Salt Lake City’s Main and State Streets

Main and State

I remember approaching Salt Lake City at Christmas time from the north by driving up Victory Road, and as the car neared the west side of the State Capitol, a spectacular view of the Christmas lights on Main Street would appear. Prior to the construction of I-15, that was our family’s customary route returning home from visiting my aunt and her family in Centerville.

Main Street was beautiful and the activity hub of the city for shopping, banking, entertainment, and business in general before shopping malls and suburban sprawl. The street was wide thanks to Brigham Young, who designed the streets wide enough for a team and wagon to turn around. The Christmas lights on Main Street continued for several blocks, but the street was lit all year long for about six miles until just beyond 45th South where it merged with State Street, a street equally lighted and just as wide that ran parallel to Main Street from the State Capitol one block east and continued south for about 16 miles.

The wide, straight, and lighted Main Street and State Street contributed to an exquisite view looking south from the north bench above Salt Lake City. Brigham Young not only made the streets wide, but they all ran precisely either North and South or East and West and were numbered rather than named, which made addresses easy to find. My address was 3236 South 2600 East and could be found easily without a map at 2600 East and just north of 3300 South. It is a simple coordinate system.

Gasoline was less than a quarter a gallon, there were only three or four TV stations to watch, and there was no internet or cell phones. Streets were not just routes, but were objects used for recreation and socializing by young people who were old enough to drive, but had not yet encumbered their lives with homes and families and all the responsibility that comes with those things. Also, automobile manufacturers were under no pressure to build fuel-efficient engines, and muscle cars with powerful engines were very convincing status symbols.

Sunday drives, just for the sake of driving, were commonplace. I remember as a child taking a drive in the country to pass the time. We often found ourselves at the south end of the valley on Dimple Dell Road. As a teenager, when I had my driver’s license and access to a car, I would drive up Parley’s Canyon to Parley’s Summit, just to let off steam when I was frustrated. In 1970, our plans for New Years Eve fell through, and for something to do, we decided to take a road trip to Disneyland over the three-day weekend. Five of us drove to L.A. in one day, went to Disneyland the next day, and drove home the next. At $.25/gallon, and 25 miles per gallon in our Volkswagen Bug, the round trip cost about $15.00 for gasoline and $14.00/night for a hotel room for two nights. We did have to pay to get into Disneyland, but all in all, it was a cheap trip. We thought nothing of driving that far for one day of fun.

Driving was a key part of dating. I went on one date before I was old enough to drive, and my stepfather had to drive Tanya Chatterton and me. It was just too embarrassing, and that was the only time I dated before I got my license and could drive myself. Once I had my license, however, it was like a license to date as well as to drive. Driving gave me control of my life. It gave me the freedom to go where I wanted with whom I wanted.

Millcreek Canyon was a good drive while on a date. A girlfriend and I could stop for a picnic, or just take a walk in the forest. I knew every curve in that canyon where I could pass and where I had to slow down.

Romance was best pursued in a car, especially while parked high on the bench overlooking the city. There were several popular parking spots overlooking the city, but the most popular was Passionate Flats on the north bench looking down at the view of Main and State Streets. Another one was a landscaped, but vacant lot at the top of Olympus Cove called The White House.

Romance eventually gave way to style. The first full-size passenger car I saw with bucket seats and a floor shift was a 1962 Chevrolet Super Sport with a 409 cubic inch engine. The same engine The Beach Boys sang about: “She’s real fine my 409…” Bucket seats looked good with the console and four on the floor between the seats, but they put a real cramp in romantic activities while “parking.”

State Street was a key element in the mating game in Salt Lake City. Young people would drive up and down State Street looking for potential relationships with the opposite sex, but sometimes “dragging” State Street was just to show off your hot muscle car, or just your blue dot taillights. It was the same scene represented in the movie American Graffiti, complete with drive-in restaurants with carhops, but I don’t remember carhops on State Street moving between cars on roller skates. That entire scene from American Graffiti was repeated on State Street every Friday night. Even my music teacher my junior year at Olympus High School was a beautiful young blonde who drove a white ’57 T-Bird. She was single and I’ll bet she spent time on State Street. There were several drive-ins in Salt Lake, but the most popular was called Don Carlos on 9th South and State Street with its famous fry sauce – a combination of ketchup, mayonnaise, worcestershire sauce, and possibly some other secret ingredients. Hires Hamburgers was also a popular drive-in with fry sauce, but it was on 7th East and 4th South. Hires is still there with car hops and the same fare including fry sauce as was served in the 60’s, but Don Carlos did not survive the demise of dragging State Street.

So what factors contributed to the demise of this culture that held the car in such a prominent position in the teenage romance scene? First, was the increase in the cost of gasoline where a handful of people who controlled the petroleum industry decided that, if they worked together, could eventually raise the price of gasoline tenfold. Along with that increase came an increased awareness of air pollution from automobiles, which led to pollution-filtering equipment attached to engines in cars that resulted in a dramatic reduction in gas mileage to 4 or 5 mpg that further raised the cost of driving.

These two factors led to a need to get more mileage out of a gallon of gasoline and the decrease in popularity of big and powerful engines. The muscle car soon was no longer a macho symbol; lake pipes were outlawed, noise ordinances were adopted, and a group of frustrated old men (the Utah Legislature, who wanted to get back at those guys who had better looking and faster cars than they had when they were young) outlawed dragging State Street. They passed a law that would ticket any car that passed the same place on State Street three times within a certain period of time. Driving eventually was no longer a conduit for recreation or letting off steam. Homes were built on Passionate Flats and the White House, and cars were only used for just getting from place to a place to just “hang out” in parking lots.

Gravity Hill is another street that lawmakers legislated away. It is at the end of the road that surrounds Memory Grove at the mouth of City Creek Canyon where it meets the road on the east side of the State Capitol. It is actually an optical illusion. It appears that you are going down hill, but when you let your car coast, it appears to coast up hill; hence its name, “Gravity Hill.” Gravity Hill is still there, but it cannot be experienced legally. You would need to drive the wrong way on a one-way street to experience it. It is just one more example of lawmakers spoiling something fun.

I remember traveling from Salt Lake to California through Nevada. When we approached a town, there would be a sign that said, “Speed Zone Ahead.” We would slow down to 25 or 30 mph while in the town; and as we left the town, there was another sign that said, “Resume Normal Speed.” There were no speed limits between towns and you could make real good time in those muscle cars, traveling well over 100 miles per hour.

President Richard Nixon “nixed” another unique driving experience with his 55 mph speed limit law that was meant to save gasoline when the petroleum industry created their oil crisis to justify the sharp increase in the price of gasoline. The theory was that cars would get better gas mileage at 55 mph than at 65 mph. Nixon required states to enforce the 55 mph speed limit or face losing federal highway funds. Previously, many remote highways in states such as Nevada and Montana had no speed limits. Montana actually gave “Nixon tickets” for “wasting energy” rather than for speeding. Most drivers were irate over the law, but the trucking industry was hit hardest since revenue was paid by the mile, and miles per day were reduced. However, the radar detector business boomed.

Main Street is no longer what it was either. The beautiful view from the top of the hill at the west side of the State Capitol was lost when the LDS Church took over Main Street between North and South Temple for a garden. The garden is attractive, but it is the ugly gaping hole that is the entrance to an underground parking facility that now dominates the view of Main Street from the North and has destroyed any aesthetics that once were or might have been, even with the garden that was once Main Street.

Beyond the garden, Trax has taken over Main Street. I once had a company with offices on the third floor of an office building overlooking Main Street between 1st and 2nd South. We watched the Days of ’47 Parade every 24th of July from the windows of our office as it passed down Main Street as it had done for over 100 years, but the Trax tracks caused the parade to move to other routes.

Shopping has moved from Main Street to the suburban malls or the Internet. The LDS Church has made an effort to rebuild a shopping experience on Main Street with the City Creek Center, but that has affected only one block of Main Street. The other two of the three blocks that once made up the hub of activity are all but deserted.

Friday nights on State Street are now no different from any other night. People are just driving from one place to another. State Street is no longer an event in itself. When dragging State Street was banned, young people began to gather instead in friend’s homes, parking lots, bars, or dance halls such as The Boot in downtown Salt Lake.

Many things give way to progress, and I guess you have to say that this is progress. It is certainly faster to travel across the country on Interstate Freeways, but we never get to see the small towns that we had to slow down for about every 20 miles or so. In the days of horse and buggies, one could only travel about 20 miles a day, and towns were built to provide a place for travelers to sleep for the night. Those towns (if they still exist) don’t have the travelers to help maintain their economy anymore.

Some vehicles still function as virility advertisements, but the justification for these vehicles has been taken off our streets to rugged trails in the form of “off road vehicles.” If you ever find yourself in Moab, Utah on Easter weekend, you will see a nauseating display of oversized wheels, roll bars, and the drop steps needed to climb into the doors on raised vehicles that have little resemblance to what they looked like when they came from the factory.   It is my opinion that anyone with an IQ over 75 would feel out of place in such company.

Do I miss muscle cars and dragging State Street, or do I just miss being 16 again? My daughter has never heard of Gravity Hill, and there is something nostalgically sad about that. I love my new Chrylser with all its electronic features. I have thousands of songs stored in a sound system that was unheard of when I was a teenager. The big V8 engine gets almost as many miles per gallon as my old Volkswagen Bug, and there are no loud pipes or racing slick tires that say, “I am a tough guy,” and if it did, no one would be impressed anyway.