SECRET SLC: The Utah Flood of 1983

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, from Nauvoo, Ill. 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. It is, as we say around here, a heck of a story.

In the late 1800s, federal troops, 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.

Utah Flooding in 1983
This rock located on State Street commemorates the Utah Flood of 1983 that turned State Street into a river. Photo by Jeremy Pugh

The Utah Flood of 1983 and ‘The State Street River’

What: Evidence the 1983 State Street Flood in 1983 Where: 1324 S. State Street, SLC

In the Spring of 1983, the culmination of two very snowy seasons became 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. A meeting was held in the office of Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson to discuss the potential of flooding, Discussions began about deliberately flooding parts of the city to accommodate what was fast becoming a perfect storm of snowmelt.

On May 26, 1983, Salt Lake City declared an emergency and decided to dike 1300 South in order to convey 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) were called out to sandbag 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.

Fun Fact from The Utah Flood of 1983

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.


ABOUT THE BOOKSecret Salt Lake opens a window into the weird, the bizarre, and obscure secrets of Salt Lake, that are often hiding in plain sight. The guidebook, written by Salt Lake magazine editors Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf is a collection of odd tales, urban myths, legends and historical strangeness here in the Beehive State. Get your copy from Reedy Press today and read more about the secrets and oddities of Utah. Read more secrets in our Newcomer’s Guide.

See more stories like this and all of our culture and community coverage. And while you’re here, why not subscribe and get six annual issues of Salt Lake magazine’s curated guide to the best of life in Utah. 

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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