A State Is Born

Richard D. Poll
Beehive History 21

Statehood celebration, January 4, 1896

It was January 4, 1896. On joining the Union, Utah was already more populous than five of her sister states. Of her people, 8 out of 10 were American-born and nearly 9 out of 10 were Latter-day Saints. Apart from approximately 3,000 Indians, mostly on reservations, the 571 blacks and 768 Chinese counted in the 1895 territorial census were the largest racial minorities. Perhaps 2,000 polygamous families remained, but a considerable number of single men in the mining communities produced a small male preponderance in the total population of 247,324.

Few of Utah’s citizens lived in cities, although the inaugural festivities demonstrated that the capital’s 50,000 people enjoyed many of the amenities of urban life. A maze of power and telephone lines in the

Statehood celebration, 1986

downtown area; a university and eight academies; a limited distribution of natural and manufactured gas; 68 miles of street railway; three daily newspapers; three theaters and two businessmen’s clubs; a just-finished gravity sewage system with seven miles of mains; and a three-year-old fun spot, Saltair, perched on piles in Great Salt Lake were further evidences of the march of progress. But progress marched on unpaved streets if it moved very far from the heart of town.

Twenty-seven years as a railroad center had brought Ogden 15,000 inhabitants, 10 miles of street railway, two academies, one of the first hydro-electric projects in the United States (nearing completion), and some of the most eventful Saturday nights to be found outside the mining camps. Provo, with only 400 students in its Brigham Young Academy and the Geneva steel plant not even dreamed of, was a quiet county seat with 6,000 people; its street railway was only six miles long, but it was steam powered. Logan, with 5,000 inhabitants, was beginning to orient its life around its eight-year-old land-grant college. As for the rest, the towns of Utah were either unpaved and unexciting farming centers, whose chief buildings revealed the industriousness and occasionally the artistic imagination of the pioneers, or unpaved and uninhibited mining camps, which might be gone tomorrow but were notoriously here today.

Farming and mining were the main businesses of the new state, and neither was doing well as 1896 began. The 30-year decline in prices which brought Populism to the farm belt had one more year to go, and the Panic of 1893 had added mining distress to agricultural depression. Property values aggregated approximately $100 million in the state, but if absentee-owned railroads and mines were deducted, the accumulation of a half-century’s effort averaged out at less than $300 per capita and at least half of that was in real estate. For Utah the affluent society was still two world wars in the future.

Approximately one-third of Utah’s total employed population was engaged in agriculture. All but 2,232 of the 19,916 farms were declared by Governor Wells to be free from encumbrances, but with wheat 46¢, corn 58¢, potatoes 32¢, and apples 40¢ per bushel; sugar beets and lucerne about $4.00 per ton; wool 7¢ per pound; and sheep $1.50 per head, few mortgages were being lifted during the winter of 1895–96. The New Year edition of the Tribune estimated that the value of all farm crops had declined by almost one-third between 1890 and 1894, and there had been little recovery since.

Reminiscent of the pioneer quest for self-sufficiency are 40,000 pounds of cotton and almost 3,000 gallons of wine produced in the Virgin River country in 1895 and 10,000 pounds of silk cocoons reported a year later. Recalling another dream, which failed in the 1850s but was now becoming a reality under LDS church sponsorship, are the 40,000 tons of beets processed by the Utah Sugar Company in the year before statehood. Although dry farming had begun in the 1870s, 89 percent of the 467,162 cultivated acres (1894) was irrigated by methods largely developed in the founding generation. And although the church was moving toward the abolition of tithing in kind, some produce still moved into the market through the tithing offices and scrip-using cooperatives like the cotton factory at Washington and the Provo Woolen Mills. Mormon Utah’s bumper crop was children, and the declining support capability of agriculture was beginning to produce that export of young manpower which would characterize the first four decades of the twentieth century.

The state of mining in Utah can be inferred from Governor Wells’s appeal for silver legislation and the endorsement of bimetallism by both Republican and Democratic platforms in the pre-statehood election. At approximately 65¢ per ounce, Utah’s mines had produced only $4,854,300 in silver in 1895, and that largely from a few spectacular enterprises like the Centennial-Eureka and Bullion-Beck in the Tintic District and the Silver King and almost exhausted Ontario at Park City. The total value of nonferrous metal production for the year was $8,464,500, down almost $4 million from 1890. Gold discoveries in the Camp Floyd District of the Oquirrh Mountains and the resulting rush which led boomers to speak of a “New Johannesburg” when they incorporated Mercur two weeks before Inauguration Day did not disguise the facts that many mines were closed in 1895 and 1896 and that extensive unemployment was avoided largely because of the disposition of miners to move on when jobs disappeared.

Too insubstantial yet to cast a shadow, the mining undertaking with the greatest long-run potential was going on at Bingham. While the operating mines there were still concentrating largely on precious metals and the townspeople were rebuilding from a series of disastrous fires, “Colonel” Enos A. Wall and Samuel Newhouse were piecing together the claims which would become the foundation for Utah’s greatest single productive enterprise, the Bingham copper mines. Except for Carbon County and Emery County coal, Great Salt Lake salt, and a very limited production of Gilsonite, sulfur, and building materials, the other nonmetallic minerals which would eventually justify Lincoln’s description of Utah as “the nation’s treasure house” were either undiscovered or unappreciated.

The railroad network in January 1896 was substantially what it had become in 1880 with the completion of the Utah Southern Railroad extension to Milford and Frisco and the Horn Silver Mine. The Union Pacific now owned 543, the Denver and Rio Grande 485, and the Central Pacific 157 of Utah’s 1,225 miles of standard-gauge road; 150 miles of narrow-gauge track wound into the mines. Local stage lines still served parts of the state, and a gun battle between a sheriff’s posse and two young horse thieves in City Creek Canyon in August 1895 was additional evidence that the frontier had not yet fully passed. Telephone poles had started sprouting in 1879, and communities from Logan to Eureka were linked together by the Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone Company, but there were yet no rural phones. Western Union, which joined Utah with the two coasts, would wait four more years before buying the Deseret Telegraph Company, the locally built enterprise which had spread the warning through southern Utah when the United States marshals were coming during the days of the “Underground.” Salt Lake City had enjoyed house-to-house mail delivery for a decade, but such novelties as airmail and zip codes were hardly in the science fiction.

Other sectors of the Utah economy did not escape the impact of the nationwide depression. On the contrary, hard times accelerated certain profoundly significant changes in the quality and direction of Utah’s business enterprises.

Like agriculture during the territorial period, industry, with the exception of mining and transcontinental transportation, had been largely in Mormon hands and devoted to the self-sufficiency of what Leonard Arrington has aptly titled “The Great Basin Kingdom.” The larger cooperative projects, like iron, sugar, and cotton, had fallen short of expectations, and most of the local manufacturing was in shops employing only a few hands. The 880 industrial concerns reported in 1894 had an average capital investment of about $6,000, product value averaging approximately $8,000, and a total employment of 5,054 people; the Provo Woolen Mills, with 150 employees, was the largest remaining example of pioneer industry.

Unlike agriculture, industry was reflecting the revolution in economic policy taking place in the LDS church as that organization struggled out from under a great burden of debt accumulated during the Edmunds-Tucker period and came to terms with late nineteenth-century American capitalism. The concern for the material development of the region remained, but the isolationist goals and communitarian methods largely disappeared. Numbers of existing church concerns, like the Salt Lake Street Railroad Company, Salt Lake City Gas Company, and Provo Woolen Mills, were sold or secularized. And the new church-supported projects recruited outside capital and functioned in conventional, even conservative, business fashion. The Utah Sugar and Inland Crystal Salt companies, the hydro-electric development on the Weber River and the electric and gas utilities in northern Utah, the Saltair resort and the railroad serving it were all products of this expedient reinterpretation of the strictures against mingling Zion and Babylon. In the new state of Utah, laissez faire was a nonsectarian slogan, with nonsectarian reservations for the protective tariff, of course.

At the counters and in the counting houses of Salt Lake and Ogden some of the earliest overtures toward Mormon-gentile peace had been made, and by 1896 the Chambers of Commerce and the 40 Utah banks had replaced the Schools of the Prophet and Zion’s Board of Trade as centers of business planning. Like the manufactories, most commercial establishments were small; the 1,974 stores reported in 1894 employed 5,023 people and had an average capital investment of over $7,000 and average sales of $17,000.

Many Mormon-owned stores throughout the state still called themselves “Co-ops” and did much of their purchasing through ZCMI Wholesale, but the secularizing process already referred to in industry was also taking place in trade. The reincorporation of Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution as a million-dollar corporation on September 30, 1895, is a notable example. Originally founded in 1868 as the cornerstone for a self-contained Mormon commercial structure, it has been considerably more profitable than its industrial counterparts; on an initial investment of $220,000, not all cash, and sales of $76,352,686, it had generated $1,990,943.55 in cash dividends and $414,944.77 in stock dividends in 25 years. In 1891 it had discontinued tithing its earnings and opened stock ownership to non-Mormons, and the new company functioned substantially as its gentile competitors in the merchandise field.

“All Our Underwear at One-Third Off” must have drawn crowds to Siegel Clothing Company, where the finest full length union suits in “Switz Conde” cost $2.75 but “natural mixtures” could be had for $.60. Auerbach’s was clearing ladies’ tailor-made suits at $3.85, foot warmers at $.50 a pair, children’s shoes at $1.00 a pair, and ostrich feather boas from $1.75 to $10.00. Lipman, Nadel and Son offered “Your choice of any suit or overcoat in the store for $10.00,” while ZCMI was featuring the Charter Oak ranges and stoves in which were baked many of the pies and cakes that our grandmothers used to make. There were no supermarkets, and the corner grocers usually relied on handbills rather than newspapers to call attention to their 10¢ beefsteak, 15¢ butter, and assorted penny candy.

It should be remembered, however, that those were the days when $2.00 was a good day’s wages, and the youngsters in a workingman’s family did not always have pennies to spend on luxuries.

Unlike their parents, children could go to school without tuition, the free school system having been established on a territory-wide basis in 1890. Almost 90 percent of the 74,551 school-age children attended at some time in 1895, and the pattern of available education was changing rapidly from year to year. The non-Mormon denominational elementary and secondary schools, which had numbered more than 50 and rendered invaluable service in upgrading the quality of the territorial educational effort, were now suspending operations, leaving only a handful of secondary schools and colleges like Rowland Hall, St. Mary’s of the Wasatch, and Wasatch Academy to carry on in the twentieth century. The Mormon academies at Provo, Logan, Ephraim, Vernal, Ogden, Castle Dale, and Salt Lake City were, on the other hand, vigorously expanding in secondary education and the normal course training of teachers, fields in which they matched public school enrollment until the First World War. The big growth, however, was in public elementary schools, where nearly 60,000 children were enrolled and almost 35,000 were in average daily attendance. Superintendent John R: Park would shortly call for the consolidation of districts and a far greater financial outlay than the $500,000 which had been the annual educational outlay during the depression years.

Most aspirants for university degrees and professional training still left Utah, but in Salt Lake City, Logan, and Provo, institutions of higher education were taking shape. The University of Utah, started with high hopes in 1850 as the University of Deseret, was still largely concerned with secondary and normal courses and adult education, and it had not yet begun to move from its buildings at First North and Second West to Fort Douglas. But 500 students were now in attendance, the 1895 graduation exercises had seen nine baccalaureate degrees awarded, and President James E. Talmage and faculty, whose names now identify many campus facilities, were trying to build a university on an annual budget of $35,000.

If the churches were giving up some of their economic and political activities and transferring many of their educational functions to the state, they were by no means inactive. Most of the major Christian communions were represented in the church notices in the Salt Lake papers, and St. Mark’s and Holy Cross hospitals were already important examples of the testimony of the deed. That Mormon-watching was still a mission of some of the gentile ministry had been apparent in the recent election and would become even more conspicuous when B. H. Roberts finally won a congressional election two years later. But the effort to rescue the Saints from their religious “delusions” had lost its thrust, and the new policy of peaceful coexistence was symbolized by the prayers which opened and closed the inauguration ceremonies.

January 4, 1896, was more than the birthday of a state. It was the wedding of Utah and the nation.

Sources: This is an excerpt from a larger article published under the same title, in the winter 1964 issue of Utah Historical Quarterly by the late Dr. Poll.