When members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first arrived in Salt Lake City, they began organizing the city by ward squares or blocks. In 1847 leader Brigham Young designated the plot of land Trolley Square now sits on as the "Tenth Ward" block.
By 1871 Salt Lake City was thriving and the aging Brigham Young had transportation on his mind. All major cities throughout the globe had blossoming public transportation systems. Young mentioned to a group of businessmen that Salt Lake City should have their own public transportation system.
THE FIRST STREET CARS
The Salt Lake City Railroad Company formed and applied for franchisement with Salt Lake City in January of 1872. By early summer, in June of 1872, the first tracks had been laid from the rail depot at 300 West and South Temple to 300 South and Main Street. In July, the first mule-pulled street cars were available to the public. The first line of track measured 1.5 miles in length. In the early days passengers were said to complain about the bumpy ride, the unexpected stops the mules would insist on making, the street cars coming off the tracks and even the inconvenience of having to stop and walk the rest of their destination due to spooked, jumpy or even run away mules. Despite the occasional inconvenience, the transportation option was quite successful! The mule-pulled street cars were used from 1872 - 1888.
THE TERRITORIAL FAIRGROUNDS
By the Spring of 1888 the "Tenth Ward" Block was selected to be the site of the territorial fairgrounds. The city donated the land March 7, 1888, and by the end of May, Richard Kletting had been chosen as the architect. Kletting was a very influential architect in Utah, having designed many of the well known buildings today including the Utah State Capital Building, the Enos Wall Mansion, and the original Saltair Resort Pavilion. A number of his buildings survived and are listed on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places.
Construction on the building began early that summer and on October 3, the first territorial fair was held at the new Utah Exposition Building.
In January 1896 Utah joined the Union and the first state fair was held at the Exposition Building. But by 1901, when 23,000 people showed up at the fair it was obvious it had outgrown the grounds. So In 1902 the land and building were sold back to the city. In 1904 a developer bought the property and tore the dilapidated Exposition Building down, hoping to build town homes.
By 1889, Walter P. Read, general manager of the Salt Lake City Railroad, had the idea to turn the street cars into electrified wonders for down town transportation. The first trial run was made on August 8, 1889 with luxurious new street cars to replace the often unreliable mule-pulled street cars. On August 16, 1889 the electric street cars made their way onto the rail lines for public use in front of Old City Hall. The cars were such an instant success that on their first day launching, a crowd of 500 gathered. A large fist fight within the crowds began between would-be passengers to be the first to ride the trolley cars. Within just a few years the fleet of street cars would grow to 63 and more than 42 miles of rail track were laid throughout Salt Lake City.
Eventually rivalry street car companies started to take over the unregulated tracks. Several companies would use the same rail lines without any coordination between them. The most bitter of rivals among the companies were the Salt Lake City Railroad Company and Salt Lake Rapid Transit. Street cars continued this way until 1901 when the Utah Power Company purchased both companies and consolidated them into the Consolidated Railway and Power Company.
E. H. HARRIMAN & TROLLEY SQUARE
The consolidated railway - Utah Light & Railway Co. was purchased by successful rail road tycoon, E. H. Harriman in 1906. Harriman was the most influential man in the business of American Railroads as the director for the Union Pacific Railroad. He was infamous for relentlessly pursuing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Harriman had grand plans for Salt Lake City as the center of a multi-million dollar operation. As soon as he took control of the street car system he began updating the street cars, modernized the maintenance shops, and power lines. E. H. Harriman commissioned a state-of-the-art facility to house the trolley cars. He chose a 10-acre plot of land on the east side of Salt Lake City which was used as the Territorial Fairgrounds until it was out grown and abandoned in 1902. The land was perfect for Harriman's plans. The new state-of-the-art trolley fleet building held 144 double-truck street cars, was divided into 4 massive bays with 4 tracks each, and 208 skylights provided lighting for the building. As fire was always a risk, Harriman included the iconic 50,000 gallon water tower which is a beloved landmark on display at Trolley Square today. In an effort to keep Trolley Square as independent and self sufficient as possible he even had blacksmiths and carpenters on site building parts by hand. The trolley car system ran from Salt Lake City to Holladay, Sugar House, Bountiful and Centerville, totaling 146 miles of track, and making it the premier transportation system in the state.
"It was the top-of-the-line, best-in-the-country, state-of-the-art, world-class trolley system. Harriman wanted it to be a shining example of progress" - Michael DeGroote. And through the 1920s, it was.
THE DEMISE OF THE TROLLEY BARNS
By the 1930s, however, Utah Light & Traction Company had peaked and began replacing its trolley lines with bus routes. In 1946, buses had replaced the last trolleys and Utah Traction became Utah Power and Light.
Once the Utah Light & Railway Co. ceased operation in the early 1950s, the buildings were painted yellow and turned into bus storage. Eventually, the property fell into disrepair and was threatened with demolition in 1969.
TROLLEY SQUARE BEGINNINGS
The trolley barns deteriorated for decades until being saved from demolition in 1972. A local family purchased the property, adapting it for retail use. Wally Wright was the architect for the project—still well known today for his work on the historic property. Wright’s vision for Trolley Square was inspired by Ghirardelli Square—the San Francisco chocolate factory refinished as a shopping center. It was Wright’s idea to remodel and restore the trolley barns into Utah’s first festival marketplace.
Wright not only preserved the barns, but he incorporated parts of historical buildings, including facades of Salt Lake's demolished Culmer and Dinwoody mansion and fragments of Tooele's Anaconda Mine. The vertical supports for the shopping center's banisters are curved like the cowcatchers of the early trolleys. "There are all kinds of historic treasures hidden here," says Michael DeGroote. Inside the shop "The Spectacle" is an ornate mansion staircase that had been saved and transplanted.
Because of Wright's thoughtful remodel, Trolley Square was more than a shopping center, attracting tourists. Its collection of boutiques, pubs and entertainment centers prospered through the 1980s and 1990s. The first store to open at Trolley Square was the Trolley Gas Station. The Old Spaghetti Factory, The Pub, and Payne Anthony—still open today at Trolley Square—were some of the other original businesses. Additional early restaurants and retailers include: Chalk Garden, Wm. B. Woods, Haroon’s, The Ice Cream Store, Corn Dog Trolley, Trolley Games, The Granary Pizza Loft, Casa Del Sol, La Bathtique, and Trolley Theatres.
Trolley Square quickly became one of Utah’s most popular attractions—offering unique shopping, dining, and entertainment in a charming, historic atmosphere. Trolley Square was registered as a historic site by the state of Utah in 1973, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
HARD TIMES DURING THE RECESSION
In 2008 the Great Recession delivered a blow to Trolley Square. Despite an on-going $60 million renovation and the arrival of Whole Foods, Trolley Square's occupancy, which peaked a few years earlier at 96%, dropped by half. Bankruptcy soon followed.
TROLLEY SQUARE TODAY
Since Semnani took ownership, Trolley Square has already begun various renovations to maximize the center’s potential—updating its original structure, receiving new landscaping, and revitalizing the historic water tower with new LED lighting. Additionally, a new Visitors’ Center is currently under construction—a space for visitors to learn about the charming history of both Trolley Square and Salt Lake City.
An icon to Salt Lake City, Trolley Square has been both a cultural and retail anchor for decades. Just as legendary Wally Wright worked to transform the Trolley barns into a community gathering center, Khosrow Semnani has a vision to restore Trolley Square to the community-focused retail marketplace.
Trolley Square Museum Preview is open every Thursday and Friday from 5-9pm.