Future of historic Fort Union monument in question years after '90s development battle

The replica Jehu Cox home sits on an acre of grass across the street from Walmart in Midvale at the Fort Union shopping center on Thursday, June 10, 2021. The owners of the center propose building apartments in the area.

The replica Jehu Cox home sits on an acre of grass across the street from Walmart in Midvale at the Fort Union shopping center on Thursday, June 10, 2021. The owners of the center propose building apartments in the area. (Annie Barker)


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MIDVALE — After a bitter battle in the '90s, a memorial at a Utah historical site in the middle of a shopping area has again prompted debate about the best way to preserve its pioneer heritage.

Now, the Fort Union area serves as a well-known shopping center that includes parts of Midvale, Cottonwood Heights and Sandy.

But it carries a rich history.

Pioneers with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled the area, then called simply "Union," in 1849. In 1853 and 1854, the settlers created a wall in a 10-acre plot of land donated by Jehu Cox — who had 40 acres of land. The fort was created to help protect the little town outside of Salt Lake City from potential outside threats during a dispute with a nearby Native American tribe, but the town of Union was ultimately never attacked.

The wall was 12 feet high and 6 feet thick at the base and 2 feet thick at the top. Inside, 23 homes and a school that also served as a church and as an amusement hall were inside Fort Union, which the settlers never completed.

The final remnants of the fort remained until the 1990s, when it was demolished for the commercial district now known as Fort Union. The Cox home was believed at that time to be the oldest-standing adobe home in its original location in Utah. The home was dismantled during the construction process after a fight to keep it in its original place failed.

A replica was built a few blocks from the original location. It sits on an acre of grass near the now-closed Babies R Us store at 7188 S. Union Park Ave.

Citing the lack of open storefronts at that area of the shopping center, its owners want to build apartments there, and they're proposing including the memorial as part of an open-space amenity.

A Fort Union neighborhood?

Stephen Usdan, a spokesman for the shopping center's managing owner CCA Acquisitions, told members of the Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday that the company wants to develop portions of the Shops at Fort Union that have vacancy into multi-family housing with ground-floor retail space.

"We want to create a desirable place to live, to work, and to play, and to substantially grow the tax base," Usdan said.

He said the developers hope to build a "Fort Union neighborhood" that would be "not dissimilar from Sugar House, but only better," referring to a trendy shopping and housing district in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake County owns a parcel of the land the company wants to develop — which also happens to be the site of the Cox home memorial. The County Council is considering a proposal to sell its land as surplus property to Midvale to enable the development.

Usdan said the company hopes to include a portion of the county parcel of land to "maximize presence and access" to the development. The plan "contemplates preservation" of a "substantial portion" of county property as an open-space amenity area with the current monument sign and replica of the Cox home "in one form or another" in a location agreed upon by the Cox family and the Sons of Utah Pioneers, Usdan said.

But the Sons of Utah Pioneers say they weren't included in conversations until just recently.

Robert J. Grow, president-elect of the Temple Quarry Chapter of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, told the County Council the historical group heard of plans to potentially move the monument late last month.

"As things currently stand, we would not want the county to surplus this property until negotiations and a potential resolution are farther along," he said in the meeting.

He said the property originally proposed by the developer for the monument's new location is smaller and in a less prominent area.

Grow noted that the area was dedicated by the president of the church on the centennial anniversary of the pioneers entering the valley. When residents settled the original Union, each family needed to build about 100 feet of wall, Grow told the County Council.

"And so it was a massive undertaking. That was Fort Union, and it stood that way for a number of years," he said.

Grow said the Sons of Utah Pioneers want the monument to remain a parklike setting where people want to visit. He said he regrets that the group wasn't invited to discussions earlier, but they are working with developers on the issue.

Usdan told the council his company originally proposed moving the monument's location, but has changed its proposal after the Sons of Utah Pioneers opposed it.

He said he believes the current replica home isn't historically accurate and that a better monument could be constructed. A third of the site or more is "basically not usable" for safety purposes, he added.

Derrick Sorensen, Salt Lake County real estate manager, told the County Council that the land is a "nuisance property" for the county, and its interest lies within its historic components and their preservation.

"Although we're not interested in being a part of the ownership there, we are interested in the preservation of this historic (place), and it's important to Midvale," Sorensen said, explaining that the land creates a burden for county parks and recreation crews to maintain.

Sorensen said he hopes the city, county, builder and historical groups can work together to come to an agreement on the land.

The County Council held off on taking a vote to sell the land and will consider the issue at a later meeting while negotiations continue.

After this story was published late Thursday afternoon, Midvale City Manager Matt Dahl told KSL.com that the developer pulled the proposed change to the historic site from a city meeting agenda "since they were unable to reach an agreement with the interested parties."

"The intention of the developer was to preserve and relocate the historic marker closer to its original location. However, since they were unable to reach an agreement, they have indicated that they would move forward with designing their development around the memorial, keeping the site in its current state," Dahl said.

"We look forward to reviewing the new designs and appreciate their investment in Midvale City, as well as their commitment to preserving our historical features," he said.

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