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. In 1911 the city began taking a more active interest in it and by 1916 it owned bears, deer, elk, wildcats, cougars, monkeys, a large number of birds, and an Indian elephant named “Princess Alice.” School children bought Alice from a circus by donating their nickels and dimes. But the city’s interest waned over the next decade and conditions at the park deteriorated.
About that time Dr. George Allen became chairman of the civic improvement committee of the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club. Dr. Allen, an enthusiastic ornithologist, was described as “a great personality and forceful character.” In his new chairmanship he conceived the idea of organizing the Salt Lake City Zoological Society, more or less as an offshoot of the Chamber. The society met at the Chamber’s offices and started its work.
Joined by Russell L. Tracy (who would later donate his own collection of birds to the city), Chamber members, and interested citizens, the group examined the conditions at Liberty Park. The result was a blistering report to the city commission. “There is an old ramshackle building out at Liberty Park which in its confines houses a regular Noah’s Ark…there is our elephant (shackled to the floor for seven months of the year), her kind eyes look down at her neighbors in confinement…Very little sunlight penetrates this building through its two south windows. The air is foul, and it is a place we hope strangers visiting our city in the winter months will not see.” The report described broken fences, broken-down sheds, and said “there is no silly sentimentality about all this…The present crowded condition of the animals is disgraceful from a humane standpoint, but with the present facilities nothing better can be done.” It recommended moving the zoo.
Mary Hogle, wife of James A. Hogle, read the report and was horrified by the conditions she went down and saw for herself. Her neighbors then included Julian Bamberger and Gus Backman, both members of the Chamber and the Zoological Society. At first the Chamber and the Society lobbied hard to have a new zoo built at the site of the old state prison farm in Sugar House, but were unable to convince the legislature. The options were quickly running out, even though the public was firmly behind relocating the zoo.
Mary and Jim Hogle talked over the problem and decided to donate their family farm at the mouth of Emigration Canyon for a zoo. It was one of their most valuable tracts of land. The city donated its animals, and the Chamber supported a $25,000 bonding program ($269,000 in 2002 dollars) by the society to build new facilities for the animals.
By now the country was deep into the Great Depression and the Chamber created “make-work” committees to find jobs for the growing army of unemployed. Construction of the new zoo fit perfectly into its plans. George Allen, still president of the Chamber’s civic improvement committee and head of the Zoological Society, gave periodic reports on their progress. He said that using hand labor instead of machines threw the construction profits entirely to the unemployed. “Not even a team (of horses) or scraper is being used. Large stones could have been more easily broken by dynamite, but on this work sledge hammers were used, thus providing more labor,” he reported. In one three-week period, 2,156 people were fed, clothed, and sheltered under the make-work program.
Other Salt Lakers pitched in, too. Under slogans like “the old zoo repels the new zoo will attract” they raised money to move the animals with fund-raisers like selling flowers. Within five months all the animals, including a very reluctant Alice, were in their new home.
After the zoo was dedicated on July 31, 1931, with not a penny of taxpayer money being spent, George Allen told a meeting at the Chamber that some ten thousand people had received direct help, and 1,080 employment, in its construction.
They were desperate times, but the zoo had done its part, as had the citizens of Salt Lake and the Chamber. On April 19, governors of the Chamber were urged to attend a banquet that evening for the Hogles thanking them for their generous donation.
Sources: Gerald M. McDonough, “The Hogles” (Salt Lake City : McMurrin Henriksen Book, Distributed by Western Epics, 1988) 341-345. J. Cecil Alter, ed., Utah The Storied Domain, (Chicago, New York: American Historical Society, 1932)122,123. Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune clippings at Utah State Historical Society. Minutes of the Board of Governors, 12 January 1914, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Linda Sillitoe, A History of Salt Lake County (Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah State Historical Society and Salt Lake County Commission, 1996) 181. Deseret News, 12 January 1931