By Lynn Arave
From myths about its physical features to stories concerning legendary pioneer Brigham Young, there are plenty of misconceptions about the state of Utah.
Here’s a look at “Utah Facts 101,” an attempt to dismiss or substantiate various ideas and facts about the state, its history, terrain and population:
• Bankruptcy: Utah leads the nation in personal bankruptcies.
False. The Beehive State isn‘t even in the top five anymore as Nevada, Tennessee, Georgia, Michigan and Alabama claim the most now. (However, back seven years ago to 2003, Utah was ranked first.)
• Bear Lake is one of the deepest lakes in the West and has a bottomless abyss with a monster lurking in it.
Fear not the next time you go swimming, it’s false. It’s only 210 feet deep when full (of water, not bears) and likely below the 200-foot mark in the current drought. (Crater Lake is 1,949 feet deep, Lake Tahoe is 1,645 and Yellowstone Lake is 400 feet deep.) As for the monster, well, it hasn’t been substantiated. But just in case, watch your toes while water skiing.
• Bear River is the nation’s longest river that doesn’t empty into an ocean.
True. Some 500 miles cross through three states. It doesn’t have a monster, either.
This curve in the background is the Gates of the Bear River, where it exits Cache Valley and enters the Great Salt Lake Valley.
Birth rate: Utah does have the highest rate in the nation, but it has fallen in recent years.
True. More Utahns are born here than anywhere else. And U.S. citizens, too — about 21 babies born per 1000 people, though the rate has been falling in recent years under a bad economy.
The two "This is the Place" Monuments.
• Brigham Young famous comment No. 1: Did he really say, “What a withered wasteland!” when entering the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847? Of course not. How about: “This is the Place”? (Question mark for our question, not his statement.)
Sort of. The second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints specifically said, “This is the right place. Drive on.” The condensed version just fit better in headlines.
• Brigham Young famous comment No. 2: Did he really say that any unmarried man older than age 25 was a “menace to society” or was he referring only to his great-great-great-grandson, Steve Young?
President Young only said he wanted every man in the land older than 18 to take a wife. It was Elder George Q. Cannon, an LDS Church apostle, who said in 1878: “I am firmly of the opinion that a large number of unmarried men, over the age of 24 years, is a dangerous element in any community.”
• Brigham Young’s famous hearse: It sits in front of the Haunted Mansion at California’s Disneyland, right? (See the photo at the beginning of this blog.)You know, you’ve had your picture taken next to Goofy there, right?
Completely untrue. (The hearse, not the photo.) President Young didn’t have a hearse, according to LDS historian Glen Leonard. He was carried on a slab by other church leaders from the Tabernacle to his grave site. (And, no, the slab isn’t at Disneyland, either.)
• Cain is really Bigfoot: Oh yeah, and he lives in the Wasatch Mountains.
Purely conjecture. This stems from a story on pages 127-128 of Spencer W. Kimball’s “Miracle of Forgiveness,” in which an early LDS apostle, David W. Patten, meets a strange, dark, tall and hairy man who identifies himself as the original Cain from the Book of Genesis. The Bigfoot/Cain idea originated in 1980 following apparent Bigfoot sightings in South Weber.
• Cola/caffeine drinks: Many are under the assumption that the consumption of cola/caffeine drinks are against the LDS Church’s Word of Wisdom and that’s why you can’t find one of these “hard” drinks at Brigham Young University. Others believe Brother Jones saw a church leader drink a Pepsi during a talk once so it’s OK.
Truth is, the church has no official cola/caffeine drink position, according to its new General Handbook of Instructions, issued in 2010. It simply advises against consuming drinks that contain harmful ingredients or which may be addictive (not including milk or red punch).
• Department stores were invented here: Many claim the late ZCMI, or Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution, was the nation’s first department store and that Brigham Young still has a suit on layaway.
Yes and no. A century before selling out to Meier & Frank in 2001, ZCMI opened in 1867 and was dedicated to giving local merchants a way to sell their stuff for low prices. President Young actually bought his suits at Mr. Mac’s. (OK, not really.)
• Eagle Scouts flock here: Does Utah really produce more Eagle Scouts than any other state?
It’s true, Scout’s honor. Almost three times as many boys earn the award in Utah than the national average. And that’s not counting all the “Life” Scouts who were only two merit badges away. The National Boy Scout office confirmed Utah is still No. 1 back in earlyt 2010.
• Electric traffic lights: It’s a Utahn’s fault that we get stuck at red lights so often.
Could be. According to some accounts, the first traffic light (a birdhouse-type doohickey) was invented by Salt Lake City policeman Lester Wire in 1912. (Here’s hoping a Utahn will discover synchronized lights before 2112.)
The High Uintas, 13,000-plus, looking toward the Wasatch Mountains.
• Elevation: Utah is higher (we’re talking sea level here) than any other state in the nation, even higher than Colorado, Alaska and that patch of grass where they held Woodstock.
Bingo. Based on county high points at 11,226 feet above sea level. Utah also has more peaks higher than 10,000 feet than any other state. Even Iowa. That’s why it is life elevated here, though various computerized programs will still support that Colorado is No. 1.
• Flunking the final exam: Perhaps you’ve heard the story or a version of it: Students at either BYU or the University of Utah pass by a beggar seeking assistance on the way to a final exam for an LDS Institute of Religion class on Christ’s life. No one helps the man, actually an actor, and so they all flunk the class.
Jan Harold Brunvand, U. folklore expert, said the story can’t be verified and it also meets two other parameters of urban legends by teaching a moral and being told with slight variations. In other words, they all failed Institute for other reasons.
Great Salt Lake and the Antelope Island Causeway.
• Great Salt Lake: It’s so salty, you can walk on it.
False. It’s so stinky sometimes, you can’t get near enough to even try. Only brine shrimp without use of olfactory senses dare go near. But it is the largest salt lake in North America and is three to five times saltier than the ocean (depending, of course, on the chef’s tastes). It’s also the largest lake west of the Mississippi River. (You can float like a cork in some places of the lake, where the salt content is so high.)
• Hunting is a no-no: Some factions believe hunting is against the teachings of the LDS Church, and not because of the unsightly orange apparel.
False. Some past church leaders, like President Joseph F. Smith, taught that animals or birds should not be killed unless they are needed for food. However, a 1979 official church statement said the decision on whether to hunt or fish is left up to the individual. The church is only against the unnecessary and wasteful slaughter of animals and not against hunting or fish and game control.
• Hypnotism is a no-no: You are not supposed to let someone tell you in a monotone voice, “You are getting sleepy” or allow them to make you act like a chicken at a comedy club. It’s against LDS Church doctrine, right?
Partially true. “The use of hypnosis under professional supervision for the treatment of diseases or mental disorders is a question to be determined by competent medical authorities. Church members should not participate in hypnosis for the purposes of demonstrations for entertainment,” a 1999 official LDS Church statement said.
• Ice cream consumption: I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream more than anybody else — that’s the common conception at least.
Sorry, Salt Lake City. Portland, Ore., St. Louis and Seattle comprise the top three ice cream consumers. And Utah is not one of the top five producers of ice cream. (This is unacceptable. Hungry, prideful Utahns unite and do something about this — at Leatherby’s and Cold Stone!)
• Jell-O consumption: I Jell-O, you Jell-O . . . uh, doesn’t work as well, but another common conception is that Utah slurps down more wiggly, jiggly gelatin than anyone.
It’s true: Utahns consume Jell-O at twice the national average. No wonder Bill Cosby likes us so much.
• KFC should’ve been UFC: Grandpas have been claiming for generations that the world’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken started in Salt Lake City.
Grandpa wasn’t just pulling your drumstick. The colonel first cooked up his secret finger-licking good recipe with those yummy original spices at the Harmans Restaurant on 3300 South and State Street in 1952.
• Kids play: With all those children running around McDonald’s playlands across the Beehive State, there’s no doubt this place has the most youngsters in the country.
Sure enough. The mean age in Utah is still the lowest in the nation.
• Mount Timpanogos: Not only is it supposedly the highest peak in the Wasatch Mountains, but a really large woman made its peak her final resting spot.
False. Mount Nebo is the tallest at 11,928 feet. Timp registers in at a second-highest 11,750. As for Sleeping Beauty, we won’t know until a really big Prince Charming gives her a smooch.
• Ogden City’s secret tunnels: Legend has it that a vast network of underground tunnels exists below historic 25th Street.
There are some intriguing basements under some of the old bars of the city’s “Two Bit Street,” but there’s no current evidence of widespread tunnels, though a few connections logically might have existed to aid bootlegging traffic and sneaking into Wildcat sporting events.
(Salt Lake City does have plenty of connecting tunnels under the LDS Church campus.)
• Radio stations: The Salt Lake radio airwaves are more crowded than anywhere else.
Believe it. You can tune into as many stations in Salt Lake as Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. (By the way, it only seems like they synchronize their commercials.) Salt Lake also has as many or more sports talk radio stations than any othher market too.
• Rattlesnakes, westward ho! Is it a tall tale, or do Salt Lake County rattlers really migrate each spring from the Wasatch Mountain foothills to the west desert?
This is unfounded. Different snakes live in different locations and can’t travel that far — not even through secret underground passages.
Salt Lake City
• Salt Lake City will be wickedest: Some claim an LDS Church prophecy predicts this lovely Deseret will become the wickedest den of sin, a downright Soddom and Gomorrah.
Not quite. The actual prophecy made by Heber C. Kimball, an LDS apostle in Brigham Young’s time, states that Salt Lake City will be “classed among the wicked cities of the world.” (This is good news for some.)
• Seagulls Perform a Miracle for the Mormon Pioneers. These swarms of birds eating the invading multitudes of crickets was only considered a miracle some years after the spring of 1848 event. Brigham Young wasn't in Utah territory when the miracle happened and settlers were slow to realize the event's miraculous nature, some 30 years slow by some historical accounts. Still there are several monuments to Seagulls in Utah.
The Seagull monument at This is The Place Park..
• Television birthplace: Thanks to hometown boy Philo T. Farnsworth, Utahns were first to be swamped with infomercials and reality shows.
It is true, at least the part about Farnsworth inventing the TV in 1927.
• The Three Nephites: Various stories around Utah credit these three “translated beings” from Book of Mormon times for performing modern-day miracles.
However, Elder James E. Talmage, an early LDS leader, said the Three Nephites would be the most overworked of all individuals on the basis of all the feats being attributed to them.
• U.S. Constitution: It will “hang by a thread,” according to one LDS prophecy of the last days, won’t it?
Joseph Smith indeed made this prophecy, though later recollections by other church leaders indicated it may or may not be saved, depending on if God wants it saved.
• The Vanishing Hitchhiker: An elderly man was picked up off the side of the road and began warning the people in the vehicle they should have adequate food storage. Then, suddenly, he vanished from the back seat in a ghostly manner.
Brunvand, University of Utah folktale expert, believes the LDS tale comes from prevalent non-LDS stories of similar, but never substantiated, occurrences. That he was carrying a “Kolob or bust” sign should’ve been a clue this was an urban legend.
• Wasatch Mountains: They run from Nephi to Brigham City, or do they?
Actually, they go from Nephi to Soda Springs, Idaho, a 220-mile distance, and include several “fingers,” including the Wellsville Mountains.
The Wellsville Mountains
• Wellsville Mountains: Some claim the steepest mountains in the world are west of Wellsville.
That story’s on a slippery slope, according to Donald Currey, chairman of the U. geography department, who labels this steepest claim as “purely rhetorical.” Although they are steep and very narrow in the Sherwood Hills area, there’s no known formula for determining steepness. At a maximum height of 9,372 feet, they are also far shorter than many other ranges.
(-Adapted/updated from July 23, 2003 Deseret News story by Lynn Arave and Jody Genessy.)
-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history or Utah Myths at no charge. He can be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org