Salt Lake City, Utah, was settled by Brigham Young and other Mormons who were escaping religious persecution in the East and Midwestern United States. Traveling on what is now known as the Mormon Trail, which paralleled the Oregon Trail, Young’s followers began to till the land on the first day of their arrival in July 1847.
Initially called the Great Salt Lake City, the area had previously been inhabited by nomadic tribes consisting of the Pueblo, Navajo, Ute, Paiute and, Shoshone tribes. Having experienced the harsh effects of its mining history, today Salt Lake City is working to diversify its economic base by developing one of the greatest concentrations of biomedical, high technology, and computer software firms in the United States.
The history of the Great Salt Lake basin area reaches further back into antiquity—that of the cliff dwelling “Anasazi," which is a Navajo word meaning “The Ancient Ones," or, some say, “Ancient Enemy."
From A.D. 1 to roughly 1300, the Anasazi wandered the land of the Great Basin desert, which included parts of southwestern Colorado, northeastern Arizona, and northwestern New Mexico, as well as most of Utah, and were followed later by generations of Navajo; the Ute, from which the state takes its name; and other tribes.
The first Europeans to enter the area were Spanish explorers in 1776, and the first U.S. citizen was mountain man and storyteller Jim Bridger, who arrived in 1842. Bridger would come to know many such early figures in American history as Young, Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and John Sutter, who became famous from his association with the California Gold Rush.
When Young’s advance party of 148 hardy church members—which consisted of 143 men, three women, and two children—arrived and began scouting for an area that would be free of U.S. influence and sustain life for the thousands of believers that were to follow, Young spotted the valley in July 1847, and said, “This is the place."
Within a few days of the Mormons arrival, plans were drawn up for the future city that was named after the great inland salted lake, a remnant from the last Ice Age called Lake Bonneville, that exists there. In the center of town was located Temple Square, where construction began on the Salt Lake City Temple in 1853, but it was not until 39 years later, in 1892, that the capstone was installed.
Extensive changes during the 1800s
In the last half of the 1800s, a number of events occurred that aided in the growth of Salt Lake City, the most significant of which was the discovery of gold in California, in the late 1840s and early 1850s. A great influx of people streamed through the city on their way to strike it rich.
Another key element in the growth of the city occurred when Utah Territory’s capitol was moved there from Fillmore, in 1856. During the Civil War, Union soldiers were stationed in Salt Lake City to keep the road to California open.
By 1868, the city had dropped the word “Great" from its name. Also that year, Young organized Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), the first department store in America, to encourage church members to do business with other members, instead of non-Mormon or former Mormon merchants.
Yet another great influence on the increase in population, prosperity, and activity in the region occurred when the Golden Spike was driven at Promontory Point, linking the east with the western territories by the First Transcontinental Railroad. With the railroad came a proliferation of mining operations, seeking such metals as copper, silver, gold, and lead.
During its 46-year campaign requesting statehood, the Mormons were denied six times, due to the Church’s belief in polygamy. The practice of polygamy continued well after it had been outlawed in America, in 1860. To add resolve to its stance on the matter, the anti-polygamy law was ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1869.
Mormon men were jailed for the practice until the issue was finally resolved in 1890, when Mormon Church President Wilford Woodruff, outlawed the practice, claiming that God had told him that his people must give up this portion of their lifestyle. By President Grover Cleveland’s decree in 1896, Utah became the 45th state.
Twentieth Century developments
Between 1900 and 1930, Salt Lake City’s population tripled, as a result of such events as copper mining at the Canyon Copper Mine, in 1905, and oil that was discovered and produced in 1907, in the Virgin River area. Such improvements as a trolley system as well as sewer systems, were introduced into the city during the early 1900s.
The Great Depression hit the city hard in the early 1930s, and it was not until World War II when recovery began, boosted by the military’s increased need for raw minerals. The transportation system got a lift, as well, when the trolleys were replaced with modern buses.
Attempts by the Church of Latter Day Saints to purchase the segment of Main Street that is situated between Temple Square and the LDS church office buildings, in 1999 for $8.1 million, led to a city council vote, along party lines, to approve the decision. Although the Church’s plan was to build a large plaza with a parking structure on the property, there was a tremendous outcry from citizens, who disagreed with the plan to sell city-owned property to a private organization.
After the deal was made and construction had begun, the LDS church announced that it would not allow a public free speech forum, skateboarding, sunbathing, smoking, or any other activities on the streets that it considered to be “vulgar."
"All systems Go" in the 21st Century
There have been recent attempts to revitalize Salt Lake City’s downtown area. These efforts include a change in downtown traffic patterns, and the purchase of the Crossroads and ZCMI malls by the Mormon Church. They have the intention of connecting them, breathing new life into the city, after much of its population had moved to the surrounding suburbs.
Replacing the eco-unfriendly mining industries has been a top concern among city officials, and they have responded by attracting high-tech industries such as those in the computer software and biomedical fields.
Under the Olympic microscope
The Winter Olympics came to Salt Lake City and the nearby winter sports venues of the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, in 2002. Scandal blew through Salt Lake City, however, when it was found that millions of dollars were given to members of the International Olympic Committee, to obtain the rights to hold the Olympic Games there.
In previous years, Salt Lake City had vied for the prestigious honor, but had repeatedly been rebuffed in bringing the Olympics to their idyllic setting. The Salt Lake Organizing Committee’s final, desperate attempt to land the bid for the Games, was not only laced with illegal gifts but “geld" (actual cash), as well.
Tipped off by Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler’s announcement that bribes had been received, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation that resulted in 10 IOC members expelled and another 10 sanctioned. In 2003, the two heads of the SLOC, Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, were acquitted of all criminal charges.
Higher Learning Institutions
Among the colleges and universities located in Salt Lake City are the University of Utah, Westminster College, Webster University’s Salt Lake City campus, and Salt Lake Community College. The University of Utah, was originally called the University of Deseret by its founder, Brigham Young, when it was established in 1850. The institution was forced to close two years later, however, due to financial difficulties.
The institution was given new life in 1867, when it reopened under new direction led by local businessman and Young constituent, David O. Calder. The school was renamed the University of Utah, in 1894.
Museums and cultural centers
Salt Lake City is home to several museums and hubs of cultural activities, including the Museum of Fine Arts; Utah Museum of Natural History; Daughters of Utah Pioneer Memorial Museum; Clark Planetarium, which houses an IMAX theater; and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Begun with a dream and 47 ancestors of those who first came upon the Great Salt Lake in 1847, the Daughters of Utah Pioneer Memorial Museum displays the history of those who began their 2,000-mile journey in Nauvoo, Illinois, as well as artifacts and memorabilia from the fusing of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Point, in May 1869.
Originally begun at the Mormon Tabernacle in 1900, its choir has been giving performances at Abravanel Hall since the 1990s. Called “America’s Choir" by President Ronald Reagan, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed on the oldest continuous nationwide network radio broadcast in America, since 1929.
The statewide holiday “Pioneer Day," commences annually in Salt Lake City with a week-long festival that includes a children’s parade, horse parade, a fireworks display at Liberty Park, and other activities. It also features the Days of ’47 parade, all to celebrate the entrance of Brigham Young and 148 others, to the Great Salt Lake valley.
Major sports activities in the region include skiing at any of the nearby resorts in the Wasatch Range. Some resorts also allow snowboarding and other winter/snow-related sports.
Down in the valley, Salt Lake City is also home to the NBA Utah Jazz basketball team, as well as the Salt Lake Bees minor league baseball team, which is a farm team for the Los Angeles Angels. In Rice-Eccles Stadium, the Real Salt Lake began playing major league soccer games, in 2005.
The intense rivalry between the University of Utah and Brigham Young University keeps football fans satiated since there are no professional football teams in Utah. The Ute/Cougar annual meeting is referred to as the “Holy War" by college football fans, even though Utah is a public university.
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The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail by Wallace Stegner.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner tells about a thousand-mile migration marked by hardship and sudden death—but unique in American history...
Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad by David Haward Bain.
On the morning of May 10, 1869, a gang of Irish immigrants met a party of Chinese laborers on a windy bluff northwest of Salt Lake City, Utah. Tired t...