Doug Wright, who taught at Westminster College for years, liked to pose mischievous questions. One of his favorites involved standing on a bridge over a stream: which way do you find yourself looking, upstream or downstream, and why? Doug had many ways to interpret your answer, not all of them bullshit. With my limited historian’s imagination, I answered in terms of time: upstream is back to the past, where the water has traveled from, hurtling by to a downstream future, never to return. Or maybe upstream is the future, bringing surprising things, bad or good, and downstream is the irretrievable past.
It’s a cliché to talk about the importance of water in the American West, but like all clichés there’s a basis for it. Overland travelers followed watercourses for the same reasons native peoples used them: river valleys offered relatively easy passage, grass for livestock, game for hunting and wood for fires. The California, Oregon, and Mormon trails used the Platte and the Sweetwater valleys, and those going beyond Utah struggled especially in the Great Basin where the waters failed. The Mormon pioneers of the summer of 1847 rolled their wagons down the west slope of the Wasatch through a canyon about eight miles long and two miles wide to complete their long journey to the Salt Lake Valley. The name they attached to this little stream – “Emigration” – signifies departure but also implies arrival, the past and the future both. The company that arrived in July 1847 were emphatically emigrating from Babylon and the people they blamed for murdering their prophet. But they also believed they had arrived at their promised land – “the right place,” as Brigham Young supposedly said at the mouth of Emigration Canyon. Creeks like Emigration, City, Parleys, Mill and Big and Little Cottonwoods were put to work supplying culinary and irrigation water and turning mill wheels.
By the time Westminster College convinced a rich miner to buy and donate a plot on the north bank of the creek in 1902 for its campus, Emigration Creek had already become a real-estate amenity. Early settlers failed at producing sugar from beets, a project that gave the “Sugar House” neighborhood its name in 1853, but farmers built their homes along the creek banks and stayed there. Salt Lakers built summer cabins further up the canyon, and when a railroad line was built up the canyon in 1907 some began to live in the canyon year round.
We can stand today on the pedestrian bridge over Emigration Creek on Westminster’s campus and look either direction. Like most urban streams, Emigration has been managed and altered, dammed and redirected, tamed and trammeled, used and abused. For a short stretch, it cuts through the south end of campus. One can see most of the aboveground creek from the bridge. Upstream a few hundred yards, the creek shoots out from a culvert under 1300 East Street; a quarter mile or so downstream, the creek is shunted into another culvert that delivers it to the Jordan River, then on to the Great Salt Lake. It’s sometimes been easy for Westminster people to forget about Emigration Creek, to think instead about indoor subjects and all the diversions of college life. But our biologists, chemists, environmental studies and literature students and faculty keep reminding us to think about the creek.
The Emigration Creek Environmental Coalition is part of an effort to answer David Brower’s call to “begin thinking like a river” – to gather ideas, the raindrops that fall around us, and share them in a stream. Emigration Creek is our little river. The metaphor is imperfect, of course – we’re also interested in the bridge, the city, the larger world, the present and past as well as the future. Please join us as we work to understand this place, and share with us your places.