Browsing through century-old newspapers, diaries, documents and journals for clues to life in Utah “back then” can be addictive. It also can be frustrating for what it does not reveal, and satisfying for what it does turn up. For those who remember the Salt Lake City street cars of the 1940s, there is particular joy in discovering that the trolley song of 1872 probably would have included this line: Clang, clang, clang, whinny!
It was the first week of June 1872 when the vanguard of the city’s new street cars actually was fitted on the track down Main Street “for the purpose of having the curves spiked in their proper places.” The track was nearly complete to the Eagle Emporium on 1st South and workmen were busy along East Temple [Main], preparing the road for ties.
The “clang, clang, clang,” of course, would be the trolley bell, warning of its approach. And the “whinny?” That refers to its method of locomotion. The city’s trolleys in ’72 were horse-drawn and remained that way until the late 1880s when they went electric. It was in 1891 that the Eagle Gate was rebuilt for a greater height and width to accommodate trolley cars. Yes, to the history buff, the trivia divulged by newspapers of the period is absolutely delightful in its variety.
Remember when there were drinking fountains on every street corner of the downtown area. It began in the summer of ’77, according to The Deseret News: “Mr. David James has put in, for the city, a temporary drinking fountain, a few yards west of the south gate of the Temple Block, near the outer edge of the sidewalk. It will, in a few weeks, be replaced by a neat iron one, which has been ordered from the east. Similar fountains to that which is to take the place of the temporary one mentioned, will be placed at different points in the central parts of the city; one near Walker Brothers’ corner, another about a block east of the City Hall, another near the Eagle Emporium, and another in the vicinity of the Z.C.M.I building.” And so marked the debut of the city’s unique and celebrated system of public drinking fountains, which endured well into the mid-20th century.
In July of that same year, Territorial Surveyor General Jesse W. Fox and A.K. Gilbert, Esq., the latter of Major [John] Powell’s exploring expeditions, were out west, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. “They took with them a quantity of granite from the Temple Block, and established a [survey] monument to indicate the rise or fall of the waters of the Lake. It is situated on the brow of the mountain immediately south of the Utah Western track, opposite Black Rock, and is 35 and 51/100 feet above the present level of the water. Since the first settlement of Utah the waters of the Lake have risen about 14 feet,” the News explained.
Because The Deseret News was the official organ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its pages were for the most part crammed with information aimed at its Mormon readers. So it was not unusual that apostle George Q. Cannon, the paper’s editor in 1868, might turn his pen toward matters of the soul. On February 12, he elected to discourse on young men who avoided matrimonial ties. Writing under the headline: Marry And Be Happy, the editor expounded on these “incorrigible bachelors,” haranguing, “they have been reasoned with, joked with, and almost threatened with fine, to urge them to marry; but so far, in vain. Reason, eloquence, wit, and threats are all alike, unavailing, they do not marry.
Should they still persist in their celibacy we would be inclined to favor the revival of the Spartan custom of treating bachelors. It is said that at a certain festival at Sparta, the women were enjoyed to flog old bachelors around an altar, that they might be constrained to take wives! The publicity of such a proceeding might, possibly, have the effect to shame our bachelors into compliance with the first law given to man. If the fear of the first flogging would not do it, probably the dread of a repetition might cure their obstinacy.”
After a full column of type in this vein, Cannon closed with, “Seriously, we advise our young men to marry. ‘Marriage is the mother of the world and preserves kingdoms, and fills cities and churches, and Heaven itself'”A perusal of subsequent issues of the newspaper failed to uncover any additional reflections on whipping the singles set.
Frequently the newspapers in the city tossed civility aside and minced few words in their editorial positions. Consider this item in The Salt Lake Tribune’s “City Jottings” column for September 12 1874: “The bull’s eye sign on Z.C.M.I. comes down today.” It was the paper’s way of adding its two cents to the fact that the “All-Seeing Eye,” symbol of Mormon unity (church members trading only with church members) would no longer adorn Mormon businesses.
Later in the column, The Tribune remarked with characteristic sarcasm when dealing with Mormon topics: “As the Profit commanded the Mormon merchants, a few years since, to have signs placed before their stores with ‘Holiness to the Lord’ painted thereon, wouldn’t it be a fair stand-off for the Profit to give these merchants credit for same, on tithing, now that those signs have become worthless, and are encumbering the backyards of the aforesaid merchants.”
There really was no telling what would set off a tirade in those bygone days. If The Tribune was irked by the All-Seeing Eye, how distressed must Erastus Snow have been to tee off on sewing-machine salesmen, during a church sermon in Provo in June of 1877.”I was told,” he said, “that Sanpete County owed for sewing machines alone from $40,000 to $50,000 and–in Cache Valley $40,000 would not clear the indebtedness for sewing machines! The irrepressible sewing machine agents have ravaged our country, imposing themselves on every simpleton in the land, forcing their goods upon him.”
Warming to the subject, the Mormon apostle plainly did not approve of such expensive luxuries. Tens of thousands of dollars are lying idle in the houses of the Latter-day Saints today in this article alone; almost every house you enter you can find a sewing machine noiseless and idle, but very seldom you hear it running; and all of which were purchased at enormous figures, and now the patent rights having expired, they can be bought for less than half the prices paid for them.
In 1882, the Millennial Star, published in Liverpool for the benefit of British Mormons, took note that “Another effort is being made to raise oysters in the Great Salt Lake. Mr. House of Corinne, is the projector of the enterprise, at the mouth of Bear River. A former attempt to cultivate the bivalves at the mouth of the Weber, proved abortive on account of the intense saline properties of the Lake and other minor causes.” Hmmph, salty oysters, indeed.
A year later, the News in its May 21 edition, included two brief items that piqued interest. The first was a report that: “No fewer than 17 boys were arrested yesterday [a Sunday] in the act of playing baseball in the southern part of the city. Justice Spiers obtained a promise from them that they would cease breaking the Sabbath; and admonished them that if they were brought before him again on the same ground, he would not be so lenient, but would have them appropriately punished.” Marshal Burt expressed an intention of putting a stop to the practice of which these boys are accused.
The other story was datelined Lodi, Ohio, and disclosed that: “Mrs. Ann Eliza Young, of Mormon fame, 19th wife of [the late] Brigham Young, was married at 1 o’clock this p.m. in this city, to Moses R. Denning, prominent banker of Manistee, Michigan. The ceremony was performed at the residence of Dr. A. E. Elliott, and Rev. E.A. Stone, of Gallion, Ohio, officiated. Mrs. Young’s son witnessed the ceremony. There were a large number of guests present, among whom were some of the most prominent citizens of this vicinity. Mr. and Mrs. Denning will make their home in Manistee. They left on the 3:30 train for Toledo.”
From reporting the arrest of youthful Sabbath-breakers in ’83, the News in 1886 took notice with some concern that: “There are now in the city some six brothels, 40 tap rooms, a number of gambling houses, pool tables, and other disreputable concerns; all run by non-Mormons.” Civilization was taking its toll on Salt Lake City.