When Salt Lake business leaders organized the Commercial Club in 1902, theirs was still a world largely more pioneer than progressive. When it rained and snowed, the streets of a growing Salt Lake City turned to mud as horses, buggies, and wagons traversed them. Despite the mud, a growing skyline of commercial buildings was changing the once pastoral valley.
In 1902, agriculture and hard-rock mining defined Utah’s economy. When Census takers counted heads in Utah in 1900, they found 276,746 people, 53,500 living in the Salt Lake City. Four million acres of Utah land were filled with 19,387 farms. Only 38 percent of Utah’s population lived in urban areas. While the Nineteenth Century economic climate was dominated by commercial enterprises organized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, LDS business influence had begun to wane as new immigrants and mining moguls exerted their economic power. Utahns embraced national integration. Thus, the Commercial Club’s emergence was symbolic of the way Utah and Salt Lake City had matured since statehood. While Mormon and “gentile” factionalism still colored economic, political, and social climate, it had grown more muted.
An earlier Chamber of Commerce, organized in pre-statehood days, had grown moribund. By 1901, business leaders were ready to organize a new business group. Into the vacuum came Utah Governor Heber M. Wells and his idea of a “Committee of 100.” Thus the Commercial Club was born.
The institution was later set in stone when it opened the doors of the Commercial Club building in 1909. In October 1922, organizers changed the name to the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club, the former part of the name indicating the business phase and the latter the social phase of the institution. Within a decade, many other Utah cities and towns had their own commercial clubs.
“The different factions gathered in the Salt Lake Commercial Club; they met together on its committees; they sat around the same board; and soon they forgot they had been enemies. Although the club cannot claim all the credit for bringing about this change in conditions, it can undoubtedly claim as much of the credit as any other single faction within the state,” The Salt Lake Tribune wrote in 1927.
Along with healing social rifts, the Commercial Club became a catalyst for both Salt Lake civic improvement and the state’s economic development.
Following the one-year tenure of W.A. Nelden, Colonel Edwin Francis Holmes became the Commercial Club’s second president, serving two years. A New York native and a Civil War veteran, Holmes became interested in mining and bought shares in Park City’s Anchor mine. He went into semi-retirement in 1897, married Utah’s “Silver Queen,” Mrs. Susanna Bransford Emery, widow of Silver King mining millionaire Albion B. Emery, and moved to Salt Lake City. In 1901 the Holmeses bought Amelia’s Palace, a home built in 1877 for Brigham Young’s wife Amelia Folsom, and lavishly redecorated it.
Holmes worked to improve the city water supply, and was known for his forestry and irrigation studies. He applied the latest irrigating ideas on vast orchards and grain, potato, and hay farms in southeastern Idaho. Under his leadership, the Commercial Club helped make up a 1903 public schools deficit, helped improve street car service, aided in settling a coal strike in Carbon County and petitioned the power company for better service.
At the Commercial Club’s inception in 1902, its first order of business was to improve transportation. In fact, one early impetus for a revitalized Commercial Club appears to be the Lucin Cutoff. The remarkable feat of railroad building, built a dike and trestle cutoff across the Great Salt Lake. It appears Salt Lake boosters may have been too late to change the minds of railroad leaders, who decided to build the cutoff from Ogden to Lucin. Ironically, it was a day before the Commercial Club was officially incorporated that newspapers record that railroad officials came to Salt Lake to meet with club officers about the plan.
The Commercial Club also started a years-long campaign to fight against discriminatory freight rates. When complaints resulted in a federal investigation and subsequent adjustments, it was heralded as one of the Commercial Club and Chamber of Commerce’s greatest accomplishments. The Chamber’s Traffic Bureau operated until the formation of the Utah Shippers’ Traffic Association, which organized statewide and took over the task of rate adjustments.
The Commercial Club requested railroads construct a union train depot in the city. The focus soon grew to roads and then the skies, as the Commercial Club, and later the Chamber, became a leader in western aviation development. Railroads, and later roads for automobiles, were obvious priorities for developing trade and tourism.
In 1910, the Commercial Club made a successful trade excursion, the “All Utah Trip,” by rail into a number of Utah towns. Encouragement to develop more roads into Utah’s scenic hinterlands followed such visits.
In 1912, the Commercial Club members visited Yellowstone National Park with the idea of developing Salt Lake City as a “gateway to Yellowstone.” Within four years, the Commercial Club was lobbying for a Yellowstone Park highway and adopting a promotional campaign with the motto “Center of Scenic America” at its heart. The Yellowstone highway was eventually built. In 1916, The Commercial Club also contributed $15,000 (about $246,000 in 2002 funds) for the construction of a road in Little Zion Canyon, while recommending the canyon become a national park.
In 1914, an excursion of Commercial Club members and their automobiles initiated the first road to the north rim of Grand Canyon. The Commercial Club also supported the building of the Pike’s Peak Ocean-to-Ocean Highway and the transcontinental Lincoln Highway. Closer to home, the Commercial Club pushed for highways and railroads into the recently settled Uintah Basin. The Commercial Club was among the first to advocate snow removal to keep roads linking eastern Utah and the Wasatch Front open year round.
Starting with the first request for information in March 1902, the Commercial Club expanded advertising to include a promotional brochure and active convention recruitment effort. The first convention landed by the new organization was the Trans-Missouri Association’s meeting in July 1902. The Commercial Club also got the City Council to spend $4,000 on decorating the town for the national Elks convention in August.
In 1906, the Commercial Club sponsored the “See America First” Conference and Fisher Harris, the primary author of the tourism promotion effort, officially became the Commercial Club’s secretary. By 1907, the “See America” league had established headquarters at the Commercial Club.
In 1905, Heber M. Wells, former governor and the original promoter of the Commercial Club, took over the reigns of leadership. However, Holmes remained active and can be credited with promoting Utah’s wild lands and natural bridges. Holmes read a National Geographic Magazine account of the White Canyon bridges in San Juan County. Holmes proposed an expedition–which he agreed to outfit–to make accurate measurements, photographs, and descriptions. He urged H.L.A. Culmer, the Utah artist, Commercial Club member, and active in the 1887 Chamber of Commerce, to lead the expedition. The Commercial Club became the official sponsor. Culmer chronicled the expedition in a lengthy diary.
A 1920 Commercial Club brochure described Salt Lake City as containing the “Broadest and most beautifully laid out streets in the world. Known to be one of the most scientifically arranged cities in America.”
The brochure boasted “Electric light and power furnished by the roaring torrents of the mountains,” dry and healthful air, low taxes, commission government in both the capital city and the county, and an absence of slums. An estimated 124,000 booklets were distributed, some 38,000 on the Pacific coast.
Also that year, about $9,000 was spent on newspaper advertising. Three billboards were erected outside the state inviting tourists to Salt Lake City and Utah. By 1924, the Chamber’s advertising budget rose to $75,000 (about $789,000 in 2002 dollars) was spent on advertising in thirty-one large daily newspapers and four national industrial and agricultural publications. The Chamber set up summer information bureaus on Catalina Island and in San Francisco. The advertising campaign continued to expand over several years. By 1927, the Chamber’s mining committee published a compilation of papers about “What mining means to Utah.”
During ensuing years, the Chamber involved itself in several public debates, including a stand against the state’s approval of prohibition, support for banking reforms, a push for dams and water reclamation projects, and support for the adoption of a national budget. Members supported the removal of a controversial cigarette ban in 1923 after the Utah Legislature enacted it two years earlier. In the early 1920s, the Commercial Club helped save Fort Douglas from closure and lowered downtown fire insurance rates by a clean-up of “fire traps.” In 1927, the Chamber also played a role in eliminating Utah’s experiment with horse racing and pari-mutuel gambling.