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Emigration Canyon: Its historical significance, offbeat aura lend the area plenty of flavor

EMIGRATION CANYON — It tickles Cindy Furse to see the old Pink Garage standing sentinel at the entrance to tony Emigration Oaks.

Rumored as a one-time house of ill repute, the dilapidated shack is an Emigration Canyon icon. Its flagging pink siding marks a stark contrast to the stylish stone and stucco mansions in the exclusive hillside subdivision.

"It's so funky. It's so dichotomous to have it in front of million-dollar houses," Furse said. "It just makes Emigration Oaks not so posh. It gives it flavor."

Flavor is one thing Emigration Canyon does not lack. From its lasting historic significance to Utah and the West to its offbeat aura today, there is no place like it along the Wasatch Front.

"There's no vanilla about it," Furse said.

Emigration is a 9-mile-long, 2-mile-wide stretch of forest, brushy hillside and canyon bottom east of Salt Lake City. It is home to about 1,200 people, slightly fewer than the initial waves of Mormon pioneers who passed through it 159 years ago, in 1847.

Brigham Young led a wagon train down the canyon into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, following a route the ill-fated Donner-Reed party forged a year before. The Donner company hacked away scrub oak and river willows in the steep canyon, a task that set them back a deadly three weeks en route to California.

The Mormon Trail became a thoroughfare for scouts, emigrants, Pony Express riders, teamsters and gold miners. The driving of the Golden Spike in 1869 eventually slowed the stream of travelers. Instead of a passageway, the canyon became a place to live. Logger John Killian was the first resident. Though misspelled, a fork called Killyon's Canyon bears his name.

'True funk'

"It's a very historic place," says longtime resident Stan Fishler, chairman of the Emigration Canyon Historical Society. "You're dealing with, in my opinion, the most historic canyon in the whole valley."

President Calvin Coolidge considered it for a summer White House. One of the largest breweries west of the Mississippi River sat at the canyon mouth. An electric railroad once ran top to bottom. LDS Church President Heber J. Grant conducted ecclesiastical business from his family cabin.

In 2003, residents Cindy Furse and Jeff Carlstrom captured the canyon's past in a book titled "The History of Emigration Canyon — Gateway to Salt Lake Valley."

Though not historians — Furse is a chemical engineer, Carlstrom a technical writer — they share an affinity for canyon history and had written pieces for the local LDS Church ward newsletter, though neither is a church member. Fishler brought them together, and they spent eight years researching and writing.

"I find myself thinking about all the people in the book as family," Carlstrom said.

The nearly 300-page volume tells the canyon story from pre-1845 to the present, the tale of the Pink Garage included.

Legend has it, bootleg runner Cleveland Bunnell Lester — "Tennessee" to his acquaintances and "Bunn" to his wife and close friends — got sideways with Baby Face Nelson in Chicago. He ended up in Emigration Canyon, where he built a house and welding shop. He covered the two-story building, constructed of old railroad lumber, with cheap pink fiberboard. He slept in the garage when he was in the doghouse at home.

A fighter and a drinker, Lester eventually split from his wife and moved to California. The shop lived on as nothing more than a garage, though rumor had it as a beauty parlor, guest house and brothel.

It is a remnant Furse describes as "true funk" and that shapes the modern canyon personality.

Canyon of characters

Today Emigration Canyon is an eclectic enclave of colorful characters, wealthy professionals, working families and, ironically, fewer LDS Church members than most areas in the valley. It is a favored route for runners, motorcyclists, bicyclists and apparently extraterrestrials.

Dave Rosenfeld, better known as Alien Dave, moved to the canyon several years ago to better spot UFOs on starlit nights. His Web site lists it as a hot zone for outer space activity. According to the site, Alien Dave is "preparing humanity to interface with advanced non-human intelligences."

"The people who live up here are very unique people," says 82-year-old Mary Jane Chindgren. She should know. She has lived in the canyon since World War II.

Asked to name some of the characters she's encountered over the years, Chindgren replied, "I don't know if I dare talk about that."

Chindgren has an ancestral tie to the canyon. Her great-grandfather George Ammon Stringham traveled across the Plains with Brigham Young. Her spacious house with Emigration Creek running through the tree-covered yard is built around a 16-foot-wide cabin.

"It's a wonderful life," said the retired state government worker. "I really love it up here."

That's what everyone in the canyon says. "But don't tell anyone," whispers Carlstrom, a relative newcomer of 16 years.

The "ahh" factor is high. The summer air is 10 degrees to 15 degrees cooler than that in the valley. The rustling leaves and gurgling creek soothe the soul. Stars shine brighter in the night sky. Once residents arrive home from a day's work, they're not inclined to leave.

"It's so close to the city, yet it can be really remote," Chindgren said.

Howard Ingle spent two summers in the late '70s living in a tepee "because it seemed like a cool thing to do." He was about 28.

"I wanted to do the Walden thing, the Henry David Thoreau thing," said Ingle, a psychology professor at Salt Lake Community College.

With book and hammer

Cindy and Larry Furse felt the city closing in on them when they lived in Sugar House.

"We had to get out of the city," she said, adding they built their house in 1992 with "a library book and a hammer."

The Furses' home sits near the end of the paved canyon road shrouded in box elder, maple and white Douglas fir trees. Greenish gray rubber boas can sometimes be spotted slithering through the foliage. Moose commonly make their home in the yard, and coyotes howl each evening.

Nighttime darkness is part of the experience. "It's socially unacceptable to leave your porch light on," Furse said.

Old junk like the Pink Garage becomes cool in Emigration Canyon where everything seems to run counter to cultural norms.

In the secluded Pinecrest area where Furse lives, residents mourned the day automated garbage collection began. They fought against paving the road on which they live. They wish they could plow the snow themselves again.

"It's just different," Furse says of life in the canyon. "It distinctively is not the city. It's really 'city-not' "

Until about 20 years ago, it wasn't a desirable place to live.

"When I moved up here, a bank wouldn't give you a loan," said Gary Noerring, a canyon resident of nearly 35 years. "They'd laugh at you when you told them where you wanted to live."

Upscale Emigration Oaks and Emigration Place changed that. Lots in the trendy hillside communities start at around $300,000 for a half acre. Homes run into the millions of dollars. All 223 lots in the Boyer Co.'s Emigration Oaks —— once billed as "the Bel Air of Salt Lake City" —— are sold.

Longtime residents have a reputation for being anti-development, especially as houses go up on steep, unstable mountainsides. There's a little "last-man-on-the-mountain" syndrome, says Joe Smolka whose family has lived in the canyon for 71 years.

"It's still wild. You don't want to see it packed with homes. You'd hate to see the entire canyon like that," he said.

Canyon dining

Canyon residents live at the mercy of the elements year-round — spring flooding, summer fires (residents still talk about the fire of 1988) and winter avalanches. Water is a precious commodity. Aside from a couple of small water systems, most people rely on wells. Homes are equipped with septic tanks.

"If you're namby-pamby, don't move up here," Furse says.

It also takes a hardy soul to make a business go in the canyon. Many have come and gone over the years. But venerable Ruth's Diner endures. Built around an old trolley car that feisty Ruth Evans hauled up the canyon on a flatbed truck in 1949, the restaurant continues to dish up home-style cooking to a packed house morning, noon and night.

Meanwhile, The Sun & Moon Cafe is just starting to make a name for itself a few miles up the canyon. Owner/chef Carl Weyant is finding success where two other recent eateries failed.

"It was a struggle just to stay in business for the first couple of years," the Brooklyn native said. The cafe offers fine casual dining and live music.

Weyant hasn't advertised much since opening three years ago. He relies on word of mouth. But he's thinking about an ad featuring himself in a muumuu, holding a big cigar under the headline "We're Ruthless," a not-so-subtle nod to Ruth's Diner and Ruth herself, who wore patterned sun dresses and always had an unfiltered cigarette hanging from her lips.

"I think people might come up just to see the idiot in the muumuu," Weyant said.

Independent folks

A man in a frumpy house dress would be far from the strangest sight in Emigration Canyon.

Christened by Mormon pioneers as the gateway to Zion, the canyon became more of a hideaway.

"People have come up for years and years to get away. The don't like the city. They don't like the county," Fishler said.

And some don't like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"A lot of people come up here to hide from the (LDS) church," said Smolka, a Latter-Day Saint and former community council chairman.

Only about 40 percent of canyon dwellers belong to the LDS Church, nearly 27 percent less than Salt Lake County overall. A lone LDS family in Killyon's Canyon moved out because they felt "religiously alienated," Ingle said.

Most residents "want nothing to do with the dominant culture," he said. "We formed our own subculture."

The subculture includes a men's beer club, a baby-sitting co-op and women's book club whose members have master's degrees or higher, take vacations to places like Tibet and don't share their husbands' last names.

Politically, the community is a blue streak in an overwhelmingly red state. Nearly 70 percent voted for John Kerry in the last presidential election.

"We had a cry-in when President Bush won," Furse said. "Most of the neighborhood was there, and many people were bawling."

Canyon residents are by and large an opinionated, educated independent lot who aren't shy about speaking their minds. Dust-ups over development, traffic, open space, public lands access, hiking trails and water regularly get their hackles up.

Despite a shared adoration for the canyon, they often break into factions based on their viewpoints.

"So it's like trying to herd cats," Ingle said. "It's hard to get everyone going in the same direction."

Things change

Yet, they are seclusive, having moved to the canyon to escape the trappings of city life.

Noerring is one of the canyon's resident rabble rousers. He sees himself as Emigration Canyon's Orrin Porter Rockwell — a famous rough-and-ready frontiersman whom he calls "my favorite Mormon." He has come to blows several times protecting what he sees as a threatened lifestyle. He once hurled a brick through the window of a car speeding on his quiet lane.

The emergence of high-priced homes for high-powered professionals created a love-hate relationship with the canyon for him.

The retired auto mechanic detests so-called "yuppy puppies" with their 8,000-square-foot homes and Olympic-size swimming pools. The cyclists riding four abreast and the bullet bikes that burn rubber on the narrow canyon road drive him crazy.

"I've been here since 1972. It was a nice place then," said Noerring, a hunter, cross-country skier, snowmobiler and motorcyclist who knows every nook and cranny of the canyon. "Nowadays it really sucks."

Yet, he can't imagine living anywhere but in the log home he broke his back building.

"My wife wants to move," he said. "If she makes me sell this house, I sure as hell wouldn't move to town with her."

There's always the Pink Garage.