The most ambitious desert civilization the world has seen. -Marc Reisner, 1986
Marc Reisner, in his poetic book Cadillac Desert, describes coming on Utah during a winter night flight through frigid air and thin moonlight. He saw emptiness, no forests, no pastures, no lakes, no rivers; there was no fruited plain. He saw uninhabited distance, a lot of emptiness. Then the landscape heaved upward.
We were crossing a high, thin cordillera of mountains, their tops already covered with snow. The Wasatch Range. As suddenly as the mountains appeared, they fell away, and a vast gridiron of lights appeared out of nowhere. It was clustered thickly under the aircraft and trailed off toward the south, erupting in ganglionic clots that winked and shimmered in the night. Salt Lake City, Orem, Draper, Provo: we were over most of the population of Utah.
That thin avenue of civilization pressed against the Wasatches, intimidated by a fierce desert on three sides, was a poignant sight. More startling than its existence was the fact that it had been there only 134 years, since Brigham Young led his band of social outcasts to the old bed of a drying desert sea. . . . Within hours of ending their ordeal, the Mormons were digging shovels into the earth beside the streams draining the Wasatch Range, leading canals into the surrounding desert which they would convert to fields. . . . Without realizing it, they were laying the foundation of the most ambitious desert civilization the world has seen.
Salt Lake City is the capital of Mormondom. Here are the leaders of the Church, many of them descended from pioneer families. Here are the iconic buildings, holy places to Church members-the grey-granite Salt Lake temple with its six thrusting steeples topped by a gold angel, the black-roofed, oval tabernacle shaped like half an egg lying on the ground, the skyscraper that houses the bureaucracy.
But Church members now number less than half of the city's population, and those outside the fold sometimes distrust and resent the minority institution that dominates the city. The politics of Salt Lake City speak volumes about the relationship between Mormons and everyone else, not only in the polarized city of Salt Lake, but in the United States at large. The tensions, the collaborations, the negotiations are often spelled out most legibly in the city beside the salty lake.
Salt Lake City is the most durable of the Church's Zions. The Tenth Article of Faith states that "Zion will be built upon this (the American) continent." After the exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846, Salt Lake became the place for the Saints to gather. It remains the most religiously homogeneous large city in North America. The size of Providence, Rhode Island, Salt Lake stands unshadowed by larger metropolises. It's the only show around. Historian Gary Wills once mentioned that it was the nation's only holy city.
Salt Lake City could not be founded today. The development required an open, thinly settled frontier with few inhabitants. In 1847, the advance party of 150 men and a few women reached the Salt Lake Valley, finally out of the mountains through which they had slaved with ax and shovel. Brigham Young, low with mountain fever, arrived on July 24 and confirmed that this was indeed the place to settle. Harriet Snow, seeing the wasteland that was her new home, said to her husband Lorenzo, "We have traveled fifteen hundred miles to get here, and I would willingly travel a thousand miles farther to get where it looked as though a white man could live." But she stayed. The 24th of July, commemorating the pioneer arrival, is Utah's biggest holiday. From 1846 to 1869, thousands of families like the Snows crossed the plains and mountains to the arid Great Salt Lake basin in covered wagons and on foot, hoping to find a place so barren and undesirable that no one would bother them.
If Nauvoo was the city of Joseph Smith, Salt Lake was the city of Brigham Young. This carpenter, with little formal schooling or experience in administration, was a colonizing genius. When the first pioneers arrived, the Great Salt Lake Valley was a level strip of land fifteen or twenty miles wide and twenty to forty miles long between the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake. The valley had little rain and timber, but creeks were dammed, irrigation ditches dug, land cleared, corn planted, and the wilderness blossomed. Cooperation and discipline united the people. By the 1870s the land boasted tall trees, profitable farms, and acres of peach orchards in a huge Mormon empire. Salt Lake City, the command post, was a thriving city.
Four days after his arrival, Brigham Young walked the area, planning the city, waving his hand toward a central ten acres for the temple. Wilford Woodruff noted that the city was "laid out into lots of 10 rods by 20 [each] exclusive of the streets & into Blocks of 8 lots each, Being 10 acres in each block & one & a quarter in each lot." Streets were to be eight rods wide, so that an ox team could turn around, with a twenty-foot wide sidewalk on each side. Each house was to be built in the center of its lot, twenty feet from the front; four public squares, ten acres each, were set aside. Salt Lake was a planned city anchored by the temple.
Mormons, fresh from England and Scandinavia, poured into the city. More than 300 wagon trains, 10,000 wagons in all, brought people to Utah over the next twenty-two years. H. H. Bancroft described this moving city of Mormon immigrants, as a "migration without parallel in the world's history." The settlers traveled by ship to New Orleans, then 700 miles up the Mississippi and 500 more up the Missouri to Nebraska, where the wagon trains set off. To help indigent converts, the Church set up a Perpetual Emigrating Fund, advancing travel costs to be repaid later. In its thirty-seven-year existence, the fund spent several million dollars in cash and donated equipment and services to bring poor converts to Zion.