Community Profiles, Memoir
Memories of a Salt Lake City neighborhood built on, and then lost to, industry.
The perceived homogeneity of a city is upheld by the undoing of unique places within it. For Salt Lake City, a current example can be seen in the debate over the future of Japantown, an area of downtown Salt Lake facing a major development project potentially covering the few remaining hints at that neighborhood’s history. Similarly, downtown’s Chinatown, once housing and providing livelihood for around 1,800 Chinese in the early 20th century, was demolished in 1952, leaving behind its name, Plum Alley, and a plaque.
The eccentricities of neighborhoods begin to surface one structure or anecdote at a time, and change often comes too quickly for them to be preserved.
The Beck Street area, west of our state’s Capitol, is a particularly poignant example of a space in continual flux, but nonetheless resistant to oversimplification, be it demographic, economic or otherwise. Few places in the Salt Lake Valley show as much overlap of varying industries, land uses, and cultural histories as this stretch along Highway 89.
Within this area is Swedetown, a tiny neighborhood that has barely withstood nearly a century and a half on the city’s gritty edge.
Swedetown is now comprised of a few dozen homes tucked away between Beck Street to the east, Duluth Avenue to the north, Everett Avenue to the south, and the transportation corridors of the Union Pacific rail lines and I-15 to the west. In its early days, its western border stretched all the way to the Jordan River. It is now dwarfed on all sides by refineries, foundries and scrapyards.
At its peak, Swedetown had nearly 200 homes, a grocer, baker, tailor, shoemaker and other tradesmen, as well as its own one-room schoolhouse near Warm Springs and the 23rd Ward Chapel (still standing, though it has gone unused for decades).
Its borders have retreated over the years, with homes east of Beck Street subsumed by gravel pits or leveled to make way for scrapyards. Nowadays, Swedetown is easy to miss. But then, Swedetown was always intended to be on the fringe.
A community is born
As the name implies, Swedetown was once home to a large population of Swedish immigrants, as well as Danes and Norwegians—the vast majority of them Mormon converts. If you’ve spent any significant time in Utah, the Scandinavian influence on the state should be no surprise. After the English and Greeks, they were the largest foreign-born populations in Utah. For every Young and Smith, it is just as easy to find a Hansen/Hanson or Jorgensen/ Jorgenson.
As a result of an enormous missionary effort by Mormons in Scandinavia, by the 1870s emigration had begun in large numbers, aided in large part by the Vedvarende Emigrations fond, a branch of the church’s Perpetual Emigrating Fund that helped streamline both sea and overland travel and subsidized emigration costs for those unable to pay.
The overwhelming majority of immigrants from Scandinavia were farmers, and their stay in the Salt Lake Valley was often brief as they would be sent out to found farming communities at the peripheries of Mormondom. However, there were also tradesmen and laborers who were far more likely to stay and work in the mines, mills, smelters and on the railroads. Many were recruited for work on the Salt Lake Temple because of their construction skills.
By the end of the 1880s, Swedetown was a thriving community north of the city. Established on the route between Beck’s Hot Springs Resort and the Warm Springs bathhouse (see story in CATALYST, December 2017), it was conveniently close to the railroads, mines and other sites for unskilled labor. At that time Swedes comprised 5.2% of Salt Lake County’s population. Danes constituted an even greater percentage and Norwegians a bit less.
As is the case with many immigrant groups, the ability to settle near fellow countrymen was beneficial to the Swedes, Norwegians and Danes. However, unlike other communities that arose in Salt Lake, such as the Japanese and Greeks, which had non-Mormon churches and cultural entities, Swedetown was largely made up of converts who were trying in many ways to assimilate while still holding onto parts of their national identities.
Their church’s official stance was that “all Saints of foreign birth who come here…should learn to speak English as soon as possible, [and] adopt the manners and customs of the American people….”
Church officials also recognized the benefits to all involved in maintaining ethnic identity. Initially, the old languages were tolerated as a catalyst for spreading the gospel and rapidly disseminating information. Newspapers and other publications in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish appeared, including Svenska Harolden, Utah Poste, Utah Skandinav, Bikuben, Utah Nederlander, and Utah Korrespondenten.
However, Mormon officials considered all Scandinavian nationalities a single identity. “Whatever the Mormon Church promoted was always inclusively Scandinavian, making no distinctions among Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians,” wrote historian Helen Papanikolas. This did not sit well among all Swedes.
Torn between cultures
Korrespondenten editor Otto Rydman was instrumental in one of the more overt examples of pushback against assimilation attempts by those in Swedetown and other Scandinavian enclaves. Things came to a head in 1901 when Rydman began to advocate for Swedish separatism and Swedish-only services.
In response, officials locked him and his fellow petitioners out of their ward house prior to a celebration of the Swedish holiday of Julottan and subsequently excommunicated Rydman. The angry response following their dismissal was referred to as the “Swedish Uprising.” Nearly 2,000 petitioners from around the state called for Rydman to be reinstated.
The church reaffirmed their policy of assimilation and pointed out that 80% of the petitioners understood English. As a result, tempers cooled.
Second- and third-generation Swedes born in the Swedetown area often found themselves torn between two cultures and at odds with the values—religious, ethnic or otherwise—that led previous generations to emigrate. This tension bred both closeness in these American-born Swedes and a tendency to find themselves in trouble with both the authorities and their families.
In the case of Swedetown, a group of about 45 young men who had grown up together in the neighborhood during the 1910s were a perpetual source of consternation for other residents. They were chased from site to site, including the grocer and the chapel, due to complaints of profane language, vandalism and loitering. Eventually, the residents proposed a unique solution to the problem that led to one of the great, though utterly forgotten, landmarks in Swedetown.
The neighborhood agreed to provide the land and the materials for the boys to build their own gathering place. An empty lot on the opposite corner from the chapel was given to the group, along with materials recycled from the nearby railyard.
Within a few hours the boys had built a structure resembling a large pavilion that they christened the “Grizzly Inn” and inaugurated with an “eight-gallon keg of beer.”
As it was an open-air structure, it did little to deter the noise from the boys’ late nights and was largely useless in the cold Utah winters. On November 1, 1916, three of the more precocious members of the group—Ernest Apelgren, Earl Vincent and Hyrum Bergstrom—commandeered a small nearby empty lot and began work on their new winter quarters.
Like the Grizzly Inn, the new building, “The Indian Grove,” was crude, though it was enclosed and provided a cozy space for meetings. It was also constructed from recycled materials—“railroad ties planted upright, with rail car doors nailed to them making the walls and roof, and the roof covered with six inches of sod.” The structure was completed on December 21, 1916 and another eight-gallon keg was on hand for the opening celebrations.
Sadly, Apelgren was killed in an accident earlier that day and the celebration turned into a wake. In spite of this loss, the Indian Grove quickly became a fixture for young men in the area.
Curiosity from outsiders was met with openness by Indian Grove members and the boys often held public events and even occasional “ladies’ nights.” During the winter months, two nights a week were devoted to “the study of the Science of Eugenics,” a subject widely accepted in the U.S. academic community at the time. Other discussions were made open to the public on abroad array of topics.
The Indian Grove remained an important facet of the community into the 1930s. Though nothing of the structure now remains, a few pamphlets and other ephemera still exist, including rosters of the Grove’s members, which document a long list of Swedish family lines.
Boom (and the natural world)
Swedetown sat adjacent to the corridor by which the Utah Central Railroad entered the city. (This spur had been commissioned by Brigham Young after Union Pacific decided to run the transcontinental railroad through Ogden rather than Salt Lake City.) Completed in 1869, the railyard provided work for many of the newly arrived Scandinavians as well as a stream of customers for the hamlet’s businesses. That livelihood was supplemented by the presence of both the Warm Springs Bathhouse to the south of Swedetown and Beck’s Hot Springs resort on Hot Spring Lake to the north. These resorts were world-renowned by the end of the 19th century, and were described at great length in many of the tourist guides produced by western railroads.
The neighborhood was given a second boost, despite the increasing industrial presence, when Highway 89 was constructed in the 1920s, including the portion running north of Salt Lake City onto what was then Beck Street. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Beck Street was a bustling row of mom-and-pop diners, motels, gas stations and resorts, catering to both tourists seeking hot springs as well as those passing through on the new highway.
Businesses such as the El May Café, Café Dinner Bell, the Mission Bell Hotel, the Swim Inn, and of course Wasatch Warm Springs Plunge, intermingled with industry and managed to create a friendly atmosphere.
Nearly all of the remnants of this time period are gone, save one example on the southeast corner of Swedetown. The El May Diner sat at corner of Beck and Everett Avenue. Portions of the original building still stand, incorporated into the Swedetown Pub and its adjacent motel. It was owned by Dick and Helen May (nee Hansen, herself a descendent of Swedetown immigrants). Helen’s mother lived in the home adjacent to the diner that they later turned into a motel and Dick’s brother ran the petrol station a short distance to the south.
I interviewed Helen and Dick’s daughter, Merry May Brickley, on several occasions and she described an idyllic life in Swedetown, a sentiment backed up by a number of handwritten or transcribed autobiographies of other long-time residents. It was a close-knit neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else and could trace the descendants living in each home or the changes of ownership when people left.
One such document, Weymouth W. Anderson’s “Swedetown Memories,” details the occupant of nearly every home and also illustrates how intertwined the neighborhood was withthe land. The foothills just outside their front doors, were full of canyons, caves, hot springs and waterfalls that every child raised in Swedetown knew well.
Anderson describes “our waterfall” up above Beck’s Hot Springs and how “not many people will know how pretty this waterfall was…it was eventually piped and routed to a little lake” in the same manner that the gravel pits and railroad diverted, destroyed, or otherwise covered up the complex ecology surrounding Swedetown.
The making of a sacrificial zone
Ironically, the same railroad that allowed Swedetown to thrive initially would ultimately lead to its undoing and to the circumstances that have led to it being largely forgotten.
The transportation corridor provided by the railroad (and later I-15) laid the groundwork for a thriving industrial complex of both aggregates and petroleum products that were exported all over the country, particularly at the onset of World War II, in many ways allowing Salt Lake City entry into an increasingly globalized world.
Petroleum-based industry along the same corridor, which has defined the area for decades, began in the early 20th century with the arrival of C.J. Gustavson, himself a Swedish immigrant and Mormon convert.
In 1908 Gustavson founded Lubra Oils Manufacturing Company just south of Swedetown. Lubra would pass through many hands and many names over the years, becoming Utah Oil Company, a piece of Standard Oil’s holdings, AMOCO, among other things before being sold to Tesoro in 2001 and changing hands several times since.
Much like the gravel pits, the petroleum industry would see enormous growth following the mass production of automobiles and another even larger boom following America’s entry into World War II and the development of the massive military-industrial complex that followed. In response to this demand, Chevron’s facilities north of Swedetown would break ground in 1948.
A question of pollution
In addition to the hazards of their times—coal- and woodburning stoves and, earlier, leather tanning—Swedetown residents contended with the effects of mining and the petroleum industry. The federal Clean Air Act of 1963 brought national attention to the problem of air pollution.
The proximity of a community to such industries is unsettling, and is often the greatest cause for disbelief in those unaware that the neighborhood still exists. But the struggle of its residents for social justice on an environmental level started well before the current battles over air quality.
A Salt Lake Tribune article from 1977 details the ongoing battle between industry and Swedetown residents, including Mary Solt, Swedetown’s trustee on the Capitol Hill Neighborhood Council, who spent her life in Swedetown and has been one of its most outspoken residents. Solt documented a dozen cases of leukemia and other cancer cases in a neighborhood of only 43 families, a number that led State Representative Dan Marriott to promise to investigate further and put pressure on companies to do a better job in dealing with pollution.
Such efforts were short-lived, as illustrated by the presence of two Superfund sites within a stone’s throw of Swedetown—the Rose Park Sludge Pit just over the Union Pacific rails and the Petrochem/Ekotek site (within Swedetown itself)—both of which were added to the Superfund list in the 1980s and both of which have long histories of lackluster oversight.
By the 1990s, the city was no longer putting pressure on industry, but on residents in the hopes that they would vacate and allow the city to demolish the neighborhood and be done with the problems it caused for them. A Tribune article from 1994 titled “Once a Bustling hamlet, Swedetown Now Sits on Brink of Death” illustrates well the hope of many city leaders at the time, such as Bill Wright, who is quoted hoping that “in 10 years there will be no homes in Swedetown.”
Nonetheless, the neighborhood has lived on, though with far fewer of the Swedetown lifers, such as Solt or Al Munsee who, at the time of the 1994 article, had been in his home for 47 years and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
A few streets with homes remain, though little exists in the way of reminders of the area’s past. Swedetown Park, a patch of green space on 1500 North, is connected to the neighborhood’s past in name only. The Swedetown Pub, formerly the El May Café, seemingly has now shut down for good.
The fate of the El May and its motel took longer to arrive than that of many of the nearby homes and businesses, but in many ways was all the more sad. After Merry’s parents sold off the diner and hotel, it passed through a few owners, eventually becoming the Swedetown Pub. The pub had the charm of a locals bar—cheap beer, cheap pool. But it was also common knowledge among railroad employees and other workers in the area that drugs and prostitution were readily available there.
The decline of that particular site is indicative of the recent history of the area overall. Subject to environmental havoc and few resources from the city, subsequent Swedetown generations declined to stay in or return to the homes they grew up in. The workforce for the railroad and nearby industry—Union Pacific employees and workers in the aggregate and petroleum industries nearby—became more itinerant.
In 2005, lifetime resident Mary Solt wrote that even without the businesses and gathering places that gave it so much charm in the first half of the 20th century, “Swedetown is still a close-knit neighborhood, people helping one another.
But nearly permanent homeless encampments in empty lots around Swedetown and in the foothills near the Warm Springs Plunge building further exacerbated problems with drugs and, combined with the industrial landscape, kept more and more people away from the area and its few remaining green spaces.
While city planners were unable to evacuate Swedetown entirely, this was the beginning of many people forgetting it was there at all.
What creates a sense of place may be stable—the mountains, the seasons (at least, historically); or it may be a dominant culture, such as that created by the LDS Church; or more transitory: street fairs, neighborhood bars, a tree with a knothole in the shape of the Virgin Mary.
While all cities are palimpsests to some degree—subject to erasure, especially in an ever more globalized world with an increasingly mobile population—this process is more rapid at the periphery, as we have seen with Swedetown.
Relative newcomers such as The Garage on Beck and concerted efforts from the Warm Springs Alliance to use the green spaces in the neighborhood for community events have brought in more people who are curious about the area and its past. With any luck, renewed interest in the Beck Street area at large can help preserve memories of the nature and people of this industrial zone’s past.
Michael McLane is the director of the Center for the Book at Utah Humanities. He is a graduate of the Environmental Humanities program at the University of Utah and is an editor with the literary journals saltfront: studies in human habit(at) and Sugar House Review.