In 2001, Barbara McGrath of Arizona learned that This Is the Place Heritage Park was erecting a replica of Salt Lake City's Eagle Gate at the park's entrance.
McGrath, the great-granddaughter of Ralph Ramsay, who carved the original eagle, drove up from Arizona to take a look and was surprised at what she saw.
"I went out and saw an eagle that was not my grandfather's," she said.
Ramsay carved an eagle with wings spread, standing on a beehive, to be placed atop a gate at the entrance to Brigham Young's property in 1859. That eagle and the gate it tops became Eagle Gate, a landmark in Salt Lake City. The replica of the eagle gate erected by the park in 2001 was being billed as a "scaled-down replica of the Eagle Gate," but the eagle wasn't the same.
"They let someone else make the eagle, and it's not the Eagle Gate," she said.
Determined to change that, McGrath marshaled other descendants of Ramsay to raise money to replace the historically inaccurate eagle with one that looked more like the one Ramsay carved. The family is mostly in retirement, she said, so they aren't a wealthy bunch — but after five years they'd finally raised the $10,000 they needed.
Saturday morning, Ramsay descendants gathered to watch as a new eagle was unveiled atop the park's entrance. For McGrath and other members of her family, it was the culmination of a five-year effort.
"I'm tickled to death," she said, looking up toward the new eagle.
The current Eagle Gate raptor, located at the intersection of State Street and South Temple, is a larger scale replica of Ramsay's eagle. Following a highway accident in 1961, the original Eagle Gate and eagle were taken down, and State Street was widened. By that point, the wooden eagle was cracked and falling apart. Daughters of Utah Pioneers rescued that eagle from the warehouse it was stashed in and put it on display in the DUP museum, since it was no longer in any shape to be on the street. Additionally, the widening of State Street meant the gate really needed to be enlarged, so the Ramsay eagle was now too small.
Grant Fairbanks, a medical student looking for a summer job, approached the Utah Department of Transportation and offered to carve a new, enlarged scale model of the Ramsay eagle. He first made a smaller working model of the eagle, and it is that model, repaired and bronzed, that now greets visitors to This Is the Place Heritage Park.
Matt Dahl, the park's executive director, said This Is the Place tries to be as authentic as possible, so replacing the eagle with a more accurate one made sense.
Prior to unveiling, the new eagle was covered with a white sheet that was blown off by the wind several times before the ceremony was to occur. Park staff secured the sheet so well the final time they had to climb up and re-cover the eagle that the sheet didn't want to come off when the time came. Megan McGrath, a great-great-granddaughter of Ramsay charged with the task of pulling down the sheet, had to tug and change directions and get some help from park staff before the covering finally came down.
Fairbanks said this was reminiscent of the unveiling of the eagle in 1963, when President David O. McKay, then the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also had a hard time uncovering the bird.