Guest Post: David Walker, “The Mormon Image and Railroad Guidebooks”

By May 24, 2013

[Another contribution to our Many Mormon Images series. David Walker (PhD, Yale University, 2013) will be joining the faculty at UC Santa Barbara, this fall, as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies. His dissertation focuses on intersections of religion, settlement policy, tourism, and technology in 19th-century Utah. His ongoing research projects concern theories of religion, citizenship, and historical progress formed through Gilded Age bureaucracies, land grant disputes, P. T. Barnum?s circuses, and Harry Houdini?s magic shows.]

This is a brief story about the religion of railroad guidebooks. More specifically it is a tale about railroad agents? efforts to re-imagine ? to package, promote, and to prescribe ? ?Mormonism? in the late-19th-century American West. Railroads, often in collaboration with LDS leaders, designed templates of national intelligibility for Utah and its Mormons, even while U.S. marshalls raided Utahn homes, businesses, and churches.*

In 1888, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., then president of the Union Pacific Railroad, wrote to Edwards Roberts, a professional travel writer, regarding Roberts?s forthcoming tourism guidebook. Shoshone, and Other Western Wonders, published later that year, was due to contain a preface from Adams, who planned to sell it along his line. But after receiving an advanced copy of the main text, Adams expressed concerns about Roberts?s depictions of Salt Lake City, Mormonism, and polygamy. He advised Roberts to omit certain critical and derogatory passages, for, as he said, ?Among our customers are the Mormons. A book brought out under the auspices of the Union Pacific should, therefore, in my opinion, contain nothing which is offensive to the Mormons.? The resultant book thus spoke not of polygamy as a persistent or pervasive ?barbarism? in Salt Lake City, nor of the ?theocratic? leadership of LDS Church authorities. Indeed omitting such terms entirely from the Utah section, it moderated also corresponding expectations among readers, cautioning them against the uncritical consumption of sensational or atrocity tales. ?One looks in vain for evidences of that Mormon family redundancy which so many suppose is glaringly present in a city founded and ruled by disciples of polygamy,? reported Roberts. Under Adams?s direction, Roberts tempered his more hostile and colorful adjectives, and he encouraged his readers to do likewise?even while instructing them still to tour Mormon environments and buildings, ?imagin[ing] what there is within.?

Adams?s concerns and Roberts?s texts are generally, generically significant; but they also must be contextualized amid a new and specific wave of anti-polygamy legislation. In 1887, the year prior to Adams?s and Roberts?s exchange, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which increased fines and prison sentences for polygamy and ?unlawful cohabitation,? disincorporated the LDS Church, permitted seizure of church properties beyond a total value of $50,000, disenfranchised Utahn women, required anti-polygamy oaths for prospective (male) voters and public officials, replaced local judges with federal appointees, and dispatched marshals and deputies to oversee related sentences and enforcements.

Railroad agents were seldom public fans of polygamy, true. But neither did they support the Edmunds-Tucker Act, let alone the (so called) Raid. To the contrary company officials and lobbyists had attempted to preempt and obviate these actions by intervening?unsuccessfully?in preceding legislative conversations. In 1882, for instance, Sidney Dillon?then president of the Union Pacific?asked his lawyers to approach pro-railroad congressmen, impressing upon them the fact that ?The Mormons are our Friends,? and requesting from them continuing lenience relative to ?the Mormon Question.? Charles Francis Adams, Jr., who succeeded Dillon as president in 1884, added to his pleas a reiteration of the laissez faire, industrial logics partly responsible for derailing anti-polygamy provisions until then. Namely, that railroads would bring to Utah modernity, money, and Gentiles; and that these would destroy polygamy, theocracy, and in-group economics. ?The railroads are preparing to carry into the territory a tide of immigration which would definitely settle the question of polygamy,? he promised?again. But unlike in the 1860s and ?70s, such words had little effect on 1880s governmental policy.

Late-1880s political and economic intervention thus constituted a defeat for the railroad lobby, which feared disruption of feeder-line traffic (often maintained or managed by Mormons) and the discouragement of touristic visitation during The Raid.**

But the 1880s were far from a total loss for the Union Pacific?or for the LDS Church, for that matter. Dillon, Adams, and company were successful?with the likes of author Edwards Roberts if not Congress?in maintaining a certain status quo of reportage relative to Mormondom. As railroads lost sway over congressional direction, they held on to the public imagination.

A stereoscope of Pulpit Rock, Echo Canyon, Utah, from the 1870s. From Utah State University Library's website.

A stereoscope of Pulpit Rock, Echo Canyon, Utah, from the 1870s. From Utah State University Library’s website.

Railroads? religious imagination, relative to Mormonism, was material, situational, and strategically ambivalent. While continually professing disinterest in (what Adams called, elsewhere) the ?moral and criminal side of the situation? in Utah, railroad-backed authors sought continually to fix particular Utahn monuments in the American religious imagination, and to tie both (monuments and imagination) to Mormonism itself. Take, for instance, guidebook descriptions of Weber and Echo Canyons, gorges through which the Union Pacific entered Utah from the East. They feel like ?the portal to some enchanted region,? said one; and in this respect they were characteristic of a broader Rocky Mountain environment in which ?everywhere there is something to arrest the eye, to strike the imagination, and to remind one of the wisdom and infinite power of the Architect who built up the mountain-crests and rent their sides with profoundest chasms.? It was only natural, therefore?or so said the guidebooks?that Brigham Young would have paused there to preach to his westward-bound followers. In fact they invented a place for the pause: railroad agents helped to develop the notion that Pulpit Rock, so named because of its shape, was the site of an inspirational sermon by Brigham Young. (Fig. 1.) There is no evidence for the claim, but no matter; the re-signification of the landform allowed for the better signposting of religion and religious expression in the West.

Railroads built an observation deck?quite literally, at the rear of the train?from which tourists could experience religion or conceive of experience. (?Pulpit Rock…is on our right hand; we can almost touch it,? exclaimed one guidebook.) Moreover they urged among travelers a refocusing on Mormonism itself, in anticipation of Salt Lake arrivals, by planting this seed of inquiry: whether Young?s words, imaginatively situated atop a fantastic rock amidst an otherwise striking scenery, were themselves lofty and divine or curious and superstitious. In Mormonism, did a godly-but-strange environment effect responses that were more godly than strange, or more strange than godly?

At Pulpit Rock as elsewhere, then, travel guides pointed to material factors from which readers might draw their own conclusions about religious culture and cultivation in America. Thus reported one Rio Grande guide: ?On an eminence overlooking the picturesque valley of the Jordan, the modern metropolis, Salt Lake City, has been built, with its broad streets, its odd shaped Tabernacle, its great Temple… and its quaint buildings and edifices.? All of this ?furnishes profitable speculation in the odd and mysterious,? it said, just as (according to a different Rio Grande writer) the ?striking similarity in the topography [between] this region and the ?Promised Land of Canaan?… furnishes much food for thought.? Salt Lake City ?has the breath of age, commingled with an atmosphere of comfort and modern amelioration.?

There is indeed ?food for thought? here: Utah was presented as a site of comfort with a ?breath of age? or, alternately, as a site of age with modern updates. It was a place of oddness within similarity, in any case, and of abundant opportunity for ?profitable speculation.? These were not just speculations of the economic and mineral sort that were encouraged by railroad agents, but of the humanistic variety as well. Railroads prompted Americans to become mobile students of culture, with culture?and with religion?located somewhere in the space between Utah?s mountains and its ?broad streets.? It was still a matter of open inquiry ?whether Mormonism be a religion or not,? one book declared to its readers. But the railroads would tell them where to find it; they would help them see it; and they would give them the platforms, itineraries, opportunities, and words with which to get there and decide for themselves.

So: What does this mean for us?

The point here is that, in 1888 as in 1870, railroad directors, passenger agents, and their approved guides did what they had always done in Utah: they claimed to refrain from comment on the non-obvious beliefs, practices, or characters of the Mormons, or they phrased associated critiques in the past tense and subjective mood, all-the-while pointing visitors and readers instead to visible, material facts of Salt Lake life, such as its mountainous surroundings, urban planning schemes, irrigation systems, and architectural wonders?including some buildings confiscated by the government. Meanwhile they charged them, their readers, with ascertaining the degrees to which such things were necessary to and constitutive of Mormonism, commensurate with or contradictory to religion, and (thus) capable of Mormon retention and/or American incorporation. That is to say: railroads developed and retained a discourse whereby the physical environment, stuff, and trappings of Mormondom were evaluated in courts of public opinion, both before and after elements thereof were seized from and returned to the church. Meanwhile the LDS Church found new ways of existing in the spaces between visibility and invisibility, capitalism and communalism, sales and concessions.

In such paradoxical and promotional spaces Mormons found ways of weathering the storms of governmental intervention, transitioning themselves out of the polygamy age into statehood, while educating tourists, politicians, and others?including ?friendly? railroad agents?about the terms under which they could be acceptably embraced. Namely: as arguably contained, arguably chastened, and arguably cultured or acculturated; as arguably American, arguably religious, and arguably modern. Such attributes were exceedingly important, of course, but so too was the fact of their ever-present, ever-available argumentation in Utah. Mormons, it was said, were peoples that safely raised questions regarding western cultural progress, while securely preserving places for their debate.


* These stories and arguments are pursued more fully in my dissertation (Yale University, 2013), and in a chapter set to appear in Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice, ed. Sally M. Promey (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming 2014).

** The fact of failure is neither surprising nor coincidental in retrospect. Railroads? congressional clout had diminished considerably in the late 1870s and early 1880s, for they were embroiled in managerial controversies and implicated in financial collapses. The renewal of anti-Mormon legislation thus coincided with a rise in anti-railroad sentiment and a lessening of railroad power.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. David, This is fascinating. Thanks!

    Comment by Gary Bergera — May 24, 2013 @ 10:38 am

  2. David, this is quite interesting. What more can you tell us about the collaboration between RRs and Mormon leaders that you mention in your first paragraph?

    Comment by Nate R. — May 24, 2013 @ 11:53 am

  3. This is great stuff. Thanks, David.

    Comment by David G. — May 24, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

  4. Thanks Gary, David, and Nate. (And thanks also to Ben, for the invitation to post.) The most basic response to Nate’s question would call upon well-known church labor contracts with railroad officials; these resulted in financial income for the church (used for infrastructural upbuilding projects), and/or, when money was short, in complicated bureaucratic and managerial relationships, in payments-in-goods, and, sometimes, in mutual indebtedness. Beyond that, prominent LDS officials and businessmen (e.g., George A. Smith, Brigham Young, Young’s sons, and, in different respects, William Godbe) ‘contracted’ with prominent pro-railroad men (managers, politicians, lobbyists) to produce and promote mutually useful images of Mormonism and Utahn culture, in Congress and in guidebooks alike. They also used railroad-devised or -popularized images and motifs (beyond Echo and Weber Canyon reportage, maps showing topographical similarities between Deseret and Palestine are prime examples), and they hosted tours by, say, the International Railroad Ticketing Agents’ Conference. Moreover — and beyond that, still — church members and officials set up lessons, services, displays, and museums (in Sunday schools, the Tabernacle, the Deseret Museum, and Saltair, as well as along railroad termini and at LDS-owned hotels) specifically to address railroad-bound tourists and the myriad questions raised thereby. These are a few examples of inter-group collaboration and/or codependence, and they receive fuller discussion in the above-cited works.

    Comment by David Walker — May 24, 2013 @ 9:32 pm

  5. I finally got around to reading this tonight, David; really interesting research. Thanks for contributing it here.

    Comment by Christopher — May 24, 2013 @ 11:21 pm

  6. Really interesting. I’m excited to read the whole thing.

    Comment by jjohnson — May 25, 2013 @ 4:46 am

  7. […] with engravings or other illustrations. The remoteness of Mormon society (unchanged as yet by the railroad) and the exotic elements of its social order made it an intriguing subject. Jones?s Pantoscope […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » John Wesley Jones’s Pantoscope of California, Nebraska, Utah, and the Mormons (1852) — May 30, 2013 @ 11:29 am


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