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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Site of LDS Tenth Ward Square until 1888 when it was purchased and used as a territorial fairgrounds through 1901. Car barn and repair shops built 1908-1910 under the direction of E. H. Harriman for Utah Light and Railway Company. Barns housed Salt Lake City buses until 1970. Renovation 1972.
Salt Lake City was one of the first cities in the U.S. to introduce a trolley car syste, electrifying its first line in 1889. Railroad magnate E. H. Harriman purchased a controlling interest in Utah Light Railway Company with plans to build a state-of-the-art trolley system as a model for the world. He invested $3.5 million in this site, constructing the unusual mission-style car barn complex during 1908-1910. The largest building was used as the berth for the trolleys. The middle building served as the machine or "rip" shop and blacksmith shop. The north building was the paint and carpenter shop. The smallest east building was the sand house. The water tower was designed to hold 50,000 gallons of water in case of fire.
The railway venture operated out of this location until August 19, 1945, after which Salt Lake City buses were housed here until 1970. Trolley Square was one of the first large-scale adaptive reuse projects in the country when the historic buildings were converted into a festival marketplace. Relics from around the west were rescued and installed as accent pieces. Trolley Square opened on June of 1972.
The National Register of Historic Places. Division of State History, placed a marker in 1997 in recognition of Trolley Square's 25th Anniversary.
Plaque A: (Left) Trolley Square Historic Marker YESTERDAY.. Tower was built in 1908 as an elevated water storage tank for Utah Power & Railway Company. It once held 50,000 gallons of reserve water to supply the sprinkler system inside carbarns, and stands 97 ft. high. Plaque B: (Right) Trolley Square Historic Marker TODAY.. In 1972, the water tower was converted into a Trolley Square Landmark by Trolley Square Associates. More than 6,000 minature lights were added along with an observation deck and spiral staircase. Decorative wrought iron embellishments completed the transformation.
Date Surveyed: 1995-12-17
TRIBUTE The trolley car model you see took three years to complete, and was the work of Emerson Carter, of Salt Lake City, a retired mechanic, who in his 20s was employed for 5 years by Utah Light and Traction Company. All models, with exception of the glass roofs, are authentic to the 1930's, including many of the surrounding homes, churches, and businesses. Nick, as his friends knew him, enjoyed making others happy and was meticulous in all he did. Notice the hand-painted brick. As a tribute to Mr. Carter's dream, it is now proudly displayed by Melvin Simon and Associates for all to enjoy, and as a reminder of the Trolley Square Carbarns as they appeared in the days of the electric trollies. Dedicated to the memory of Emerson H. Carter, November 29, 1986.
In Salt Lake City, electric streetcars replaced horse-drawn cars beginning in 1889, but once the number of electric streetcars grew, a site for a carbarn was selected in 1902. That site became Trolley Square. With the capacity for 144 double-truck cars, the main building was divided into four bays, each 57 feet wide with four tracks in each. Over 200 skylights illuminated the main building, the now-iconic water tower provided fire insurance.
Decades after the last electric streetcar carried passengers, the old carbarns were reopened in 1972 as a shopping and entertainment complex. A movie theater, restaurants, and retail outlets brought new visitors to Trolley Square, which had been remodeled according to historic preservation techniques that earned its designation as a state historic site in 1973. By the twenty first century, Trolley Square had been remodeled several times and houses a gym and a major grocery chain.
Acquisition Information: Donated by Julia Lee Stansfield Hogan and Wallace A. Wright, Jr., 2005.
Restrictions on Use: The Trolley Square Collection, 1971-1991, is the physical property of the Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City, Utah. Literary rights, including copyright, may belong to the authors or their heirs and assigns. Please contact the Historical Society for information regarding specific use of this collection.
Wonder through the interactive history of the Salt Lake Rail Company. Experience the workshop where blacksmiths and carpenters prepared the trolley cars. Purchase your Trolley Square bags, t-shirts, and hats in the gift shop. Take a stop in the Kid's Play Area and design the next fun LED light show for the Trolley Square water tower!