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'This is the place': Historic monuments of Salt Lake Valley's 'Pioneer View'

In the modern parking lot at This Is the Place Heritage Park, visitors can still glimpse, to the northeast amid the scrub-oak greenery, the tip of a monument raised almost a century ago in tribute to the first Mormon pioneers of 1847.

No, not the titanic granite-and-bronze This Is the Place Monument, dedicated in the pioneer-centennial year of 1947, but a smaller, snow-white obelisk, placed there in 1921. It is tucked away on an upper service road, still accessible to those who want to seek it out.

"This Is the Place," lettering says on one side of the obelisk, below a stylized bison, or buffalo, skull. "Brigham Young. July 24, 1847."

"When I take people on tours of the park I like to tell them about this marker — because almost no one knows about it," says Ellis Ivory, executive director of This Is the Place Heritage Park and chairman of the park foundation's board.

And even then, he acknowledges, the obelisk was not the first remembrance on this venerated spot.

Most notably, a cross was the site's first formal marker, says Tresha Kramer, the park's director of public and customer relations and marketing.

"Pioneer View" was an early name applied to this high vista above the narrow mouth of Emigration Canyon. For it is here that many of the earliest pioneers — Mormon and non-Mormon alike — got their first panoramic views of the vast Salt Lake Valley.

Today, of course, it is more widely and simply known as "This Is the Place."

It was here, LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff observed in 1880, that Brigham Young, the then-ailing leader of the arriving Mormon pioneers, said upon surveying the mountain-enclosed valley in 1847 from Woodruff's own carriage:

"It is enough. This is the right place, drive on."

Efforts to honor the high valley viewpoint, and Brigham Young's ringing phrase, began in earnest early in the 20th century.

A location study was conducted in 1915 by a committee that included LDS leaders George Albert Smith and B.H. Roberts, notes James L. Kimball in "The Encyclopedia of Mormonism."

A basic wooden slab was placed on the spot in July 1915. The cross, taller than a man, was erected in 1916.

When researching for a new souvenir book, "The Story of This Is The Place Heritage Park," Kramer and helpful associates succeeded in tracking down, in the University of Utah's Special Collections, a donated photograph of that wood cross, apparently copied from an old newspaper.

Scrutiny of the old photograph reveals that "This Is the Place" is incised on the wooden crossbar. "Brigham Young" is spelled out vertically down the main trunk below.

Kramer says she was elated at the discovery — and pleased that it showed a cross, a symbol to her of cultural diversity, which has been a theme of the site for generations.

"This is the place for everyone" is a motto of today's This Is the Place Heritage Park, which encompasses the monuments, a pioneer village and many other sculptures and memorials.

Pioneer View's general location seems to have been well known during and after the great Mormon migration of 1847-1869. (The "pioneering" phase is deemed to have come to a close with the completion in Utah of the Transcontinental Railroad.) The site was verified in the early 20th century by aging pioneers like W.W. Riter.

"The reason I say that 'this is the place' is because no other place could be the place," Riter, an octogenarian at the time, said during dedication ceremonies for the obelisk on July 25, 1921, a project of the LDS Church's Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association. His full speech was published in the Improvement Era, an LDS magazine, in September 1921.

"I was a little boy, then only 9 years old," when he entered the valley from Emigration Canyon with his parents, 10 weeks after the first segmented wagon train, Riter said, "and my memory has always been, from the beginning, that this is the place."

Riter, who became a prominent Utah businessman and legislator, vouchsafed that he had a darned good memory, for he could still recall where just about all early homes and fields were, and who they belonged to, as well as the various paths into the new settlement of Great Salt Lake City. ("Emigration Street" — which became Third South — should not have been renamed, he maintained.)

The pioneer vanguard of 1847 had caught slivered glimpses of the Salt Lake Valley on demanding climbs over Big Mountain and Little Mountain, along a trail blazed by the ill-fated Donner-Reed wagon train a year earlier. Some, including noted historians, have posited that President Young's comments might have been uttered on one of those summits, particularly Big Mountain.

Riter, however, maintained otherwise in his 1921 address:

"I hold in my hand here the 'Emigrants' Guide,' written by William Clayton on that memorable trip, and afterwards published in Saint Louis, in 1848, for the benefit of subsequent travelers. This also contains the signature of Governor Brigham Young [the territory's first governor, as well as second president of the LDS Church], at the governor's office," Riter said to applause.

"In this guide book it is stated that the distance from the Missouri River to that point is one thousand thirteen and one-quarter miles; and to the city of the Great Salt Lake, it was about one thousand thirty-one miles; and to this spot down in that peach orchard, there, one thousand and twenty-six miles."

Clayton was quite precise in his reckonings, Riter said. The pioneer used bison skulls — which were plentiful on the Plains, and thus became a symbol of the trail — and pieces of wood to make markers along the trail. And the white obelisk's placement in 1921, along the old pioneer route where wagons emerged to higher ground from Emigration Canyon, was as exact as could be expected.

"Strange as it may appear, between that point of the mountain [Ensign Peak, to the northwest] and the other point of the mountain, twenty-two miles to the south, I doubt if there is a spot where the whole valley is unfolded to the view in the same degree as it is from this place," Riter declared.

Brigham Young, delayed by an illness believed to have been tick-borne Rocky Mountain fever, entered the valley on July 24th, of course — celebrated ever since as Utah's Pioneer Day.

But others in the party had preceded him, notably scouts Orson Pratt, who led the advance road-clearing party, and Erastus Snow. Together they emerged from the claustrophobia-inducing mountains via what was then being called "Last Creek."

Their new Zion spread before them, "We could not refrain from a shout of joy which almost involuntarily escaped from our lips the moment this grand and lovely scenery was within our view," Orson Pratt wrote in his journal.

Their raised hats and "hosannahs," as Snow described the pair's reaction, are commemorated among the bronze tableaux that nationally renowned sculptor Mahonri M. Young – Brigham Young's grandson – integrated into his massive 1947 This Is the Place Monument.

Pratt and Snow managed an eye-opening 12-mile circuit in the valley on July 21st, "although we had but one horse between us," Pratt reported.

After clearing a way through the rocky, tangled narrows at Emigration Canyon's mouth, instead of laboriously climbing over Donner Hill as had the wagon train the year before, other pioneers descended into the valley in the next few days. On July 23rd they tilled 3 acres between the two forks of City Creek, in what is today downtown Salt Lake City, and planted the first potatoes and turnips in hopes of a quick first harvest.

"They found hardly a whisker of timber, many rattlesnakes, many great black crickets; but the alluvial soil looked good, and the slopes were threaded by a half dozen good mountain streams," Wallace Stegner wrote in his 1964 history, "The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail."

Many diaries record positive first impressions of the valley, as noted in the book "Trail of Hope," by William W. Slaughter and Michael Landon, a companion to a television documentary. The authors point to Abner Blackburn's reaction: "They had a buetifel location for a city here, [with] the ice cold water coming out of canion and spreading over the fertile plains which appeared to be rich to the view."

But this was not the Midwest, Slaughter and Landon added, and some of the first settlers saw before them a barren desert. These included Harriet Decker Young, wife of Brigham Young's brother Lorenzo, who opined: "We have traveled fifteen hundred miles to get here, and I would willingly travel a thousand miles farther."

"It was the women whose hearts sank at sight of desolation," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bernard DeVoto opined in "The Year of Decision: 1846."

Recalling his own Utah youth, DeVoto, who had become a noted critic and essayist in the East by the 1930s and '40s, could identify with varying perspectives on the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

"It has its hideousness, it has its beauty, nor are they separated in the depths of any mind that has known them," he wrote in "The Year of Decision." "A hard, resistant folk had found a hard, resistant land, and they would grow to fit one another."

And, historians have pointed out, Brigham Young and other leaders of the hardy vanguard band of 143 men (including three blacks), three women and two children knew, broadly speaking, where they were going.

Joseph Smith, the prophet and founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and other Mormon leaders envisioned a migration to the Rocky Mountains as early as 1832. In the BYU Studies volume "Coming to Zion," Lewis Clark Christian notes that Wilford Woodruff said that Joseph Smith told Latter-day Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, that "This people will go into the Rocky Mountains; they will build there Temples to the Most High."

After Joseph Smith's martyrdom in 1844, Brigham Young and his advisers gathered books, guides and maps. En route West, they consulted missionaries, military men and mountaineers, including mountain men Jim Bridger and Miles Goodyear, in the weeks and days before their celebrated descent into the Salt Lake Valley itself.

The insubstantial wooden cross of 1915 at Pioneer View did not last long, Tresha Kramer says. It gave way to the more permanent, and elegant, white pillar of 1921.

The 91-year-old obelisk looks like new today, in part because it was refurbished in 2007 "under the direction of the Sons of the Utah Pioneers," and rededicated by President Boyd K. Packer of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, note informational placards on the now-groomed location. A placard, on the back of the monument itself, describes the 1921 ceremony, and commends the efforts of Boy Scout Zachary Mahoney, who made the monument's renovation his Eagle Scout project.

The 1921 obelisk and more familiar, and appropriately monumental, 1947 pedestal and its sculptures commemorate the significance of Brigham Young's arrival, and his legendary phrase: "This is the right place. Drive on."

Besides the symbolism of the cross, the various monuments, and sentiments expressed in relation to them, have specifically cited the diversity of peoples who settled the valley, the proposed state of Deseret, and the territory and state of Utah.

In an oration during the obelisk's 1921 dedication, LDS leader, historian and politician B.H. Roberts declared that this was the land of opportunity — and peace — for all.

"Behold all men dwelling in peace here, in this, one of the cities of Zion. Jew and Gentile, Mormon and Catholic, believer and skeptic – none more free than those living here. None more secure in their property rights and religious freedom – This Is the Place, for the enjoyment of these things."

W.W. Riter, too, offered a stirring tribute in 1921 to this singular patch of earth — and to the bright new obelisk that proclaimed: "This is the place!"

"To the civilization that lies west of the Mississippi River that is the same kind of an emblem that Plymouth Rock is on the Atlantic coast, that marked the spot of the landing of the New England fathers," he declared. "That monument at Plymouth was the commencement of a civilization that has passed around the earth. This monument here is the marker of a civilization that has subdued this entire country between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean."

Riter earned a round of applause for his oratory, the Improvement Era reports.

Remarkably perhaps, nowhere are both cultural diversity and unity more manifest than among Mahonri Young's sculptures, tableaux and placards on the definitive 1947 This Is the Place Monument. It was conceived and developed by a committee – including representatives of many area religious groups – and the artist beginning more than a decade earlier.

The foothill site sat, at the time, upon the Fort Douglas military reservation. George Albert Smith, president of the Utah Pioneer Trails & Landmarks Association (and later an LDS Church president) had to petition Secretary of War George H. Dern (helpfully, a former Utah governor) for acreage upon which to build the monument.

Dern and Congress approved, of course, with instruction that the memorial honor all those peoples whose faith and courage constitute an important part of Utah's historic fabric, Kramer determined in her research.

And so the grand monument was raised.

Brigham Young, of course, strides atop the central granite column, flanked on either side by his friends and advisers, Heber C. Kimball and Wilford Woodruff, "serenely and eternally contemplating their work," as Mormon Trail historian Stanley C. Kimball phrased it. Brother Brigham is shown, too, in a bronze wagon train panorama on the monument's west side, peering from Wilford Woodruff's carriage.

But also here are epic depictions of those who preceded the Mormon pioneers: The Catholic fathers and explorers Dominguez and Escalante, who in 1776 sought an overland route between Santa Fe and Monterey, on California's Pacific coast; trapping-brigade leaders Etienne Provost and Peter Skene Ogden; pathfinders Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville and John C. Fremont; the California-bound Donner-Reed trailblazers of 1846; and Washakie, chief of the Eastern Shoshones, among others.

In her research, Kramer was delighted to come across an image of young men raising a flag during the great monument's dedication on the pioneer centennial, July 24, 1947. Her father, Jay Thompson, was a member of a Scout troop from Eureka, Utah, that participated in that ceremony, she said.

A copy of the photograph hangs prominently upon his wall.

"The great monument built in 1947 was an idea born from a simple desire to mark and remember the faith and sacrifice of the pioneers, settlers and other groups who came before them," Kramer says. "It evolved from a humble beginning."

To the west at This Is the Place Heritage Park, outside the new Garden Place event center, is the Walk of Pioneer Faiths, where stones and placards commemorate those of various religions who contributed to the diversity and culture of Salt Lake City and Utah. "The Walk affirms that This Is the Place Heritage Park is for everyone," notes the text of the book "The Story of This Is The Place Heritage Park."

Though uncorroborated by the journals of 1847, "Nevertheless one is glad," Stegner wrote, that President Woodruff, 33 years later, "either resurrected or happily misremembered Brigham's words," enshrined in the name of This Is the Place Monument and This Is the Place Heritage Park.

"It is a great statement," Stegner said, "one that gathers up in a phrase history and hope and fulfillment."