A Story of Utah

Fillmore's Territorial Statehouse

In the late 1840s Brigham Young, then the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, found himself governor of what he hoped would soon be the largest state in the Union: the Territory of Deseret.

Large even by Alaskan standards, Deseret stretched from western Wyoming to southern Californian and encompassed all of what would become Utah along with sizable chunks of Nevada and Idaho. Deseret was, by Young's decree, the home of the Mormons. Now, the Mormons had not been on great terms with the federal government of the United States. Mormons, driven from the Midwest by angry mobs, had only been in Utah for a couple of years before federal agents showed up again to harass members of the young church. Tensions were high.

But Brigham Young preserved in his quest for Deseret. Though Salt Lake City - then called Great Salt Lake City - was undoubtedly the center of population and power for the Mormons and the Intermountain West as a whole, Brigham Young designated Fillmore, a desolate site in central Utah, to be the future capital of the state because it was almost precisely in the center of the territory. Also, it had a dependable water supply, arable land, nearby mountains for timber and minerals, by Utah standards had a reasonable climate, and was already on a well-traveled road that linked Salt Lake City with the most important parts of the Mormon empire: Cedar City, St. George, Las Vegas, and San Bernardino. The territorial government secured a $20,000 grant to begin construction of a statehouse and a site within the walls of Fort Fillmore was begun - the first wing of what would be a striking four-wing cross-shaped building linked in the center by a Moorish dome.

Deseret existed from 1850 until 1896, said Gordon Chatland, the state parks officer guarding the statehouse the morning we visited. Deseret never won a grant to complete the remainder of the statehouse, even though other western states, like New Mexico, won enough money to complete their capitals. 'Anybody but a religious group probably would have been successful,' Chatland said. He was probably right.

The first wing of the statehouse was completed in 1855, just in time for the fifth legislative session. The U.S. refused to appropriate any money for the construction of the statehouse after that due in large part to rumors of what the Mormons were doing 'out west.' In 1858 the state capital was moved to Salt Lake City. Utah became a state in 1896, long after most of its western counterparts.

Visitors to the statehouse these days find not only a fine work of architecture but also a museum with good if sometime strange displays. The main floor of the statehouse is occupied by an office and gift shop and a variety of rooms describing the formation of Utah and some of its important political figures. The basement is a wonderful gallery of portraits along with exhibits of Utah pioneer life; the top floor is the statehouse legislative gallery. An 1867 rock schoolhouse and two restored pioneer cabins, along with a rose garden, are part of this historic site.

After the territorial legislature abandoned the statehouse, the citizens of Fillmore put it to good use. The legislative hall was used for dances and plays as well as political and religious gatherings. The main floor, with two large and four small rooms, were used as offices or for Mormon or Presbyterian school and mission functions. The basement was used as a jail and as the exiled home of the Deseret News Press during the Utah War of 1857.

The statehouse is open year round, seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays in the summer and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on summer Sundays; hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the winter, closed on Sundays. There is a $5 per car entrance fee. For more information call (435) 743-5316 or (435) 743-4723.

Fillmore was named for Millard Fillmore, the 13th president of the U.S. and the president serving when the statehouse was first constructed. The town today is a small stop along Interstate 15 about halfway between St. George and Salt Lake City. There are a number of motels and bed and breakfasts in town. For a good country breakfast, I'd suggest the biscuits and gravy from Caleb's Country Grill.

Check out this week's photo archive.

Jeff's Bio

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