Today’s guest post comes from Jonathan England, PhD student in American History at Arizona State University. This is the third installment in the JI’s fourth annual summer book club. This year we are reading Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard UP, 2008). You can view previous installments here, here, and here. Check back every Thursday for the week’s installment! Please follow the JI on Facebook and Twitter!
I first read On Zion’s Mount for a course on Mormon history. Years later, I was surprised to find it on the reading list for a seminar on the American West. I should not have been. The appeal of On Zion’s Mount is that it crosses so many genres including Western, religious, and environmental history. In chapter three, suitably titled “The Desertification of Zion,” Farmer recalls the rise and fall of northern Utah’s aquatic culture. This aquatic culture parallels the shift in historical narrative from an accurate depiction of the Wasatch Front as an oasis in the Great Basin to an arid wasteland.
More than anyone, railroad companies created the unique aquatic culture of the Wasatch Front. Bathhouses and bathing resorts already dotted the region, but after the completion of the transcontinental railroads in 1869, railroad companies began to boost northern Utah as an ideal tourist destination for enjoying the healthful benefits of lakes and springs. During a time when “health tourism” in the West was at an all-time high, the Wasatch Front became a prime destination. Of particular interest was the Great Salt Lake, which railroad companies turned into a “leading natural attraction,” frequently comparing Utah’s topography with the Holy Land. Railroad pamphlets depicted both regions with their own salt lakes connected to bodies of fresh water by a single river. Railroad companies also united the environmental uniqueness of Great Salt Lake with the attraction of seeing seemingly deviant Mormon polygamists. Soon resorts began to pop up along the banks of the lake. Within the first half of the twentieth century the most famous of these resorts, known as Saltair, was fully equipped with roller coasters and dance floors. Utah Lake was a marvel in its own right. As one of the great fisheries in the western United States, Utah Lake gained a reputation as the home of some of the best and largest varieties of trout.
Farmer allows a break from his historical narrative to lament the loss of this aquatic culture in present-day Utah, which is a nice literary touch, but also provides a more complete picture. Now tourists come to the Wasatch to play in the snow rather than to visit its unique bodies of water. The lamentation comes not so much from the shift itself, but from the reasons behind it. Human abuse and exploitation of springs and lakes either destroyed them or caused almost irreparable damage. The bathhouses built on natural springs that supposedly contained healing properties, became petri dishes of infectious disease, and canal building, over-fishing, and finally a steel mill all but destroyed the ecology of Utah Lake. As these resources continued to deteriorate, human interest shifted towards the mountains.
Also contributing to the “desertification of Zion,” was the historical amnesia among Mormons which downplayed the fertility of the Wasatch Front. Mormon leaders led the charge in creating a more dramatic history that emphasized providence and Mormon industry in making “the desert blossom as the rose.” Though perhaps elements of this narrative change can be attributed to the Mormons’ gradual familiarization with the region, Farmer effectively shows that Mormon leaders and historians made a conscious effort to highlight Mormon moxie at the expense of historical accuracy.
Farmer’s recounting of the shift in historical narrative fits well into his overall thesis of the creation of landscape. The exploitation and the subsequent physical deterioration of the aquatic systems helped to shift the cultural landscape away from the lakes and springs of the Wasatch Front to the mountains, allowing Mount Timpanogos to supplant Utah Lake as a cultural landmark.
Mormon historians also changed the place of Native Americans narrative from victims of colonialism to aggressors who harassed the Mormons. Re-writing the history of Mormon-Native Americans interactions also shows that Mormons were not especially unique in their collective memories of the American colonialist experience. This example of historical amnesia fits into the American narrative common to the twentieth century that pitted Indian aggressors against hardy American settlers. In this sense, Farmer succeeds in his efforts to emphasize Utah history as an important part of American history.
On Zion’s Mount remains one my favorite histories of the West, Mormons, Indians, the environment, and place-making, and the “Desertification of Zion” is one of the most important pieces to show the intersections of collective memory and the environment. If I had the opportunity to talk with Farmer about this chapter, I would ask him if he thought climate events, such as droughts and floods, had any impact on how Mormons created their cultural landscape. Although Farmer mentions the climate as one of the primary tourist attractions, there is little information as to what the climate actually looked like during the desertification process.
Despite my own curiosities, “Desertification of Zion” is one of my favorite chapters in one of my favorite books. I credit Farmer and On Zion’s Mount for putting me on the road to studying environmental history, and it has been a pleasure to revisit it.