How 'unique' Mount Olivet Cemetery came to be 150 years ago

Mount Olivet Cemetery on May 11. A federal bill paved the way for the cemetery's creation 150 years ago this month.

Mount Olivet Cemetery on May 11. A federal bill paved the way for the cemetery's creation 150 years ago this month. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Most days are quiet and peaceful at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

A magpie dances around the limbs of one of the many trees planted at the site, as Rev. Curtis Price, of the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City, explains how the longstanding resident deer herd has grown to about 30 in number. Many of them lie in the shade of the trees on this warm, sunny weekend morning.

A goose gaggle is munching on the grass across the tiny cemetery road from the herd, while a few visitors gather at a nearby headstone to pay their respects to a loved one buried here.

"It's a beautiful and tranquil place for people to come and spend time around loved ones' monuments," Price told KSL.com.

That has been the case for well over a century now, thanks to what Price refers to as the 80-acre cemetery's "unique and exciting" history. This month marks the 150th anniversary of a federal bill that paved the way for its creation. It remains the only public cemetery in the U.S. created by an act of Congress.

Today, it's managed by five Utah Christian congregations: the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City, First Congregational Church, First Presbyterian Church of Salt Lake City and First United Methodist Church.

A unique creation

Mount Olivet Cemetery isn't Utah's oldest or largest cemetery, but it stands out because of its beauty, location and interesting origin story.

Its genesis essentially began with a divide over the Salt Lake City Cemetery, located about 2 miles northwest of Mount Olivet Cemetery. Episcopal Bishop Daniel S. Tuttle — who oversaw the construction of St. Mark's Cathedral and St. Mark's Hospital, among other notable facilities — was a "critic" of the cemetery and lobbied episcopal leaders for a new cemetery, according to Kurt Cook, a historiographer for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.

Cook explained the exact reasons and responses from the time are a bit hazy because there are only a few documents and newspaper archives about Mount Olivet Cemetery's creation. Brigham Young, then the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, designated space for the Salt Lake City Cemetery in 1848. It was officially established when the city was incorporated three years later.

Some of the surviving records show there was a desire to bring in multiple congregations, presumably leading to its management structure today. George E. Whitney, another local episcopal leader, petitioned U.S. Secretary of War William W. Belknap and congressional leaders in 1873 on a plan to build the cemetery on Fort Douglas land — a section that was different from the fort's graveyard.

It's unclear why Wisconsin Sen. Timothy O. Howe got involved, but Howe introduced a bill that authorized Tuttle, Whitney and others to build a cemetery "not exceeding 20th acres in extent" on Jan. 20, 1874. A later version of the bill, approved in May 1874, called for the space to be "used as a public cemetery" overseen by the petitioners. President Ulysses S. Grant signed it May 18, 1874.

Replicas of the bill proposed and final version of the bill that led to the creation of Mount Olivet Cemetery in Salt Lake City are displayed at a ceremony at the cemetery on May 11.
Replicas of the bill proposed and final version of the bill that led to the creation of Mount Olivet Cemetery in Salt Lake City are displayed at a ceremony at the cemetery on May 11. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

Yet, the first burial of an official cemetery wasn't until April 1877, after the tract was carved out and cleared. While the cemetery was mostly created for non-Latter-day Saints living in Utah, Cook said there are plenty of records showing that Utahns of all faiths backed fundraising efforts to maintain its grounds.

There were also creative ways to collect money.

"In September 1877, the Deserets and Red Stocking Baseball Club donated proceeds from one of their matches to the cemetery," Cook said, adding that a local theater held a similar event months later.

It also grew in time and as the U.S. Army moved on from Fort Douglas, transferring most of the land to the growing University of Utah after World War II. That's also about when the cemetery became a final resting spot for people of all faiths and backgrounds.

A photo of the burial ceremony for former Utah Gov. George H. Dern at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Salt Lake City on Sept. 1, 1936. Dern served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Roosevelt at the time of his death.
A photo of the burial ceremony for former Utah Gov. George H. Dern at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Salt Lake City on Sept. 1, 1936. Dern served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Roosevelt at the time of his death. (Photo: Utah State Historical Society)

Many famous Utahns are interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery, including former Utah Govs. George Dern, J. Bracken Lee and Arthur Lloyd Thomas. President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to the cemetery to pay his respects to Dern, who served as the U.S. secretary of war at the time of his death in 1936.

Actress Ina Claire, car dealer Gus Paulos, philanthropist Sarah Daft and Russell Lord Tracy, a banker whose bird collection sparked the creation of the Tracy Aviary, are among the thousands of people now buried at the cemetery. Mike Mower, senior adviser for community outreach and intergovernmental affairs for Gov. Spencer Cox, points out the cemetery is filled with the tombstones of people of all faiths, political views and backgrounds.

"This cemetery has brought people together," he said. "It represents a huge part of our state's history."

Operations today

Despite its growth over time, Danny Valdez, the cemetery's sexton, said there are several acres of land left for burials. He estimates that it may take another 50-60 years before it runs out of plots.

Mount Olivet Cemetery sexton Danny Valdez and his wife, Pamela, unveil a monument commemorating the cemetery's 150th anniversary during a dedication ceremony on May 11.
Mount Olivet Cemetery sexton Danny Valdez and his wife, Pamela, unveil a monument commemorating the cemetery's 150th anniversary during a dedication ceremony on May 11. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

The five faith leaders are also scouting out a location for a future columbarium, according to Price. But even when it runs out of space, he said the different church leaders will continue to maintain the land together.

Their collective goal hasn't changed over the past 150 years. Price said all five congregations want to make sure that Mount Olivet Cemetery remains a quiet and peaceful final resting spot forever.

"When this cemetery is completely full, we'll still have an obligation to keep it functioning," he said. "We have an obligation to keep things beautiful."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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