Utah State History

How Utahns celebrated Pioneer Day during other historic moments

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Jul. 23, 2020 at 7:01 p.m.



Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s now been 173 years since Brigham Young declared “this is the right place” and Mormon pioneers began settling in the Salt Lake Valley.

Their arrival, officially marked as July 24, 1847, led to a holiday commemorating that moment. It’s since been referred to as Pioneer Day — although it was alternately referred to as “Thrift Day” for many years because, as a wire story that appeared in many Utah newspapers in 1919 noted, the pioneers “were thrifty, saving and industrious.”

This year’s celebrations will surely be different than in previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For starters, the annual Pioneer Day parade in downtown Salt Lake City and other in-person Days of ‘47 events were canceled all the way back in April. The parade was a tradition dating back to 1849, and it’s grown ever since.

Given this year’s historic reasons behind the cancellations, here’s a look at how Utahns celebrated Pioneer Day during other key moments in Utah’s history.

1896 — First Pioneer Day as a state

Utah became a state about 48½ years after Mormon pioneers reached the valley. Pioneer Day in 1896 was the first time the holiday was celebrated as a U.S. state. Yet the newspapers of the time said there wasn’t any formal celebration in Utah’s capital, aside from businesses, the post office and banks being closed.

The Salt Lake Herald-Republican reported at the time “a great rush is expected to the lake resorts, where special programmes have been prepared.” Those resorts included Saltair and Lagoon.

A throng at the unveiling of the Pioneer Monument in Salt Lake City on July 24, 1897. The statue now stands at Temple Square. The event was in celebration for the 50th anniversary of the pioneers arriving in the Salt Lake Valley and was more ceremonious than the previous year, which was the first year Pioneer Day was held when Utah was a state. (Photo: Utah State History)

1918 — During World War I

World War I would be over within a few months of Pioneer Day 1918. If you look at the July 24, 1918, morning edition of the Deseret News, you can tell the war was at the top of everyone’s minds when the holiday rolled around. The front page was instead filled with all sorts of updates from the European battlefront; the evening edition describes the celebrations, clouded with an understanding of what was happening overseas.

Utah’s 145th Field Artillery band made appearances in Liberty Park and at the Utah Capitol; reports noted that many of those soldiers would soon be deployed. Surviving pioneers from the original journeys to the valley, referred to as 47ers, were also honored during a luncheon at Liberty Park.

An editorial about Pioneer Day tucked inside the morning edition of the paper may have summed up the holiday in 1918 best. It reflected on the founding of the community and what it meant to Utahns living in that moment of time.

“Today the sons and grandsons of those sturdy pioneers are answering the call to higher service and nobler manhood. Right and Justice in the earth have been assailed; they must be defended,” the article reads. “Thousands of young men from these mountain valleys have gone forward, to give their lives if need be for the principles ingrained in them as a heritage from their noble sires. Thousands of the daughters and granddaughters of those pioneers are doing equally heroic work and sacrifice at home. … It is a contemplation that should give to our Pioneer Day this year a deeper significance and higher sanctity.”

1919 — Post-flu celebrations

A lot happened between the Pioneer Day in 1918 and 1919. As we’ve experienced our own pandemic, we’ve looked back at how Utahns dealt with the 1918-1919 influenza outbreak, showing many parallels to what we’re dealing with now.

Even in early 1919, events were pushed back amid the third and ultimately final wave of that pandemic. One example is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ spring general conference sessions were held in June 1919 instead of the traditional early April meetings.

By Pioneer Day, life was seemingly back to normal. Newspaper reports from the day didn’t seem to mention much, if anything, about it being the first holiday celebrations since the pandemic. They do mention a parade planned in Spanish Fork and a daylong celebration in Perry; Tremonton put together a “rousing celebration” with featured guest David O. McKay, an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time and future president of the church.

A July 24, 1919, edition of the Deseret News reported that 65 Boy Scouts marched down Emigration Canyon in a reenactment of the pioneers reaching the Salt Lake Valley. The Salt Lake Bees lost a morning baseball game held at Bonneville Park against the Oakland Oaks — a Pacific Coast League team that would later dissolve in the 1950s.

1933 — Amid the Great Depression

The 1930s were a tumultuous decade globally, and Utahns weren’t excluded from the economic fallout. In 1933, Utah’s unemployment rate was fourth-highest in the nation, reaching 35.8%, according to Utah History Encyclopedia.

So what was Pioneer Day like during the peak of Utah unemployment? According to a July 24, 1933, edition of the Deseret News, there was a two-day celebration involving states all over the intermountain U.S. that year. It started with members of the Latter-day Saint faith holding ceremonies in churches the day before the holiday.

On the holiday, some 500 people gathered at 600 East and 300 South in Salt Lake City to see the unveiling of a monument called the Cedar Post Shrine.

Many more events were held statewide, according to newspaper reports at the time. The Salt Lake Telegram reported that many Utahns flocked to resorts and the canyons, and a massive fireworks display happened at the University of Utah.

The celebrations continued even during the bleakest times.

A wagon, cars, and floats traveling down Main Street Salt Lake City for a Pioneer Day parade in the 1930s. (Photo: Utah State History)

1945 — As World War II came to an end

Pioneer Day in 1945 came as World War II was coming to an end. Fighting in Europe was over already, and war with Japan would end just weeks after the state holiday.

Many places in Utah touted big celebrations that year. One included an appearance by Loraine Day, an actor originally from Utah who started gaining fame from movies beginning in the late 1930s. She was tabbed as the featured guest at the “Trailways of Freedom” pageant held on Pioneer Day that year, according to the Salt Lake Telegram.

A KSL-sponsored float during the 1945 Days of '47 Parade in Salt Lake City on July 24, 1945. (Photo: Utah State History)

The Provo Daily-Herald noted that thousands attended a parade in Provo that day that celebrated the holiday.

1947 — 100th anniversary of the pioneers' arrival

Some 50,000 people attended a ceremony dedicating the pioneer monument that still exists at This Is The Place Heritage Park for the 100th anniversary of the pioneers' arrival. About 4,000 of those attendees were Boy Scouts, who sang “Home on the Range” with the accompaniment of the U.S. Marine Band.

Leaders of all faiths attended the ceremony, as did Gov. Herbert Maw, according to a report in the July 24, 1947, edition, of the Deseret News.

President Harry S. Truman did not attend but sent state leaders a telegram celebrating the anniversary. It read in part: “One of the great states of the union had its beginning a hundred years ago when Brigham Young looked out over the valley of the Great Salt Lake and made his prophetic declaration ‘This is the place.’ On that memorable day when the vanguard of the Latter-day Saints beheld for the first time, the promised land, there had ended a 1,400-mile trek across the western country which will always stand as one of the greatest migrations in American history.”

Mexico President Miguel Aleman also extended congratulations issued through a consulate at the time, according to newspaper reports. There were also 125 million 3-cent stamps issued to celebrate the centennial that went on sale just in time for the holiday.

A recreation of the arrival of the Nauvoo caravan at Sugar House on July 24, 1947. An event in Salt Lake City also held that day drew a crowd of 50,000 people for the 100th anniversary of pioneers arriving at the Salt Lake Valley. (Photo: Utah State History)

The way the holiday was celebrated during historic moments seemed to ingrain pieces of what was happening at the time. That will likely be no different this year.

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