Utah’s First State Park

Allan Kent Powell
History Blazer, November 1996

Wasatch Mountain State Park, located along the eastern slope of the Wasatch Mountains, became a reality a century after the settlement of Heber City and Midway in 1859. The alpine Heber Valley was characterized by plenty of water, good pasture and farm land, and, compared to many settlements founded at the same time, relative closeness to Salt Lake City. The towering mountains and green valley were, and still are, often compared to the stunning scenery of Switzerland. Swiss converts to Mormonism found Heber Valley, and Midway in particular, attractive after their immigration to Utah in the late 1850s and early 1860s. John Huber and Ullrich Probst were two Swiss who established homes and farms along Snake Creek. Some produce from their farms was sold to miners who worked the mines up Snake Creek Canyon. The Huber and Probst property was sold to the state by their descendants and became the heart of Wasatch Mountain State Park.

The establishment of this park came shortly after the creation of the Utah State Parks and Recreation Commission by the legislature in 1957. Although Utah was the last state to establish a parks and recreation program, once appointed the commission moved quickly to inventory potential state park areas, reporting to the legislature on January 2, 1959. The report noted 118 potential state parks areas and recommended some for immediate acquisition and development. Wasatch Mountain State Park was given high priority for funding. The proposed park would encompass 25,800 acres with 560 acres to be acquired from the Bureau of Land Management, 1,280 acres already owned by the state in school sections, and the remaining 23,960 acres to be purchased from private land owners. The report emphasized the alpine beauty and great recreational potential of the proposed park, including camping, picnicking, horseback riding, hiking, hunting, winter sports, scenery, photography, history, and geology.

During the field surveys conducted by parks director Chester J. Olsen, the first discussions were held in Heber Valley about a potential state park in the area. Most agree that the proposed Wasatch Mountain State Park was the brainchild of Harold P. Fabian, appointed by Governor George Dewey Clyde in 1957 to organize and serve as the first chairman of the State Parks and Recreation Commission. Born in Salt Lake City on April 1, 1885, he graduated from Yale in 1907 and Harvard Law School in 1910. He spent his summers in Brighton, and while riding and hiking the canyons of the Wasatch with his friend Henry Moyle, the two “looked down into the Heber Valley and pretended it was their own big ranch lay-out.” Fabian established a successful law practice in Salt Lake City and in 1926 became involved in examining the titles and buying privately owned lands in the area that is now Grand Teton National Park. A close friend of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Fabian proposed construction of the Jackson Lake Lodge and served as president and manager of the Grand Teton Lodge and Transportation Company until 1953. This experience, plus a deep commitment to Utah’s wilderness and history and involvement with the Republican party in Utah and the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, made Fabian a logical choice to organize and lead the Utah State Parks and Recreation Commission.

Working closely with his life-long friend Henry D. Moyle, by then second counselor to Mormon church president David O. McKay, and with local leaders in Midway and Wasatch County to promote the park and to secure commitments from local land owners to sell their property to the state, Fabian secured from Wasatch County a 46-acre tract on which was located a small ski tow and 536,853 acres of private land purchased for $351,943.65. This acreage, mostly located at the junction of Pine Creek and Snake Creek canyons, became the nucleus of the park. Then, in 1961, the Legislature appropriated some $1.5 million to acquire additional land for the park. The bill, signed on Friday, March 10, 1961, by Governor Clyde, allowed the commission to acquire the land over a 10-year period. Some owners were reluctant to sell and would have preferred to keep their land, but community and church pressure left them little choice but to sell, according to some residents.

The significance of the effort in putting together the package was summed up by parks director Olsen: “The Wasatch Mountain State Park is first in importance in the entire program. Due to location and scenic terrain, the lands involved are readily accessible to nearly 75 percent of Utah’s population, are attractive from the recreation standpoint in both summer and winter, are striking enough to attract out-of-state as well as local residents, and are close to major federal highways and to Salt Lake City, which is one of the major transportation junctions of the west…. It is extremely doubtful if an entire area in so many private ownerships has been put together or offered to Utah or any other state or government agency for a park and recreation area with such united community effort or at such a sacrifice on the part of public-minded citizens. It is not likely that such a course of action will be taken again, in the Heber Valley or elsewhere in Utah.” Governor Clyde would later echo that sentiment: “The history of Utah is a history of cooperation and there has never been a greater story than this one here.”

Source: Allan Kent Powell, “Preliminary Overview History of Wasatch Mountain State Park,” Utah State Historical Society, June 18, 1989.