Cultural landscapes are a combination of natural and built elements that reflect a people’s values. In Utah, part of our cultural landscape was shaped by the unique relationship between members of the LDS Church and water. Mormons relied on a particular kind of city planning, fueled by communal investment in water control that was unique in the American West.
In 1861, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, passed through Salt Lake City, and wrote about it in his 1872 book Roughing It. He marveled at the tidy, orderly city, and his description of Salt Lake City was quite idyllic due in large part to water. He wrote, “we strolled about everywhere through the broad, straight, level streets… no visible drunkards or noisy people; a limpid stream rippling and dancing through every street in place of a filthy gutter; block after block of trim dwellings… branches from the street stream winding and sparkling among the garden beds and fruit trees.”
In addition to the gridded streets and lots, unpainted wooden fences, farm buildings, and Lombardy poplar trees, Mormons used irrigation ditches to achieve their vision of tight-knit communities on the American frontier. Whereas most of the American West had isolated homesteads, Mormon villages modeled after those in New England meant that Utah towns were more interconnected via canals. By the 1850s, the first in a series of laws to organize canal companies in Utah territory were written, solidifying man-made waterways as a central element in Utah’s cultural landscape.
Settling arid lands where water was scarce, Mormons knew they would need to control it through dams, irrigation, and communal labor. By 1850 -- a mere three years after settlement -- there were already 16,000 irrigated acres in Utah. It is this intersection of the natural arid land of Utah and the cultural Mormon desire for a irrigated farm community that defined how much of Utah was settled and how our water got used. While the landscape Mark Twain saw in 1872 is hardly visible in the urban Wasatch Front today, it is an image still common in rural Utah.
See Jedediah S. Rogers and Matthew C. Godfrey, eds., The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden: Essays on Mormon Environmental History (Utah, 2019); Thomas G. Alexander, “Irrigating the Mormon Heartland: The Operation of Irrigation Companies in Wasatch Oasis Communities, 1847-1880,” Agricultural History76 (Spring 2002): 172-87; Leonard J. Arrington and Dean May, “A Different Mode of Life: Irrigation and Society in 19th Century Utah,” Agricultural History 49 (January 1975): 3-20.; Dan L. Flores, “Zion in Eden: Phases of the Environmental History of Utah,” Environmental Review 7 (Winter 1983): 325-44.