Pioneer Day: Remembering Utah’s forgotten immigrant communities
Utah’s history is rich with stories of immigrant Latter-day Saint pioneers who left the comforts of home to settle in a new land. While many pioneer stories are well documented and celebrated, the immigrant history of Utah goes beyond Latter-day Saint pioneers.
Immigrant communities such as a Jewish settlement in Clarion and a Thai community in Layton may not be as well-known or remembered but still play an important part of Utah’s history — a history rich with diverse stories of faith and perseverance. With the passage of time, however, many of the stories of Utah’s immigrants are on the verge of being lost.
BYU history professor and Associate Director of the BYU Redd Center, Brenden W. Rensink, hopes to change that through a new website and mobile app called Intermountain Histories — a platform dedicated to highlighting significant places and people who helped shape the history of the Intermountain West. The project is managed and edited by Rensink while students from multiple regional universities contribute individual stories.
“I wanted to create a resource that curated well-researched and easily digestible histories that could be readily accessed by the public” Rensink said. “Something that could be used as tool to guide someone to interesting places and provide information about unique historical stories right in their town.”
On the website and app, users can explore different regions through a GPS-enabled map, viewing pictures and reading short stories about the people who settled across the Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona. Over 400 stories are already published, with more being uploaded regularly.
Many stories on Intermountain Histories give a voice to the forgotten stories of Utah’s immigrant history. For instance, one story details Salt Lake City’s forgotten Chinatown, a thriving Chinese community built in the 1860s called Plum Alley. Due to a large influx of Chinese workers who came to Utah to assist in the finishing of the transcontinental railroad, the Plum Alley community grew to include businesses like laundromats, Asian grocery stores, and restaurants. The Great Depression ultimately caused the collapse of Utah’s first Chinatown. Today, a parking structure stands where Plum Alley once stood, leaving only the stories of Chinese immigrants in its place.
Another story remembers the Finnish community that once existed in Scofield, Utah. Scofield is no longer a booming community but retains remnants of immigrant life. In 1890, Finnish immigrants began settling into Utah to work as miners and railway workers. The Finns brought with them a desire to preserve their Finnish culture, which they did in part by building public and private saunas, which can still be found today. However, disaster struck this community in early 1900 when a mine in the surrounding area exploded and simultaneously initiated the decline of this community. After the tragedy, however, the remaining Finns in Utah became some of the frontline advocates for greater safety and better working conditions for mine workers.
The general public may not remember many of these ethnic enclaves, but their existence helped build Utah’s rich immigrant history. And while these communities’ stories are lesser-known, it doesn’t make them any less important to learn about, says Rensink.
“Too often we stop with the most obvious histories, or the histories that we grew up hearing, and we never pause to ask, ‘What else is out there?’” Rensink states. “There are infinitely more perspectives, voices and stories that we haven’t heard than ones we have, and you don’t have to dig very far to find them.”
Check out the following pages from Intermountain Histories for more unique stories: