68th United Nations
Civil Society Conference
A Short Little History of the Greater Salt Lake Area
Over the course of 1,300 miles, they trekked into unfamiliar territory across the West, with only the belongings they could fit in a covered wagon or, sometimes, a simple hand-cart they pulled themselves. Through a sheer act of faith, these men, women, and children managed to make it all the way to Salt Lake, where they were relieved to hear their leader, Brigham Young, declare that this was where they’d make their new home.
Of course, once they arrived, they were tasked with another challenge: building a community in this wild outpost over a thousand miles from the civilization they’d left, using just the tools they’d carried with them. From scratch, they forged a city with wood and stone from the valley’s canyons and water from the mountain streams.
We all know the end of the story--they founded modern-day Salt Lake City.
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.
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.
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.
On July 24, 1847, the first batch of intrepid, trail-tested pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake valley. They’d achieved an absolutely monumental task, and not without devastating losses along the way. Fueled by determination to make a fresh start after religious strife uprooted their communities, they’d banded together and pointed their horses westward.
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.)
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.