By John Muir, 1918
The mountains rise grandly round about this curious city, the Zion of the new Saints, so grandly that the city itself is hardly visible. The Wahsatch Range, snow-laden and adorned with glacier-sculpted peaks, stretches continuously along the eastern horizon, forming the boundary of the Great Salt Lake Basin; while across the valley of the Jordan southwestward from here, you behold the Oquirrh Range, about as snowy and lofty as the Wahsatch. To the northwest your eye skims the blue levels of the great lake, out of the midst of which rise island mountains, and beyond, at a distance of fifty miles, is seen the picturesque wall of the lakeside mountains blending with the lake and
The glacial developments of these superb ranges are sharply sculptured peaks and crests, with ample wombs between them where the ancient snows of the glacial period were collected and transformed into ice, and ranks of profound shadowy canyons, while moraines commensurate with the lofty fountains extend into the valleys, forming far the grandest series of glacial monuments I have yet seen this side of the Sierra.
In beginning this letter I meant to describe the city, but in the company of these noble old mountains, it is not easy to bend one’s attention upon anything else. Salt Lake cannot be called a very beautiful town, neither is there anything ugly or repulsive about it. From the slopes of the Wahsatch foothills, or old lake benches, toward Fort Douglas it is seen to occupy the sloping gravelly delta of City Creek, a fine, hearty stream that comes pouring from the snows of the mountains through a majestic glacial canyon; and it is just where this stream comes forth into the light on the edge of the valley of the Jordan that the Mormons have built their new Jerusalem.
At first sight there is nothing very marked in the external appearance of the town excepting its leafiness. Most of the houses are veiled with trees, as if set down in the midst of one grand orchard; and seen at a little distance they appear like a field of glacier boulders overgrown with aspens, such as one often meets in the upper valleys of the California Sierra, for only the angular roofs are clearly visible.
Perhaps nineteen twentieths of the houses are built of bluish-gray adobe bricks, and are only one or two stories high, forming fine cottage homes which promise simple comfort within.
They are set well back from the street, leaving room for a flower garden, while almost every one has a thrifty orchard at the sides and around the back. The gardens are laid out with great simplicity, indicating love for flowers by people comparatively poor, rather than deliberate efforts of the rich for showy artistic effects. They are like the pet gardens of children, about as artless and humble, and harmonize with the low dwellings to which they belong. In almost every one you find daisies, and mint, and lilac bushes, and rows of plain English tulips. Lilacs and tulips are the most characteristic flowers, and nowhere have I seen them in greater perfection. As Oakland is pre-eminently a city of roses, so is this Mormon Saints’ Rest a city of lilacs and tulips.
The flowers, at least, are saintly, and they are surely loved. Scarce a home, however obscure, is without them, and the simple, unostentatious manner in which they are planted and gathered in pots and boxes about the windows shows how truly they are prized.
The surrounding commons, the marshy levels of the Jordan, and dry, gravelly lake benches on the slopes of the Wahsatch foothills are now gay with wild flowers, chief among which are a species of phlox, with an abundance of rich pink corollas, growing among sagebrush in showy tufts, and a beautiful papilionaceous plant, with silky leaves and large clusters of purple flowers, banner, wings, and keel exquisitely shaded, a mertensia, hydrophyllum, white boragewort, orthocarpus, several species of violets, and a tall scarlet gilia.
It is delightful to see how eagerly all these are sought after by the children, both boys and girls. Every day that I have gone botanizing I have met groups of little Latter-Days with their precious bouquets, and at such times it was hard to believe the dark, bloody passages of Mormon history.
But to return to the city. As soon as City Creek approaches its upper limit its waters are drawn off right and left, and distributed in brisk rills, one on each side of every street, the regular slopes of the delta upon which the city is built being admirably adapted to this system of street irrigation. These streams are all pure and sparkling in the upper streets, but, as they are used to some extent as sewers, they soon manifest the consequence of contact with civilization, though the speed of their flow prevents their becoming offensive, and little Saints not over particular may be seen drinking from them everywhere.
The streets are remarkably wide and the buildings low, making them appear yet wider than they really are. Trees are planted along the sidewalks–elms, poplars, maples, and a few catalpas and hawthorns; yet they are mostly small and irregular, and nowhere form avenues half so leafy and imposing as one would be led to expect. Even in the business streets there is but little regularity in the buildings–now a row of plain adobe structures, half store, half dwelling, then a high mercantile block of red brick or sandstone, and again a row of adobe cottages nestled back among apple trees. There is one immense store with its sign upon the roof, in letters big enough to be read miles away, “Z.C.M.I.” (Zion’s Co-operative Mercantile Institution), while many a small, codfishy corner grocery bears the legend “Holiness to the Lord, Z.C.M.I.” But little evidence will you find in this Zion, with its fifteen thousand souls, of great wealth, though many a Saint is seeking it as keenly as any Yankee Gentile. But on the other hand, searching throughout all the city, you will not find any trace of squalor or extreme poverty.