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.
The Chamber of Commerce of Salt Lake City was a big partner in the group that fought to create the park. It aligned itself with the Sugar House Chamber of Commerce, the Salt Lake Real Estate Board, and other agencies and committed officials. And it had Harold P. Fabian as a friend and ally.
First, a little history. The old Utah State Prison sat on some 120 acres of land around 2100 South–far out of town in Territorial Days, but surrounded by homes and businesses in March of 1951. That’s when the prisoners left for their new home at the Point of the Mountain, and Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County agreed to pay $225,000 ($1,562,500 in 2002 dollars) to the state for the property.
But funds to actually develop the site were hard to come by, and the land sat behind the old prison walls for the next several years, a growing eyesore, while debate raged over just how to use the site.
One strong plan came from the Sons of the Utah Pioneers, who wanted a full seventy acres for a pioneer village. The SUP plan had strong support, but in 1955 the Chamber’s board of governors, led by W. T. Nightingale, decided to fight it. They delegated Gus P. Backman, the Chamber’s executive secretary, to make the case. Backman was already deeply involved in the fray.
Backman reminded the public that the city’s taxpayers supported the city and county governments when they bought the site “in anticipation of the area becoming a park and recreation area.” He said the SUP had put pressure on the State Legislature to buy other property near the “This Is The Place” Monument for a pioneer village, spending over a million dollars on it, and that’s where they should place it. “The land should not under any condition be granted to any private organization,” he said.
The Sugar House site should be a city park, he argued. “We are short on softball fields, baseball fields for Little League games, tennis courts, and all other types of recreational facilities,” he said. “This would be an ideal place.”
The Chamber suggested strongly that the city set up an independent committee of unprejudiced citizens to study the park plans. That’s what happened. Mayor Earl J. Glade (a former Chamber board president) and County Commission Chairman Lamont Gundersen selected seven men to serve. They were County Commissioner Edwin Q. Cannon, businessmen Ray D. Free and Otto Buehner, City Commissioner L.C. Romney, manager of Zions Securities Corp. L. Pierce Brady, and the secretary of the Salt Lake Building and Construction Trades Council, Richard Roberts. For their chairman they chose Harold P. Fabian.
Fabian was a remarkable man who in 1967 would have a day declared for him by Utah’s Governor Calvin Rampton in recognition of his extraordinary service to the state and the country in conservation. He co-founded the law firm of Fabian and Clendenin in 1919 with his World War I friend, Beverly Clendenin. He was president of the Chamber’s board of governors in 1930, the first year Backman was secretary. It was the start of the Depression, and Fabian helped pull the Chamber through some of its darkest days. He remained a Chamber member through the years that followed.
Hired by John D. Rockefeller in 1926 to secretly buy thirty-three thousand acres of land in the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, area, the law firm set up a Utah company that quietly acquired land that the Rockefellers later donated to become Grand Teton National Park. Fabian was executive vice president of Jackson Hole Preserve. Pursuing his life-long interest in conservation, in 1957 he was asked by Governor George D. Clyde to create the Utah State Park and Recreation Commission and serve as its first–and unpaid–director. That was while the Sugar House Park was slowly developing.
Fabian ramrodded the plan to preserve the Sugar House prison site as a park and to have it administered by an independent authority.
In 1957 the prison buildings had been razed and the old wall was gone, but few improvements had been made. Laurence Rockefeller, a close friend of Fabian’s, donated $20,000 ($128,205 in 2002 dollars) to the state to help get the state park program underway and $5,000 to the Sugar House Park Authority to jump-start it. By 1959, twenty-one acres of grass were planted, and work was starting on another thirty acres to Parley’s Creek. Finally, in 1960, more funds started to come from the county and city to speed up the park’s completion.
The struggles of the ‘50s have been largely forgotten now. But when the city and county moved to change the composition of the Sugar House Park Authority in the 1990s, a former trustee, C. Laird Snelgrove, reminded the public that it was Fabian, with input from Gus Backman, who set it up to be independent of politics.
Sources: Allan Kent Powell, “Preliminary Overview History of Wasatch Mountain State Park,” Utah State Historical Society, 18 June 1989. Harold P. Fabian collection in University of Utah Special Collections. Board of Governors minutes, July 12 and Aug. 9, 1955 Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Deseret News. 28 July 1955; 13 September 1955; 19 May 1960; undated 1967 newspaper clipping in Utah Historical Society files; 16 August 1994. The Salt Lake Tribune. 28 July 1955; 18 September 1955; 19 November 1956; 26 October 1957; 22 February 1959; 7 December 1975.