Utah Field Guide: The Grid System

Nine days (nine days!) after the Latter-day Saint pioneers’ entry into the Salt Lake Valley—which, if you’re counting, was August 2, 1847—the Saints had a street system mapped out. The streets-to-be would measure 132 feet in width (apocryphal tales suggest Brigham Young wanted room for a team of oxen to flip a U-turn). They ran north-south, east-west and intersected at right angles. The eastern edge of the Future Home of Temple Square was given the role of longitude, and its southern border was to play latitude’s part. And thus, the nexus of Utah’s street universe is the corner of Main (East Temple in those days) and South Temple. 

And if you don’t know that, you are really lost. 

Salt Lake is not alone in its grid system. Many of your finer cities have one—Paris, Manhattan, Washington, D.C. But few do it with such stricture, such enthusiastic adherence. Paris muddles its grid with willy-nilly diagonals, and D.C. also has diagonals dicing a perfectly good grid into pie pieces. Courtesy of, yes, a Frenchman. Then there’s Manhattan. Now there’s a grid system. You drop a born-and-bred Utah boy in Battery Park, make sure he knows how to pronounce “Houston,” and he’ll fight his way to Central Park. It won’t be pretty, but he’ll make it. 

Once you realize all roads lead to Temple Square, it’s easy

And as in Manhattan, hemmed by its rivers, comprehension of the grid system here along the Wasatch Front is aided by an understanding of the landscape. To the east are the Giant Mountains, and to the west are the flat places on the way to Wendover. It’s easy to talk in terms of compass points because of these omnipresent landmarks. Still, the system was stubbornly applied across the state and persists in locales as bereft of topography as Delta and as Martian as St. George. 

For newcomers, the confusion comes down to the numbers. In city-states like Las Vegas, where to know where you are is to know the progression from Tropicana to Sahara, folks are used to a more touchy-feely street system. In Utah, the hard, cold grid is like grade-school math. “I live at 241 S. 500 East” is the equivalent of, “Two trains, at equal distance from Temple Square, are traveling at 60 mph and 70 mph; which one will at arrive first?” But once you get it figured, it’s easy to appreciate a good grid system, and we have one of the best. 

It’s a low-tech precursor to the modern world, where all ye need know is just a Google away. A Promethean and prophetic GPS, courtesy of Brother Brigham.

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