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The Atlantic to the Pacific: What to See and How to See it (1873), by John Erastus Lester

The Mormons.

The Mormons.—As we approach Salt Lake City the first object which meets our view is the huge roof, oval in form, of the tabernacle; then the groves of trees, blooming in almost tropical luxuriance; and then, as we draw nearer, the adobe houses of the farmers; and, when within the city limits, the cottages of the people, nestled among their apple and peach orchards.

In the mellow twilight of the Sabbath day, the great snow-clad mountains, whose weird forms rise on every side of the valley; the houses of the rich Mormon trader the cottages surrounded by luxuriant gardens; broad streets, along either side of which rippled a little brooklet; long blocks of stores; the walls of the Mormon houses of worship, with the people who abide here going and coming,—these are the sights we see in riding from the dépôt to our hotel.

In journeying across the Continent, it is better to remain over for a few days in this city, as well for rest, as to see this interesting place, and also to make preparation for the balance of the trip; for, if not already provided therewith, a little gold will be required to pay for meals and other unavoidable expenses. The ‘Walker House’ here has 130 rooms, and is reputed to be the best hotel west of Chicago, on the overland route. The Townsend House is the Mormon hotel, and is also favourably remembered by tourists who have lived there.

Refreshed by rest and sleep, we start out to ‘do’ the city. It lies upon a spur of the Wahsatch mountains, the northern part being well upon the ‘bench,’ from which a glorious view is had of the rest of the town and adjoining country. It was settled July 24, 1847, by Brigham Young and his followers, who, driven from Nauvoo, in Illinois, had pushed westward through the wilds of what is now Iowa, and across the plains, through the mountain defiles, into this valley. This band of religious zealots soon organised a government, calling their State ‘Deseret’1 electing Mr. Young president,—a title and office which he holds to this day.’ As is well known, he was Governor of Utah for several years, until 1857, during which time he did much towards developing the Territory, whose 65,000 square miles include farm-lands, great inland seas, wild mountain-ranges, and rich mines of gold, silver, lead, and iron. The Valley in which this city is situated is bounded on the east by the Wahsatch, and on the west by the Oquirrh mountains, through which deep cañons extend, the only doors of ingress and egress. To the East are Emigrant and Parley Passes, through the former of which the Mormons came into the Valley. As we came out of Echo Cañon, the old stage-road left the railroad, and turned off to the south, following the Weber River, and entering the Salt Lake Valley by the first mentioned cañon.

1This name signifies the land of the honey-bee.

2At a general convention of the Mormon Church held in May last, Mr. Young resigned all his civil offices, but still remains as the head of the Church.

Standing in the main street, and looking south-east, we see Little Cottonwood Cañon, where is located the Emma Mine, which is now considered the richest argentiferous galena deposit in the world. To the west we see Brigham Pass, where are mines rich in golden treasure. Russ Valley mines are well known; and, indeed, every cañon and every mountain-side present great inducements to the adventurous miner. From all the streets, the mountains are seen, some snow-capped all the year; and from some points the lake and River Jordan are in view. The hills are well wooded; maple, pine, and oak abounding. There is also abundant sandstone, which is a good building material, and a hornblende granite, of which they are constructing the ‘Temple.’


Salt Lake City.—The streets are all at right angles, broad, well-shaded, and to some extent graded. Many good and substantial structures have been erected; and the dwellings which contain the 22,000 people are comfortable and neat, some of them being elegant mansions. Outwardly, comfort and prosperity are seen. The stores are well stocked with merchandise; and not only can you find the needful, but Luxury has gathered many of her votaries around her here, to the peril of the young Mormon girls and boys. The church people try to prevent their Gentile brothers from opening shops within the town, which they trusted Nature had so defended that they would alone occupy it, undisturbed by those not of their faith. That the Mormons may know their friends, by an edict of the church a sign is placed over the stores, upon which is painted a large eye, with the words, ‘Holiness to the Lord. Zion’s Co-operative Mercantile Institution.’ Here the followers are expected to trade.

Fortunately, next morning after our arrival was to be May-day for the children, and a good Mormon said to us,

‘I wish you would go down and see if poly-gā-mous children are not as good as mono-gā-mous children’ (as he spoke it). Of course we went to see the 6,000 school-children with their parents start upon their excursion. No better chance could be offered to see these people in their holiday garb; and we must admit they seemed happy: certainly they looked well; and nothing occurred to remind us of their peculiar customs. Said a good bishop of the church, ‘This happy sight is the result of our religious faith.’ In vain did we look for those woe-stricken faces which had been described to us, and for the signs of degeneracy in the children.

The Mormon tabernacle is a huge building, 250 feet long by 150 feet wide, with forty-six stone columns, from which springs the roof, probably the largest self-sustaining ceiling in the country. On entering the building, the organ, second to but one in the United States, first attracts our attention; next, the astonishing number of the plain pine seats on the floor and in the galleries. There is said to be sitting-room for 14,000; probably 10,000 can be comfortably seated. Immediately in front of the organ is a desk or pulpit, raised very high, where Brigham sits, and from which he preaches; next below, one for the counsellors, then one for the bishops, then the deacons; and on either side of the platform are the seats of the ‘seventies.’ There is little paint, as yet, inside the building: so that all looks cold and uninviting. The doors are so arranged, that the people can depart in a few minutes from all sides of the structure.

In the ceiling we noticed numerous little holes, and asking our Mormon friend their use, were told that through them chains could be let down, to which scaffolding was attached when they wished to make repairs: thus much expense is saved in the operation, as the ceiling is 65 feet from the floor.

The Mormons are trying to build a ‘temple’ also, but the work is advancing very slowly. If they complete it according to the plans, they will have a piece of architecture to boast of. Until the opening of the railroad, all the stone used in building the ‘Temple,’ was hauled by ox-teams, some 20 miles, over a mountain road. It is to be 100 feet high, and, upon the ground, 99 by 186 1/2 feet, with towers and spires at each corner.


The Mormon Community.—Brigham has a large and valuable plat of ground enclosed with walls, within which are his various houses, called ‘The Bee,’ ‘The Lion,’ &c., his school-house, and other buildings. His farm is not so well cultivated as we expected to find it; and some of his followers, if not as good at ‘scheming,’ are far better at ‘farming.’ The theatre, the council-house, the city hall, and university are all stone buildings, of some architectural finish. There are several newspapers published here, of none of which can we say much in praise. Several religious denominations have established missions here, all of which, we were told, are flourishing. The Protestant-Episcopal Church has founded St. Mark’s, and has just completed a fine stone chapel, where services are held regularly. For the religious purposes of the Mormons, the city is divided into twenty wards, in each of which meetings are held, presided over by a bishop; and for political purposes also, these divisions are preserved. The people of each ward, both Mormon and Gentile, are presumed to govern the schools, which in theory are independent of the Church; but, as the Mormons are so largely in the majority, they exercise, in fact, the control. The schools are free to all upon the payment of a small tuition-fee for their support. The Sunday schools are held in the same buildings.

We took pains to call upon Mormon gentlemen, hear their views, and observe their customs. All of them attributed their recent troubles to the rumseliers, who attempted to break down their license system established by the city government. The sum fixed upon as the price of a license, was three hundred dollars per month, to be paid at least three months in advance,—terms to which the dealers were not inclined to accede, hence the troubles. The Mormons do not attempt to conceal their satisfaction at the recent decision of this business in their favour by the Supreme Court; but none of the leaders spoke in any defiant tone, and all attribute their deliverance to divine interposition. We heard their arguments in favour of polygamy in extenso. In answer to our direct question, they admitted that their wives were often unhappy when a new one came into their husband’s house.

A ride about the city is inspiring; the views are grand, the scenery delightful, and the roads in fair condition. As the houses of the Mormons are passed, the number of his wives may be known by the number of front-doors, although the wealthier have houses in different parts of the town, and farms in the country, each presided over by a favourite wife.

The water, which is conducted from City Creek through the streets of the city, furnishes a good supply for use and irrigation, and gliding along on either side, enclosed by grassy banks, gives to the streets an air of coolness even under a summer’s sun.

Brigham Young is, of course, the ‘lion’ to be seen. By favour of his secretary we were introduced to him. He is a well-preserved, good-looking man of seventy-two, with frank, open face, and the air of a gentleman; above the ordinary stature, and, in brief, one who would be selected from the many as one of talent. His address is good, and he is fluent in speech. In manner he shows that suavity which makes and keeps friends.

He has taken a prominent part in the public improvements in the Territory; organising lines of stages, expresses, a telegraph; building railroads; and opening avenues of communication between the various settlements. He is beloved by his followers, and has a controlling voice in all their affairs.

Thus much must be said. Still we do know that life was for a long time unsafe in the Territory; that Gentiles were forbidden to open mines or carry on trade; that even the Mormons themselves were forbidden to prospect for gold and silver; that secret ‘councils’ were held, and that men were missed from their homes; that people. were warned out the Territory; and that the ‘Danite pill’ was too often administered. Had Brigham taken the course to invite immigration, Utah would now have been a bright star in the constellation of States, her lands ablaze with the fires of smelting furnaces; and the hills would have echoed with the noise of the mills, crushing out the wealth of her mountains. Her resources would have made her, probably, the first in mineral richness of all the States in the Union.

The railroad is certainly working some changes: the richness of her mines, the fertility of the soil, and the salubriousness of climate are calling in new people; fresh impulses to trade and development are given; churches and school-houses are making their way, and a new party is being formed. A gentleman who has lived in the Territory four years told me that a great change had taken place among the Mormons themselves, respecting the theory and practice of polygamy, within that time. There are probably, at this time, 130,000 people in the Territory, two-thirds of whom are Mormons, and of whom, again, one-third do not believe in or practice polygamy; and their number is increasing.

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