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Park History

Land Acknowledgement Statement

Sugar House Park Authority acknowledges that the park was unceded homelands of Goshute, Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone peoples, the original stewards of this land. We recognize that these peoples have endured times of war, removal, peace, renewal, and much more, and still they survive.

This acknowledgement provides a framing through which to see our work, and continue our journey toward understanding and meaningful action that empowers indigenous people. SHPA is committed to engagement with our community and stakeholders, ongoing learning, conversation and action, in continuing on this path together.


From January of 1855 until 1951, Sugar House Park was home to the Utah State Penitentiary. Brigham Young chose the prison site, which was exactly six miles from the city center (and the land was free). For nearly a century, the current site of beautiful Sugar House Park was, incongruously, the grim site of the Utah State Prison. The federal government operated the penitentiary until Utah statehood. In 1896, Utah became a state and took over the prison’s operations from the federal government. 



Utah Territory

The Utah Territory built its first prison on the site in 1854, just southeast of the city limits. Brigham Young himself chose the prison site, which was six miles from the city center, in October of 1853. This site had been known as "The Big Field Survey."

All prisoners committed to the Pen in the 1880s were immediately dressed in stripes and had their beards shaved. They were placed in cells five feet wide, seven feet high, and seven feet long. The cells were constructed three tiers high with only candles for lights. There were no bathroom facilities, and night buckets called “dunnigans” were standard in all cells. Inmates were required to bathe once every two weeks. Letter writing was restricted to once a week. Religious services were held every Sunday.


Breakfast consisted of black coffee, boiled beef, gravy, and bread. They received boiled beef and soup for dinner. For supper, mush and tea without sugar were served. A vegetable was served once a week. 

During the 1880s, upwards of a thousand men were sent to the Pen for their participation in polygamy. They served between sixty days and eight years in addition to paying fines and court costs. Women were also sent to prison for failure to testify against their husbands. 


Prison Construction

The original prison was just 16 “cozy cells dug into the ground, with iron bars on top.” A few years later, an adobe wall, 12 feet high and 4 feet thick, was added; it enclosed a log dining room and meeting hall. The warden had his own house. The cells were poorly ventilated and undesirable.

Between 1855 and 1878, 47 of the 240 prisoners housed in the prison had escaped. That's a 20 percent escape rate. A lack of guards due to insufficient funding was a major factor. During the 20th century, a road sign along 2100 South was reputed to have stated, “Drive carefully — Prisoners escaping!”



Prison Construction

A stone wall around the prison and a four-floor, 200-inmate cell house was constructed in 1885.

In 1871, the prison was turned over to the U.S. Marshal. Work projects for the inmates were started, and they began receiving some pay for their labors.



Utah Statehood

In 1896, Utah became a state and took over the prison’s operations from the federal government. 


Inmate Life

In the early 1900s, prison inmates knit and made brushed, saddle niches, and shoes. By 1908, inmates were also working on local road construction.


From 1904–1918, a new cell house composed of steel, brick, concrete, and stone was built. Each cell had running water and electrical lights, and inmates also received movie-watching privileges, could take part in sporting events, and were allowed to build their own swimming pool.


With Salt Lake City residential development encroaching on the prison site, Sugar House residents wanted the prison out of their neighborhood. Authorization was given in 1937 for a new prison on 1,009 acres in today’s Draper area—22 miles south of Salt Lake City. However, work on that facility was only on a “pay-as-you-go” basis, and so it came about slowly.  



State Park

From 1923-1934, a factory was made on site. Convicts made goods that were sold to the public, until a new law prohibited it. With Salt Lake City residential development encroaching on the prison site, Sugar House residents wanted the prison out of their neighborhood.

By 1935, the prison had its own farm, and 75 percent of the meats and vegetables consumed by prisoners were raised on site. 


Relocation of the Prison

By the middle of the 20th Century, state officials had finalized plans to move the prison to a new site at the Point of the Mountain, thus igniting discussion of what to do with the old prison site.

​Women inmates never had adequate prison facilities in Sugar House. In 1938, Utah began sending all female inmates to the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City, Colorado. Utah paid for their housing there.


Sugar House businessman Horace Sorensen lobbied for a decade to have the site converted into a state park, and that seemed to be the site’s destiny when the Legislature passed a statute in 1947 setting aside the “old prison site” as a state park.

When the old prison walls were demolished at Sugar House, nine sticks of dynamite barely dented them. Many sections of wall had to be taken down stone by stone. 



Land Purchase for "Public Purposes"

On March 12, 1951, 575 inmates were moved by bus to “Point of the Mountain.” Female inmates did not return from the Colorado prison to Utah until 1957.

Governor Bracken Lee balked at the prospect of the financially pinched state becoming involved in building parks, and in 1951, the Legislature passed another statute giving Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County the option to purchase the prison site, minus the 30 acres that eventually became Highland High School, and to use the site for “public purposes.”


The city and county exercised the option and made five joint payments of $45,000 a year to meet the sale price of $225,000. They completed their payments in 1956, although the state had already formally handed the keys to the prison to Salt Lake City Mayor Earl Glade in a transfer ceremony in October, 1953.


Trusted to Sugar House Park Authority

In 1955, the City and the County announced the formation of a committee to recommend uses of the new property, and those committee members ultimately became the first members of the original Sugar House Park Authority, which was incorporated in July, 1957.

In an agreement approved by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County on July 16, 1957, the city and county conveyed the property, in trust, to the Sugar House Park Authority to operate it as a park for a period of 99 years, ending Dec. 31, 2055.



Park Development

Under the leadership of Harold Fabian, who was president of the Park Authority for its first 18 years, the park developed gradually over its first decade under a plan developed by Denver landscape architect Jack Harenburg.

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