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Beautiful, Troublesome, City Creek

Beautiful, Troublesome, City Creek

By Randall Dixon | Pioneer Magazine

In May 1983 City Creek, swollen from the melting of a record mountain snow pack, overflowed its underground channel and rushed into the streets of downtown Salt Lake City. For many of the people who gathered to fill sandbags, this was their introduction to the creek that was the lifeblood of the community in the early days of Salt Lake City. After many years of providing water for the needs of the growing city, the creek came to be seen as a nuisance and was banished to an underground conduit. When the Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July, 1847, they were attracted to the creek in the north end of the valley. Thomas Bullock described it as “a beautiful stream of water covered on both sides with willows and shrubs.” [1] John R. Young, remembered that “along the banks of the creek were thin strips of willows, rose briars and squaw bush.” [2] Scattered along its reaches were stands of box elder and cottonwood trees. [3] Upon his return to the East, William Clayton published an appealing description of City Creek in his Latter-day Saints Emigrants’ Guide: “A stream of water rushes from the mountain east of the city, and, at the upper part, it divides in two branches, both of which pass through the city to the Outlet [the Jordan River]. The water is good, and very cold, and [in] abundance for mill purposes, or for irrigation.” [4]

The Pioneer Company camped on the south branch of the creek, staked out a piece of ground and began plowing, planting, and irrigating. Within a few days, workers began laying out a city centering on the temple site located between the branches of the creek, which remained in their original courses. The north branch, which roughly paralleled North Temple Street, traversed the northern part of the temple block where it was put to use powering the machinery of the Church public works located there. A couple blocks father west it passed through Pioneer Grove, a large natural grove used at times for picnicking. A swimming hole was formed nearby where the creek made a bend before continuing on to the Jordan River. The south fork branched off east of the temple block and flowed near the east side of East Temple, or Main Street, past houses and businesses on what soon became the principal thoroughfare in the city. Charles W. Stayner recalled the barbershop of William Hennefer who had a shop on that part of the street:

“At that time City Creek went rushing past the front of the premises in its natural channel ten feet wide, and a narrow foot bridge furnished a means for customers to cross it when they wanted Mr. Hennefer’s service.” [5]

Father south, the creek crossed Third South Street where a bridge was built. Albert F. Philips reminisced that, “…from this bridge many of the boys, now grey haired men in Salt Lake, fished for speckled beauties…” [6] From there the creek flowed on until it united with the waters of Red Butt, Emigration, Parley’s and Mill creeks in a marsh south of the city before eventually flowing into the Jordan River.

While the creek provided many benefits to the community, it also brought a recurring problem: flooding. This threat became evident just a few months after the settlement was established. Isabella Horne, who lived in the Old Fort the first winter, recalled that in March of 1848, “a terrible storm passed over City Creek Canyon. A cloud burst, and the water came rushing down to the fort, pouring into some of the houses. Our floor had two or three inches of water over it.” [7]

As settlers began building homes and businesses along the banks of the creek, the likelihood of damage caused by serious flooding increased. The spring of 1853 brought an unusually high runoff. In an effort to prevent a general destruction of property, water was diverted from the north branch of the creek. Thomas Ellerbeck recorded the event in his diary on June 1, 1853, “This morning B[righam] Y[oung] and about 300 hands turned part of City Creek water northward, by an old course, through A. Carrington’s garden, O. Hyde’s garden, etc.” [8]

Unfortunately, the effort was not successful, for a few days later the Deseret News reported:

“Water forced a passage across East Temple St…cutting a channel from 6 to 10 feet deep, leaving the machinery of the Public Works high and dry, endangering President Kimball’s dwelling house, who labored all night to save it; carrying off Professor Carrington’s nursery, and a considerable portion of Prest. Hyde’s garden, and doing other damage in that vicinity to a considerable amount. Thos. S. Williams’ store, and the tin shop and other buildings near, situated on the South branch of the creek were in great danger, but by prompt exertion, were all saved. Many individuals were damaged in various ways, and much of the land between the city and Jordan…was flooded…The citizens of Utah have never known such high waters in the mountains before.” [9]

In an effort to prevent further flood damage and to assure that the public works on the temple block would be supplied with water, a new channel for the creek was cut along North Temple between State and Main streets north of the natural stream bed. By the fall of 1853 the city council decided that the best resolution to the City Creek problem was to permanently confine it to the middle of North Temple, within a “ditch excavated 12 feet wide, 4 feet deep…to be cribbed with split poles or suitable timbers, leaving a channel 10 feet wide inside.” [10] Work on the ditch began in December and continued through the winter. The project entailed extending the ditch on North Temple Street excavated the previous spring. The excavation continued for four more blocks west where it intersected the natural creek bed, which continued from that point on to the Jordan River. The new channel resulted in the complete closure of the south branch of the creek and the abandonment of much of the natural bed of the north branch. The public works continued to be supplied with water from a ditch that passed through arches in the wall around the temple block.

The expected relief from spring flooding did not occur as had been intended. On June 13, 1854, after a heavy rainstorm, “City Creek came booming along, tearing thro the Prests. garden flooding E[ast] and W[est] Temple Streets to the southern limits and N[orth] and S[outh] Temple Streets a considerable distance.” (The creek was evidently attempting to reclaim its former southern fork, which had run through Brigham Young’s garden but the new channel also overflowed to the north.) “Another branch threatened O. Hyde’s, W. Clayton and the row of houses west rising up into Carrington’s house and leaving a sediment of about 2 or 3 inches of mud on their carpeted floor…the water was about a yard deep round C. Merkley’s house leaving mud run a foot deep—all along that channel fences and gardens are swept away.” [11]

In an apparent effort to improve its efficiency, more work was done on the canal before the next spring. Church Historian George A. Smith wrote on Feb. 7, 1855, that “the Presidency have directed that the Big Ditch on the North Temple Street be extended to the river Jordan, that in case any more floods shall come from the mountains, we may in a measure be prepared for them.” [12]

The extended channel evidently reduced flooding. North Temple, however, suffered from yearly erosion problems and when the runoff was especially high, flooding again occurred. After a particularly bad year in 1865, the city council decided on a project to increase the capacity of the channel. The Salt Lake Daily Telegraph announced on Sept. 6, 1866, that “the City Council have authorized the construction of a concave aqueduct…for a distance of 240 rods [five blocks] through the centre of North Temple Street…It is to be 3 and one-half feet deep, 14 feet across the top…to be built of heavy boulders laid by experienced masons.” [13]

The aqueduct was finished before the end of the year using large boulders from the city’s east bench at a cost of some $25,000. The cost and effort were worthwhile, for the next spring during the annual run-off this article appeared in the Deseret News:

“May 15, 1867: City Creek—This stream, which has been a source of terror in past springs to the citizens of North Temple Street, when melting snows raised it beyond its accustomed limits, now rushes down the channel made for it last fall with circumspection that bespeaks its complete control. It is pleasant to stand at the east end of the street, and looking west, watch the new bridled and curbed stream dashing on to the Jordan. The money expended on the aqueduct has been a good investment.” [14]

The aqueduct was such a success that no major changes were made until 1892, when the first section of the creek was put underground in a conduit. Gradually over the years various sections were covered, with the last open section north of Temple Square being enclosed in 1924.

For decades many people were unaware that City Creek traversed the city under North Temple Street, but the flood of 1983 brought it to local attention once more. Even after that flood subsided, interest in the creek remained high. Various proposals were made for bringing the creek to the surface as part of the urban landscape. In 1995 this came to pass, at least in part, with creek water being a major feature in the two small parks built at the mouth of City Creek Canyon by Salt Lake City and the LDS Church. Within the parks the water is celebrated in a series of ponds and cascades, with bridges and a water wheel. Pathways follow the stream banks, and benches are provided for enjoying the water.

A Deseret News editorial from 1921, which discussed plans for covering the last section of the creek, has proven prophetic:

“To cover City Creek…and make of North Temple just an ordinary downtown thoroughfare would be a desecration…In that open stream, with all its historic significance in addition to its possibilities for beauty and attractiveness, the city has an asset of great value. To hide completely the flowing water within a conduit and to make of the street a stretch of ordinary pavement would be to throw away opportunity for which many cities would gladly pay a million dollars. As this city grows and the congestion of the business district increases, realization will come more and more of the value, not alone for beauty that appeals to the eye, of that open stream.” [15]

[1] Diary, July 23, 1847, Historical Dept. Archives Division, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hereafter Church Archives.

[2] “Reminiscences of John R. Young,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 3 (July 1930), p. 83.

[3] W. Randall Dixon, “Forgotten Living Landmarks of Salt Lake City,” Pioneer, (Spring 1995).

[4] The Latter-Day Saints’ Emigrants’ Guide, (St. Louis, 1848), p. 20.

[5] Charles W. Stayner, “The Barbers Art,” The Contributer, Vol. 10, (Dec. 1888), P. 57.

[6] “Did You Know?” Salt Lake Telegram, July 23, 1921, sec. 2 p. 1.

[7] M. Isabella Horner, “In Early Days,” The Juvenile Instructor, Vol. 29, (Mar. 15, 1894), p. 182.

[8] Diary, Church Archives.

[9] Deseret News, June 19, 1853, [p. 2].

[10] Salt Lake City Council Minutes, Nov. 12, 1853.

[11] Historian’s Office Journal, Church Archives.

[12] The Mormon, Mar. 31, 1855.

[13] Salt Lake Daily Telegraph [p. 3].

[14] p. 157.

[15] Deseret News, July 8, 1921 p. 4.