A Short Little History of the Great Salt Lake City
Long before this Wasatch mountain valley was home to over a million people, a bustling downtown, multiple universities, a dedicated ski scene, and a smattering of hip little walkable neighborhoods, it was a peaceful grassland with a stunning alpine skyline. Goshute, Ute, Shoshone, and Paiute tribes inhabited the valley over the years, with only extremely rare sightings of white passers-by.
Of course, everything changed when the first Mormon settlers set foot in the valley. After an arduous trek across the Western United States, they knew a good thing when they saw it. They started tilling the land for farming the day they arrived. It was time to put down roots.
Of course, at the start, the population’s majority was Mormon, and its church leaders dictated much of the city planning and politics. But things were kept colorful thanks to soldiers and miners arriving from afar who didn’t necessarily share in the majority denomination’s opinions. They brought a healthy dose of friction to the table.
This tension even led to the founding of America’s first department store, Zion Cooperative Mercantile Institution—or ZCMI as it became known. Mormon leader Brigham Young didn’t care for the fact that non-Mormon settlers were raising prices on basic goods his community needed, so he sought to create a more favorable market by banding Mormon business owners together under one roof. The resulting department store remained viable for over 100 years until it finally sold to Macy’s in 1999.
And while everyone knows that Mormons ruled the roost in those early years, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were following the religion’s modern regulations. In fact, early pioneers enthusiastically distilled a whiskey from wheat and oats, which they called Valley Tan. It was, by all accounts, potent. Even Mark Twain couldn’t help but have a dram when he passed through in 1871. He observed that the drink was “made of fire and brimstone,” which suggests, at least, that it made an impression.
In the early 1900s, tensions between Mormon and non-Mormon inhabitants had eased, with a non-partisan city council being adopted with the intention to pursue common goals like improving roads, utilities, and public healthcare. They dug in with the industriousness Salt Lake inhabitants have displayed since they first set foot here. (Yep, that’s why we’re “the Beehive State.” Busy as bees, we have trouble sitting still.)
The city built a trolley system connecting neighborhoods that were then outlying (but now are charmingly walkable) like Sugarhouse, Liberty Park, the Avenues, and Capitol Hill.
The trolleys have since been retired (and, decades later, replaced by a more robust public transit system), but their main depot still stands as today’s Trolley Square shopping mall, a fun little haven of boutiques, specialty shops, and restaurants.
Decade by decade, the city grew and plowed its way through tough times with its trademark pioneer spirit, finding opportunities at every obstacle. As the mining industry in the Wasatch Mountains dwindled in the early 1900s, it was replaced by a fledgling ski industry. The first rope tows and ski lodge were built in Brighton, and Salt Lakers who could afford a car in the ‘30s would take scenic drives up the rugged canyon roads and try their hand at skiing.
As the ski industry grew, decade by decade, into four world-class resorts in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, the city took aim at a long-treasured goal: hosting the Winter Olympics. The dream came true in 2002, when Salt Lake was the chosen site of the Winter Games. The city bustled with preparations for several years leading up to the event, building out its infrastructure, venues, and lodging.
The Olympics were a great excuse to examine a few long-standing questions, like how to expand public transit in a sensible way, and how to ditch some hokey old liquor laws (remember Valley Tan whiskey, people?!). Ultimately, all the Olympic infrastructure proved a great investment in the city’s future—it built a bigger shell that it could then grow into.
After that infusion of attention and energy, Salt Lake has just kept picking up its pace. The downtown area is economically abuzz, with a smokin’-hot bar and restaurant scene to boot. As the city earns a better and better reputation for offering a great lifestyle, with mountains and trails just minutes from the center of town, people are coming—to visit, and often, to stay. The upswell of more progressive politics might have Brigham Young rolling in his grave, but Salt Lake’s citizens today aren’t willing to look back. They’re building a bustling, hip, gay-friendly, environmentally-minded city with bike lanes and breweries for all.
The city’s first settlers were, after all, intrepid explorers who pointed their wagons west and worked tirelessly to build a viable town in the then-remote wilds. It only makes sense that we carry that same work ethic and determination forward, with an insatiable appetite for adventure, a drive to challenge the status quo, and a dream of doing right by this place and its people.
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