A larger-than-life statue of Brigham Young may grace the north end of Main Street, but Eagle Gate at State Street and South Temple marks the entrance to President Young's legendary pioneer estate.
Eagle Gate, one of the state's most prominent monuments , has also undergone four or more make-overs in its 162 years, going from one-way traffic width to five lanes today.
Brigham Young had property at the mouth of City Creek Canyon and, consistent with his New England heritage, he fenced and gated the land for privacy and also for protection from City Creek flooding. The original wooden Eagle Gate was erected in 1859. It was designed by architect Truman O. Angell and Hiram B. Clawson.
The original eagle was carved by Ralph Ramsey and William Spring from five laminated wooden blocks and used an actual eagle that had been found in City Creek Canyon as its model. The monument weighed 500 pounds, had 16-foot-wide outstretched wings and rested upon curved wooden arches that used a 9-foot-high cobblestone as their anchor. The eagle sat on a beehive and a star mount.
"I've always looked at Eagle Gate as both a passage into the church's domain and to the State Capitol," Kent Powell, historian with the Utah Historical Society, said. "It's one of the few physical elements that ties us back to our pioneer past."
Powell believes Eagle Gate was one of the first monuments ever erected in Utah. Ramsey, Powell's great-grandfather, had just arrived in Salt Lake City from England and also eventually did some carvings for the Salt Lake LDS Temple.
Large wooden gates closed the 22-foot-wide opening of the original Eagle Gate at night. Young had the Beehive House, Lion House, private offices, a flower garden, school, barns, sheds, greeneries, orchards and vegetable gardens in his yard. For many years, the gate not only marked the entrance to Young's property but also to City Creek Canyon, as the highway was then the canyon toll road, not State Street.
Fourteen years after Young's death in 1891, the gates were removed and the street was widened to two-lanes. Soon after, electric street cars began traveling the area and a greater height was needed to accommodate the overhead wires.
The eagle was then sent back East to be covered with a layer of copper, and new supports resting on stone pillars were added. The gate was also widened in a new design by architect J. Don Carlos Young.
It was remodeled another three times during the next 60 years and eventually became just wide enough for four lanes of traffic, but there was no extra room. On April 18, 1960, a truck severely damaged Eagle Gate. The eagle and beehive were removed later that day. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which owned them eventually gave the eagle and beehive to the Daughters of Utah Pioneers because the wooden portions had deteriorated and could not be remounted again. They are in the DUP museum today at 300 N. Main.
In succeeding weeks all the gate structure was removed. A time capsule dating back to 1891 was found in one of the bases of the old support columns. For more than three years, there was no Eagle Gate at State Street and South Temple.
Architect George Cannon Young, a descendant of Brigham Young, began to design a new frame to support a new Eagle Gate. Artist Grant R. Fairbanks made a replica of the original bird out of bronze, though this one was larger, with a 20-foot wingspan and 10-foot-long body, and weighed 3,600 pounds. The stone fence near the Lion House was moved 20 feet west to make room for a larger five lane span.
State highway funds financed the project, but the LDS Church granted the state millions of dollars in rights of way for the project. By November of 1963, Eagle Gate — the one we see today — was back.
"The Eagle Gate is famed throughout the world as an example of pioneer art and culture," C. Taylor Burton, director of Utah's Highway Department, said in 1963. "Millions of tourists each year visit Temple Square, the Beehive House, the Eagle Gate and other pioneer works in this area."
A large bronze plaque at the northeast corner of Main and South Temple says Eagle Gate has come to represent both Brigham Young and the pioneer spirit.
Powell added that any Olympic visitors who spot both Eagle Gate and the separate monument to seagulls on Temple Square might conclude Utah has a high respect and reverence for birds.