The Early Chamber, 1887-1902

The Earlier Chamber of 1887: A Cautionary Tale

The year was 1888 and a Union Pacific railroad “palace car” filled with the paintings of Utah scenes, minerals, and pamphlets roamed the tracks between sixty eastern cities for three months. Even then, Utahns wanted to change the image of their hinterlands territory while attracting new business and residents. To prove their point, enterprising businessmen set out on a 9,000-mile journey to show off Salt Lake City–”Gem City of the Rocky Mountains.”

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The Chamber Begins, 1902-1930

The Earlier Chamber of 1887: A Cautionary Tale

The year was 1888 and a Union Pacific railroad “palace car” filled with the paintings of Utah scenes, minerals, and pamphlets roamed the tracks between sixty eastern cities for three months. Even then, Utahns wanted to change the image of their hinterlands territory while attracting new business and residents. To prove their point, enterprising businessmen set out on a 9,000-mile journey to show off Salt Lake City–”Gem City of the Rocky Mountains.”

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A New Beginning in 1902: Meet the Commercial Club

Fifty-five men milled about the Knutsford Hotel dining room. Utah Governor Heber M. Wells had called the meeting. Days earlier the top 100 business leaders in Salt Lake City—dubbed by the 43-year-old governor as the “Committee of 100”—had been summoned.

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Cleaning Up the City

On January 12, 1914, the Commercial Club’s Good Roads Committee presented a letter for the city commission about yet another civic improvement. “State Street is the main thoroughfare coming into Salt Lake City from the south and it is of the utmost importance, not only to Salt Lake, but all the different towns south of here who do business in this city, that State Street should be paved as rapidly as possible,” the petition said.

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Chasing Smoke

Smoke pollution was a big problem during almost the entire first half of the Twentieth Century, but in the wintertime in Salt Lake City it was fierce. Everyone burned coal–soft, bituminous, and mined in Utah. People burned it in their homes, railroad steam engines chuffed through the valley, industries grew and brought coal-fired smelters and manufacturing plants, leaving a black pall to envelop the city.

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“Earthquake, Panic, Death, Fire and Destruction”

That apocalyptic headline shouted the news to Salt Lake City residents on the morning of April 18, 1906, after an earthquake and fire nearly destroyed San Francisco. Considered one of the worst disasters ever to hit an American city, the Great San Francisco Earthquake was huge news in Salt Lake City.

It also became a major proving ground for the fledgling Commercial Club, then just over four years old. It would test the Commercial Club and its ability to pull the community together, and would unite interests as varied as churches, governments, and ordinary people.

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The Magnate and the Magnificent “Club House”

When it opened in 1909, the Commercial Club building was heralded as a sign of community progress and a harbinger of growth for what would become the Salt Lake Chamber.

Early Commercial Club secretary Fisher Harris had proposed a six-story building in 1904 for the growing organization. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that mining magnate Samuel Newhouse offered to donate land for a new Commercial Club building in his Exchange Place enclave, and he also donated the site for the Salt Lake Mining and Stock Exchange.

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Bishop Nibley Bides His Time

In 1914, Salt Lake City was being prodded by women’s and civic organizations to increase its parks and playgrounds. It had just leased land from the Free Playground Society for a playground and had improved Liberty and Pioneer parks.

So it was in that spirit that the Commercial Club’s Field Sports and Athletics Committee, chaired by R. J. Armstrong, approached the board of governors with a radical proposal.

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Melting the Ice: Commercial Club Jump-Starts the Rotary Club

The Salt Lake Rotary Club grew out of a conversation in Chicago between Wesley King of the National Copper Bank of Salt Lake and his Spanish-American war buddy, Chesley Perry, secretary of the Chicago Rotary Club and the “sparkplug” of Rotary’s expansion to San Francisco in 1908, and to fourteen other clubs by 1910. After his return, King discussed the idea with several prominent Salt Lake men, according to historian Leonard J. Arrington.

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The Chamber’s Eyes on the Skies, 1910-1930

On a Sunday morning, a scrawny Frenchman named Louis Paulhan crawled into his 42-foot Farman two-seater biplane for a fourth try at the Utah skies. The engine crackled into life and Paulhan waved his arms. The little plane rattled down the makeshift airstrip covered with snow.  The plane was up.

Promoted by the Commercial Club and Governor William Spry, the first recorded airplane flight in Utah took place when barnstormer Paulhan roared into the skies over the state fairgrounds.

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The First Airline Passenger, May 23, 1926

Ben F. Redman was a short and stocky Salt Lake businessman who resembled somebody’s grandfather, and he had a passion. He was convinced that the new field of aviation held great promise, not only for the country, but also for Salt Lake City.

As chairman of the aviation committee of the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club, he lobbied long and hard for improvements to the new airport, then called Woodward Field after an airmail pilot named John Woodward who crashed en route to Cheyenne from Salt Lake City.

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The Backman Years, 1930-1965

Mr. Utah

Gus Backman took the helm of The Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club of Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1930, and during the next thirty-four years made it and himself a major influence within the city and the state. Although he purposely tried to avoid the spotlight, by the time he was finished he had earned the title of “Mr. Utah” and was feted throughout its borders and beyond. Few people wielded as much clout for as long as he did.

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The Veterans Hospital: Backman’s First Assignment

The Chamber has been a leader in tapping the federal government’s largesse for building projects and other improvements.

In October 1930, the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club leaders hired Gus Backman as its top staff member and gave him his first assignment to lobby the government for just such a project.

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Hard Times

The Great Depression struck Utah harshly, and long. Utah was one of the hardest hit states in the union.

By almost any measurement, Utah was hurting. In 1933, the state’s unemployment rate was a staggering 35.8 percent, fourth highest in the nation. Wages plummeted by 45 percent for those who had not lost their jobs. Almost a third of the population in 1933 received at least some food, clothing, shelter, or other necessities from government funds.

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How the City got Hogle Zoo

Salt Lake City got a first-rate zoo in the middle of the Great Depression because of the passionate interest of several deeply committed people, an enthusiastic public and a Chamber of Commerce that helped bring them together.

As early as the 1890s Salt Lake City had a small display of animals that it kept at Liberty Park. It was a ragtag collection of wild animals that had come to visit the city and were now kept in an old barnyard.

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Watering the Desert

In Utah, the second driest state in the nation, water is everything. With it, we can settle valleys, grow crops, raise children and support industries. Without it, no growth is possible.

So it’s little surprise that from the beginning the Salt Lake Chamber was involved in water issues. The earlier Chamber called for a multi-state irrigation conference in 1891. The Commercial Club fought to protect the watersheds in the early 1920s, and the Chamber tried to find new sources of water throughout the last century.

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Flat, Fast, and Salty

The Bonneville Salt Flats are among the world’s natural wonders, and the Salt Lake Chamber helped make them famous, thanks to the persistence of a local hero.

The Salt Flats cover hundreds of square miles of some of the most desolate land on earth, home to no growing thing, hostile to travelers. It’s a dazzling expanse of salt left over from ancient Lake Bonneville, land so flat that you can actually see the curvature of the earth.

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Alta: Going to the Mountain

Alta today is known throughout the sports world as a premiere resort destination for serious skiers, with its high altitude and fine, paper-dry powder that drifts down over the Wasatch. But in the 1930s, it was just an idea. Bringing that transformation about took the vision and dedication of a large number of people. The Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club played its own role in this, and in helping Utah skiing become world famous.

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Covered Wagon Days Becomes an Institution

Most Salt Lake City residents take it for granted that the city’s July 24 celebration, marking the 1847 entry of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley, always seems to come off like clockwork each year. In fact, it was not until a committee of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce organized the celebration in the 1930s that it became an annual affair.

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Did Rhumba Lessons Help Change Utah History?

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.

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The Home Front

In addition to its considerable work luring wartime industries and military bases to Utah, the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club found itself once again in the center of the state’s efforts to organize itself. This time the subject was civil defense.

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Love at First Flight

The long-time head of the Chamber, Gus Backman, always said the “first love” of the Chamber was the city’s airport.

During Backman’s watch the airport made significant strides, building on its role as a leading aviation hub in the West. In 1930, Woodward Field became Salt Lake Municipal Airport, expanding to four hundred acres with eleven hangars and two gravel runways.

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The First Centennial

As the 1930s were stumbling to a close, Utah looked ahead to what it hoped would be a happier event–the 100th anniversary of its founding. The Depression was still draining resources and in Europe chilling events filled the news, but the decision makers decided that Utah should throw an outstanding party in 1947.

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Landing New Industry Jobs for Utah

For many years before the state formally organized economic development efforts, it was often the Chamber that served as a key promoter of Utah business.

Gus P. Backman, the Chamber of Commerce of Salt Lake City’s executive secretary, played a pivotal role, particularly during the industrial boom surrounding World War II in the 1940s.

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Tug of War in Sugar House

Sugar House Park is an island of greenery with acres of grass, a canyon stream, and a pond shaded by decades-old trees. It’s a place for joggers, picnickers, company parties, and family reunions, and is vast enough to host fireworks on the Fourth of July. Little today recalls its unhappy past as the site of the territorial and later state prison, or the long period in the 1950s when the land sat neglected and weedy while officials argued over how to use it.

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The 50th Jubilee: An Evening to Remember

When the Chamber of Commerce of Salt Lake City celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1952, tracing its beginnings to the formation of the Commercial Club in 1902, it was an evening to remember.

The black-tie “Jubilee” drew many national business leaders to the gathering of five hundred in the Lafayette Ballroom at the Hotel Utah.

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The Max Rich Years, 1965-1970

The Rich Years

When Maxwell E. Rich was named executive vice president and secretary of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce on August 1, 1964, he confided to reporters that “Two jobs in the service of our state have always appealed to me as the most desirable–the job I am leaving and the one I am taking.”

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The First Olympic Bid

The early seeds for the “superb” Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002 were planted, in part, by a Chamber of Commerce effort in the 1960s.

Calvin Rampton was governor when Utah first tossed its hat into the Olympic ring. He was barely into the first year of his first term when he got together with Max Rich of the Chamber of Commerce and Bud Jack, a Utahn on the United States Olympic Committee, and formed a game plan to bid for the 1972 Olympic Winter Games.

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Thrown Down in Judo

As officers of the Olympics for Utah Inc. came back from Rome in 1966, having lost their first try to host the Winter Olympics, Maxwell Rich was convinced of one thing. Salt Lake City had to establish itself as a serious player in international sports events if it wanted to be taken seriously. Thus did world-class judo come to Salt Lake City.

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Saltair Trains

In the 1960s, the Great Salt Lake was a vexing problem for the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. The inland sea gave the city its name, after all, but when visitors came to town and wanted to see it, they got little encouragement from the locals.

The Chamber had a long history with the lake. It promoted swimming in its briny waters back in the glory days when Saltair was drawing half a million people a year.

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The Port of Salt Lake City

It was just a truckload of machine ball bearings, but it made history in 1969 by becoming the first shipment of Utah-made products processed by the new U.S. Customs office at the Salt Lake Municipal Airport.

More than that, it signaled a break away from a hold that Denver held over Utah businesses. Before this day, the closest customs offices to Utah were either there or in San Francisco.

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The Ball Era, 1971-1996

The Ball Era

When Fred S. Ball came to the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce as its new executive vice president on January 1, 1971, the 38-year-old transportation executive didn’t have time to dwell on his well-known predecessors. He had plenty of challenges right from the start, including meeting the first payroll.

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Behind the Wheel

Those red, white, and blue buses so popular today on Salt Lake City’s streets? For a while in the 1960s and 1970s, the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce ran them, and without the Chamber’s heavy involvement Salt Lake City might have closed its mass transit operations.

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Beautifying Downtown – or Else

In 1973 the Environmental Protection Agency dropped a bomb on Salt Lake City’s downtown–or so it seemed to the participants at the time. They included the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, which was deeply involved in the Main Street Beautification program that, in Fred Ball’s terms, “would forever change downtown Salt Lake City.”

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Bringing on the Jazz

It had been a bad year for the National Basketball League’s eighteenth franchise. The New Orleans Jazz could not play in their home arena, the Superdome, when conventions were in town. Attendance was dropping and the team wasn’t winning games.

The team became a logical target for relocation after the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce’s board of governors started looking to become a “major league sports city” during a board and staff retreat.

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Losing with Brigham and the State Fair

Sometimes, in all innocence, the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce stirred up a hornet’s nest and then scrambled into a hasty and strategic retreat. That happened twice in 1978, when it tried to move Brigham Young’s monument and, later, the Utah State Fair.

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The Chamber Finds a New Home

Over the years, the Salt Lake Chamber called a number of office buildings home, some of them elegant, others not so grand. Their new offices on Fourth South and State Street were decidedly in the elegant category when they moved in 1986, thanks to an innovative plan to furnish them.

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Something for Everyone

For some people, the best thing the Chamber does is work with the Legislature. For others, it’s working in the schools. Some want it to train future leaders and some want it to serve the needs of the leaders already in place. Many want to socialize and develop networks of contacts. Others want to be deeply involved in civic improvement programs and to be kept informed on critical issues. Most of them want the Chamber to be there when it’s time to recognize people for their great work.

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Flying High at the Airport

In 1968, the Salt Lake Municipal Airport was renamed the “Salt Lake City International Airport.” The new name was symbolic of its ever-expanding scope.

Just as the Chamber helped give birth to Salt Lake’s first cinder airfield, it continued to nurture its growth to maturity in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

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The Chamber Meets its Sister Cities

After assuming the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce’s top staff position, Fred Ball discovered some old files in Chamber storage about a sister city program. Started during the Gus Backman era, the links had grown inactive during the Max Rich years.

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A Palace of Dreams

When the Salt Palace opened in 1969 it was heralded as a great civic asset and ridded the downtown of urban blight. It had been a dream of the community as early as January, 1929 to build a civic auditorium. That year a drawing of a proposed facility was printed in the local press.

The long-envisioned proposal got new impetus in 1961 when the City Commission and the County Commission named a subcommittee of their respective planning commissions to determine the feasibility of a civic auditorium.

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The Party of the Century

They called it the Party of the Century, and it turned out to be just that. When the International Olympic Committee picked Salt Lake City to host the 2002 Winter Games the city erupted in joy. It was 1995 and the games were nearly seven years in the distance, but citizens wanted to party.

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The Modern Era, 1996-2002

Changing Times: New Leaders Emerge

After Fred Ball retired as president of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce in 1995, the role of leadership fell to a succession of people before the board hired a professional chamber executive, Larry Mankin, in late 1998.

When Ball left, Deborah Bayle became acting chief officer. With the Chamber for twenty years, she had been its chief operating officer and initiated a number of new programs.

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Women and the Chamber

Marcella Kirschbaum had been self-employed for four years when she and a partner decided to start their own business, the Urban Soul Body Retreat in downtown Salt Lake City. It was a “head to toe” spa and salon–meaning you could get anything from hair coloring to a pedicure. Looking back now after four years, she sighs. “Honestly, I was very naïve.”

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Lending a Hand to Disadvantaged Schools

When Dan England of C.R. England Inc. walked into the Horizonte School to tell students about careers in the trucking industry, he probably didn’t know a lot about cone organizations in the school district, or Urban Rural Opportunities Grants. But he and hundreds of other businessmen knew they wanted to help.

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Snaring the Olympics

It was to be a special international event to draw the world’s attention during the U.S. Bicentennial. The United States Olympic Committee promoted Denver to host the 1976 Winter Olympics. The International Olympic Committee liked the idea and gave the Rocky Mountain city the bid.

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