by Lee Foster
When Brigham Young announced to his cohorts, “This is the right place,” he was viewing the east side of the Great Salt Lake. After 1,300 miles of hardship travel, started in February of 1847 in Illinois, he must have indeed thought that this was a promised land.
Today Salt Lake is a city with an unusually sharp focus for the traveler. Dominating the Salt Lake experience is the Mormon religion with its downtown Temple and its crucial role in the development of the West since the 1840s. Seventy percent of Utah’s population is at least nominally Mormon and there are more than 14 million “saints” worldwide. The Mormon ethic emphasizes family life and education, while discouraging consumption of alcohol and coffee.
Surrounding Salt Lake, the state of Utah offers some of the finest downhill skiing in the U.S. Dry desert winds reduce the snow humidity level. Because of the relatively low moisture content of the snow, compared to that which falls on the mountains of the Pacific coast states, the snow in Utah has a dry, powdery consistency, which makes for exhilarating skiing. The snowfall often accumulates as powder snow that is hip deep.
In summer the ski regions can be explored for their alpine vistas. Utah is a state piled high with mountains, with fully 50 different ranges to enjoy. King’s Peak, at 13,528 feet, is the highest point.
A day south of Salt Lake you can experience five Utah national parks. (In all directions, there are 15 national parks and monuments within a day’s drive of Salt Lake.) With adjacent Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, you can browse the densest cluster of national parks in the country. The dominant theme in all these parks is the singular experience of erosion, especially that of the Green and Colorado rivers, gradually wearing away the soft stone, leaving imaginative and awesome rock formations. The Spanish named aptly the major river as the Rio Colorado, the River Colored Red, an accurate observation of its silt-laden load.
Aside from erosion, the other fascinating story here is the legacy of the Anasazi Indians, who flourished from 400-1300 A.D. before their culture collapsed. The main legacy visible to the traveler is their distinctive cliff architecture.
Getting to Salt Lake City
Salt Lake is often called, with due appreciation to history, the “Crossroads of the West.” If you drive to Salt Lake from California, a 15-hour trek from San Francisco, you get some sense of the terrain that pioneer wagons took west from Salt Lake to California, following the Humboldt River and other water sources.
The historic golden spike of the Railroad Era was pounded into the rail-bed, north of Salt Lake City, at the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory. There the Union Pacific and Central Pacific joined in 1869. Today Amtrak’s passenger trains pass through Salt Lake, with passengers disembarking at the Union Pacific terminal.
Major freeways, such as Interstate 80, link the city with points west and east.
Major airlines fly into Salt Lake City.
History of Salt Lake City
The dramatic story of Salt Lake City is the rapidity with which the Mormons turned the desert into a fertile agricultural plain. This story can be experienced at the major attraction, the Temple.
However, if you have a half-day, proceed to the eastern edge of the city and the site of Old Deseret, the living history museum in This is the Place State Heritage Park, 2601 Sunnyside Avenue. This historic park celebrates the pioneer period, which lasted from 1847 to the coming of the railroad in 1869.
Here Brigham Young, emerging with his party from the Wasatch Mountains, announced his decision on settling to the 148 “saints” in his group. The party knew they were 1,000 miles from the nearest white settlement to the east and 700 miles from white settlements to the west, so Brother Young’s decision that “This is the right place” was not a casual platitude. A bronze memorial at the site salutes the hardiness of the 80,000 Mormon pioneers of 1847-1869, including those thousands who didn’t make it. Aside from the personalities of the Mormon religion, the site pays bronzed tribute to other players in the drama of the West, such as Jim Bridger and Jedediah Smith, the well-educated mountain men who explored more new territory in the West than anyone else.
Intriguing at the site are the houses of the early era. The John Gardiner cabin, from 1864, illustrates the log cabin era. The Social Hall, from 1852, was the substantial meeting place erected for the residents of old Deseret. Another structure, the John Boylston Fairbanks house, shows how adobe was employed here in the 1850s.
The most primitive structure is a Bowery, a thatched-roof, open-air shelter typical of what the pioneers built shortly after their arrival in the new settlement. The industry of the pioneers is evident when you read the historical record. A year after the first party of 147 people arrived, there were already 6,000 acres of fruits, vegetables, and grains under cultivation, using irrigation water from the many streams that poured out of the Wasatch Mountains.
Pioneer Trail State Park functions as a living history museum, so you may smell biscuits baking in an open hearth, see butter churned, or attend a play at the Social Hall.
Main Attractions of Salt Lake City
The major attractions of Salt Lake are conveniently clustered in the downtown area. The city planner, Brother Brigham Young himself, felt he had a divine mandate and mapped out the city in a logical manner that no civil committee need approve. The streets were laid out wide enough for an ox cart to make a U-turn without brushing the curb. However, the logical codes of wide streets and blocks are easily decipherable if explained to the traveler. Temple Square is the historic center of the city. From the Temple all streets are laid out in an exact direction, north, south, east, or west. 700 East, for example, is seven blocks east of the temple. The “blocks” are arbitrarily set at seven to the mile. All addresses are two map coordinates, allowing for whether the given East or West Temple street runs to the north or south or whether North and South Temple street sites happen to be east or west. A typical address, such as 550 East 700 South, is found 5-1/2 blocks east of Temple Square on 700 (or 7th) South Street.
Here is a good plan for seeing the main sites in downtown Salt Lake if you have a half day for a walk, meandering about two miles. Take your time, however, because the altitude is 4,330 feet:
Start at the Visitor Information Center at 180 South West Temple. This is the official hospitality and information center for visitors to the Salt Lake area.
The Salt Palace and Delta Center are convention and sports complexes, the home of basketball and hockey teams, plus the host for concerts, rodeos, and circuses. Salt Lake’s and Utah’s populations (182,000 in the city, 2.9 million in the state) support many cultural activities, so there is a high demand for meeting places.
Peruse also the Salt Lake Art Center near the Salt Palace. This Art Center houses many changing exhibits in various plastic media, photography, and crafts.
Maurice Abravanel Hall, next door to the Salt Palace, is home of the Utah Symphony Orchestra. The hall is an acoustical and visual gem, with sumptuous outlays of gold leaf and brass. The name for the hall honors a noted local conductor.
Consider also what is playing at the Capitol Theatre, an ornate structure a half block from the Visitor Center.
Then proceed to the Museum of Church History and Art of the Mormons, who are formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with saints meaning believers. The Museum is in the block due west of Temple Square. Even a traveler with little interest in religion can’t help but appreciate how the Mormon vision approximated so appropriately the developing American sensibility, with its emphasis on progress, this world influencing the hereafter, and man’s perfectibility rather than divine election. The Mormon role in developing the West was pervasive, especially in the period 1850-1900.
After a look at the museum, proceed across the street to Temple Square, the central place in Salt Lake City. If your time is short, Temple Square should be your essential stop. The Square is the symbolic heart of the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Volunteers from the church hospitably orient visitors to the Temple Square. The formerly lengthy tours have been broken down into six small tours that are going simultaneously, so you can pick out an area of interest and pursue it.
The majestic six-spired Temple, built 1853-1893, dominates the lavish grounds of this 10-acre site. However, the temple is closed to the public. Atop the temple is the gold-plated Angel Moroni, from the Book of Mormon, raising his trumpet to announce the further spread of the Word.
Tours of the domed Tabernacle, however, are ongoing. Architecturally, this oval wooden structure, whose design Brigham Young chose, seats 10,000 people without an obstructing pillar. The Tabernacle is a remarkable legacy from the era of wood construction. The only resources available to the Mormons when they started construction in 1863 were the pine trees south of Salt Lake. The entire building is constructed from interlaced white pine timbers and wooden pegs. Even the pipes of the fabled organ are made of white pine logs. From here the 335-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir presents its 9:30 a.m. Sunday morning concerts, which are aired on television and radio. The broadcasts have been continuous since 1929, making this one of the longest-playing shows in American broadcasting. You can witness their Thursday evening rehearsal or their Sunday morning broadcast live. (Arrive by 9 a.m. to get a good seat.) There are also daily noontime organ concerts at the Tabernacle.
Within Temple Square, the South Visitor Center has interesting dioramas of the historical story of the Mormons, showing how they were persecuted and hounded out of Missouri and Illinois. The murder of their founder, Joseph Smith, provoked the trip west to find a homeland of their own. The North Visitor Center focuses more on the theological vision of the Mormons. Another handsome structure on Temple Square is the Assembly Hall, a granite structure used for meetings.
At Temple Square, another two items of interest are the Seagull Monument, recalling how seagulls helped eat the crickets devastating the crops of the Mormons in 1847, and the Handcart Pioneer Monument, showing how many families proceeded west. At one point about 3,000 Mormons formed a train of handcarts pushing west from Iowa along the 1,350-mile journey. Of this group, which was primarily British, about 250 died.
Then leave Temple Square, walking east. One interesting feature of Salt Lake’s street signals is their audible bird-call component, such as a cuckoo-cuckoo. The audible signals alert the sight impaired. Various bird codes alert a person as to his or her location.
At the southeast corner of Temple Square is a statue of Brigham Young, the man who served as the second president of the Mormon Church and the first governor of the Utah territory.
The block east from the south edge of Temple Square contains four important historical structures.
On the corner is the former Hotel Utah, listed on the National Register, and now called the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. The former hotel was converted into offices by its owner, the Mormon Church. The building was the original site of the Mormon Church’s tithing office and housed the region’s first newspaper, the Deseret News. The rooftop has once again been devoted to rooftop dining, now in two restaurants. The building has two other resources open to the public–a computer for a search of family histories and a 60-minute drama movie on the Mormon story.
Next to the former Hotel Utah is an Ionic-columned structure, built in 1917, that houses administrative offices of the Mormon Church.
Adjacent is the Lion’s House, so named for the reclining lion mounted above the entrance. The house was built in 1855 for Brigham Young as a supplementary house for his wives and children. Since Young’s death in 1877, the building has been used as a community social center.
At the corner of the block is the Beehive House, originally built by Brigham Young in 1853-1854 as his main family residence. Here he entertained church and civil dignitaries. Now a National Historic Landmark, this building has been beautifully restored and is open daily for a free public visit. However, to see the building you must participate in the 30-minute tour. (The other mentioned structures, LDS Church Building and Lions House, are not open to the public.)
At the Beehive House corner you’ll see the Eagle Gate, originally from 1859. The Eagle Gate marked the entrance to Brigham Young’s property.
If you turn north from the Beehive House and walk half a block, you’ll witness the flower-filled plaza with a view of the temple. Around the plaza are several poignant statues done in a realistic manner, showing moments of family life, such as a son setting off in the world, or a mother in a moment of joyous dancing with her children.
West of Temple Square is the Family History Library, famous among genealogists because of its vast family-tree resources. The Mormon interest in family trees springs from a theological conviction. They believe that families have an eternal reality, that a spirit lives after death, and that you can do a favor for your past relatives by giving them a proxy baptism, which allows them the option of sharing the faith, if they wish. Because the proxy baptism must be for a specific person, not just for all your ancestors, much attention goes into searching through family records for distinct names. Because of its world-wide interest in salvation, this Mormon center has embarked on ambitious international genealogical systems. An informative 15-minute tour of the genealogical resources is offered to the public.
The 26th floor of the Church Office Building serves as an elevated viewing platform, allowing you to look down on Temple Square, north to the State Capitol, and east to Emigration Canyon, where the Mormons entered the region. Be sure to experience this view.
Due east of the Eagle Statue is the Mormon Pioneer Memorial, where Brigham Young and some of his family members are buried. The Pioneer Memorial honors the thousands of pioneers who died while trying to cross the plains to Salt Lake.
Across the street and south from The Eagle Gate is the Hansen Planetarium, one of the finest between Denver and the coast.
The blocks south of the Temple also contain major shopping centers of the past and present. The ZCMI Center is a modern counterpart of Young’s effort to organize the merchants of his day into a Zion Cooperative Mercantile Institution. Crossroads Plaza is a further example of a modern downtown shopping center with boutiques and restaurants. The atrium-style restaurant area in the ZCMI Center is a good rest stop or casual dining setting.
One of the congenial ways to get around in central Salt Lake City is the refurbished open-air trolley system, called the Brigham Street Trolleys, which operate on a fixed route through the downtown area, linking two new developments at either end. At one end is the Triad Center, a cluster of fashionable offices near the Union Pacific depot. At the other end is Trolley Square, a shopping and restaurant complex located in the old 1908 trolley car barns from the turn of the century. The earliest trolleys were mule-driven versions in 1872.
An overall impression of Salt Lake is that it may be the cleanest city you’ve visited. Litter is picked up rigorously. The people managing travel sites are especially hospitable. The lifestyle here is rather neat and orderly, good for people who can find freedom within structure and creativity within an overall framework of conformity. Patterns of dress and behavior place much emphasis on propriety. One finds in Salt Lake City a flourishing example of middle class white culture, with many beautiful homes on the eastern slopes of the city. The price of this purity is the lack of an energy possible only from a diversity both racial and religious. A traveler seeking racial, ethnic, and religious diversity will have to go elsewhere.
Another experience in Salt Lake City is the sophisticated urbanization that brushes up against the small-town familiarity. Salt Lake is not a large city, but it is the largest city between Phoenix and Canada, Denver and San Francisco.
Nearby Trips from Salt Lake City
The east side of the city, which contains the Pioneer Park (mentioned earlier), is also the home of the attractive University of Utah. The beauty and quality of the University are both well known. The Mormon belief in the progressive improvement of man has encouraged them to invest heavily in education. Mormons believe that what is learned in this life is retained in the next, cumulatively. Truth is the thing to be sought for, in all fields. Founded originally as the University of Deseret, in 1850, the school now has 24,000 students. For the traveler, two stops on the campus are the Museum of Fine Arts and the Natural History Museum.
Driving into the mountain ski areas in the summer gives you spectacular views of the alpine canyons.
The Great Salt Lake can be used for swimming and is the saltiest body of water in the world, except for the Dead Sea, but inquire from the Visitor Center where swimming is possible.
Salt Lake City: If You Go
The central information source is the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.visitsaltlake.com.
State of Utah tourism is at www.visitutah.com.