SALT LAKE CITY, July 16, 2013 — Pioneering comes to life at the spot where Mormons entered the Salt Lake Valley 166 years ago.
This Is the Place Heritage Park occupies 450 acres at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, where Brigham Young, fighting fever, famously declared, “this is the right place.” The religious refugees descended on the valley and began settling the outlying regions.
Today Salt Lake City is a major economic and cultural center in the Western United States. Downtown bears little resemblance to the early years of the Mormon community, but the heritage park up the hill pays homage to the pioneering industry that built the Utah and its lakeside capital city.
“One of our primary goals is to teach and preserve history in a fun and engaging environment,” says Tresha Kramer, Director of Public Relations for the park.
It is the West’s Colonial Williamsburg — a themed historical park dedicated to the founding generation and faithful to its experience. Unlike its East Coast exemplar, This Is the Place was built almost from scratch on an artificial site. None of the major historical buildings were constructed where they are now on display. But very much like Williamsburg, it features structures that replicate the original ones.
The Cedar City Tithing Office, for instance, is a replica of the actual building that stood 260 miles to the south. The original was the first stone edifice in Cedar City, Utah. The Social Hall is also a replica of an important cultural center in Salt Lake City from 1853 through the early 20th century.
Some buildings, almost miraculously, were reconstructed or moved from their original locations. Brigham Young’s Forest Farm House was moved to the site in the 1970s and restored to its pioneer elegance. Full tours of the splendid home are available throughout the day.
The Manti, Utah, dry goods store that went under the name Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), was dismantled and rebuilt at the park in 1996. Originally owned by the LDS Church, ZCMI branded itself as “America’s first department store” until its dissolution in 1999. ZCMI was an important part of the economic development of the greater Salt Lake area, and synonymous with downtown Salt Lake retail for over a century.
The main village is only a fraction of the giant park, and easy to navigate. And you’ll have to move around to get everything in.
A period blacksmith can be found stoking his coke-fire with a giant two-chambered bellows, then hammering away at the iron works, which are available for sale in the Visitors’ Center. Likewise, a hand-crafted furniture shop churns out pieces as if it were 1870. Interpreters explain the process to perfection.
Kids can pet animals and ride ponies. Littler ones who need to run around can romp on a play version of the ship Brooklyn, which took pioneers from New York to San Francisco in 1846. Samuel Brannan led a group from San Francisco (then Yerba Buena) to meet Brigham Young’s party at Green River, Wyoming, and tried to persuade him to continue on to California. Brannan would play an important role in the development of San Francisco during the Gold Rush, thus explaining the gold panning activities at This Is the Place.
Off of Main Street, families can visit a small Native American village, where Navajos perform dances and aid kids in beading. Mud huts show visitors the architecture of the West prior to the pioneers’ arrival in the Great Basin.
In fact, though the park honors mainly the 1847 pioneers, the original monument tells the story of the fur trappers, Catholic missionaries, and Native Americans.
Today, says Kramer, volunteers tell that story in detail.
“Extensive training is conducted each year at the beginning of each season and then periodically during the peak seasons. Scripts for each site have been researched to authenticate historical interpretation of site and stories used in presentation.”
Part of the historical experience of Salt Lake’s founders was the intense heat in the desolate valley. It was July, 1847 when Young and his party first set eyes on the valley. Summers in Salt Lake are dry and hot, and little ones can enjoy the “Irrigation Station,” a splash pad that represents the efforts to bring water and life to the desert.
Food is welcome in the park, and there are plenty of places to relax and eat. Fresh donuts can be purchased, as can meals from Hires and ice cream from Farr’s, both Salt Lake favorites, in the Huntsman Hotel.
Miniature “trains” — which represent those that met at Promontory Summit in 1869 — transport visitors around the park.
The Mormon influence dominates the park, of course, as it dominated the valley since 1847. But faith is largely absent from the park, which is not owned or operated by the church. Instead, visitors learn about the cultural and economic life of a people motivated by their faith.
The lone “church house” isn’t used for religious services at all. The Pine Valley Chapel is a replica of the oldest LDS chapel still in use, notable for its construction based on shipbuilding techniques. The chapel can be rented out for private functions, as can several other buildings.
Salt Lake is vibrant and growing in the 21st century. A visit to This Is the Place will help one discover why.
Rich is the proprietor of the “Rich Like Me” political column at the Communities @ Washington Times and the author of Tunnel Club, an adolescent adventure for adults set in Salt Lake. His “Salt Lake City and the World” column is a guided tour of Utah’s capital city for parents with curious kids.
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