The creation of a remarkable western city: two extremely rare 19th century views of Salt Lake City and a spectacular panorama of the Mormon Trail
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From 1838 to 1846 most Mormons had settled in Nauvoo, Illinois under the leadership of Joseph Smith and his successor Bingham Young. Tensions between the newly arrived Mormons and established Nauvoo residents led to the Quincy Convention of 1845, which demanded that all Mormons depart by May 1846. Consulting trappers and frontiersmen, Young settled on the Great Basin, then largely belonging to Mexico, as their destination.
The trek westward began on February 4th, 1846. After crossing the Mississippi River at Nauvoo, the journey passed through Iowa Territory following early explorer's routes and Native American paths. Though Young had anticipated that a vanguard company would be able to reach the Great Basin before Winter, the journey was slowed by poor weather and general unpreparedness. The migrants were forced to winter along the Missouri, many at “Winter Quarters” across the river from Council Bluffs. The vanguard company departed in April 1847, followed the Platte and reached Fort Laramie in June, then began the arduous ascent to South Pass, and ultimately descended into the Great Basin. They arrived at the Great Salt Lake on July 21st, and the first irrigation ditches were purportedly dug and fields planted just two days later. Brigham Young himself, who had been taken seriously ill on the journey, arrived on the 24th. By the end of the year some 2000 Mormons had completed the journey.
Their second season on the site, 1848, their crops were threatened by ravenous swarming insects—crickets in the myth, but really a sort of katydid now known as the “Mormon cricket”—but disaster was prevented by clouds of gulls who arrived to eat the bugs. In honor of this event, the California seagull is Utah’s state bird.
That same year saw both the end of Mexican-American War ended, upon which Mexico ceded lands north of the Rio Grande, and the start of the California Gold. The Gold Rush sparked and increase in overland travel that boosted Salt Lake City, which provided a valuable stopping point on some trans-continental routes.
In 1849, the Church of Latter Day Saints proposed entry into the Union as the state of Deseret. As proposed by the Mormons, Deseret claimed a huge territory—most of the lands ceded to the U.S. by Mexico, including almost all of present-day Utah and Nevada, as well as significant sections of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and California, including even the existing settlements at Los Angeles and San Diego. Denying that proposal, in 1850, the U.S. designated Salt Lake City as part of the Utah Territory with an original capital planned for the town of Fillmore—a site chosen by Brigham Young near the geographic center of Utah Territory. But in 1858, Salt Lake City, the largest settlement in the territory, was named its capital.
Along with the capital status came federal troops. In 1857, President Buchanan sent 2,500 troops to Utah in response to the public sentiment against the Mormon practice of polygamy, starting the so-called “Utah War,” in which Mormon militia, calling themselves the Nauvoo Legion, under the command of Young, harassed federal troops. The “war” was resolved in 1858 with Young’s removal from the territorial governorship, in which position he was replaced by Alfred Cummings. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, most federal troops were withdrawn from Utah, but a garrison was maintained at least in part to ensure allegiance to the Union. Camp Douglas (later, Fort Douglas) was built in 1862, and the Sugar House federal prison was built in the neighborhood of the same name.
In 1869, the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed at Promontory Summit, north of the lake, and by 1870, the city had been connected to the railroad, fostering further growth.
Within the city, one priority for the Mormon leaders was the construction of a temple. In 1853, a site was chosen where the Jordan River meets City Creek, and construction began. The Salt Lake Temple was forty years in construction, being dedicated in 1893. The city had by then grown to near 50,000 in population.
The temple is sited near today’s city center; the temple’s southeast corner is the point of origin for the city’s rectilinear street grid, which followed the basic plan laid out in the “Plat of the City of Zion” by church founder Joseph Smith. The city’s wide streets can be attributed to Brigham Young’s desire that they be wide enough to turn a wagon team without “resorting to profanity.”
Although primarily a Mormon city, Salt Lake’s history is not exclusively Mormon: St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, built in the early 1870s, is the third oldest Episcopal cathedral in the U.S. And secular interests were also important: Fort Douglas, mentioned earlier, the military installation about 3 miles from the city center, was not the first federal building: in 1855, the Utah Territorial Prison was built near a sugar beet factory, and thus became known as the Sugar House prison.