South Salt Lake and the Quest for Civic Identity

The City of South Salt Lake relishes a rich history, more than the current physical structure of the city invokes.  When the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, settlements were quickly established on the fertile strip of land flanking the river flowing out of the Wasatch mountains to the east, later named Millcreek, as irrigation ditches were dug, and the valley's finest farms, orchards, and dairies were established on the flat alluvial landscape.  The plan for Salt Lake City's blocks ended at 900 South (today 2100 South).  The area to the south of Salt Lake's southern edge to present day 2700 South, was referred to as the "Big Field," where the pioneers cultivated their needed crops in the abundant fields. Originally, the area was made up of three distinct unincorporated areas: Millcreek, Central Park and Southgate and the area continued to be sparsely populated agricultural land, with parcels allocated in five- to twenty-acre units, until about 1870. Around that time, local businesses began to develop  including Husler's Mill, built about 1865 on the banks of Millcreek onTerritory Road, which is today's vehicular behemoth, State Street.

Husler Mill, ca. 1921
Other private, noteworthy developments of that era include Winder Dairy and Calder Park. Calder Park was established in the 1860s by George and mary Calder, clearing the well watered land with oxen, planting grass and trees and creating a lake from a natural spring to be used for boating spanned by a picturesque bridge.  The proprietors continued to develop the park installing a dance pavilion, racetrack, ball park, a carousel, and other attractions.  The park passed through different ownership including the Rapid Transit Street Car Company which ran the park from 1891 to 1902 and extended streetcar service to the park along 700 East installing electric power throughout the park. At its peak, Calder Park was attracting over 100,000 patrons per season.

Wandamere Park 1911
The LDS Church’s Granite Stake assumed ownership in 1909 and changed the name to Wandamere Park and, presently, after being acquired by Charles Nibley and donated to Salt Lake City is today known as Nibley Park, a municipal golf course, and but a shadow of its former self.

The area continued to grow and develop.  Near the turn of the century, development of infrastructure began with major dirt roads being covered with slag from nearby smelters and the construction of public buildings such as schools and churches.

State Street looking south from 2100 South

Miller School and Mormon Church, 3300 South, ca. 1910
Two of these structures remain as historical landmarks. The Scott School was built in 1890 on the northeast corner of 3300 South and 500 East. With various additions made over the years, the schoolhouse evolved to become part of Granite High School, and currently functions as the Pioneer Craft House, owned by the City of South Salt Lake, and continues to play an important educational and cultural role in the community.  In 1899 the Catholic Church built the Saint Ann's Orphanage and church on the south side of 2100 South between 400 and 500 East. The orphanage was adapted into an elementary school in 1955 and remains as one of the premier private educational institutions in the Salt Lake Valley.

St. Ann's Orphanage, ca. 1910.

The Granite Tabernacle was built by the Mormon Church in 1903 on the northeast corner of 3300 South and State Street. The Granite Tabernacle was considered one of the finest tabernacles, with a tower rising 133 feet and a dome arching seventy feet over the assembly hall that seated 2,500 people. Unfortunately, the landmark building was demolished in 1956 and the site is today imperiously occupied by a Megaplex theater.

Granite Stake Tabernacle, ca. 1910.
In 1936, several area businessmen formed the South Salt Lake Businessmen's Association to address the issue of using septic tanks or open cesspools which drained into local creeks, and decided to put the issue of incorporation to a vote. Against strong opposition, the vote passed on September 28, 1938, and the City of South Salt Lake was incorporated. The sewer was built for $462,000 using mostly pick axes and shovels. The City of South Salt Lake was the result of a pragmatic collaboration by forward looking business owners to provide sewer treatment and municipal water services to the businesses and residents living in the shadows of Utah’s capital.  The founding of South Salt Lake is thematically tied to secession, given the unwillingness and lack of commitment on the part of Salt Lake City to respond to growing needs, the city fathers set out to create a community to serve the residents, businesses and farms populating the area in an effort to create an individual civic identity and community.

City of South Salt Lake Landmark

So what’s happened since that time?  South Salt Lake’s history quietly eroded away being overrun by a monotonous landscape filled with Salt Lake’s leftover industry.  South Salt Lake has lost numerous historic buildings and landscapes and is now segregated from communion with Salt Lake City and its own west side, cut off by Interstate-80 and I-15.  The hub of the most traversed intersection in the state, the “Spaghetti Bowl,” filled with a complex array of on and off ramps, rushes travelers through the city at enormously high speeds.  In addition to the mid century transportation infrastructure, South Salt Lake is the site of a large commuter transit hub, the Central Pointe station connecting Sandy-Salt Lake and the Salt Lake-Daybreak line. 

As the city has developed over the 20th century, a disproportionate commitment to industry and business earned the city the moniker “City of Industry,” to the detriment of its city character and negation of diversity.  South Salt Lake’s borders are diaphanous and ill-defined, existing chaotically as a carpet haphazardly rolled out from Salt Lake City along State Street. 

As the City embarks on their journey into the 21st century, a visionary mayor and city council are attempting to build a sustainable and livable community atop the existing framework of disjunction and fracture, “a city on the move.”  Mayor Cherie Wood asserts, “Those who live here realize that these city lines contain all that could be desired in a community.”  While the statement is an exaggerated attempt to sell the city to business and residents alike, there is an element of truth to the statement.  The more accurate statement would be that “these city lines could contain all that could be desired in a community.”  There remain mountains of work to do.  One effort that has languished in the poor economy is the Market Station project, a large scale mixed use development centered around the light-rail transit hub at Central Pointe. In addition, by 2013, a street car line is expected to run along an existing rail line just south of 2100 South (the northern border of the city) from the Central Pointe TRAX station to the Sugar House neighborhood.  These progressive developments are pointing the city in the right direction, however there needs to be a centralizing force, a project which coalesces all of these important elements into one shared whole.

Proposed Market Station, 2100 South and Main Street

To that end, the most significant component of that vision is the effort on the part of the city leaders to establish a city center, a symbol of the community.  Rather than redefining or inventing a symbol for the community, the city has set its sights on historic Granite High School, recently vacated by the school district due to declining attendance and shifting demographics.  The opportunity to purchase the property presented itself and the city of South Salt Lake embarked on the road to acquisition by putting the decision to the voters of South Salt Lake in a $25 million dollar bond proposal. 

Granite Senior High School, 1934.

Home to one of the highest per capita violent crime rates in Utah, the status quo of South Salt Lake is so ingrained in the voters’ minds that they necessarily reject any proposal geared toward improving their community, creating civic identity, and establishing a sense of place.  South Salt Lake lacks any identifiable city center, physical or symbolic; and no, having a City Hall housed inside a billboard off of I-80 does not count.  The Granite High Bond was regrettably defeated, 1006 against to 1001 for. 

City of South Salt Lake City Hall, as viewed from I-80
The Granite High bond was an opportunity to create a long needed identity for the city, a civic center, a place to gather and commune, a democratic agora where citizens and politicians interact on equal terms.  The historic Granite High School would have become an immediate community asset, yet the voters in South Salt Lake have passed on a promising opportunity and must accept continuing second tier status.  Most businesses opposed the bond, citing poor economic times, a shortsighted vision, negating that South Salt Lake would become a more attractive business center as a real community is established.

Artist rendering of redeveloped Granite High School Campus

So to a missed opportunity, a reiteration of the fight song of the Granite High Farmers is warranted:

“When sight and sound of the campus
Fade in the long, busy years
Yet will return in our memories
Echoes of old songs and cheers.

You, of the field, track and diamond,
Fighters for clean victory,
You who love the fair, square sport,
You'll hear the song of the "G".

Go it Granite, go it Granite
Hear the battle cry;
Go it Granite, go it Granite
Yours 'til we die.

She will remember, you'll not forget her
Though you are far away
She is calling, calling to you ever
Honor the grand old "G"!”

© 2011 Steven Daniel Cornell 


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  2. Great pictures of South Salt Lake! Where did you get them? Any chance we could use some of them on our website?