Utah History to Go
History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
A Great Wall Once Circled Salt Lake City
Will Bagley
Published: 11/25/2001 Edition: Final Section: Utah  Page: B1

The chain-link fence going up to secure downtown Olympic sites brings to mind a forgotten local oddity:   

The Great Wall of Salt Lake.
"The wall around Salt Lake was built in 1853," recalled Nauvoo Legion Lt. Gen. Daniel H. Wells in the 1880s. "It was usual for our people to protect themselves by building what we called a fort--a place the people could get into in the event of a raid."

Mormon settlers began building Salt Lake City's first fort at today's Pioneer Park almost immediately after arriving in the valley. In a pattern followed in founding dozens of other towns, the 10-acre fort consisted of adobe-and-log cabins linked together to form a stockade.      

When more immigrants arrived in the fall, they added extensions at either end of the "Old Fort" to create a quadrangular form, common in western posts, that was 3,135 feet long by 660 feet wide.      

The fort had two serious problems: roofs and mice.   

Believing it seldom rained in Salt Lake, the pioneers built flat roofs, using poles that were infested with bedbugs. Then, as O. B. Huntington recalled, they piled "an immense quantity of dirt" on the poles "as probable protection from the rain." When it rained, the roofs leaked torrents of mud into the cabins. Historian H. H. Bancroft insisted that swarms of mice dug so many tunnels under the cabins that they "caused the ground to tremble."       

People abandoned the Old Fort at the first opportunity, and by 1850 it was crumbling away. The city fathers ordered the ruin torn down for "it had become a trysting place for persons of loose morals."     

Conflicts with Utah's original inhabitants increased as settlers pushed Indians away from their food sources and off the best land. The Utes soon realized "the whites want everything," and by 1853 open warfare led  Brigham Young to implement a new strategy called "forting up."       

This unpopular policy concentrated farms and small settlements into larger forts. "Active preparations are now in operation to wall in the cities and all the considerable settlements throughout the Territory," Mormon leaders announced.       

"We shall commence making a substantial ditch & wall around the whole city," Brigham Young informed Orson Pratt on Aug. 31, 1853, and the wall would be 12 feet high with gates and bastions.       

The wall was to run for some 16 miles--from the Jordan River up today's 900 South to 900 East, north to Fourth Avenue, due west to State Street, northwest along Wall Street  to 700 North and then back to the river.     

Mormon historians have assumed this was a make-work welfare project, but Young thought the fortification would be "one of the best means we can now make for our temporal salvation."     

Salt Lakers completed about six miles of the wall.     

"Great Salt Lake City is one of the prettiest cities I know of anywhere," Richard Ackley wrote in 1858. "There is a large adobe wall 10 feet high which nearly surrounds it."      

Stone pioneer forts survive at Cove Fort and Pipe Springs, but Fort Deseret near Delta is the sole remaining adobe fort.       

The Great Wall of Salt Lake is completely gone, but part of the wall surrounding the Brigham Young Estate, which extended far up into the avenues, still protects a parking lot east of the LDS Church office  building.


Historian Will Bagley lives just outside the walls of Brigham Young's estate.

The Land
American Indians
Trappers, Traders, & Explorers
Pioneers & Cowboys
Mining & Railroads
Statehood & the Progressive Era
From War to War
Utah Today