American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Western States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
1901


SALT LAKE CITY
THE DESERT THAT HAS BLOSSOMED AS THE ROSE
By JAMES EDWARD TALMAGE

LONG before the first settlement, little more than fifty years ago, of the valley of the Great Salt Lake, strange stories of the briny sea and its desert setting had found their way to the civilized and cultured East; and, mingled with the weird accounts of sun baked plains, waterless wilderness, and saline solitudes, were the predictions of the wise that the country would never be worth settling. This region was included within the area against which Daniel Webster hurled his anathema of denunciation from the floor of the national Senate, proclaiming the utter worthlessness of the great West, and declaring that he would "never vote one cent from the public treasury to place the Pacific coast one inch nearer to Boston" than it then was. And concerning the Salt Lake Valley itself, Colonel James Bridger, for whom the disputed honor of discovering the Great Salt Lake has been claimed, said that he would offer a thousand dollars in gold for the first ear of corn that could be ripened therein.

The motive spirit actuating the early travellers in these then Mexican wastes was that of exploration, and discovery. Worthy as it was, it was insufficient to induce the settlement of the wilderness or to inspire the ambition of subduing the desert and sanctifying the Waste places with the name of home. The most potent of all incentives, that of religious conviction and conscientious devotion to what was regarded as sacred duty, was necessary, and not wanting.

It was on the 19th of July, 1847, that the vanguard of the pioneer party of" Mormon" colonists sighted the valley of the Great Salt Lake. For long, weary months they had journeyed; their start from the frontiers of civilization had been hastened by the musket and the sword and the devouring flame of persecution; their course over plain and mountain had been attended by vicissitudes that only those who have toiled through such journeys can comprehend.

And what emotions did that first view of the "Promised Land" inspire! A valley, beautiful it is true, even as the desert is beautiful in its parching splendor; as the mountains are beautiful in their terrible grandeur; as the ocean is beautiful in its calm monotony or in its storm lashed fury; but such beauty is not suggestive of rest or peace, and it was peace the wanderers sought. From the cafions of the Wasatch, though not the first to traverse the region, yet the first to brave its desolate and forbidding seclusion in search of a home, they looked down on a valley walled by the Wasatch and the Oquirrhs, bare of tree or shrub, except for patches of chaparral oak, and here and there a gnarled willow or cottonwood bravely struggling for existence on the upper parts of the few stream courses that opened from the mountain wall on the east; the only blossoms those of the stunted sunflower and its desert companions, the foliage that of the gray artemisia, or wild sage.

On the 24th of July, 1847, Brigham Young, the founder of Salt Lake City and the pioneer colonizer of Utah, descended from the mountain gateway, followed by the main division of the company, numbering a hundred and forty and four souls, of whom three were women. One of this trio of heroines was overcome by the treeless and desolate aspect of the valley. "Weak and weary as I am," she said, "I would rather go a thousand miles farther than stop in this forsaken place" Three days earlier an advance detachment, including Orson Pratt and Erastus Snow, each of whom came to be known as a prominent apostle of the "Mormon" Church, had entered the valley; but July 24th is regarded as the first day of occupation, and each recurrence of the date is observed as Pioneer Day, a holiday by law established in the State of Utah.

The pioneers purpose was not uncertain; having reached their destination they paused not to make experiments or preliminary tests. "This is the place," said. their leader; "the very p1ace"; and the company began at once the work of permanently establishing themselves and, of preparing for the reception of other immigrant parties then on the march. Ploughs were promptly brought into action, and the soil theretofore unused to the husbandman's touch was in part torn and turned; yet so hard and resistant was it that it measured its strength with the energy of man and for the time held the victory. But the colonists were full of resource. The little stream now known as City Creek, the chief source of the city's water supply, was diverted from its course and made to flood the land chosen for the first desert garden. With its long thirst appeased, its stony heart softened, the virgin soil yielded and received the first seed sown by human agency in the Great American Desert. Thus began the system of irrigation which in its later developments has proved itself the magic wand under whose sway the desert has been conquered and the wilderness transformed into a garden of beauty.

On the 28th of the same month the city was planned and its boundaries were indicated; five days later the survey of the city plat was begun under the direction of Orson Pratt. All the plans were on a scale of unlimited liberality. The streets, each eight rods in width, were made to cross at right angles, dividing the city into rectangular blocks, each of ten acres. The choicest block in point of situation was designated as the site of the prospective temple; and is now occupied by the world famed Temple, the Tabernacle, and the less pretentious Assembly Hall. The original survey was made to include a hundred and thirty five of these ten acre blocks; several were chosen for public squares and parks; the remainder were to be divided into city lots for the accommodation of the thousands soon to come.

Religious devotion, the inspiring cause of this seemingly reckless scheme of colonization, demanded facilities for public worship; and, lacking chapel, synagogue, or temple, the colonists provided a leafy tabernacle. Trees were hauled from the mountains and of these a bowery was constructed, which for a time was church, court house, and capitol.

Having learned by experience that Indian attacks were to be expected, the settlers congregated on a single ten acre block, which they enclosed by erecting their huts of logs and adobe along the eastern border. Each hut opened inward toward the centre of the square and was provided with a loophole on the outer side; the space between the houses and the sides of the block not occupied by habitations was protected by a continuous wall of adobe. With the increase of population additions were made to the fort; but as soon as the ruddy aborigines learned that the white invaders were their friends, the fort was abandoned, and the settlers distributed themselves over the city area.

At the time of its first settlement Utah was a part of the Mexican domain; nevertheless, the "Mormon" colonists, confident as to the destiny of their nation, patriotically raised the Stars and Stripes and took possession of the region in the name of the United States. A prominent hill, part of the Wasatch spur which bounds the present city on the northeast like a fortress wall, was chosen as the flag site;. and this elevation is today known as Ensign Peak. From its summit, now surmounted by an enduring flag staff of steel, the banner of freedom is thrown to the mountain breezes on public holidays and other occasions of patriotic celebration.

More colonists arrived in parties great and small; and by the spring of 1848 approximately seventeen hundred souls were encamped in the valley, more than four hundred dwellings had been erected within the confines of the old fort, and about five thousand acres of land had been brought under cultivation. In May and June, the settlers were arrayed in battle order, not against human foes but to fight the dreaded insect scourge, the Rocky Mountain crickets, which in countless hordes descended from the mountains and invaded the fields and gardens. Every member of the little community, man, woman, or child, was called into action but to little purpose. When the people had been reduced to despair they were saved by what they devoutly believed to be a special and miraculous interposition of Providence. There suddenly appeared on the western horizon a tremulous cloud which grew in magnitude as it rapidly approached, until at last it was seen to be the vanguard of an advancing army of gulls. Down swooped the white winged deliverers, devouring the crickets with incredible voracity until but few were left alive. Since that day the gulls have been sacred in Utah. Every spring they come to follow the plough as it turns the soil for the season's seed, and so confident are they of their safety that they may be approached almost within arm's length. Added to the ruin wrought by the crickets was a further deprivation, due to drought and frosts. The harvest of 1848 was little better than a failure, and the succeeding winter and spring were seasons of extreme destitution. The people were brought to the dire necessity of gathering the wild weeds of the desert and even of boiling the raw hides in their camps for sustenance. The bulbous roots of the sego lily, now the banner flower of the State were dug for food; but the pangs of hunger were an experience from which none escaped. However, the following season brought a more abundant return from the soil and the prospects of the colony brightened.

In February, 1848, the treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo secured by cession from Mexico to the United States the region now embraced by Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and California. The great republic reached the Pacific, and Salt Lake City became anintegral part of the United States. Up to this time, and, indeed, for a year thereafter, the governmental affairs of the new community were administered almost wholly by the Church authorities. In February, 1849, the city was divided into nineteen ecclesiastical wards, over each of which a "bishopric" presided, consisting of a bishop and his two counsellors, who combined with their purely churchly function the duties of magistrates and civil officers. They regulated the levying and disbursing of taxes, the construction of roads and bridges, and the like.

In the early months of 1849 steps were taken toward the establishment of a State government from which the city might hope to derive corporate powers. It was proposed that the State of which Salt Lake City was destined to be the capital be called Deseret, a name occurring in the records of the ancient inhabitants of the continent, as set forth in the Book of Mormon, and meaning "the honey bee." The hive, expressive of the characteristic industry and thrift of the people, was chosen as the symbol and seal of the prospective State. Pending action by the national Congress, the "Provisional Government of the State of Deseret" was established, and its officers were duly elected. The General Assembly of the State of Deseret, in January, 1851, chart ered "Great Salt Lake City" and appointed its first Mayor, Jedediah M. Grant, and other municipal officers. The people were not yet informed that four months before, September 9, 1850, the Congress of the United States had refused their petition for statehood and had created the Territory of Utah. The acts of the provisional government were subsequently confirmed by the first territorial Legislature, and the city's charter was thus legalized.

Each passing year added to the attractiveness of the new capital. An orchard had been planted on every unoccupied lot, shade trees were placed along the outer borders of the sidewalks, and to nourish these a small stream was made to flow down either side of every street. The city became the acknowledged business centre of the inter mountain region. Situated on the road to the gold regions, when the gold fever was at its height, travel was heavy, and the settlers found a ready market for anything they could produce from the soil. Gold seekers hastening westward and successful miners returning eastward halted at this oasis to replenish their supplies, and left their wealth in lavish abundance to enrich the people of the desert, who, however, had little need of gold in their local trade, and valued it only for the implements of husbandry and building it would buy in the East. A strange spectacle was presented of a city destitute of many necessaries and of most of the luxuries of life, yet rich to affluence in gold, which was sent back to "the States" by the bucketful.

Merchandise was brought in by fleets of "prairie schooners," and the contents of each of these wheeled boats of mountain and plain were eagerly bought up. There was danger of class distinctions arising, of the few who had most gold to spare buying more than their share, and so becoming rich at the expense of their fellows. Acting on the counsel of their President, the people adopted rules to secure an equable distribution of imported goods. Later the settlers established their merchandise business on a plan of cooperation, and Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution began. its phenomenally successful career. The chief establishment of this system is still operating, with headquarters in Salt Lake City, and its annual sales, officially attested, average over four million dollars.

The city's very existence was threatened in 1857. A detachment of the United States army numbering over two thousand men was ordered to Utah by President Buchanan for the purpose of suppressing an alleged insurrection, which, it was reported, had culminated in the destruction of the court records and the driving of the federal judge, Drummond, from his bench. When news of the libellous charges against the people reached Utah, the clerk of Judge Drummond's own court issued a full denial under official seal. But the mischievous misrepresentation had already produced its effect at the nation's capital, and the army was on the march.

Mail contractors operating between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City brought word of the approaching soldiery, and reported threats of both officers and men as to the summary way in which they would dispose of the people when once they found themselves within the "City of the Saints." The Latter day Saints understood the intensity of the public sentiment against them; they felt, too, the injustice of the libel. They believed that the army's invasion of their city and Territory meant their massacre. Brigham Young was still Governor of Utah, and the territorial militia was subject to has command. He promptly proclaimed martial law throughout the Territory, and forbade any armed forces to enter its confines. Echo Canon, the easiest avenue of approach, was fortified. In its defiles an army might well be stopped by a few. The people had been roused to desperation. Force was to be met with force.

The army wintered at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, amid sevete vicissitudes. In the meantime a full report of the situation had been made by Governor Young to the President of the United States. President Buchanan tacitly admitted his rashness, but to recall the troops at that juncture would be to openly confess the blunder. A peace commissioner, in the person of Colonel Thomas B. Kane, was dispatched to Salt Lake City, and finally the President's appointees were conducted through the "Mormon" lines by "Mormon" militia, and were duly inducted into office. Then it was demonstrated that the court records were intact, and the people at peace. The army followed later, under pledge that its ranks be not broken within the city limits and that its camp be not within forty miles of the capital. And when at last the soldiers threaded the streets, a strange sight met their view. Salt Lake City was deserted, except for a few men who stood with lighted torches in hand ready to fire the heaps of combustibles that had been piled in every house. For the people, loth to trust too implicitly in the unwilling promises of officers smarting under the consciousness of defeat, had abandoned their homes, with the solemn determination that if the invaders made a single attempt at plunder they should find naught but ashes for their loot.

But the promises were keptingood faith. The army established its headquarters at Camp Floyd, forty miles southwest from the city. There the soldiers remained until summoned back, at the outbreak. of the Civil War. During their two years encampment in Utah, the soldiers werefed by the people. Everything in the nature of food was eagerly bought up at an unusual price, land thus the nation's gold found its way into the hands of the citizens. Then, so great was the hurry of the army's departure, so urgent the need of speedy travel, that all their belongings outside of actual necessities were sold for a trifle or given away. The reason why the people regard the coming of "Buchanan's army" as a blessing to their city is evident.

In 1861 the Overland Telegraph Line, which had been approaching the city from both east and west, was completed, and Salt Lake City was relieved of some of the disadvantages of its desert isolation. Eight years later the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railways reached Utah, and from that time to the present the development of both city and State has been of phenomenal rapidity.

From the earliest period of its existence Salt Lake City has been strong and untiring in its efforts to secure adequate educational facilities. In October, 1847, only three months after the pioneer entry, a school was opened within the walls of the Old Fort. The schoolhouse was a tent, and for seats and desks hewn slabs and sections of logs were brought into service. Other schools followed and the people thus early voiced their desire for secondary and higher instruction. In February, 1850, when the city was less than three years old, "The University of the State of Deseret" with its seat at " Great Salt Lake City" was incorporated by the legislative assembly of the provisional government. In November of that year the " University" began itswork in the field of secondary instruction under the name of "The Parent School." As suggested by this title branch schools were conducted in the smaller settlements. The institution thus grandly projected in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles has grown with the commonwealth, and today, under the name of the University of Utah, compares favorably with other State colleges of the West. The present public school system is the pride of the city. Stately school buildings, modern and efficient, and the best equipment procurable are provided; and the schools are free.

And so the city has grown, gathering strength with its years, but in surprising proportion. It has ever been quick to adopt the conveniences of advancing civilization; for there was little of the old to sweep away. Its street cars are driven by the power of the mountain cataract thirty five miles away. Its streets, public buildings, and dwellings are lighted by the same mysterious force, and its factories and industrial establishments are electrically operated. In few cities indeed is the electric energy more generally utilized.

Among its notable structures a few demand special mention. First in popular interest, perhaps first also in historic significance, is the great "Mormon" Temple, constructed throughout of solid granite from the eruptive exposures of The Wasatch. The cornerstone was laid April 6, 1853, and the completed Temple was dedicated April 6, 1893. During the four decades occupied in the work over three and a half millions of dollars were expended on the structure. Let it be remembered that the building was begun amid most meagre facilities for such an undertaking, when the services of several, yoke of oxen were required for the bringing of a single block of granite from the famed Cottonwood Canon a score of miles south of the city. Of the four temples already erected in the vales of Utah, the one at Salt Lake City was the first to be commenced and the last to be finished.

The domed roof of the Tabernacle has attracted the attention of every one who has seen even a picture of the city. In some of its architectural features the building is unique. It covers an area of 250 x 180 feet and has a seating capacity of eight thousand. The colossal roof arch springs from wall to wall without a supporting pillar. Within is the monster organ, which for size and scope is approached by few instruments in the world. It was constructed in early days from native material by Utah artisans, and has been regarded as a marvel of mechanical and artistic achievement.

The story of Salt Lake City is really a chapter of "Mormon" history. Today its population would probably show a majority of non Mormans, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints is the dominant sect in city and State. Numerous other churches have established themselves; many of them have reared imposing sanctuaries and are active in the promulgation of their doctrines.

Non Mormon citizens have, been as ready and earnest in their efforts to build up and sustain the city of their choice as have their Latter day Saint fellows; and the present beauty, strength, and vitality of the intermountain metropolis are largely due to non Mormon, or "Gentile," enterprise and energy. The "Gentiles" have ever been the more prominent in mining undertakings, and the large and paying mines of today are mostly theirs. Salt Lake City does not belong to the "Mormons"; it is the possession of its citizens without regard to religious profession or political preference.

Since man and nature combined their energies in this once desert spot, the favored situation, the many natural advantages have yearly grown more apparent. Located at the very base of the Wasatch, bounded in part by a spur of this majestic range, the city possesses a wealth of mountain scenery beyond description. The valley floor is part of the bed of an inland sea of Quaternary age; and the benches and hills constituting the choicest residence portions are the terraces of this ancient lake, or the deltas of the prehistoric streams whose mouths were at the present canon openings. Capitol Hill and the Northeast Bench are parts of the great delta constructed by City Creek in Lake Bonneville. Of this Pleistocene water body, approximately equal to Lake Huron in extent, the present Salt Lake, in spite of its common appellation "great," is but a diminutive fragment.

The present population as attested by the recent census returns is 53,531; though the current city directory, compiled immediately after the census enumeration, gives names and addresses of nearly seventy thousand resident inhabitants. The city's growing importance as a manufacturing, commercial, railroad, and mining centre is generally recognized while its enterprise, progressiveness, and wealth are of national repute. But beyond all such it is to be characterized as a city of homes. From cottage to mansion its residences are very generally owned by their tenants. Its citizens are, for the most part, permanent residents and the city is theirs. Its increase has been that of development rather than of growth; the distinction is a vital one, for it characterizes the expansion of the living organism as against mere accretion of substance.

With such a development in the course of less than five and a half decades, what shall be its condition and status when its years have linked themselves into centuries?


[Also see Biographies for State of Utah.]

Historic towns of the Western States

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