The story of Utah’s World War II-era economic boom may have been written differently, if it were not for the kindness of a man who became the larger-than-life secretary of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
That kindness came when Gus and Nancy Backman “adopted” a homesick young pilot named Hank Arnold, who whiled the lonely hours between airmail flights in Salt Lake City. Mrs. Backman had young Arnold out to dinner frequently at their home, taught him to rhumba, and listened to his problems.
That pilot grew up to become the legendary Henry H. (Hap) Arnold, a five-star general and head of the Army Air Corps in World War II. During World War II, it was Arnold who advised William Knudsen, national war industry expediter, in trips around the country looking for new plant locations away from the coasts.
Shortly after meeting Knudsen in Utah, Salt Lake Tribune Publisher John Fitzpatrick and associate Wilson McCarthey told Gus Backman to find ways to take advantage of the war.
“They said, ‘We’ve been looking the situation over and we’re of the opinion that any state or any area that doesn’t take advantage of war is just foolish. We want you to get down to Washington and see what you can do about getting the development of a steel plant out here in Utah,’” Backman recalled some years later.
Backman went to Washington, again meeting Knudsen through Arnold. Knudsen got Backman an audience with William Haulk, a steel production analyst. Haulk came to Utah and reported back to government officials that the state was a good bet for a steel plant. That early friendship with Arnold eventually paid off in a big way–government officials located what became Geneva Steel in Utah County.
Geneva Steel was Utah’s first complete steel works, producing finished plate steel, most for West Coast shipyards. Production at Geneva began early in 1944 with hundreds of carloads of plates and structural shapes being shipped to shipyards and wartime consumers. Its war-era production topped 634,000 tons of steel plate and 144,280 tons of structured shapes.
Geneva was by far the largest and most important defense-related industry developed in Utah during the war. Financed by the federal government, it cost $200 million ($2.4 billion in 2002 dollars). Columbia Steel Company and U.S. Steel Corporation employed more than ten thousand workers to build the plant, which was under construction from November 1941 through December 1944. The close proximity of necessary natural resources, including coal in Carbon County, iron ore in Iron County, limestone and dolomite near Genola, and water from Deer Creek Reservoir and on-site artesian wells, made the location on the shore of Utah Lake desirable. In addition, the plant sat near major railroad lines.
After the war when the government had nearly decided to abandon Geneva, Backman helped organize a western states council to save the plant.
“Practically every person who handles steel in all the West made contributions to the organization with the net result that we were able to bring enough pressure in Washington to retain it,” Backman said.
The government auctioned off the plant. U.S. Steel Corporation successfully bid against six major competitors and bought the properties for $47.5 million. This was less than one-fourth the construction cost, but the sale contract included a stipulation that the company would expend more than $18 million for conversion of the plant to peacetime purposes. The successful bid came only after Chamber officers helped convince the U.S. Attorney General’s office to back away from anti-trust concerns the government thought the deal posed.
Geneva wasn’t alone in defining Utah’s economy during World War II. The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, personified in Backman, nurtured several military projects that become important to Utah’s economy.
By 1945 the Deseret News described it this way: “The same dry valley where ‘an ear of corn would not ripen’ has become the nucleus of probably the heaviest concentration of government-sponsored industry of any area in the western United States. Within the radius of less than fifty miles has sprung up, almost as if they were the result of Aladdin’s magic lamp, more than a dozen huge war industries which have brought millions of dollars and thousands of new people into the state.”
The effects on the economy were significant. From the time the war broke out in 1939 until 1949, the population of Utah grew from 550,310 to 688,862.
One writer described the efforts of the Gus Backman during the 1940s this way:
“Gus P. Backman, Salt Lake’s long-striding, seam-faced, and genial Chamber of Commerce secretary, was kept hopping with requests for data on Utah sites and resources from manufacturers interested in the mountains.”
Hill Field, later to be renamed Hill Air Force Base, grew up during the war, as did the Wendover Air Base. Backman recalls how he expected General Arnold to make the final decision for Hill Field’s location. Backman had supported a site near Erda, Tooele County. However, the Ogden Chamber of Commerce, with Frank Browning heading its Military Affairs Committee, was competing for the $25 million base and promoting what became the base’s site in Davis County. Ogden supporters also had a friend in Ogden native Marriner S. Eccles, chairman of the Federal Reserve and friend of President Roosevelt. However, Backman took credit for at least getting Hill to Utah. Hill was only one of three air bases created by an act of the wartime Congress. Other bases were selected by other methods.
Backman took pride in helping pick locations for the expanding war industries. He worked with federal and state officials to locate a parachute factory in Manti. The plant came to Utah after General Arnold called to tell Backman a government official was on his way to find a suitable location with qualified people. With the assistance of Governor Hebert Maw, Backman identified the Manti National Guard Armory. Within weeks, machinery was on its way and several hundred women from Sanpete and Sevier counties worked at the plant.
Backman also traded on his personal contacts to help locate the Tooele Ordnance Depot and the Tooele Chemical Storage Depot. In 1942, the War Department acquired twenty-five thousand uninhabited acres in Tooele County for the Tooele Ordnance Depot, which stored high explosives, vehicles, small arms and munitions. Initially, the 27,000-acre site cost the government $30 million. The depot reached its peak employment of about twelve thousand in 1944. The government also opened Dugway Proving Ground in Tooele County to test chemical weapons.
The Chamber’s influence was associated with other war-era installations, including the Remington Arms plant in Salt Lake County and Defense Depot Ogden and Navy Depot in Clearfield. Once known as Utah General Depot, Defense Depot Ogden was the largest quartermaster depot during World War II and a vital link to the army’s supply system. The Navy depot, although 750 miles from the nearest ocean, was an integral part of America’s two-ocean navy and once held about one-tenth of the navy’s total storage space.
The Chamber also had its hand in suggesting the site for the Kearns air base in Salt Lake County. By 1943, Kearns had grown to become Utah’s third largest city with a population of forty thousand troops. Known as the AAF Overseas Replacement Depot, the site was selected April 2, 1942, and opened only weeks later on July 20. The depot covered six thousand acres, was valued at $50 million with one thousand buildings and sported the second largest rifle range in the United States. The town was sold as surplus following the war.
“I’m sorry to say I also suggested the location of Kearns, not that I apologize for the beautiful location now, but you should have seen it when the poor boys had to move in there,” Backman said years later.
Sources: “Backman a Super Salesman: Utah’s His Product,” Salt Lake Tribune, 12 July 1964. Wendell J. Ashton, Voice in the West (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1950). Gus. P. Backman and O.N. Malmquist, typescript, part of Salt Lake Chamber papers at special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, A History of Utah County (Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah Historical Society and Utah County Commission, 1996). Gustive O. Larson, “Bulwark of the Kingdom: Utah’s Iron and Steel Industry,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Summer 1963. Thomas G. Alexander, Utah, The Right Place.”Gus Backman, 80, Succumbs in S.L.” Deseret News, 15 May 1972. Deseret News, 8 May 1945 as quoted in Don C. Woodward, Through Our Eyes.