The settlement of Salt Lake City was not
typical in many ways of the westward movement of settlers
and pioneers in the United States. The people who founded
the city in 1847 were Mormons, members of the Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They did not come as
individuals acting on their own, but as a well-organized,
centrally directed group; and they came for a religious
purpose, to establish a religious utopia in the wilderness,
which they called the Kingdom of God on Earth. Like the
Puritan founders of Massachusetts more than 200 years
earlier, Mormons considered themselves on a mission from
God, having been sent into the wilderness to establish
a model society.
In many ways the history of Salt Lake is the story of
that effort: its initial success; its movement away from
the original ideas in the face of intense political, economic,
and social pressure from the outside; and its increasing,
but never complete, assimilation into the mainstream of
American life. Its history has been the story of many
peoples and of unsteady progress, and it was formed from
a process of conflict--a conflict of ideas and values,
of economic and political systems, of peoples with different
cultural backgrounds, needs, and ambitions.
For about a generation after its founding, Salt Lake City
was very much the kind of society its founders intended.
A grand experiment in centralized planning and cooperative
imagination, it was a relatively self-sufficient, egalitarian,
and homogeneous society based mainly on irrigation agriculture
and village industry. Religion infused almost every impulse,
making it difficult to draw a line between religious and
secular activities. A counterculture that differed in
fundamental ways from its contemporary American society,
it was close-knit, cohesive, and unified, a closely-woven
fabric with only a few broken threads. The hand of the
Mormon Church was ever present and ever active.
The extent of early Mormon pioneer unity can be, and often
is, overstated. Even so, for the first few years of settlement,
it was Salt Lake's most striking feature. Gradually at
first, however, and then more rapidly, the city began
to change. The completion of the transcontinental railroad
in 1869 and the subsequent spread of a network of rails
throughout the territory ended the area's geographic isolation.
Its economy became more diversified and integrated into
the national picture. Mining and smelting became leading
industries. A business district, for which there was no
provision in the original city plan, began to emerge in
Salt Lake City. A working-class ghetto took shape in the
area near and west of the railroad tracks. Urban services
developed in much the same time and manner as in other
cities in the United States, and by the beginning of the
twentieth century Salt Lake was for its time a modern
city. Main Street was a maze of wires and poles; an electric
streetcar system served 10,000 people a day. There were
full-time police and fire departments, four daily newspapers,
ten cigar factories, and a well-established red-light
district in the central business district. The population
became increasingly diverse. In 1870 more than 90 percent
of Salt Lake's 12,000 residents were Mormons. In the next
twenty years the non-Mormon population grew two to three
times as rapidly as did the Mormon population. By 1890
half of the city's 45,000 residents were non-Mormons;
and there was also increasing variety among them, as a
portion of the flood of twenty million immigrants who
came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries found its way to Utah.
As Salt Lake changed, and in particular as the population
became increasingly diverse, conflict developed between
Mormons and non-Mormons. During its second generation,
that was the city's most striking feature, just as earlier
the degree of unity was most conspicuous; Salt Lake became
a battleground between those who were part of the new
and embraced it and those who were part of the old and
sought to hold on to that. Local politics featured neither
of the national political parties and few national issues.
Instead, there were local parties--the Mormon Church's
People's party, and an anti-Mormon Liberal party--and
during elections people essentially voted for or against
the Mormon Church. Separate Mormon and Gentile (non-Mormon)
residential neighborhoods developed. While many Mormons
engaged in agricultural pursuits, few Gentiles owned farms.
Two school systems operated: a predominantly Mormon public
one and a mainly non-Mormon private one. Fraternal and
commercial organizations did not cross religious lines.
Sometimes Mormons and non-Mormons even celebrated national
holidays like the Fourth of July separately.
Conflict began to moderate after 1890 when, as a result
of intense pressure from the federal government, particularly
in the form of the Edmunds Act of 1882 and the Edmunds-Tucker
Act of 1887, Mormon leaders decided to begin a process
of accommodation to the larger society and endeavor to
conform to national economic, political, and social norms.
In 1890 Mormon Church President Wilford Woodruff issued
the Manifesto, which proclaimed an end to the further
performance of plural marriages. A year later, the church
dissolved its People's party and divided the Mormon people
between the Democratic and Republican parties. Following
that, non-Mormons disbanded their Liberal party. During
the next several years, the church abandoned its efforts
to establish a self-sufficient, communitarian economy.
It sold most church-owned businesses to private individuals
and operated those it kept as income-producing ventures
rather than as shared community enterprises.
These actions simply accelerated developments of the previous
twenty years, and the next two or three decades were a
watershed in Salt Lake's history. The balance shifted
during those years. By the 1920s, as Dale Morgan says,
the city no longer offered the alternative to Babylon
it once had, and the modern city had essentially emerged.
The process has continued to the present, with Salt Lake
City increasingly reflecting national patterns.
Since Utah became urbanized at about the same rate as
the United States as a whole, Salt Lake faced the problems
of urbanization and industrialization at the same time
they were surfacing elsewhere, and it responded in similar
ways. During the Progressive Era, for example, it established
a regulated vice district on the west side, undertook
a city beautification program, adopted the commission
form of government in 1911, and that same year elected
a socialist, Henry Lawrence, as city commissioner. The
city languished through the 1920s, as the depressed conditions
of mining and agriculture affected its prosperity. The
Great Depression of the 1930s hit harder in Utah than
it did in the nation as a whole. Salt Lake correspondingly
suffered, making clear its close relationship with the
world around it and its vulnerability to the fluctuations
of the national economy; and New Deal programs were correspondingly
important in both city and state.
World War II brought local prosperity as war industries
proliferated along the Wasatch Front. In the post-war
period defense industries remained important, and by the
early 1960s Utah had the most defense-oriented economy
in the nation. It has remained in the top ten ever since.
During the 1950s a number of important capital improvement
projects were undertaken, including a new airport terminal,
improved parks and recreational facilities, upgraded storm
sewers, and construction of the city's first water-treatment
plants. As a move to the suburbs began, the city's population
grew slowly, increasing by only 4 percent through the
1950s. Racial discrimination was still one of Salt Lake's
most serious problems. The real power in the city lay
with a group of three men (though it is difficult to get
specific information detailing their activities): David
O. McKay, president of the Mormon church; Gus Backman,
executive secretary of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce;
and John Fitzpatrick (and after his death in 1960, his
successor, John H. Gallivan), publisher of the Salt
Lake Tribune--representing, respectively, the city's
Mormon, inactive Mormon, and non-Mormon communities. The
triumvirate continued to function through the 1960s.
Features of the period since 1960 include further enhancement
of the city as the communications, financial, and industrial
center of the Intermountain West; a declining population
within the actual city boundaries (down fourteen percent
between 1960 and 1980); the movement of both people and
businesses to the suburbs as the valley population continues
to increase; some decaying residential neighborhoods and
a deteriorating downtown business district and the effort
to deal with those conditions; the development of a post-industrial
economy; and the rise to national prominence the Utah
Jazz professional basketball team and of such cultural
organizations as the Utah Symphony and Ballet West. The
city's population in 1990 was 159,936.
through all of this, Salt Lake has never become a typical
American city; it remains unique. The Mormon Church is
a dominant force, Mormonism is still its most conspicuous
feature, and deep division between Mormons and non-Mormons
continues, particularly on the social and cultural levels.
There is still much to Nels Anderson's observation in
1927 that Salt Lake is "a city of two selves,"
a city with a "double personality." As Dale
Morgan observed more than forty years ago, Salt Lake is
a "a strange town," a place "with an obstinant
character all its own." That continues to be true.
John S. McCormick