One of the most colorful fights over Utah's history--the Battle of the Cedar Tree Shrine--concerned what the Salt Lake Valley looked like when Brigham Young first saw it 153 years ago this Monday. Salt Lake City schoolchildren used to be taught that the only tree growing in the valley when the Mormon pioneers arrived was a cedar (actually, a juniper) standing in the middle of what is now 600 East just below 300 South.
Several 1847 journals reveal this simply wasn't so. The clerk of the Pioneer Camp, Thomas Bullock, wrote that the "very extensive valley" was "dotted in three or four places with Timber." But facts seldom get in the way of a beloved legend, especially one that celebrated the belief that the Mormon pioneers found a wasteland and made the desert "blossom as a rose."
True or not, the Lone Tree tale was enshrined in bronze on Pioneer Day in 1934 when the Daughters of Utah Pioneers erected a columned "peristyle" shrine around what was left of the cedar on the median of 600 East. A plaque told how the pioneers of 1847 paused beneath the shade of the lone cedar to offer songs and prayers of gratitude. The 1847 Mormons actually missed the tree by a mile, since they followed the Donner Party trail to present-day 1700 South and took "a strait road to a small Grove of Cotton Wood Trees" on City Creek at 300 South and State streets. This is only one of several "stretchers" enshrined on the marker, including the unlikely proposition that the tree was a favorite "trysting place" for lovers.
But then, on the evening of Sept. 21, 1958, sometime before 11 p.m., someone sawed off and absconded with the Lone Tree. The Daughters' president, the redoubtable Kate Carter, noted how hard the society worked to preserve old relics and how discouraging it was when "vandals come along and tear down our good work."
That might have been the end of the story had not an enterprising reporter phoned A.R. Mortensen, head of the state historical society. "Kind of secretly," the reporter asked the state's chief historian if he believed that the cedar was the only tree growing in the valley in 1847. Mortensen burst out laughing and asked, "Hell no, do you?" That afternoon the front-page of the Deseret News claimed he had called the revered Lone Tree "a historical fraud" and "a dead stump with little historical value."
These offhand remarks ignited a firestorm and brought down the wrath of Carter and 300,000 Daughters on Mortensen's unsuspecting head. The controversy nearly cost him his job and led the historical society's board to denounce the "wanton destruction" of the Lone Tree and censure Mortensen's "unfortunate comments." Mortensen stuck to his guns. He was, after all, right. The combatants eventually patched up their differences and when Mortensen wrote Carter's obituary, he saluted her as "a great and noble lady."
The Lone Stump monument still stands, graced by a 1960 plaque that acknowledged there were other trees in the valley in 1847. But there's a part of this tale that has never been told in print--the solution to the mystery of the stolen cedar. Not long after the desecration, Salt Lake Tribune Editor Art Deck got a call telling him to check a locker at the Greyhound Depot if he wanted to know the fate of the Lone Tree. Inside the locker was a sack containing the ashes of one of Utah's most beloved landmarks.
Will Bagley is a Utah historian and writer. For more on this story, see Gary Topping's article in the Utah Historical Quarterly, Summer 1997, 265-272.