Desert Empire

Here’s another entry that probably won’t be of much interest to anyone except me and possibly those readers who grew up in Utah or are otherwise familiar with the place, but I’ve been utterly enchanted by this find and want to share it with somebody. It’s a 30-minute film called Desert Empire, which I stumbled across over on the Internet Archive — a fascinating repository of all kinds of material that doesn’t quite fit the YouTube paradigm, and isn’t ever going to see a DVD release, but is still worth preserving in some fashion. The film is a 1948 travelogue in which two lovely ladies journey by train through my very own home state of Utah, stopping in such places as Arches National Park (then known as Arches National Monument), Provo City, Bingham Canyon, the original Saltair pavilion at the Great Salt Lake, and of course, Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The voiceover narration is pretty outrageous even by the charmingly effusive standards of the 1940s, but the visuals are incredible. It’s fascinating to see very familiar places as they used to be, back when this state’s entire population was probably less than the modern-day citizenry of metro Salt Lake, and it’s even more fascinating to see how little some of these places have changed in 60 years.
Anyhow, if your curiosity is even remotely piqued, the film appears in three parts below the fold. I’ll be providing a few little observations on the things that struck me about each segment…

Observations on Part One:

  • “A mysterious land of empurpled distances?” Wow, this narration is really over-the-top… did I mention that?
  • The music is reminiscent of about a million short-subjects made by Disney…
  • Interesting that the “gateway to Arches” used to be Thompson, Utah; these days, that honor belongs to the better-known town of Moab. Honestly, I’d never heard of Thompson, a.k.a. Thompson Springs, so I looked it up. It’s on the north side of Arches National park (Moab is south of the park) and these days it’s mostly uninhabited, yet another small town that fell victim to the Interstate siphoning traffic away from its main street, and to the relocation of passenger-train service to Green River. Southern Utah is filled with dead or dying towns like this, lonely outposts in the middle of the desert that rarely see visitors anymore. Pretty sad, really…
  • I love how the only way into Arches in 1948 seems to have been on horseback; today, there are roads all through the park that take you right up close to most of the well-known features.
  • The formation seem at 03:25 and again at 03:52 is Double Arch, made semi-famous in the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Today there’s a parking lot right about where our intrepid travelers are riding their horses.
  • That’s Balanced Rock at 03:49, still balancing today…
  • Moving on to Utah’s Coal Country, I was struck by the phrase “bituminous wealth” and how much more literate Americans must’ve been in 1948. I doubt many audiences would know what the hell that phrase meant if you used it in a film today. Incidentally, Utah still produces a lot of coal, which is partly why local politicians and business leaders are so hostile to the idea of green energy.
  • “Black magic that fires the furnaces of progress.” As many things in this film look familiar, this sunny attitude about industry and progress and the future is so alien in our tapped-out, overworked, overwrought, peak-oil, global-warming, outsourced, downsized, running-out-of-everything, everything-turning-to-shit modern world as to seem almost incomprehensible.
  • Provo… the center of agricultural activity? Wow, now that’s something that’s changed. Today, Provo is an unending sea of tract houses, office parks, and strip malls sandwiched in between the walls Mount Timpanogos on the east and Utah Lake on the west. If it’s the center of any kind of activity, it’s multi-level marketing. Oh, and general prudishness. The repressive attitude most outsiders associate with Salt Lake is actually more prevalent in Provo. Go figure.
  • The image at 08:20 of a man irrigating his field with an open ditch and shovel is almost heart-breakingly familiar. This was still going on when I was a kid; I watched my dad do this exact same thing in our hay pasture every week of every summer. All the ditches are gone now. Irrigation water is piped and there aren’t any fields or pastures near my home anymore anyhow.
  • The sugar-beet operation at 08:50 is interesting… this once-major industry had pretty much vanished by the time I came along, but people talked about it a lot as I was growing up. One of the local high schools has a “beet digger” for its mascot; I’ll bet the students there have no idea where that comes from or what it means. The last sugar factory in the valley — probably the whole state — was demolished only a couple months ago.
  • The vast Utah County orchards around the 9-minute mark are gone now as well, although there are still a few small pockets of fruit-growing here and there around the Provo area, and north of Salt Lake. It must’ve been lovely when all those trees were in bloom…

Okay, on to Part Two!

Observations on Part Two:

  • This segment is probably the most interesting to me, because I have a personal connection to the copper mining that is still going on at Bingham Canyon (I say “at” rather than “in” because the canyon doesn’t technically exist anymore; it’s been entirely subsumed by “The Pit”). My dad worked at The Pit for roughly 35 years, and the kindly old man who lived next door to us when I was a kid grew up in the rough-and-tumble frontier-style towns that used to line the canyon. Between the two of them, I heard a lifetime of stories about that place and the way men pull useful materials out of the bare rock. Today, many locals view the Bingham Canyon copper mine with disdain and even disgust, because of the heavy pollution it’s released over the decades, and the way it’s quite literally destroyed a mountain. But I remain fascinated by the scale of the operation, and frankly pretty affectionate for it, too, because it was my family’s livelihood the whole time I was growing up.
  • The small town of Coppertown, briefly glimpsed in the first few seconds of this clip, is still there, a sleepy, pretty little “company town” of identical homes and a couple small businesses. It’s bounded on the west by the “dumps,” i.e., massive heaps of waste material from The Pit, and isolated from the suburban sprawl of the SL Valley by several miles of still-undeveloped land. It’s a nice place, actually. It’s also the last of the 20 or so small towns that used to exist in the Bingham Canyon area.
  • The actual town of Bingham was gone well before my time, but as I said, I’ve heard a lot of stories, so actually seeing it is fascinating. The horseback mail carrier looks very Wild, Wild West, but when I was growing up in the ’70s, it wasn’t all that unusual to see people riding horses down the relatively busy road in front of my house. The West endured on the south end of the valley for a long time, and has only recently died out.
  • The long shots of Bingham remind me of Park City, Utah, now a major ski resort town. Which makes sense, I suppose, since Park City was originally a canyon-located mining town, too…
  • The train you see at 01:35… my dad talked about having to take a train into The Pit when he first started working there in the mid-60s.
  • The view of The Pit at 01:47 made me smile, because this is nothing compared to its current scale.
  • The mining operations seen in this video are very different from how they are now. The trains are gone, replaced by giant trucks and conveyor belts. The blasting operation is still much the same, though, at least it was when my dad still worked up there. Things may have changed in the decade since he retired.
  • At about the four-minute mark, you can see a “track gang” laying and/or moving train tracks to reach the newly blasted out level. My dad started on a track gang; it was the crappiest job in The Pit, and kind of a trial-by-fire for all new employees. He quickly moved into another job…
  • The Magna Mill is still there, as is the Garfield refinery, but the ore comes to them via a giant conveyor belt now.
  • The music beginning at 07:47 and continuing to the end of the clip is from the old Flash Gordon serial. (Actually, it originated in The Bride of Frankenstein, but Universal recycled it for all kinds of films over the years… I relate it to Flash because, well, I’m a nerd.)
  • And finally, at 08:40, a blast of “progress is awesome!” narration that’s insanely bombastic even for this film… “A World Speaks! That’s COPPER!” Uh, yeah, okay, copper is cool, I get it… no need to yell…

And now… Part Three!


  • Strange to see flags on top of Black Rock, and nearby structures. Today, I-15 runs right past the rock, and it’s completely barren (although there are often people milling around alongside or on top of it…)
  • The “minute shrimp” mentioned at 0:40 are brine shrimp, better known to gullible and soon-to-be-disappointed kids of the ’70s as “sea monkeys.
  • “Swimmers are refreshed and invigorated” by bathing in the Great Salt Lake… especially if you have an open sore or a cut anywhere on your body! (Honestly, I’ve never quite understood the fascination for “bobbing like a cork” in the stagnant waters of the Big Smelly Pond, as I like to call it…)
  • The original Saltair resort, seen at the one-minute mark, is an enduring legend in this area. My grandmother talked many times about riding the train out there as a teenager to go dancing on Saturday nights. The place burned down in the ’50s, and a new, less fabulous Saltair was built in the ’80s, only to be flooded out by the (then) rising lake before it could be completed. Today, the lake has receded and the “new” Saltair occasionally hosts heavy-metal concerts, but is mostly a curiosity for drivers passing by on the freeway…
  • The water pipe hanging above the entrance to Ogden Canyon at 02:10 is still there — it’s lots of fun when one of the joints is leaking and you have to drive under it, especially if the top is down on your convertible! — but the barley and wheat fields the narrator rhapsodizes about are only a memory.
  • 03:30-5:00 And now a word from our sponsors, the Denver and Rio Grande Rail Road!
  • I think that overpass we see at 04:25 is still there… it looks like one I’ve seen in Bountiful, a bedroom community north of SLC.
  • The Denver and Rio Grande Station — now simply the Rio Grande; “Denver” got dropped at some point — is still there, but largely disused. There’s a restaurant in one wing, and the offices for the Utah Historical Society, but little else in its vast interior space. Not long ago, I read that there’s talk of converting it into a market place along the lines of San Francisco’s old Ferry Building or Cleveland’s West Side Market. I think that would be a grand idea, myself, but knowing how things go in this state, it’ll probably end up being far less cool than it could be/ought to be.
  • The Brigham Young Monument — known to we cynical types as the “This Is the Bank!” monument, because Brigham’s outstretched hand is pointing to the corporate offices for Zion Bank — is still there, obviously, but all that automobile traffic you see in this video is not. The LDS Church bought that section of Main Street from the city about a decade ago and turned it into a pedestrian plaza, a move that sparked much controversy and anger from both supporters and detractors. Personally, I’m ambivalent… while the plaza is very nice and a lovely place to take a walk, having a block of Main Street closed to cars right in the center of the city is something of a pain when you’re driving through that area.
  • The Emigration Canyon Monument seen at 05:50 is so endearingly modest! I’m not sure if this monument is still standing, but there is a much larger, much grander one at the mouth of Emigration Canyon now, which is part of a state historical park known as This Is the Place.
  • I like the lettering on top of the Tabernacle at 06:10 spelling out “Salt Lake City.” I presume that’s for passing airplanes, since there weren’t many tall buildings in the area back then, but really it’s kind of silly. SLC was and is so isolated from any other major settlements, and Temple Square itself is so distinctive, that where else could a pilot possibly think he is?
  • Speaking of Temple Square, it’s strange to see it so open… today it’s pretty much hemmed in on all sides by skyscrapers.
  • And finally, I wonder if the footage of the Mormon pioneers dragging their handcart across the plains seen at 08:55 and again about a minute late came from the Brigham Young movie with Tyrone Power? That flick came out in 1940, so it’s possible. Although Brigham Young was produced by 20th Century Fox and this travelogue was Universal, so maybe not…

And there you have it, Desert Empire. A world 20 years before I was even born, and yet so weirdly, hauntingly familiar. It looks like a much more pleasant place to live than the modern-day valley, I have to say…