The Legacy of Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Fort

Salt Lake West Side Stories: Post Seven
by Brad Westwood

Above photo caption: Utah’s Hall of Relics, built as a small Parthenon replica. Note above the pediment is a smaller replica of Ralph Ramsey’s flying eagle sculpture (the original atop Brigham Young’s Eagle Gate). The hall, constructed of plaster and jute fiber over a wooden frame, was built for the 1897 Utah Pioneers’ 50th anniversary celebration.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS Church) did not live in the Old Pioneer Fort for long. As early as the spring of 1849, just two years after Mormons began to colonize the Salt Lake Valley, residents moved to lots, or “inheritances,” that church leaders assigned them.

Frequently, people disassembled the fort cabins and moved them to their city lots. Others built log or adobe cabins, the latter from the clay deposits also used to construct the partial fort wall. The move from the fort to the planned city marked a shift in what Mormons called the center of their city. Instead of the Pioneer Park neighborhood, it would be Temple Square that would become the center of operations. At Temple Square, Mormons built a sizable open bowery and started plans for more permanent structures. During their initial years in the Salt Lake Valley, members of the LDS Church expanded across the Salt Lake Valley to transform different areas to meet the needs of their growing immigrant population.

Not everyone moved from the fort to the new planned city (relatively speaking it was an instant city). A small group of residents continued to live in the fort until spring 1851. In 1850, church leaders directed all incoming immigrants to temporarily camp at what would eventually be called “Union Square,” which is now the site of Salt Lake City’s West High School (300 West 241 North). What remained of the Old Pioneer Fort was cleared in 1851 to make room for the expanding Mormon community. Over time the site for the Old Pioneer Fort experienced a rebranding of sorts as citizens and church leaders repurposed the space to meet their immediate needs. Some of the fort land remained open to settlers to use for grazing and gardening. 

Mr. Morgan, Mr. Giles and Dr. Milton R. Hunter (center), pointing to the Pioneer Fort monument on December 26, 1953. The bronze plaque was placed in the park in 1933. Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

Today, a ten-acre park is all that is left to commemorate the original forty-four-acre fort. The Pioneer Park was dedicated as a public space during the city’s fiftieth-anniversary celebration in 1897. Notably, in 1897, the west side looked dramatically different than it had fifty years prior when Mormons first constructed their constantly expanding pioneer fort. Salt Lake City, like most of the United States, had embraced post-Civil War industrialization and businesses, laborers, and residents transformed the city’s west side from an extended pioneer fort to individual lots, to a transportation and industrial hub for the city and the valley. Salt Lake City’s west side also experienced a dramatic demographic shift as immigrants from around the world moved into the working-class Pioneer Park neighborhood. By the late nineteenth century, the community was diverse, and it was also an area well-known for its industry, its manufacturing businesses, and for its poverty. Those who lived there were primarily non-Mormon immigrant pioneers from Greece, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and a growing number of African Americans.

“In 1898, two years after Utah gained statehood, state, city, and LDS Church leaders worked together to secure a Mormon pioneer identity for the old pioneer fort location.”

In 1898, two years after Utah gained statehood, state, city, and LDS Church leaders worked together to secure a Mormon pioneer identity for the old pioneer fort location. That year, the city dedicated the ten-acre block by naming it “Pioneer Park” focusing on the arrival of Mormon pioneers in 1847. As previously mentioned, the original “Fort on the Great Salt Lake” had grown to over forty acres by 1849, but by 1898 it had shrunk to a tidy ten-acre block. In 1947, the city once again recognized the park during the state’s pioneer centennial celebrations. Of course, Mormon settlers were only the first of the scores of different pioneers who moved into the neighborhood during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, many leaders, and most Utahns, chose to focus on the Mormon legacy as a point of reference for the park. It would not be until later that historians worked to record a more inclusive history for the park and for its surrounding neighborhood. During the 1940s and 1950s, the park became a place where city, state, and church leaders chose to tell, not only a Mormon settlement story, but also a broader narrative about American westward expansion, lawmaking, economic development, and to memorialize the whole colonization of the West. By the mid-twentieth century, Utahns and Salt Lakers saw themselves equally as Americans, and particularly western Americans, as they did as children of the separatist Mormon Pioneers.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the park became a place where city, state, and church leaders chose to tell, not only a Mormon settlement story, but also a broader narrative about American westward expansion, lawmaking, economic development, and to memorialize the whole colonization of the West.

These calls by state, city, and LDS Church leaders before and after the park’s dedication in 1897 occurred as the west side was experiencing a massive transition from predominantly Mormon and agriculturally based, to industrialized and non-Mormon neighborhoods. The transition to urban and a more diverse population increased during the Great Depression and onward. Also, by the mid-twentieth century, Salt Lake City’s prevailing historical and social narratives changed from that of a “Mormon city” to a quintessentially American urban area and more subtly to a “white” city. The history of the Pioneer Park reflects these identity shifts. To the majority of the Salt Lake City population, the park and neighborhood represented a baffling combination of ethnic and racial diversity, constant poverty, and a place of changing industrial uses, thus making it one of the city’s most eligible places for demolition and urban renewal. In essence, throughout most of its history, the park and its neighborhood has been a contested space, especially at efforts to memorialize the Pioneer Park.  

By the twentieth century, the west side’s inhabitants and its architecture represented a myriad of traditions and cultures inspired by its diverse residents. Those who lived and worked on the west side came from differing ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, the lavish Staines-Jennings Mansion, or Devereaux House, still stands at 334 West South Temple Street. Built between 1855 and 1857 and remodeled in 1882 to 1885, Utah horticulturalist William Staines and architect William Paul, designed Salt Lake City’s first mansion using the then-popular English inspired Gothic Revival style (both in its architecture and landscape design). Paul designed the garden based on the published works of preeminent American landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing. In the mid-1880s, the cottage and gardens were sold to Salt Lake City’s first millionaire, William Jennings, who transformed the house into a much larger mansion following the then fashionable Second Empire style. 

The Deuel log cabin in the shadow of the Kennecott Building on Temple Square, 1962. Photo courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

Like the park’s changing identity, the mansion also adapted to the city’s ever-changing environment. After falling on harder times during the first half of the twentieth century, the small mansion functioned as a longtime west side boarding house. Well-known Salt Lake City businessman, Izzi J. Wagner, tells a story of one unnamed boarding house lodger who, during the Prohibition Era (1920-1933), distilled and sold his liquor from an upper room in the mansion. Wagner’s aunt, Ehtal Yuddin, who leased and sublet rooms in the mansion, lost her lease on the mansion after her bootlegger renter’s moonshine blew a hole through the mansion’s roof.

Of course, the Devereaux House is hardly representative of the majority of the West Side’s early dwellings. The majority of its first inhabitants lived in small log or adobe cabins, amid gardens and orchards, which were gradually added to, or removed or demolished, to accommodate changing circumstances. Not all of these earliest cabins were lost. The Osmyn M. and William H. Deuel cabin, built within the pioneer fort in 1848, is now preserved and enshrined in a memorial plaza located between the LDS Church’s Family History Library and the Church History Museum (35 North West Temple Street). 

In 1849 the cabin was placed on skids and pulled from Pioneer Park to a residential lot on West Temple and 100 North. It was then taken down and featured in a museum setting until it was later installed on Temple Square, where it was fenced and preserved under a Neoclassical canopy. Finally, after being stored away for a short time, in the mid-1980s, it was installed in its current location on an LDS Church-owned Plaza looking directly into Temple Square.  

Today, the cabin stands as one of Utah’s grand symbolic Mormon immigrant relics. For many visitors, the dwelling represents the sacrifice, perseverance, and faith of the original Mormon pioneers. It also serves as an object of stark contrast to the wondrous civilization the descendants of Utah’s revered pioneers built around it. The Deuel cabin, which was moved around in time and space for over 170 years, is also the Pioneer Fort and Park’s most prized and disconnected artifact.

Join us for our next installment of Salt Lake West Side Stories where we will discuss the arrival of the railroad and some of the early visitors to Salt Lake City’s west side.


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Related Activities:

Visit the Deuel Cabin located at 35 North West Temple Street which has been preserved and interpreted by the Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Inside the cabin, read the information provided about the cabin and its original owners.

Visit Salt Lake City’s Daughters of Utah Pioneers (DUP) Museum located at 300 North Main Street. The museum opened its doors in 1950. The facility is a mid-twentieth century attempt at a modern version of the Salt Lake Theater (completed in 1861), which was razed in the 1920s followed by much lingering regret. The museum, from top to bottom, is filled with what the DUP describes as “relics” of the pioneers up to approximately 1900. 

Contributors: This post was researched and written by Brad Westwood with a whole lot of help from friends. Thanks to our sound engineer and recording engineer Jason T. Powers, and to his supervisor Lisa Nelson, both at the Utah State Library’s Reading for the Blind program. Thanks also to yours truly, David Toranto, for narrating this post.

Selected Works:

Eugene E. Campbell, Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West, 1847-1869 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 1-40.

Craig D. Galli, “Building Zion: The Latter-day Saint Legacy of Urban Planning,” BYU Studies Quarterly 44, 1 (Jan 2005): 1-26.

Julie Osborn, “From Pioneer Fort to Pioneer Park,” Beehive History: The Spirit of Pioneering 22 (1996): 16-20.

Fred E. Woods, “The Arrival of Nineteenth-Century Mormon Emigrants in Salt Lake City,” in Salt Lake City: The Place Which God Prepared, ed. Scott C. Esplin and Kenneth L. Alford (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 203–230.

See our Selected Readings page for a complete list of works.

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