Part of my first book, Darlin’ Druid, is set in Utah, c. 1872. This required a lot of research, especially because I’ve never been able to visit the Beehive State in person. Today I’d like to share a smidgen of what I learned from books, internet sites and the Utah State Historical Society.
When Brigham Young first looked upon the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, he is supposed to have said “This is the place.” It’s hard to imagine why he chose such a dry, inhospitable spot for his people to settle, but history has proven him right. Within a few decades, the Mormons turned that dry valley into fruitful farm land and Salt Lake City into a thriving community.
The early pioneers had few material resources. Thus, they had to rely on their own ingenuity and hard work – their industry – to survive. Think of a colony of bees working together, building a new hive, and you’ll know why the beehive became the emblem for the provisional State of Deseret in 1848. The symbol was retained along with the word "industry" on the state seal and flag after Utah was granted statehood in 1896. “Deseret” is reportedly a word for honey bee in the Book of Mormon. The honey bee was named official state insect in 1983, thanks to the lobbying efforts of a fifth grade class.
Crofutt’s Trans-Continental Tourist Guide, 1872 edition, describes Salt Lake City: “This is one of the most beautiful and pleasantly located of cities.” Situated at the foot of a spur of the Wasatch Mountains to the east, and extending onto the uplands that unite valley and mountains, the city boasts a dramatic setting that impressed the writer of the tourist guide. “The lofty range of the Wasatch forms the background, lifting its rugged peaks above the clouds. Piles of snow can be seen in the gorges where the warm sunlight has not the power to melt it.”
From those snowy gorges, the Mormons drew life-giving water via a clever irrigation system, allowing them to turn the desert valley into rich farm land. They brought water to Salt Lake City in the same way, laying out irrigation channels along the streets, which naturalist John Muir describes this way: "The streets are remarkably wide and the buildings low, making them appear yet wider than they really are. Trees are planted along the sidewalks -- elms, poplars, maples, and a few catalpus and hawthorn . . . ." Muir goes on to complain about the irregular size of trees and buildings, and disapproved the Latter Day Saints' stand on polygamy. Yet, from his description, it's plain to see the Saints planned their city with an eye for beauty as well as practicality.
The following is an excerpt from Darlin’ Druid in which my heroine, Jessie, marvels at her surroundings while out for a Sunday afternoon stroll.
A short while later, she paused beneath a leafy elm tree and fished a handkerchief from her reticule. As she had many times before, she blessed the city’s Mormon founders for planting so many trees along the broad streets. Their shade was a godsend in this heat.
Patting the dew from her forehead and upper lip, she smiled at a group of youngsters frolicking in a small peach orchard across the street. The city abounded with fruit trees – apple, plum, but most of all peach – and a variety of grapevines. Most every gray adobe or white clapboard house also displayed a vegetable plot and flower garden. All thanks to the Mormons’ ingenious irrigation system, a necessity in this hot, dry valley.
There were even lilac bushes. Although long since done blooming for the year, they still reminded Jessie of home. Her mother had loved lilacs, and she’d planted several bushes around their cottage. Every spring their radiant purple blooms had filled the air with a heavenly scent – before the fire had swept them away along with the house and everything else, leaving only destruction behind. And nightmares.
Salt Lake City in the old days (photos from Utah State Historical Society)
First South, 1872, with Salt Lake Theatre on the left. Built in 1861, the theatre staged plays, hosted dances and concerts. Brigham Young often attended. One guest said, "At the time of its erection, it was not surpassed in magnitude, completeness and equipment by any other existing house." Each event opened with prayer; no smoking or drinking allowed. *Notice trees lining the street.
Temple Square, 1882, showing left to right, partially completed Temple, Assembly Hall, and the Tabernacle.
One of the city's largest hotels was the Salt Lake House, where Jessie dines with an admirer. Run by a Mr. Townsend, a Mormon convert from Maine, the hotel stood on Main Street. Notice the stagecoach out front.
Businesses and wagons loaded with goods. By 1870, a number of gentile (non-Mormon) businesses were in operation.
Most Mormon merchants belonged to Zion's Co-operatice Mercantile Institution (Z.C.M.I.) and displayed the sign of the all-seeing eye.
Modern Salt Lake City
Mormons and Gentiles, a History of Salt Lake City by Thomas G. Alexander & James B. Allen
History of Utah,1540-1886 by Hubert Howe Bancroft
Utah, the Land of Blossoming Valleys by George Wharton James
Steep Trails by John Muir