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.
It explained that State Street was paved from Ninth South to Tenth South the previous year, and that work would have continued on “but for the fact that the west side was in the county and the east side was in the city.” The west side was annexed by the city effective January 1, and now 66 percent of the property owners were petitioning that the next block to be paved at once. “This is a very necessary improvement and the cost will be very little to the city as there is practically only one inter-section to be paid for by the city and we endorse the petition of the property owners and ask that the honorable city commissioners do this paving at once.”
At the turn of the century, Salt Lake City had a lot of improvements to make, and the newly formed Commercial Club would be in the thick of the effort.
Historians paint a bleak picture of the period. Garbage was piling up in yards, a sewer system was only begun in the 1890s (under prodding from the earlier Chamber of Commerce) and some parts of the city weren’t hooked into it until the 1920s. There was no program of regular street cleaning, garbage collection was haphazard and when it was, the city hauled its garbage to vacant land outside its limits. People often decided to simply burn, bury, or dump their waste. Diseases like diphtheria, tuberculosis, and smallpox periodically swept through the city. In 1914 and 1915 the city even offered bounties to children who turned in rats and flies (10 cents a rat, or per 100 flies). In 1904, the city had only 4.05 miles of paved roads, and the rest were not only dirty but “dusty in summer and muddy in winter.”
As a result, civic groups began pushing for reforms. “Perhaps the oldest continuously operating association principally concerned with civic improvement was the Salt Lake Commercial Club,” wrote historians Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen. “In 1912 the Club boasted twelve hundred members, including the city’s most prominent businessmen, Utah’s Governor William Spry, Mayor Samuel Park, and representatives of most of the important professional firms in the city. Its concerns ranged from the perennial problem of smoke abatement to road improvement, and included rat, fly, and mosquito abatement.”
The Commercial Club joined with other organizations to promote improvements. Early in 1912, the Commercial Club’s Publicity Bureau offered $650 ($11,800 in 2002 dollars) for prizes for beautification of homes and vacant lots. Later that year, the Salt Lake Council of Women sponsored the first citywide cleanup campaign in six years, and continued it with help of others including the Commercial Club. In 1914, the Commercial Club had its own “Clean Up and Paint Up” committee to promote the annual city drive.
In 1913, the City Commission created the Civic Planning and Arts Commission, and on November 7 they held their first meeting, and “discussed informally their plans for making Salt Lake a ‘City Beautiful.’ It is the hope of the commission to outline some comprehensive plan to care for the growth of the city for a period of twenty years in the artistic improvement of boulevards, parks, playgrounds, street parking, and all that goes to remove the objectionable from the public gaze,” reported the Deseret News.
Founding members of the Commission included Commercial Club members Samuel G. Park (the mayor), William H. Bennett, manager of ZCMI, and J. Leo Fairbanks, a well-known painter and sculptor who was also chairman of the Commercial Club’s Civic Improvement Department.
As for the Good Roads Committee, it lobbied for and helped pass a $1 million bond issue ($18 million in 2002 dollars). Nearly every week in 1914, someone was at the city commission lobbying for new street paving, curbs, gutters, and sewer and water hookups. “Few went away empty handed,” wrote historian Alexander.
And Commercial Club members apparently weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. A report on the Sanitation Committee from 1914 said that its members had devoted much time to a study of local sanitary conditions, “with special reference to the condition of the city’s watershed. Its members have personally supervised improvements that have done much for the purification of our water supply and they have rendered a report which is given a high place in literature of this kind.”
The Chamber’s involvement in these kinds of civic improvement projects would continue throughout its history, but its support was especially crucial for the city during the Chamber’s own early years.
Sources: Thomas G. Alexander, Utah the Right Place (Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs-Smith, 1995). Thomas G. Alexander, Grace & Grandeur, A History of Salt Lake City (Carlsbad, California: Heritage Media Corp., 2001). John S. McCormick, Salt Lake City, The Gathering Place (Woodland Hills, California: Windsor Publications, 1980). Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen, Mormons & Gentiles, (Boulder, Colorado: Pruett Publishing Co., 1984). Linda Sillitoe, A History of Salt Lake County (Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah State Historical Society and Salt Lake County Commission, 1996). Deseret News, 7 November 1913. Minutes of the Board of Governors, 12 January 1914, Salt Lake Chamber papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah.