Salt Lake City  began as a dream—a utopia in which the persecuted Latter-day Saints would have the freedom to create a Kingdom of God on Earth. Their prophet, Brigham Young, led a first group of 143 men, 3 women, and 2 children to the valley of Great Salt Lake in July 1847. The bleak valley, covered with sagebrush and inhabited mainly by lizards, could best be described as “the land nobody wanted.”
Many Mormon settlers wanted to continue under Young’s leadership to the rich lands of California. But Young saw the value in staying: He declared that the Kingdom of God should be independent of Gentiles and that this land’s remoteness would protect them from enemies.
The pioneers put their doubts aside and set to work digging irrigation canals, planting crops, constructing a small fort, and laying out a city as nearly 2,000 more immigrants arrived that first summer.
Through trial and error, farmers learned techniques of irrigating and farming the desert land. Then, in 1848, disaster struck. A plague of “crickets” (actually a flightless grasshopper, Anabrus simplex) descended from the hills to the east and began devouring the crops, nearly ending the community’s chances for survival. But flocks of California seagulls appeared out of the west to feed on the insects. Considered a miracle by the Mormons, the seagull intervention saved part of the crops and gave the pioneers hope that life in the Great Salt Lake Valley would eventually be fruitful.
Meanwhile, the city continued to grow. Immigrants from Europe and the eastern United States poured in, many under the sponsorship of the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company. Tanneries, flour mills, blacksmith shops, stores, and other enterprises developed under church direction. Beautiful residential neighborhoods sprang up, reflecting both the pride of craftsmanship and the sense of stability encouraged by the church. Workers commenced to raise the temple , the tabernacle , and the other religious structures that still dominate the area around Temple Square . Colonization of the surrounding country proceeded at a rapid pace.
As the Mormons’ earthly City of Zion, Salt Lake City  came close to its goal of being a community devoted to God. Nearly all aspects of political, economic, and family life came under the influence of the church during the first 20 years. Of all the utopian social experiments in the United States, the Mormon settlements at Salt Lake have had the greatest and most lasting success.
The isolation that had shielded Salt Lake City from outside influence began to fade around 1870. Deracinated Civil War soldiers prospected for gold and found enough of it to encourage a mini–gold rush. Completion of the transcontinental railroad through Utah in 1869 encouraged non-Mormons to seek opportunity in the territory.
Even in this new social climate, Mormons and Gentiles remained largely segregated. Each group developed its own social and political organizations and its own schools. Political life had been very dull during the first decades, when only a single set of church-appointed candidates appeared on the ballots. Voters had the option of voting “no,” but they knew that their numbered ballots could be traced. The church discouraged political parties, believing they would lead to corruption and disharmony, and that civil government should be an arm of the church.
As the power of the non-Mormon population rose in the 1870s, the church founded the People’s Party to counter the antichurch Liberal Party. Salt Lake City’s two major newspapers date from this time, with the Deseret News stating Mormon views and the Salt Lake Tribune representing the Gentiles. Such fine shades of the political spectrum as the Republican or Democratic Party rarely entered the picture. The Mormons steadily lost control of their city; from 93 percent of the population in 1867, they slipped to just 50 percent by 1891. In 1889 the first non-Mormons were elected to city offices.
Wealth from successful mining operations fueled much of the development in Salt Lake City ’s business district, located in the blocks south of Temple Square . As a rule, the blocks nearest the temple had affiliations with the church, while those farther south belonged to non-Mormons. In the early 1900s, skyscrapers began sprouting high above East Temple Street—which was rechristened Main Street. Exchange Place became the non-Mormon financial center.
The Depression was hard on Salt Lake City, as the Dust Bowl droughts sapped an already precarious water supply. The local economies picked up during World War II, as federal spending began to pour in and military installations took shape in the deserts west of Salt Lake City. Suburban growth began, providing the first exodus from the city’s older neighborhoods. In the 1970s, the LDS Church began to spend money on revitalization of the city’s downtown core. And the spending continues: The church has pledged $1.5 billion to redevelop parts of three blocks just south of Temple Square as City Creek Center, an enormous live/work/shop complex.