A few years ago I sat shotgun in a realtor’s car, agonized to leave my mid-city home. Children grown. Hot August. House after unpromising house. We took a chance and drove south. Somewhere within the perplexing tangle of Highland Drive, 700 East, and Van Winkle, we Siried into a 1950s Brigadoon.
The house was small and open, with ample yard to plant toward a new life. Exquisite neighboring trees. A window wall glorified the parallel peaks of Mount Olympus.
“I don’t really understand Holladay,” I muttered as we fussed back through colliding decades of subdivisions, condominiums, and corporate clusters.
Realtor: “Nobody understands Holladay.”
I bought the house.
The region now labeled “Holladay” has confused immigrants like me since 1847. The green pocket is invisible from Salt Lake proper—and by now, even up close, its distinctive nature is obscured. But Tom Nelson, who lives on generational family land east of Highland Drive, sees it sharply. A retired professor, he has chaired the local historical commission. He’s on the board of the Big Cottonwood Tanner Ditch, one of the original pioneer water companies. Nelson’s turf is the lush river bottom, defined by water—and he insists that his hometown is actually called Big Cottonwood. The pioneer Holladay is a dry uphill section nearer the beltway. Traditional residents know the distinction, 1999 incorporation be damned.
Cottonwood trees sentinel Western oases. Their fluff-encased seeds sprout when they stick to wet ground, making a water source visible for miles. So you’d think that colonizers would have scrambled toward the only natural “forest” in the nineteenth century valley, hugging along Olympus and Storm. This wasn’t just a stream line: it was a canopy of cottonwoods, punctuated by Alpine evergreens. But the greenery was hidden from the north by escarpments and mountain buttresses.
Nelson explains how City, Red Butte, Emigration, Parley’s, and Mill Creeks shot from upper canyons to cut deep ravines into the highlands above nascent Salt Lake City. The mouths didn’t open into fossil lakebed until contemporary 1100 East. The high bench was impossible to irrigate. A farming economy could only thrive where the valley flattened and gravity could spread water—and so a sequence of well-regulated, water-based community “wards” formed in natural depressions along a lengthening State Road, now State Street.
Just south of 4500 South, however, the mountains rise more abruptly from the valley. You can see the radical upturn by looking east from Big Cottonwood Creekside Park: despite the clutter between, Olympus is visible from base to peak, shoved unceremoniously upward in a sequence of hefty seismic leaps. The distinctive summit slopes like a steep pyramid toward the valley, floats a minute on a queasy fault-thrust tea saucer, then pitches again to the floor. Big Cottonwood Creek roars in springtime from its namesake canyon, swerving north along the Olympus crease. Before humans muzzled it, the creek overflowed to flood the remarkably flat Cottonwood lowland in branches, rivulets, blue ponds, bright springs, and ducky marshes. Even now, water birds fly overhead, tracing old flow. Mallards stroll subdivision streets. Goose families strut along busy Highland Drive.
Many people who come from Cottonwood “way back” are descendants of original farmers. But another class of Salt Lakers built lavish river-cooled, party-fueled country retreats. Nelson, hailing from dairy folks, says the regular citizens didn’t interact much with the wealthy vacationers. But even for the locals, Big Cottonwood was a water park. Swimming ponds dotted wooded farmland: the Latter-day Saint stake center on Spring Lane sits in the ghost bed of Shady Pond. Lakewood Pond is now enclosed within the grounds of the Cottonwood Country Club—tallish nonmembers can see it from the parking lot. Darling’s and Horse Ponds lie within private property, as does Cheesman’s—Google Earth shows it, a green jewel defining a lush estate.
How to glimpse the old wet paradise amidst the sprawl? If you don’t love trawling opulent neighborhoods (I don’t), walk south from City Center on Holladay Boulevard to appreciate the leafy old-town ambience. Or follow the shady trail at Big Cottonwood Creekside Park, and then cross Murray-Holladay Road and loop west behind the senior citizen’s center to breathe the cooled air of restored marshland—an impressive community project. Wander the new historical park up at Knudsen’s Corner. Honor little histories at the cemetery on Memory Lane, just east of the ravaged mall site; step south to see the big creek in a natural state before it culverts around the contentious eyesore. Track Spring Creek (okay, it’s a ditch) as it diagonals through the original Holladay plat toward old Cottonwood. Sit in Faultline Park, nestled in the odd corner of I-215 and 4500 South, to gape at the Salt Lake Valley—nearly the whole of it, in its ancient geologies of desiccation, gravity, and flow.
Karin Anderson is a gardener, writer, mother, wanderer, and heretic. She is a Professor of English at Utah Valley University and the author of Before Us Like a Land of Dreams. Her work has appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Quarter After Eight, Western Humanities Review, Sunstone, Saranac Review, American Literary Review, and Fiddleblack and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. b. 1962