So'ho-gwa in the Improvement Era
The canyon didn’t have a name for itself, but some of the humans who drank from its waters called it So'ho-gwa.
It wasn’t just humans. Cougars and kangaroo rats and dragonflies, tarantulas and junipers, and cottonwoods and others drank there too. So it had been for so long that the creek had worn jagged stones into round pebbles—so long that the remains of mastodons could be found under the dirt at the water’s edge.
So it was until a group of humans brought to So'ho-gwa a new sense of time. This time was a number that was always counting up. 1847, 1848, 1849. With their new time came a new name. “City,” their leader dubbed the land, which contained not a single permanent structure. City Creek Canyon. They’d say the name like a spell until it was true.
At the place where the waters met the valley, these new people constructed a fort. Within days they were cutting down the canyon’s trees and building roads. They dunked their heads in the holy creek to “renew their religious covenants,” then picked up shovels to divert its course.
Other humans, some who called themselves Newenee and others who called themselves Nunt'zi, still came around. “I have seen as many as 50 camped there,” says one account from that time, referring to the hills that overlook the creek. “As soon as the weather was fine enough in the spring they went into City Creek Canyon to fish and hunt.”
Perturbed by the shared abundance, the leader of the new people built a wall. He claimed ownership of all the trees in the canyon and only opened the gate for those who cut them down and gave him a third of the bounty.
But it wasn’t just the trees that the new humans cut down. One newspaper reported on “a beautiful specimen of the mountain lynx” that was shot in the canyon. It was “driven through the street and attracted attention for the beauty of its skin.”
Another article told how two men, when walking through the canyon, happened upon an animal they’d never seen before. As was the tradition, they chased down the newly discovered yet harmless being and “killed him with rocks.” A short time later, another man was awarded $90 bounty for “six bears killed in City Creek Canyon in fifteen days.”
The last wolf known to drink from the creek was proudly killed in 1918.
Freed of its native plants and animals, the land could be easily built up and dug out. The city rose while the mines descended. Galena, iron, silver, and even a few chunks of gold were pulled from the canyon. When the city people wanted to build new roads to the mines, they would simply round up “vagrants,” chain them together, and put them to work in the name of progress.
Finally the creek itself was buried by concrete. As soon as it entered the valley, City Creek became just City. And up in the canyon, a developer was planning to build a resort. Another wanted to build a dam. The Rotary Club was petitioning to build a highway all the way through the canyon to Morgan County. The deer, mountain lions, and coyotes that had somehow survived were further hunted into submission. The number continued to rise, 1931, 1932, 1933, and the future seemed inevitable.
Given this history, it’s remarkable that today I can still find a place to dunk my head in the creek that some call So'ho-gwa. I can ride my bike up a skinny, ill-kept road to where evergreen trees stand uncut. I can walk in a meadow that someone failed to turn into a reservoir, a resort, a private mansion. Somewhere nearby, hiding in the thicket, is a black bear or two who live despite this City that my ancestors built.
Because for all of the City that made its way up the canyon, there was always another force at play.
After one Charles Silverwood accidentally drowned on April 28, 1895, it was written in a local paper: “What impulse it was that induced the unfortunate man to jump the stream neither his friends nor family can imagine.” Such wildness was unimaginable, but not uncommon.
Every single day dozens, even hundreds, of people wandered away from the City, as if they didn’t love it nearly as much as they pretended, and found themselves at the banks of the cold water.
There they squatted and skipped and picnicked and swam with no clothes on at all. There they would remember suddenly that City was just a name that was thrown on top of something that smelled rich and alive, that produced food and flowers, that would get stuck beneath fingernails and make adults laugh like children.
These people followed their unimaginable impulses and fought to keep the City from City Creek Canyon. And the water fought back too. “City Creek is out on a big rampage” read one 1909 headline. It marched, some say rioted, down State Street in 1983. It will do so again.
In searching for records of the indigenous history of City Creek, I came across a sketch that claims the Northern Utes called it “Noisy Water Canyon.” The artwork appears in the LDS church’s old magazine, The Improvement Era. The caption reads: “City Creek, the less imaginative, the more practical, white man calls it. But more fitting was the Indian title when the stream was in its wild condition, before it had been tamed to the needs of civilization.”
Unlike the Goshute name, So'ho-gwa, I’ve been unable to verify that the Utes used the name “Noisy Water Canyon.” When the official history signs begin their story with the “pioneers” in 1847, it’s hard to fact check.
But I do know this: a tamed thing will untame itself. A named thing will unname itself. And the Creek will outlive the City.
Easton Smith lives in Salt Lake City, land stolen from the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute and Northern Ute people. He spends his time with friends, adventuring outdoors and organizing against the racist deportation state. His writing has been published in Brine Waves, The Kenyon Review Online, and the Sonora Review. b. 1989