Utah Territorial Prison, Sugar House, 1855-1951
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This page was last updated on September 18, 2015.
Utah Territorial Penitentiary (Utah State Prison) was located along the south side of today's 2100 South, at 1400 East.
The jog in the alignment of 2100 South, east of 1300 East was made in the original alignment to allow the road to pass along the penitentiary's north perimeter.
The former prison site is now occupied by the north part of Sugar House Park.
The site for the prison was selected in 1853, and in 1854 an adobe brick prison was constructed. Improvements and new construction followed over the years, but by the 1940's the prison had outlived its usefulness. On March 12, 1951, the inmates were moved to a new prison at the Point of the Mountain. The old prison site later became part of Sugar House Park. (See A. P. Rockwood, "A Concise History of Utah Penitentiary, Its Inmates and Officers, From the year 1855 to 1878"; MS in the Bancroft Library, photostat in Utah State Historical Society)
"In early December 1855 the fifth session of the Utah Territorial Legislature convened in the south wing of the State House in Fillmore. ... For forty-two days the legislators met to frame laws and pass resolutions for the territory, including a resolution to complete the penitentiary..."
Originally constructed by the federal government in 1854, the territorial prison was expanded with new buildings constructed in 1888 and 1891 to house Mormon polygamists convicted of unlawful cohabitation under the Edmunds Act. The facility served as the Utah State Prison from statehood (1896) until 1948. (See Richard D. Poll, ed., Utah's History (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1989), pp. 286-87)
The Utah territorial prison began operating in February 1855. (Deseret News, April 21, 1954)
Governor's Message To The Legislative Assembly Of Utah
December 12, 1859
Deseret News, December 14, 1859
The report of the affairs of the penitentiary by the warden exhibits the number of prisoners and contains an estimate of the appropriation necessary for their subsistence the penitentiary system as applied in this territory seems to be peculiarly unfitted for carrying out the intention of its projectors there will probably be only a small number of convicts confined at anyone time and I am acquainted with no kind of labor which in this country would defray the expense of the maintenance of the prisoners and the payment of a suitable guard the continuance of the system under these circumstances subjects the territory to a heavy expense without furnishing corresponding advantage. The building itself is objectionable, in consequence of the original defects in the plan of its structure and from its present dilapidated state, caused by a violent storm in the year eighteen hundred and fifty eight. It originally consisted of two stories - the upper, constructed of adobes, divided into two rooms; the lower, built of sandstone, divided into small cells. The eastern gable end of the building and a large portion of the roof were destroyed by the storm alluded to. As there are no workshops, tools or materials provided for work, the prisoners must necessarily be confined to their cells for want of proper occupation, or be permitted to rove about within the adobe walls which surround the building, passing an indolent and unproductive existence.
I have been informed that the secretary reported the dilapidated condition of the building to the department at Washington, but I have no knowledge of the character of the reply, if any reply were received.
Between 1864 and 1871, due to insufficient funds, the prison did not even employ a night guard. Consequently, many prisoners escaped. Between 1855 and 1878, 47 of the 240 convicts escaped, an additional 12 were killed in escape attempts. (James B. Hill, "History of Utah State Prison, 1850-1952"; Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1952, pages 47 and 145.)
The Utah Territorial Penitentiary in Sugar House was expanded in 1877 to accommodate hundreds of non-violent prisoners--polygamists. Beginning in 1877, workers began to expand the territorial prison sprawling south of Twenty-First South street. Cells were added to total over two hundred, augmented by bathrooms, a kitchen, a bakery, a new hospital, and women's quarters, as well as a new home for the warden. A stone wall surrounded an exercise yard and gardens and orchards where prisoners worked. Church leaders George Q. Cannon and Abraham Cannon both served time, and the latter kept a detailed journal, describing a cell approximately twenty by twenty-six feet and twelve feet high, lined with three tiers of bunks, each bunk sleeping two men. (History of Salt Lake County)
At any one time, at least until the late 1870s, and after 1890, various census figures show that there were seldom more than 15-20 inmates held at the prison at any one time. It was in the late 1870s and throughout the 1880s that the federal government began prosecuting hundreds of men who were members of the LDS church for participating in the doctrine of plural marriage. Their sentences varied from five to six months, with the offense being stated as "unlawful cohabitation." The prosecutions came to an end in 1890 after the church renounced the practice.
(Read the Wikipedia article about the Edmunds Tucker Act of 1887, which took away any legal standing the the LDS church had with the federal and territorial governments.)
In 1886 U.S. Marshal Frank H. Dyer recommended construction of a three-story prison inside the old adobe walls. The new cellblock was completed in 1888. Soon after, sandstone walls replaced the adobe ones, and another cellblock and an administration building were erected on additional acreage. (From Art Work of Utah, 1896)
The following comes from "Life Behind Bars: Mormon Cohabs of the 1880s" by Melvin L. Bashore (Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 47, Number 1, Winter 1979, page 22):
Passage of the Edmunds Act in 1882 launched an all-out crusade against Mormon polygamy. The law provided a $500 fine for those found guilty of polygamy and a prison sentence of up to five years. Nominal polygamists, those convicted of unlawful cohabitation, could be jailed for six months and fined $300. Prosecutions in the courts eventually jailed [p.24] more than thirteen hundred men and a few women in prisons in Arizona, Michigan, South Dakota, Idaho, and Utah.1
The majority of the men were sentenced to terms in the United States Penitentiary at Salt Lake City. The dilapidated adobe prison, on a site later developed as Sugar House Park, was little changed from when it had been first put into operation in 1855. A twenty-foot high adobe wall, four feet thick, enclosed the prison buildings and an acre of yard. Sentries armed with rifles manned catwalks ringing the exterior of the upper wall, and during inclement weather, they peered from turrets placed at opposite corners. On the west, near the heavy iron and wooden gates controlled by the turnkey, were a sentry box and reception room. Outside the walls, near the entrance, were outbuildings such as the kitchen, butcher shop, blacksmith shop, stables, women prisoners' quarters, and warden's office and home.
The facilities were insufficient for the inmate population that would mushroom with the confinement of the Mormons. Until the overcrowding forced the marshal to construct a three-tiered iron cell, the prisoners were housed in wood bunkhouses. At the peak of overpopulation in 1888, officials built three bunkhouses of two-by-sixes laid flat and spiked together for walls, floor, and ceiling. These provided an excellent breeding ground for bedbugs, a common Salt Lake pest in the best of households. Three-tier-high bunks, sleeping two in each, surrounded a small heating stove and an impossibly tiny center lounging area. Partitioned off in one corner was a wooden box and water barrel cut in two, called the "dunnigan," which did duty for the men during the night. A few barred windows and ventilating shafts in the roof relieved the stuffiness.
Other special residences within the yard were a hospital, solitary confinement facility, insane asylum cages, and two solitary "sweat boxes" used for extreme punishment. The other major structures adjoining each other were a bathroom, washhouse, and dining hall. The dining hall was rather breezily constructed, but as only fifteen minutes was allotted for eating, the caretakers did not feel the need for building anything too fancy. Several large tables ranged down the center of the room and a rough deal board nailed to the wall ringed the perimeter of the room. A hundred at a sitting were accommodated in the spartan surroundings.
(See also: Gustive O. Larson, The "Americanization" of Utah for Statehood (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1971), pp. 115-38; and Richard D. Poll, "The Political Reconstruction of Utah Territory," Pacific Historical Review 27 (1958):120. The most reliable count of convictions in Utah for polygamy and unlawful cohabitation is 1,035 in Stewart L Grow, "A Study of the Utah Commission, 1882-1896" (Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1954), p. 268.)
In May 1888 the Salt Lake & Eastern Railway received federal Congressional approval to build across the penitentiary grounds as part of its route up Parleys Canyon to Park City. (Marlowe C. Adkins, A History of John W. Young's Utah Railroads, 1884-1894)
(As a side note, the Sugar House monument, at the intersection of 1100 East and 2100 South, was erected and dedicated on November 17, 1934. It was pointed out that the proper name of the community is Sugar House, two words. -- Deseret News, February 17, 1994) (The building that had been the old sugar mill was demolished in 1928. -- Deseret News, April 30, 1975)
September 4, 1938
Governor Henry Blood had created what was known as the "Utah State Prison Site-Finding Committee" to identify a new site for a state prison and prison farm. The committee had visited a site in Draper, which was one of three potential sites, including one in Box Elder county near Brigham City, and the other site, north of the Salt Lake City airport. (Salt Lake Tribune, September 4, 1938)
(There were reports of escapes by trusted prisoners from a prison farm already situated on, or near, the Point-of-the-Mountain site. This may have been on land leased by the state.)
October 13, 1938
"Salt Lake City, Oct. 13 -- The governor's site-finding advisory committee this afternoon selected Crystal Springs, about 15 miles south of here for the new state prison and prison farm." The site, near Point Of The Mountain, comprises 848 acres, and the purchase was to cost the state $84,929. About "10 acres had already been improved, and would accommodate about 70 to 75 trusties who would begin preliminary work on the prison immediately." (Ogden Standard Examiner, October 13, 1938; Salt Lake Tribune, October 14, 1938, with an extensive description and map of the site)
November 27, 1938
The 14-man site advisory committee was split 7-7, equally favoring either the Crystal Springs (Point-of-the-Mountain) site, or the Brigham City site. The split had developed as the committee prepared its final majority and minority reports for the governor. Neither report would be final until formally placed in the governor's hands. A letter from the minority members had been delivered to the governor laying out the advantages of the Brigham City site. (Ogden Standard Examiner, November 27, 1938)
June 4, 1939
The disagreements concerning the site of the prison farm seemed to be centered on the quality of the land regarding farming on the site. The Brigham City site was seen and having much greater potential, compared to the "barren piece of ground at the Point-of-the-Mountain." (Ogden Standard Examiner, June 4, 1939, editorial)
June 29, 1939
Governor Blood was required to make his decision before a deadline of June 30th, as imposed by the action of the 1937 legislature that provided $100,000 to purchase a new prison site. The 1937 legislature provided a total of $330,000 to build a new prison, but portions of the funding had been spent for a college in Carbon County, a tuberculosis sanatorium, and an addition to Weber college. The governor was said to be favoring the Point-of-the-Mountain site, which was also described as the "J. R. Allen site", the location of a 10.5-acre poultry farm, with a purchase price of $23,000, meaning that 27 percent of the $84,000 purchase price would be spent on 10-1/2 acres, just 1.5 percent of the entire 729-acre site. (Salt Lake Tribune, June 29, 1939)
July 21, 1939
The state purchased 710 acres fronting along State Street. Zion's Bank and Trust owned 363 acres of the 710 acres purchased. Prisoners had just harvested 2000 to 3000 bushels of grain, which would be used to feed the prison farm's 300 hogs, 40 cows and 2000 chickens. (Salt Lake Tribune, August 12, 1939)
November 9, 1939
The State Advisory Commission on Prison Removal announced that it had selected a 20-acre site for a new prison, within the 710-acre site previously selected and purchased as the site of a new prison and prison farm. (Provo Daily Herald, November 9, 1939)
May 23, 1940
A 19 year old inmate walked away from the prison farm that was under construction at the new Point-of-the-Mountain site. Later reports described the prison farm improvements that were under way, including an extensive irrigation system using wells and water rights to canals that were purchased in July 1939 as part of the complete 710-acre parcel. (Salt Lake Tribune, May 23, 1940)
(Throughout 1941-1949, there were numerous newspaper reports about "trusted prisoners" walking away from the prison farm, and the simple barracks that had been built there. A second guard tower was added in May 1942, equipped with floodlights like the first guard tower. There was a shortage of prison guards because of so many men being called up for the defense industry and the war effort. This shortage resulted in only one guard being available between midnight and 8 a.m.)
(During September 1944, for the fourth year, inmates working in a cannery at the Utah state prison in Sugar House, were canning fruits and vegetables produced on the state prison farm at Point-of-the-Mountain. Working in the cannery was enjoyed by the inmates as a break from normal prison activities, with 14 inmates doing the work. In late October 1945, it was reported that during the current season, the prison cannery had produced nearly 30,000 gallons of canned corn, raspberries, tomatoes, string beans, peaches, apricots, beets, pears, and pickles, with an average of 800 gallons per day.)
(Reports in February and March 1945 showed that the prison farm was raising turkeys.)
November 19, 1948
"The world's most modern prison is steadily rising out of the farmland near Point-of-the-Mountain, but it will be more than a year before the penitentiary will be home to all Utah convicts." Although the site was selected 10 years previously, there were delays in funding the new prison due to the war effort, and reluctance of the legislature to grant funding requests from prison authorities. Two cell blocks had been built before the war, but were not completed due to the lack of "steel fittings" needed during the war. Finishing the two cell blocks at the present time would double their original cost. A service building was under construction, to include a boiler room, mess hall and kitchen, and was to be completed within 11 months. Because the legislature had not provided funding, contracts had not yet been awarded for a sewage system, an electrical distribution system, guard housing, and an administration building. Funding requests had been submitted to the legislature for the upcoming 1949 session. There was a total 465 convicts held by the prison, with 419 of them still held at the Sugar House site. There were 46 prisoners at the prison farm, working the 1,000 acres of land under the supervision of a superintendent and five guards. (Ogden Standard Examiner, November 19, 1948)
January 1, 1949
A Salt Lake County grand jury issued a finding and recommendation for the state to start moving on the completion of new prison facilities at Point-of-the-Mountain, saying that the county jail on 21st South was overloaded with "temporary" state prisoners due to the lack of sufficient beds at the Sugar House state prison. (Salt Lake Tribune, January 1, 1949)
July 1 and 3, 1949
Newly elected governor J. Bracken Lee began pushing for resolution of the "prison issue," calling it the most important building issue in the state. It had been pointed out that without adequate fencing, the prisoners would continue to simply walk away. The escapees were prisoners that had been moved to the prison farm because they could be trusted, and there was overcrowding at the Sugar House facility. (Salt Lake Tribune, July 1, 1949; Ogden Standard Examiner, July 3, 1949)
(Work slowly progressed as new attention was paid to the need to complete the new prison. In May 1949, a contract was awarded for an electrical distribution system. By mid August 1949, construction was under way on a new kitchen and dining room, new boiler room, and a new administration building. A total of 100 minimum security inmates had been moved into the two unfinished cell blocks completed before the war, although they still needed to have their cells completed. There were a total of 449 inmates at the prison, including 100 at the new site, and 349 at the Sugar House site, where inmates were sleeping in corridors, basements, and previous unused women's dormitories in three cell blocks. The ancient buildings at Sugar House were labeled as firetraps by the state fire marshal. A citizen's committee was created to investigate conditions at the old prison, and their report, approved and accepted by the governor on September 26th, called conditions at the old prison a disgrace to the state, and also called for the immediate discharge of the current warden. A new warden was hired in October 1949, and began making numerous changes in the maintenance and cleanliness at the old prison, as well as changes to rules and procedures. At the new prison, a change from 20-foot concrete walls, to double 12-foot high fences spaced 20 feet apart, was reported as saving $400,000.)
July 30, 1949
As part of 13 separate requests for a total of $3 million, the state board of examiners included four requests for buildings at the new state prison, including a new administration and receiving building, a new electrical distribution system, new cell equipment, and new cold storage and kitchen equipment. The funds were to come from a surplus in the sales tax fund. (Salt Lake Tribune, July 30, 1949)
September 27, 1949
It was reported that the new prison site needed an administration building, and a maximum security building before it could take over all of the needs of a new prison to replace the current facility in Sugar House. The price tag of the improvements were set at $1,250,000. (Ogden Standard Examiner, September 27, 1949)
October 3, 1949
Bids were invited for the completion of Building 'C', a new administration building, which would house administrative offices, a guards' dormitory, prisoner receiving, and a prison hospital. Building 'F' was under construction and when completed in December 1949, would house on two tiers, 28 maximum security cells and 24 medical and observation cells. The first contract awarded in 1937 was for temporary housing for 160 honor inmates to work on the prison farm. The second contract, awarded on November 2, 1940, was for two medium security cell blocks that were completed on February 13, 1942, but which were completed without cell equipment due to a shortage of steel due to the war effort. From that date, no other work was done until 1948 when Building 'F' was started. (Salt Lake Tribune, October 2 and 5, 1949)
The new warden announced that the new prison would be ready for occupancy in early September 1950, meeting the governor's deadline of January 1, 1951. A bid for over 600 tons of cell equipment was awarded, to furnish all 521 cells that were currently in various stages of completion. During an inspection tour by the governor on August 31st, the completion date was pushed to the end of October. Later statements from the state building board pushed the completion to the end of 1950, with the change due to a delay in the delivery of cell equipment due to higher priorities given by the vendor, Stewart Jail Equipment Co. of Cincinnati, to national defense programs. By early March 1951, the new prison was ready, and it was announced that the inmates would "be moved sometime this month." (Ogden Standard Examiner, January 12, 1950; Salt Lake Tribune, March 23, 1950; September 1, 1950; October 11, 1950; January 12, 1951; March 8, 1951)
March 12, 1951
All of the prisoners were moved form the old Sugar House prison to the new Bluffdale prison, under heavy guard and utmost secrecy. The prisoners were moved in six buses of the Salt Lake City Lines bus company. (Deseret News, April 28, 1988, page 4S; special Sugar House section)
The license plate shop remained at the old site in Sugar House until a new work shop could be constructed at the new prison site. (Salt Lake Tribune, March 13, 1951)
In 1947, the state legislature passed a law designating the Sugar House prison site as a public park, to be administered by the State of Utah. In 1951 the legislature passed a law (SB 50, signed by Governor Lee on March 15, 1951) that allowed the state to sell 120 acres to Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, with the stipulation that the site be used solely for public purposes. (2008 Sugar House Park Master Plan, page 11; Salt Lake Tribune, March 16, 1951; Deseret News, March 15, 1951)
An additional 30 acres of the former Sugar House prison site was sold to Salt Lake City School District for use as a new high school.
The Utah State Prison in Sugar House was closed in March 1951 after a new prison was completed in Bluffdale at Point of the Mountain at the south end of Salt Lake Valley. The original prison in Sugar House was completed in 1857 as the territorial prison. After its closure in 1951, the prison property, consisting of 180 acres, remained in state ownership and various proposals were considered by the state legislature during its 1951 session. Ownership of the site passed to Salt Lake City for use as a public park. The original intent was to allow the Sons of Utah Pioneers move its museum collection to the property and establish a pioneer village. About 118 acres would be devoted to the pioneer village, with another 30 acres being used for a new Salt Lake City high school. The remainder, about 30 acres, would be used by the state highway department for a new super highway. (Deseret News, January 9, 1951; March 15, 1951; April 21, 1954)
November 6, 1953
At the meeting of the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, in which Mr. and Mrs. Horace A. Sorensen presented the property, buildings, and relics of the SUP Salt Lake City museum to the society, it was stated that Mr. Sorensen also spearheaded the movement to obtain the old Sugar House prison property as a site for the erection of a Mormon Pioneer Village. (Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 22, Number 1, January 1954, Historical Notes, page 88)
July 16, 1957
Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County established the Sugar House Park Authority to administer the 120 acres that comprised the former prison site. Demolition of the prison buildings began as personnel and funds were available.
Beginning in the second week of November 1957, all 29 graves in the cemetery of the old state prison were moved to the new prison in Bluffdale. The cemetery at the old prison was located east of the old east wall and "down over a small hill near 15th East and 21st South." The project was reported as taking about a week to complete and prison farm labor was used. Due to a loss of some records during the move of the prison from Sugar House to Bluffdale in 1951, the names of only 14 of the 29 men buried in the cemetery were known at the time of the move. (Deseret News, November 6, 1957)
The remains of 14 persons moved from the old prison site in 1957, were exhumed in May 1987, cremated and interred in two plots in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. The reason for the action was that the "site was vulnerable to vandalism." The new graves were to be dedicated on June 11. (Deseret News, May 31, 1987)
Several sources refer to today's 2100 South as the Penitentiary Road. That same street was also known as 12th South until all streets were renamed to match the number of blocks they are located south from Temple Square; the former 12th South became 21st South.
Old, Torn Down Sugar House Prison Remains A Legend -- Deseret News article from January 25, 1984 giving many details of the history of the prison. (This link is for the abandoned Google Newspaper Project)