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Editor's note: This article is part of a series reviewing Utah and national history for KSL.com's Historic section. SALT LAKE CITY — Doug Misner exits an elevator inside the old Rio Grande Depot and begins walking down the basement corridor, turning left into one of several large rooms below the historic building.
There, a few of Utah’s old artifacts are on display — some waiting to be cataloged by technicians sitting at computers in the room. Utah’s first state flag, made in 1903, sits in a box across from the doorway. The blue dye has weakened the flag’s silk fabric and its top is slightly torn.
There’s a flashy baby blue tuxedo jacket by its side once worn by Eugene Jelesnik, a popular Utah entertainer who died in 1999. There are also military uniforms, artifacts from the U.S.S. Utah — a ship that sank during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor — and an old typewriter once used by the Nichiren Buddhist Temple nearby.
These artifacts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what is stored in this basement. Adding an extensive and growing photo collection, there are more than a million items valued at more than $90 million stored there. A nearby art facility houses roughly another $10 million worth of art.
But it’s clear visiting the facilities that they are not equipped to handle Utah’s vast history. Misner, the research/collections manager for Utah Division of State History’s library and collections, points to the ceiling, and the overhead pipes. He’s often interrupted by the sounds of water from the upstairs restroom traveling through the pipes that are hovering above the several-decades-old artifacts.
A large plastic sheet is placed over the top of some of the boxes to prevent any leaks from reaching them. He then points to the floor, where stains from past flooding are noticeable. The room is pleasantly warm for a mild winter afternoon but much too hot for preserving the old artifacts, which typically deteriorate when not stored in cool places.
There’s a set of refrigerators in another room down the hall that houses some of the oldest photo negatives. However, any power outages would be detrimental to preserving the photos. The building also isn’t ready for a major earthquake, should one hit the city.
“There are all sorts of issues we have to deal with,” Misner said. “We’re always mindful. We monitor the room and the staff is always checking to make sure everything is OK.”
The art facility is in better shape, but also not up to archival standard. That’s why the division has requested $18 million for a new facility that would house all the state’s artifacts in a safe, protective manner.
The proposal likely won’t be approved this year, but Josh Loftin, spokesman for the Department of Heritage and Arts, said lawmakers have proposed giving the division $1.4 million toward putting together a concrete plan for the future project once Utah’s 2018 budget is finalized during the legislative session.
“We’re optimistic and we hope we can get that money because we would love to start moving forward on this proposal,” Loftin said.
Current artist renderings for the future building show a state-of-the-art facility for both historic archives and paintings located on a lot across from the Rio Grande building. It also has allocated space for a potential future museum.
With all the focus on protecting Utah’s artifacts, it leaves the question: What exactly is in the state’s history archives housed in this aging building’s basement?
The wide-ranging items the collection holds includes more than 1.5 million photos, 31,000 artifacts, 30,000 books, 30,000 maps, 23,000 pamphlets (small published works) and 9,000 manuscript collections. The items range from anything during Utah’s time as a U.S. territory to recent events in the state's history.
“It’s a very large collection with a small staff to take care of it all and provide access to it,” Misner said.
A basement full of history
Misner ducks under the plastic sheet and into an aisle of boxes housing mostly old textile products once worn by Utahns. There’s wedding dresses, gowns, quilts, old baseball jerseys, infant clothing and bed linens.
“All sorts of materials here,” Misner said, waving his arm to point to the various boxes.
The Utah State Historical Society began collecting items in 1897. Items weren’t cataloged until the 1970s. The history of items in collection prior to that time is known but vague compared to items donated since the 1970s. Archives once were held at the Kearns Mansion basement before moving to the Rio Grande Depot in 1980.
Michele Elnicky, a collection specialist for the division, carries over a box containing the first hat worn by a Rio Grande Depot conductor — an item perfect for building it is stored in. Another box plopped onto the table contains hats donated by the Alice Merrill Horne family. Horne was a Utah artist and lawmaker; she also created Utah’s fine art collection.
Tucked in the far right corner of the room is a 45-star American flag on a table given to former Utah Territorial Secretary George A. Black when Utah became the nation’s 45th state in 1896. Rebekah Brackus, an archival technician, said the flag was on its way to get treatment to help preserve it.
Misner walks into another room and points to a box at the top of a shelf holding small television tubes donated by television pioneer Philo Farnsworth’s wife. There’s an old news station camera sitting on the floor below it.
This room holds more artifacts, ranging from World War I memorabilia to all sorts of old keyboards and typewriters. There’s a medical chart once owned by Dr. Ellis Reynolds Shipp, the second woman to practice medicine in Utah.
Across from it is a sign from a mining company with the same message written in seven languages, from English to Greek and Chinese.
“Mining played a very important role in bringing diversity to Utah,” Misner said.
Elnicky opens a cabinet drawer full of guns, swords and rifles. A drawer below it has an autographed Langston Hughes book and a clock from a worker at the Scofield Coal Mine, who was among the 200 killed in a 1900 explosion. The dust from the explosion stopped the clock at the exact moment it occurred.
In the center of the room is all sorts of 1950s-era appliances. An old neon sign is neatly packed in a Rio Grande luggage cart with a cloth draping over it in the back of the room. There’s even equipment from Civilian Conservation Corps workers who worked in Utah during the Great Depression inside the room.
Elnicky then shows off a trunk once owned by a Utahn who would take it everywhere he went. It holds personal photos, correspondence letters between him and his family, receipts, insurance papers and even a change of clothing. She jokingly refers to it as the early iPad.
Across the hall is a room full of manuscripts, including even more Civilian Conservation Corps-era documents, and documents from those held at Topaz Internment Camp during World War II. Another room holds more than a million photograph negatives. Most of those photos can be viewed online.
The room is also filled with various maps and about 1,500 architectural blueprints. The designs are currently being digitally logged so they are available online.
About 1,400 art pieces worth approximately $10 million are stored in another building. The art archive, which dates back to 1899, is the oldest state-run art agency in the country, said Jim Glenn, visual arts manager for Utah Public Art and Design Arts.
Some of Utah’s more prominent artwork is in the collection, though about 30 percent of it is on loan to other state buildings, according to Glenn. The earliest piece in the collection is currently at the Governor’s Mansion.
The paintings depict everything from life in Utah at the time to what the landscapes within the state looked like prior to houses and buildings. There’s also plenty of pieces from Works Progress Administration artists that were painted during the Great Depression.
While all the artifacts in the Rio Grande basement and at the art facility are completely different, it’s clear they have a common thread.
“Our collecting scope is documenting the story of Utah and all of Utah’s people,” said Melissa Coy, historical collections curator.
With optimism that a new facility is on the way, it’s those stories state historians hope they will be able to preserve for many years to come.