11 Not-so Secret Salt Lake Secrets

Salt Lake is a city built on secrets. Its origin tale is wrapped up with the “Bible 2.0” Exodus of Brigham Young and his followers, the Latter-day Saints, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (officially) or the Mormons (colloquially and historically). The Mormons first arrived here in the Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, after a long and insanely dangerous trek from Nauvoo, Ill. Why? Well. The Mormons fled Nauvoo after a mob murdered their founder Joseph Smith outside of the jail in Carthage, Ill. But why stop here? This is just two years before the 1849 gold rush in California. Why not carry on to the coast and get in on the action? Brigham wanted no part of it. His plan was to find a home for the Saints far away from, well, anywhere. And back then, while the blank-ish spot on the map that would eventually become Utah was not nowhere, it was also, paradoxically, not anywhere. Technically it was Mexican territory, but the Mexican-American War was about to get underway and much bigger dogs than Brigham and his rag-tag band of Mormons were squaring off for a fight. Brigham wanted his followers to be left alone to practice the LDS faith and, yep it gets weird, to establish a short-lived autonomous nation called the Kingdom of Deseret (which got as far as developing its own language and currency, BTW). It is, as we say around here, a heck of a story.

In the late 1800s, federal troops, sent here to put the kibosh on this whole Kingdom thing, discovered rich veins of copper and silver and paved the way for the age of the silver barons and more outside influence. The east-west railroad brought an influx of laborers who would add diversity to the mix, and Utah’s admission to the United States, in 1896, brought even more changes. Still, Utah remained apart with a dominant religion, which often dictated politics and individual conscience. The point is: this whole delicious frontier mix of history made an atmosphere perfect for the cultivation of mushroom-like secrets.

Secret No. 1: The Lost Hawaiian Colony

What: An abandoned Hawaiian settlement in Utah’s
Skull Valley

Where: From Salt Lake City travel west on I-80 to exit 77. Travel south of Utah Highway 196 for 15 miles. A large sign marks the dirt road that leads to the cemetery.

In 1845, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent its first missionaries to the South Pacific Island of Tahiti. The Mormons weren’t alone. It was a period of zealous Christian proselytizing in the Pacific Islands. But the LDS missionaries had remarkable success in the South Pacific. A good number of those converted were from the Hawaiian Islands, then known as the Sandwich Islands, and many of the fresh converts made the perilous journey to Salt Lake City to dwell in the shadow of Temple Square. 

A sign indicating where the city of Iosepa once began.
Although it is not stated officially, irrational fear of leprosy may have been behind the far-flung location of Iosepa. The site is 75 miles from Salt Lake City, an arduous journey in the days of horse-drawn carts. Although three leprosy cases were documented during Iosepa’s lifespan, the fears were largely unfounded. Photo by Jeremy Pugh

In 1879, LDS Church leaders established a colony for Hawaiian immigrants to Utah in Skull Valley, an ominously named and arid place in the western desert near what is today the military proving ground and chemical weapons disposal base Dugway. The settlement was named Iosepa, the Hawaiian word for Joseph. It was named after Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his descendant, LDS church president Joseph F. Smith, who went to Hawaii on a church mission in 1854.  

It’s hard to imagine Hawaiians coming from such a lush and green island ever feeling quite at home in Skull Valley. But religious zeal (and ample support from Salt Lake City) sustained them in a hardscrabble existence where they farmed, ranched cattle and raised pigs.

By 1917, the church abandoned the experiment and many of the residents returned to their native islands, drawn back to help work on the LDS Temple being built in Laie on the island of Oahu. At its height, nearly 228 Pacific Islanders lived in Iosepa. The site is a ghost town today on the National Register of Historic Places. There are informational markers, remnants of some structures and a forlorn graveyard that continues to bear testimony to the harsh conditions in Iosepa.

Secret No. 2: Hail Princess Alice

What: A sculpture bearing the likeness of Utah’s first elephant, Princess Alice

Where: The elephant house at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, 2600 E. Sunnyside Ave.

In 1882, Salt Lake City completed work on its first major park, Liberty Park. The park was built in the grand tradition of New York’s Central Park and London’s Hyde Park, albeit on a much, much smaller scale. In that tradition, Salt Lake City’s grand park had to have among its attractions a zoo. Animals exotic and, more often, not-so-exotic filled the menagerie. But what zoo is complete, at least in the minds of Salt Lake City residents at the turn of the 20th century, without an elephant? In 1916, Salt Lake City school children gathered up nickels, dimes and pennies in a fundraising drive and purchased an Asian elephant from a traveling circus for what was then the enormous sum of $3,250. Her name was Princess Alice.

Princess Alice was a favorite, drawing visitors from around the region. But Alice didn’t take well to captivity. She became known for her daring escapes, rampaging around the surrounding Liberty Wells neighborhood, knocking down fences, and hiding from searchers for hours. The repeated escapes, although charming, alarmed neighbors and prompted the zoo to relocate to its current location at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in 1931. Local author and historian Linda Sillitoe memorialized Princess Alice’s exploits in her work of fiction The Thieves of Summer, which she set during her own childhood in Salt Lake City around the time Princess Alice and the zoo moved to Emigration Canyon.  

A sculpture in relief of Princess Alice’s visage was included in the elephant enclosure and remains there today. Even with the new digs, in 1947, she once again escaped, rampaging around the zoo grounds. In 1953, at the age of 69, Alice was euthanized after a prolonged illness. 

Prince Utah

In 1918, she gave birth to a male elephant zookeepers named Prince Utah, the first elephant ever born in Utah. He died a year later after his mother rolled over on him.

Secret No. 3: The Exile of Jean Baptiste

What: The island where grave-robber Jean Baptiste was exiled.

Where: Fremont Island, Great Salt Lake viewed from Antelope State Park. Antelope Island is likely as close as you are going to get to Fremont Island. Antelope Island is filled with hiking trails and, contrary to its name, a herd of bison.

In the late 1850s, a man named Jean Baptiste drifted into Salt Lake City. The immigrant of unknown descent found a job as the city’s gravedigger. In 1862, a flap over the body of a local troublemaker named Moroni Clawson led investigators to Baptiste. They discovered he had been stealing clothes and jewelry from the bodies he was charged with burying. In all, Baptiste was thought to have desecrated more than 300 graves. 

Although his offense was grave (pun intended), it didn’t call for hanging or life imprisonment, so territorial authorities devised an especially cruel punishment—exile. Baptiste was rowed out to Fremont Island, a small cay used intermittently for sheep ranching, and deposited on the shore, where he was essentially left to die on the harsh, exposed island. Weeks later, authorities checked the island to find Baptiste had escaped. A small shack on the island had been torn down, leading to theories that he’d built himself a raft. Years later, in the 1890s, hunters found a skeleton with leg irons, and some say this was Baptiste (although it’s not known if he was shackled when he was left on Fremont Island). 

Secret No. 4: The Sphinx of Salt Lake

What: Gilgal Garden

Where: 749 E, 500 South, SLC

t was a legend among Salt Lake teenagers in the ’70s and ’80s: a bizarre sculpture garden located in the middle of Salt Lake with a menagerie of odd Mormon-themed statues and rock art installations. What adventurous teen wouldn’t want to sneak into a strange yard filled with bizarre carvings featuring ominous Biblical verses set in the stones, and (why not?) a sphinx-like creature bearing the visage of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith? 

The "Sphinx-Smith" which replicates the famous Egyptian sphinx with the face of Joseph Smith.
Photo by Jeremy Pugh

The works sprang from the mind of outsider artist Thomas Battersby Child Jr., a Mormon bishop, local businessman and stonemason. Child tinkered relentlessly in the backyard of his childhood home building his Gilgal (a word that means “circle of stones” in Hebrew and is a place name in the Book of Mormon). Child was self-taught; he made it all up as he went along, and his creations are excellent examples of outsider art. The sculptures are large and imposing, and a walk through the garden is a tour through Child’s eclectic fascinations with masonry and his musings on the relationship of Mormonism with the ancient world. The show pony is the Sphinx-Smith, but be sure to note Child’s self-portrait, a man constructed entirely of bricks. 

After Child’s death, the garden became an oddity—almost an urban legend—and, while the mystique of hopping the fence to see the place was a dare-worthy part of life for SLC teens, the artworks fell prey to the elements and vandalism. In the late 1990s, the property was put up for sale, and a coalition of private citizens, public entities and nonprofit groups worked to preserve the site. 

Secret No. 5: Utah’s ‘Black Dahlia’

What: The last known whereabouts of Dorothy Moormeister

Where: The Hotel Utah (Now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building), 15 E. South Temple, SLC

The "Black Dahlia," the car that ran over Dorothy Dexter Moormeister.
Photo courtesy of Special Collection, J. Willard 
Marriott Library, University of Utah

The victim is the young wife of a prominent and wealthy physician. The story has suitors, insinuated affairs, missing jewels and even an Arabian prince. It sounds like an Agatha Christie novel, but it all happened in Salt Lake City. Just after midnight on February 22, 1930, the brutally disfigured body of Dorothy Dexter Moormeister, 32, was found on the western edge of Salt Lake City. She had been repeatedly run over with her own car. Dorothy’s husband was Dr. Frank Moormeister, a physician and abortionist for the local brothels. Dr. Moormeister was much older than his wife, who had a wild social life and actively solicited the attention of other men. 

One of these men, Charles Peter, was the prime suspect in her death. He had allegedly urged Dorothy to divorce her husband and fleece him in the settlement. Additionally, the doctor had loaned Peter a large sum of money and had, as partial payment, taken from Peter a valuable pendant. The pendant was among the jewelry missing from Dorothy’s body. Another suitor, Prince Farid XI, who had met the Moormeisters during an excursion to Paris, was rumored to have been in Salt Lake City at the time. Afterward, there were letters discovered intimating that Dorothy had designs to run away with him. 

On the night of her murder, Dorothy was seen entering the Hotel Utah (now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building) at around 6 p.m. She left a short time later with two men and another woman. Dr. Moormeister claimed to have gone out to see a movie alone during this time period. The autopsy revealed traces of absinthe in Dorothy’s stomach. A search also revealed that she had been hiding money in various safety deposit boxes around town and had drafted some recent changes in her will, but she had not signed them officially.

However, despite all the intrigue and a massive effort by county investigators—they even brought in a private detective who was considered popularly as the “Sherlock Holmes” of his time—the killer was never brought to justice. 

Secret No. 6: The State Street River 

What: A marker remembering the flood of 1983

Where: 1324 S. State St., SLC

In the spring of 1983, two very snowy seasons culminated in a crisis for Salt Lake City. The first signs of danger appeared in late April of that year when a 40-foot hole opened up in Emigration Canyon Road to the east of the city. According to Neil Stack of Salt Lake City Flood Control, “the massive crater was created when water from the surrounding hillsides seeped deep into the ground until it stopped behind a natural sandstone table and an impenetrable layer of soil under the road.” 

With May came rains that quickly melted lower-elevation snowpack and added more moisture to high-elevation snow. Flooding and mudslides in the foothills around Salt Lake City rang the alarm bells. Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson held a meeting to discuss the potential of flooding. They proposed deliberately flooding parts of the city to accommodate what was fast becoming a perfect storm of snowmelt. 

Old street sign carved in stone marking 13th South, where the river flowed.
Mayor Ted Wilson turned to leaders at the LDS Church to call up volunteers; however, the need was greatest on Sunday morning, a day where LDS Church members are not supposed to work. Gordon B. Hinkley, who would eventually become LDS President but was then a counselor in the First Presidency, famously said, “Well, the ox is in the mire,” and gave the order to cancel Sunday services so that members could join the sandbagging crews that were fighting to save Salt Lake City. Photo by Jeremy Pugh

On May 26, 1983, Salt Lake City declared an emergency and decided to dike 1300 South in order to route floodwaters from Red Butte, Emigration, and Parleys Canyons to the Jordan River. The Salt Lake Tribune headlines that day read, “Mayor Calls Emergency, As Waters Flood Street.” The story reported that “the mayor, after considering options and the impact of allowing Mountain Dell Reservoir in Parleys Canyon to overflow, made the proclamation of emergency in order to begin immediate sandbagging.” Water released from the eastern canyons began flowing west toward the Jordan River down 1300 South, past Derks Field, the minor league baseball field (now Smith’s Ballpark). A bridge over the “river” was built for fans to attend the Salt Lake Trappers opening day game. 

But there was more to come. On May 29, City Creek, to the north of the city, breached its banks and started to flood downtown SLC. More than 6,000 volunteers (some estimates say 10,000) sandbagged State Street to the 1300 South diversion into the Jordan River. Mayor Wilson called the effort “the biggest street festival ever.” 

The two rivers, especially the State Street River, became a sensation in the days that followed. Bridges were built over State Street and thousands of valley residents came downtown to marvel at the sight and walk along the “riverside.” There are accounts of kayakers and tubers plying the waters and half-serious fishermen dipping lines into the rushing waters. 

Secret No. 7: Our Lady of 200 South

What: The Madonna of Salt Lake City

Where: 158 E. 200 South, SLC

There is one thing everyone knows who knows anything about Salt Lake City: It’s the world (probably galactic) headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the all-American religion founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith in, Fayette, N.Y. And although only about half of Salt Lake County’s population is LDS, the capital city is still dominated by Temple Square, the religion’s center, and by buildings that house the administration of the faith. So, it could be a bit disconcerting to some to drive down 200 South in downtown Salt Lake City and see the ultimate Roman Catholic image: a wall-sized 44- by 22-foot mural of the Virgin Mary, complete with a giant flaming sacred heart.

Mural, commissioned by Corey Bullough, of the Virgin Mary.
Photo by Stuart Graves

Two famous muralists, El Mac and Retna, used 80 cans of spray paint to create the image on the side of what’s known as the old Guthrie Bicycle building in 2010. Why? Corey Bullough, the owner of FICE, the urban fashion store that now occupies the building, told the Salt Lake Tribune the idea occurred to him after a stroll through nearby Temple Square. Bullough was reared Mormon and said he noticed the square paid homage to many men—Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, various LDS prophets, God and Jesus. And being a woke young fashionista, he decided the city streets needed a woman. He commissioned the painting, and after 18 months of considering the design the artists came up with an image of a brown-skinned Madonna revealing an anatomically correct heart. The Madonna was a hit with everyone.

Secret No. 8: Mormon Hooch

Although the product known as Valley Tan is a brand of Park City’s High West Distillery, the term “Valley Tan” has a historical connection from long before distilling was reintroduced to the Beehive State in 2007 by High West Distillery. The term was first applied to leather made in the Utah Territory but came to apply to just about anything made by the Mormon settlers, including the whiskey that was sold to passing wagon trains headed for the coast. In 1853, publisher Kirk Anderson gave the name to his newspaper, an alternative to the dominant Mormon press. In the first issue, Anderson explained the odd title, writing, “‘Valley Tan’ was first applied to the leather made in this Territory in contradistinction to the imported article from the States: it gradually began to apply to every article made or manufactured or produced in the Territory, and means in the strictest sense Home Manufacturers (sic), until it has entered and become an indispensable word in our Utah vernacular; and it will yet add a new word to the English language.” Despite Anderson’s attempt at coining a frontier term for DIY (and starting a newspaper, The Valley Tan, which existed for a mere two years) the term Valley Tan is now applied most often to whiskey. 

Sir Richard and the Angel

Another noted explorer, Sir Richard Burton, a British expert on religious places and the first white man to enter Mecca, also visited Utah, where he met the notorious “Avenging Angel,” Porter Rockwell. Rockwell was Brigham Young’s infamous strongman and protector. According to Burton, when they met, “Rockwell…pulled out a dollar and sent it to the neighboring distillery for a bottle of Valley Tan…We were asked to join him in a ‘squar’ drink, which means spirits without water. Of these, we had at least four, which, however, did not shake Mr. Rockwell’s nerve, and then he sent out for more, meanwhile telling us of his last adventure.”

The local hooch, distilled from wheat and potatoes, was sold at the Mormon outfitters, ZCMI, in competition with Gentile, or non-Mormon, store owners. The booze didn’t get very good reviews. In his book Roughing It, Mark Twain famously wrote, “The exclusive Mormon refresher; Valley Tan is a kind of whiskey or first cousin to it; is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah. Tradition says it is made of imported fire and brimstone.”

Secret No. 9: Inside the Pyramid

What: The Summum Pyramid

Where: 707 W. Genesee Ave., SLC

The Summum pyramid, which is used for Summum worship.
Summum’s mummification specialists (again, thanatogeneticists,) are available to perform the rite on your own dearly departed loved one or even pet. Yes, you can preserve your beloved pet in the hopes that Fido or Fluffy might be cloned one day. Photo by Jeremy Pugh

In 1975 Claude “Corky” Nowell had a revelation from otherworldly intelligent beings who told him the true nature of the universe. He immediately changed his name to Amon Ra (though he still goes by Corky). The newly anointed Summum Bonum Amon Ra founded the Summum religion. “Summum” is a variation on the Latin word “summus,” meaning “highest,” and “bonum,” which means “good.” Amon and Ra, of course, are names of the ancient Egyptian sun god. Summum has its own stories of creation and learning, which sound somewhat like New Age and Gnostic beliefs blended with Philip K. Dick sci-fi stories laced with a smattering of various ancient religions. Instead of The Ten Commandments, Summum holds to “The Seven Aphorisms.” In 1975, the church went to the U.S. Supreme Court, maintaining that if the Ten Commandments had a place in the city of Pleasant Grove’s city park, so did the Aphorisms. The Court sided with Pleasant Grove. 

Summum worship takes place inside a pyramid on Salt Lake’s west side (which is zoned not as a church but as a winery, because of the beverage used in church rituals). The Pyramid-church-winery was built between 1977 and 1979 and concentrates on meditation. The goal is “spiritual psychokinesis,” the ability to move objects using mental effort. Think spoon-bending. Oh, also, there are mummies. Summum’s rituals include the practice of mummification in funeral rites. Unlike the Egyptians, who mummified Pharaohs and buried them with treasure and provisions to prepare them to journey to the afterlife, Summum mummy makers (called “thanatogeneticists”) believe the process preserves the cells so that the body can be cloned in the future.

Secret No. 10: Crispin Glover’s Handprints 

What: A set of handprints from Crispin Glover and Howard Hesseman stars of the Trent Harris film Rubin & Ed. 

Where: The Tower Theatre, 876 E. 900 South, SLC

Crispin Glover portraying the role of Rubin from "Rubin & Ed."
To promote the film, Crispin Glover infamously appeared in character (and costume) on The Late Show with David Letterman and nearly kicked the irascible talk show host in the head with Ruben’s signature high platform shoes. Photo by Trent Harris

Local filmmaker Trent Harris is known for his odd, left-field looks at Utah history and culture. Perhaps his biggest film is the Utah cult classic Rubin & Ed, released in 1992 and starring Crispin Glover and Howard Hesseman. At the time Hesseman was known for his iconic role as Dr. Johnny Fever in TV’s WKRP in Cincinnati and his turn on the sitcom Head of the Class. Glover, however, was best known for his role as George McFly in the blockbuster Back to the Future films. Glover’s role in Rubin & Ed was a strange choice for the actor, who was something of a get for Harris. In the film, Glover portrays Rubin, a depressed oddball who lives with his mother and is looking for a friend to help him bury his cat, which he has been storing in the family freezer. He finds common cause with Hesseman’s Ed, a washed-up salesman who is desperately recruiting clients for a multi-level marketing real estate seminar. The duo journeys into the Utah desert to lay Rubin’s beloved cat Simon to rest. It’s a weird and very funny movie. 

The relative fame of the film’s stars prompted the Tower Theatre to hold a world premiere gala, one of the few in the theater’s history. The event included a ceremony in front of the art house cinema on what Harris calls “the lawn of fame” to enshrine Glover’s and Hesseman’s hand- and footprints. The film, Harris’ largest commercial release, didn’t make too many waves outside of Utah, but locals adore the strange buddy flick for its sideways humor and backdrops of familiar Utah settings in both Salt Lake City and Goblin Valley State Park.

Secret No. 11: The Swiss Connection

What: A diplomatic token in the form of a chunk of the Matterhorn 

Where: 9600 S. Little Cottonwood Canyon Rd., Snowbird

Back in the 1970s, skiing was much more a European sport than an American one, so American resort owners borrowed many of the accouterments and affectations of their Continental forebears. A-Frame, Swiss-style chalets, Bavarian flourishes and food such as sauerkraut and bratwurst helped legitimize the fledgling sport in America at now-venerable resorts like Alta and Sun Valley, which had long been hot spots for the jet-set but were still catching on with everyday Americans. 

Dick Bass, co-founder of Snowbird, on top of snowy peak.
Photo courtesy Snowbird Resort

Snowbird, in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, was built in the 1970s. Today it’s one of the world’s most famous and celebrated ski and snowboard areas, known for its iconic tram, steep terrain and ample snowfall. It was the brainchild of Alta Ski Patroller Ted Johnson and a Texas oilman named Dick Bass. To put it mildly, Bass was a world traveler. In 1985, he became the first man to climb the highest peaks on the world’s seven continents. In planning Snowbird, Bass and Johnson visited ski areas and resorts around the globe to glean ideas for his new resort. One of his most inspirational stops was at Zermatt, the famous ski village in the Swiss Alps known for its access to the Matterhorn. 

Bass met with then-Mayor of Zermatt, Amaday Perry, with a diplomatic proposal. Zermatt and Snowbird would be sister cities (although Snowbird isn’t so much a city as a ski area base). Zermatt’s mayor agreed and had an actual piece of the Matterhorn chiseled off the famed peak and sent to Utah to seal the deal. Upon its arrival, a celebration was held on the tram deck in the then-brand-new Snowbird Center. Snowbird’s former Director of Village Operations, Jerry Giles, who worked at Snowbird since the early days, said it was “a great occasion. All the Swiss dignitaries came over, and we put on a big dinner, with raclette and Swiss chocolate. Of course, schnapps was the big drink of the night.” Times change, of course. Swiss mayors come and go, and the importance of the Snowbird-Swiss Connection has faded into obscurity. But the large chunk of the Matterhorn remains prominently located at Snowbird’s base as a testament to the early days of skiing at the ’Bird and its international aspirations.  

About the Book

Secret Salt Lake City opens a window into the weird, the bizarre and obscure secrets of Salt Lake, that are often hiding in plain sight. Utah’s one-of-a-kind state origin tale offers a rich backdrop of frontier grit, conflict and the tension between secular and religious realms that has generated a culture (and counter-culture) with unique manifestations and curious relics. 

Did you know that the Mormons created their own alphabet and that it’s hidden in your computer? What do the strange symbols on the LDS Temple mean? Why is there a chunk of the Matterhorn enshrined at a Utah ski resort? What famed pachyderm does the sculpture on SLC’s Hogle Zoo’s elephant house depict? How did SLC police capture the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy? And what is the origin of Iosepa, a Hawaiian ghost town in the desert? Authors Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf reveal these mysteries and more to pull back the curtain on the secrets of Salt Lake to enrich your life in the Beehive State (which is another secret to be revealed). Available at The King’s English Bookshop and Ken Sanders Rare Books and online at 100thingsslc.square.site.

This is the cover story for our September/October issue. Read our editor’s letter introducing the issue and subscribe here.

Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf
Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Maloufhttp://www.saltlakemagazine.com
Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf are the co-authors of Secret Salt Lake City: A guide to the weird, obscure and strange secrets of SLC. Availalble from Reedy Press and wherever books are sold. Jeremy is currently the editor of Salt Lake Magazine. Mary sadly passed away in 2020 but her work and words live on here at saltlakemagazine.com.

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