Charting a course: BYU history professor, students building historical map of Intermountain West

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Courtesy of BYU Photo

PROVO (ABC4) – Many stories from Utah’s history are so ubiquitous and well-remembered, it’s practically a requirement to have them ready as trivia bits when introducing yourself as a resident of the Beehive State to others.

Knowing about the pioneer history of the state, why the roads in downtown Salt Lake City are so wide (they were designed to be able to turn a wagon completely around, for those non-Utahns reading this), and other factoids are so inborn to natives, it’s hard to imagine not knowing them at any point.

Other pieces of Utah’s history, such as a old important building or a formerly bustling area are not as well-remembered or have been replaced with something new and modern.

One BYU history professor and his students and other supporting universities in the Intermountain West are out to preserve the region’s history on the ultimate symbols of the modern age; the internet, the smartphone, and an app.

“There are so many stories that just haven’t been told or haven’t been part of the mainstream narrative that we learn in school or celebrated as a community,” Brenden Rensink, explains of his collaborative venture, a website and mobile app named Intermountain Histories. “Projects or technologies like this give people access to good information, good history that’s carefully researched and written to help them enrich their understanding of some of the stories they already knew but also to highlight stories they simply haven’t heard.”

The site and app are simple to use but loaded with decades, or even centuries, of fascinating history from all over the state and throughout the Intermountain West. The best feature may be the GPS-enabled map, which can let users find out an interesting historical fact about the very spot they happen to be in.

Courtesy of BYU Photo

Let’s say you happen to be on 25th Street in Ogden. Seems like an interesting place, right? Did you know that crime and corruption ran rampant in the businesses on the road in the Prohibition Era? According to Intermountain Histories, “Many of these establishments would hide the alcohol under floorboards or would have someone posing as a guest to conceal the alcohol under a coat. When a guest came asking for a drink, the bartender would give a signal to the individual who would then secretly come forward with the illegal drink.” Amazing story and detail, wouldn’t you say?

Or maybe you’re enjoying a funnel cake at Lagoon and you need something to read or learn to pass the time while the kids are riding Bulgy the Whale. You could pull up the app and learn that the amusement park was one of the first desegregated public venues in the state. Imagine how smart you’d feel!

All of the articles and stories on Intermountain Histories have been written either by Rensink himself, another trained historian, or a student assigned to work on a piece as a classwork assignment. Related stories or locations can be linked by a common theme to create a tour-like experience for curious explorers.

What makes Intermountain History so useful, is that many of the locations on the map, are no longer there or may have been forgotten. It may be worth checking it out to see what stories, memories, or potential lessons have been replaced by something new and shiny.

“Sometimes the history is paved over,” says Rensink. “There are stories on the ground we’re standing on that are not visually apparent, we don’t even know.”

Rensink explains that there is some truth to the “tired” old line that goes along the lines of those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Understanding history can be impactful on future decisions, he says.

“There is real power in history, and the stories that we decide to tell and the stories that we decide to not tell and not remember, have a really big impact on us individually and on communities more broadly,” Rensink tells ABC4.com “Understanding the diversity of histories, for our communities is essential to understanding why our communities are the way they are today. And having that understanding today is essential for trying to chart a course in the future.”

Chances are, the stories on Intermountain Histories will serve as an excellent map.

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