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6 prior major events that altered Utahns' way of life

By Robert J. DeBry & Associates | Posted - Apr. 20, 2020 at 8:00 a.m.



Times aren’t just tough — they’re a little weird to boot. From donning personal protective equipment to homeschooling your kids (while working from home), today’s pandemic conditions have thrown everyone for a loop.

But COVID-19 isn’t the first event to completely disrupt Utahns’ way of life. A little historical perspective goes a long way – so here are a few events that prove the Beehive State can get through hard times.

The Utah War

Just 11 years after declaring "this is the right place," Brigham Young, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and governor of the new territory, faced a difficult challenge; The United States Army was going to force the Utah territory to adhere to federal law.

After more than a decade of mountain tension between Utah and the United States government, President James Buchanan sent a newly appointed, secular governor along with 2,500 troops into the Utah territory, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

Immediately on the defensive after enduring years of persecution that finally led the Latter-day Saint settlers to the Salt Lake Valley, the war was really a year of tension and uncertainty rather than violence.

From dispatching reconnaissance missions to planning a mountain retreat in preparation for guerilla warfare, the Utah War was a time of great unrest in Deseret — and spurred significant economic fallout.

Farmers neglected crops when they evacuated the territory, and some settlements in Idaho, Nevada and elsewhere were abandoned and never resettled. Consequences for Buchanan, however, were more embarrassing, as many now refer to the conflict as Buchanan’s Blunder.

Scofield Mine Disaster

When an explosion takes 200 lives from close-knit communities, it sends ripples throughout the state and even country. In May 1900, a horrific mining accident in Scofield, Utah, did just that. The worst mining disaster the United States had ever seen at the time, the explosion changed the lives of countless residents of Scofield and Clear Creek — not to mention the entire coal mining industry.

Without aid from the government, it was left to local volunteers to wash and clothe bodies and dig graves. Around the state, communities raised funds for the victims’ widows. In response to the accident and mounting pressure from workers, mining companies trained employees on first aid as well as mine safety, while the state and federal governments began regulating mines.

Spanish flu

A pandemic like COVID-19 may seem unprecedented (and for many people it certainly is), but this isn’t the first time illness has significantly altered the normal way of life. Just over 100 years ago, the Spanish flu ravaged the entire world — and Utah was not immune.

In the Beehive State, the pandemic that infected a third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people, created a health crisis eerily similar to what Utahns are experiencing today, according to the Deseret News.

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When the first signs of outbreak occurred in October 1918, public gatherings were banned, school was canceled, and theaters and other businesses closed (sound familiar?). With more than 1,500 cases documented in Utah within four weeks of its local outbreak, Salt Lake became resourceful, turning church multipurpose halls into care centers.

Of course, such drastic disruption was not without argument. Residents and officials alike disagreed vehemently when it came to ordering businesses to close and enforcing social distancing tactics. By the summer of 1919, when the flu had finally run its course worldwide, thousands of Utahns had been infected — and 4% of those infected died of the illness, giving the state the third highest Spanish flu death rate in the country.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression wasn’t exactly fun anywhere in the United States, but it was especially difficult in Utah. That’s because Utah was among the states hit hardest by economic collapse, with nearly 36% of the workforce unemployed by 1933. Additionally, those who managed to keep their jobs saw a 45% decrease in wages, while per capita income fell by 50% across the state, according to the State of Utah.

During this time of economic turmoil, women took to the job market, marriage and birth rates dropped and divorce rates rose throughout Utah. Homes foreclosed, tax sales were common and more and more Utahns became homeless. It wasn’t until the WWII years brought an increase in industry and factory work that Utah — and the entire country — began to prosper again.

Flooding of 1983

If you thought life was weird right now, just remember that 37 years ago downtown Salt Lake had a river running through it. The scene was about as disrupting as disruption gets; State Street was an aqueduct to help direct rising and rushing waters according to a KSL article.

Thanks to a couple of years of abnormally heavy precipitation and unseasonably warm spring temperatures that melted the abundant snowpack, Utah saw mudslides, flooded homes and yes, even rivers where streets once were.

Pedestrians used makeshift bridges to cross flooded roadways throughout Salt Lake City, but the scene was much worse elsewhere. A landslide that dammed the Spanish Fork river quite literally washed the small town of Thistle off the map.

2002 Winter Olympics

It doesn’t take a natural disaster or pandemic to alter the Utah way of life. If you lived in the state during 2002, you’ll remember how transformative the Winter Olympics were for Salt Lake City – along with many surrounding locations.

While always a popular location for winter sports aficionados, the Olympics cast a spotlight on Utah’s snowy mountains like never before. Not only did the games create 35,000 job-years of employment, they increased ski tourism in Utah by 42% for years following, according to a report from the Center for Public Policy & Administration.

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While infrastructure improvement and development certainly disrupted life on the Wasatch Front, Utah is still benefitting from those improvements today — like new freeways, railway lines and plentiful hotel rooms.

With the worldwide spread of COVID-19 — and local and national prevention measures — Utah faces a new and challenging time in history. But if the past is any indication of its resilience, fortitude and determination, the Beehive State will rise to meet these challenges — while making its communities stronger and more united in the process.

Robert J. DeBry & Associates

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