The photos are of familiar places, but the details are practically unrecognizable. Miles of streetcar tracks run through downtown Salt Lake City. Is that an amusement park in Sugar House? And why are there crowds of finely dressed people walking in the middle of Main Street­­—not on a Conference Weekend, mind you, just a regular day?

Women relax at what is believed to be Saltair Beach, date unknown
Women relax at what is believed to be Saltair Beach, date unknown
Main Street, including The Owl Drug Co., Wilson Hotel and Walker Bank, 1943
Main Street, including The Owl Drug Co., Wilson Hotel and Walker Bank, 1943

Snapshots of life in early 20th century Salt Lake City are gaining new life online, notably in a popular Twitter thread, mournfully titled “What Salt Lake Lost,” and the Instagram account Old Salt Lake, that’s profile reads: “Salt Lake is dope—and so is its history.”

Pedestrians walk past Darling Stores on Main Street, 1951
Pedestrians walk past Darling Stores on Main Street, 1951
An Oldsmobile parked at the base of Anderson Tower, which was razed in 1932, on A Street, 1919
An Oldsmobile parked at the base of Anderson Tower, which was razed in 1932, on A Street, 1919

The audience enjoying these dope images is mostly millennials and zoomers decades removed from this lost Salt Lake. As a generation comes of age in an almost entirely new city, many are looking to the past and wondering what went wrong. This version of Salt Lake had what many young urbanites now value: easily accessible public transportation, walkable streets, local businesses (open late), and distinctive architecture. The Twitter thread and Instagram feeds often play before-and-after with the images, with side by side comparisons that demonstrate what’s changed in specific neighborhoods. It’s fun but also a little wistful. In the last 100 years, Salt Lake City’s streets and neighborhoods have transformed. And, in many cases, dull-high rises have sprung up alongside cookie-cutter condo towers and chain restaurants and parking garages squat where once stately, architecturally significant buildings stood. 

Main Street, including Bennett’s Paint, Walgreen Drugs, Continental Bank and Trust Company and Wilson Hotel, 1938
Main Street, including Bennett’s Paint, Walgreen Drugs, Continental Bank and Trust Company and Wilson Hotel, 1938
A train car going up Emigration Canyon, 1909
A train car going up Emigration Canyon, 1909

These images, rediscovered by a new generation, raise questions about what we want our city to be. They especially resonate as Salt Lake works through another period of transition. Rapid population increases and new economic opportunities promise progress, but urban growing pains also threaten much of what makes our city unique. As more changes loom, this curation of culture feels like both an elegy and a call to action.


Find more images @olymasic on Twitter and @oldsaltlake on Instagram. Read more about Utah history here.