they had placed on the dam and irrigation systems. In 1935, the voters of the valley approved the sale of bonds; and in 1936 the “Mackay Miner,” reported: “Ownership and control of the dam [and] irrigation system is officially in the hands of the people of the Lost River Valley” (now the Lost River Irrigation District).

In celebration of the transfer of ownership of the dam, the first of many annual community barbeques was held that September. Presently, the Mackay dam has survived over 90 years since the first load of fill blocked the river’s natural flow. It has remained stable in spite of dynamite, extraordinary flood run-offs, and the earthquake of 1983.

After completion of the dam in 1918, the reservoir was enhanced by a vigorous fish-stocking program and contributed to the Mackay area being known for some of the finest fishing in the West. From as early as 1914, anglers traveled great distances to fish the Big Lost River. Many came by auto, but many traveled to Mackay by rail, taking advantage of “Fishermen Special” trains of the Mackay Branch.

During the depression, metals prices dropped dramatically and the local impact forced a near complete shutdown of mining activity on “Mine Hill” for most of the 1930s. The war years, however, were prosperous ones for Mackay, as war dictated increases in demand for copper. By 1944 the mines were working two shifts.

The late 1940s marked the end of any significant mining industry on Mackay’s “Mine Hill,” although limited activity continued until about 1975. This loss was offset in 1949, when the Atomic Energy Commission located a major complex in the desert east of Arco. By 1951, buses began transporting local workers to and from the site. To this day, site workers living in the area are a stabilizing factor in Mackay’s economy, along with a consistent livestock, farming, and tourism industry.

The closing of the Union Pacific Railroad depot in 1971 marked the end of a historic Mackay institution in place since 1901. The depot was a major factor in the birth and growth of the community.

The South Custer Historical Society provided the above information. The Historical Society is active in restoring and maintaining sites on Mackay’s “Mine Hill” and throughout the City of Mackay.