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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.
CORINNE, Box Elder County — In June of 1870, residents of a suddenly booming railroad community in northern Utah gathered inside the city's opera house to hear Rev. G.M. Pierce provide a sermon.
"He decided that they needed a church and he raised the money in nine days," said Karen Caldwell, a Corinne city councilwoman, reciting the history of the Corinne Methodist Episcopal Church.
Pierce collected about $4,000 in donations and construction of the chapel began quickly. On Sept. 20, 1870, less than 100 days after the sermon, ministers dedicated the building as the territory's first Protestant church.
Corinne has drastically changed in the more than 150 years since the church was constructed. It rose with the railroad and fell as the Lucin Cutoff made its role as a city along the transcontinental railroad obsolete. It morphed into a mining and farming community afterward.
It's gained a bit of another wind after populations had declined over time. With a population of 809 residents at the time of the 2020 census, its population has grown 18% over the past decade.
The chapel is the city's lone constant throughout this change. It's been a schoolhouse, as well as the site of weddings, recitals, meetings and Bible studies. The church has most recently been converted into a museum that draws in tourists eager to soak in any and all transcontinental railroad history. It's simply a fixture in the community that's lasted almost as long as the community has.
The building has worn over time, though, so much that it's been closed for over a year due to safety concerns. It's now estimated that $300,000 is needed to give the building proper renovations while also keeping it historic.
Despite the steep cost, city leaders, like Caldwell, vowed to save it and ensure it remains a museum when the city received the building through a donation last year. Caldwell was named the leader of the Corinne Museum Advisory Committee, which has tried everything imaginable over the past year and a half to raise funds to repair the building that's meant so much to the city.
The committee sent out hundreds of letters, including one to every resident, asking for donations. It held an art show and silent auction fundraiser in September and it's starting to sell T-shirts to help raise money. It's recently applied for grants that cover chunks of the cost, as well.
Caldwell, who admits she's not the most tech-savvy person, even set up a GoFundMe* page to raise money. although that's struggled to take off. All of these efforts have raised over $7,000, a modest amount, all things considered, but also far from the goal.
Nevertheless, she's determined to get the money raised somehow. When new hurdles emerge, she thinks back to how Pierce got the church funded 151 years ago.
"I just can't help but think I can do this because the money for it was raised in nine days," she said.
Wells Ward meetinghouse
While Caldwell and other Corinne leaders try to figure out how to save the church in their city, a congregation gathered last weekend to potentially say goodbye to a historic church located about 60 miles south of Corinne that's also threatened: The 95-year-old Wells Ward meetinghouse for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
That building, within Salt Lake City's Liberty Wells neighborhood, might be demolished in the near future. It's been vacant since a 5.7 magnitude earthquake rattled it in March 2020, making the building unsafe.
Still, residents, churchgoers and preservation advocates believe it can be saved and turned into something new for the community to have for ages to come. The Liberty Wells Community Council recently launched an online petition urging Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to purchase the building and turn it into a future public space.
So why is it that these two completely different communities care so much about these two old churches? David Amott, the executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Utah, an advocate for preserving the state's historic buildings, says it likely has to do with what the buildings say about the community around them.
The stories the buildings tell
The Corinne Methodist Episcopal Church, by all means, memorializes Corinne's unique origin story. Unlike many Utah communities settled after Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Corinne was not established by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In fact, it got a reputation for that almost immediately, often referred to as the "Gentile Capital of Utah," after it was settled in 1869 as a railroad community.
Initial Western railroad communities were extremely diverse and early Corinne was no exception. By 1870, the year the church was built, Corinne was already home to the second-most populous Chinese immigrant community in the then-Utah territory. Immigrants from other parts of Asia, in addition to Africa, Europe and South America, also settled in Corinne during its early years. Native Americans lived in Corinne during this time, too.
In addition to the Corinne Methodist Episcopal Church, there were houses of worship built for believers of other Christian sects, as well as Jewish and Buddhist faiths. Corinne was truly Utah's melting pot.
The Corinne Methodist Episcopal Church also served as one of the community's first schools. Its last regular church service was held in 1957 and it eventually housed the city's historical society. The United Methodist Church deeded over the building to the city early last year, according to Caldwell.
The building is also important because it's one of the last remaining pieces of its era still standing. The original transcontinental railroad lines and the engines that met at Promontory Summit were sold for scrap, and other Box Elder County railroad towns, such as Terrace, also vanished. It's no surprise then that, in 1971, the church became the second Box Elder County site added to the National Register of Historic Places, behind the Promontory Summit site where the 1869 golden spike was driven.
The Wells Ward meetinghouse, on the other hand, isn't on the register but it is within the Liberty Wells Historic District, which is on the register. The story of this building dates back a century; The Salt Lake Herald-Republican wrote about the plan for what would be "one of the unique, complete and up-to-the-minute churches ever built" in an article published in February 1920.
Construction, though, wouldn't begin until 1926. That's when details emerged of a $45,000 chapel with 1,000 seats. The church officially opened in the fall of that year. Amott points out that local congregations had put up most of the funds needed to build the chapel during this time period, hence the six years of fundraising.
That's what makes the meetinghouses from the era, such as the Wells Ward, unique.
"These chapels really became expressions of local values, of local interest, of local faith," Amott explained. "As you read about these chapels being constructed — in the 19th century and into the first couple of decades in the 20th — you feel like every neighborhood was its own little village. In some ways, there might have even been competition between the various neighborhoods, to build the best and most-detailed structure they could. ... It really has a lot of identity of the neighborhood, even in a secular way."
The extra detail helped keep the building very active for nearly a century, remaining open up until the 2020 earthquake. In an email, the Salt Lake Granite Stake Presidency wrote the earthquake "damaged the building extensively." The church decided it was time to sell the building after "analysis from engineers, architects, historians and other invested parties."
Last weekend, the presidency of the Salt Lake Granite Stake held a "farewell event," where a time capsule was opened and members of the neighborhood shared memories of the building.
"For 95 years the building has served the Wells community as both a religious meeting place and home to civic activities," the stake presidency wrote.
The fight for preservation
The Wells Ward meetinghouse appears to be more threatened than the Corinne Methodist Episcopal Church, especially since it is unclear who will own the Wells Ward in the future. Members of the Liberty Wells Community Council have pressured Salt Lake City to acquire the land. Some have suggested it be turned into a library, Amott said.
In a Facebook post Monday, Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano said he attended the farewell event, which he likened to a funeral. He asked residents for feedback on the role the city should have in protecting historic buildings since it's been a recurring topic.
"I am hesitant to have the city start buying up historic buildings without any viable end use," he wrote. "We weren't successful on the Pantages Theater and we are struggling to protect and find uses for other historic buildings we already own, including the Warm Springs Plunge, the Fisher Mansion and the Salt Lake Mattress Co. Building."
Amott says he's not sure of the full extent of the damage. However, he does point out that since the building was in use up through March 2020, it's likely in much better shape than most historic buildings on the cusp of being torn down.
For now, its future remains unknown as the community council pushes for the building to be preserved.
Back in Corinne, the preservation work is much different. Its ownership isn't in question but the funds needed to preserve it are.
A masonry company recently reviewed the structure and found it needs work done on its exterior walls and foundation, while the roofing and the building's windows need restoration. It would also need some electrical work and a ramp to make it accessible for persons with disabilities, according to Caldwell.
It's been closed since the city acquired it, although she said the city did approve its annual Christmas cantata to be held there next month as it had been before the closure.
The Corinne Museum Advisory Committee has tried every imaginable avenue to raise funds for the preservation work because Caldwell said the small city and its residents just can't afford to come up with $300,000 on its own.
But leading the committee has led her to find exactly how far the church's impact goes. She says people "light up" when they see her post flyers about the building and fundraisers, not just in Corinne but in the nearby communities of Brigham City, Farr West and Ogden. The committee even got a donation from a woman in Texas after she learned about the letter donation campaign.
The history of this and how far back it goes and the fact that it's still standing has to stand for something.
–Corinne City Councilwoman Karen Caldwell
The committee eventually came into contact with Amott and Preservation Utah during its quest, which is where its members learned that the project could be eligible for preservation grants and even possibly state funds. Those requests are still pending.
Most of the money received to date has come from checks in the mail, according to the committee. The city is still accepting those donations by mailing: Corinne City Hall / Historical Museum Restoration Project / 2420 N. 4000 West / Corinne, UT 84307.
Yet even in the struggles, the building has offered Caldwell inspiration. It has stood through Corinne's ups and downs. Almost every person who has lived in the community has either been inside the building or traveled past it one time or another.
That's what keeps her going.
"The history of this and how far back it goes and the fact that it's still standing has to stand for something," Caldwell said. "We can't let go of our history."
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