SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — Those in the Salt Lake community know Sugar House Park as a quiet place to relax and recreate among lush green landscapes. Though many are likely unaware, from 1855 to 1951, the park looked much different, as it was the site of Utah’s first state penitentiary.
The location of the prison was first chosen by Brigham Young in 1853, approximately six miles from the heart of the city. The government, which also owned the property, put up around $32,000 to construct the prison facility itself.
A year later, the prison was opened with 16 “cozy cells dug into the ground, with iron bars on top” — which reportedly had poor ventilation and little space.
The inmates residing there consisted of all sorts, including “marauders, convicted polygamists, and agitators.”
As the residential areas around Salt Lake City grew, the prison became a problem because of its proximity. It was also reported that, likely due to a lack of guards on duty, the prison had 47 of its 240 prisoners escape between 1855 and 1878.
From this, the prison walls were expanded, but escapes were still common. In fact, there were often road signs posted along 2100 South that read, “Drive Carefully — Prisoners escaping!” Members of the community would commonly hear the prison bell tolling, which would indicate runaways.
After the construction of a surrounding stone wall and a new cell house with a capacity of 200 inmates in 1885, the conditions became even more grueling as the prisoners were given buckets due to the lack of running water.
In 1896, when Utah first became a state, it took control of prison operations. A new and improved cell house was soon built with running water and electrical lighting.
As Salt Lake City continued to grow, approval for the construction of a new prison was given by the Legislature in 1937 and a Draper site was chosen 22 miles south of the city.
With work stoppage occurring due to shortages during World War II, the new prison was finally finished in 1951, and 575 inmates were moved from the prison in Sugar House to the new site at the point of the mountain.
Before being torn down, the abandoned prison structure was a makeshift playground for local kids in the area, until finally becoming the site of Sugar House Park and Highland High School years later.
Now, after over seven decades, the park is teeming with new life as the community cherishes the landscape that once held our state’s first penitentiary.