Living History: Remembering the last days of the Pinecrest Inn
Lately I've been gleaning fragments of early Emigration Canyon history. You know, the electric railroad that freighted sandstone during Salt Lake City's turn-of-the-century building boom and the luxurious Pinecrest Inn that offered cool breezes and a warm welcome at the end of the line (see May 12 and 24, 2013, The Salt Lake Tribune, "Living History").
Last week, I was told of Gordon A. Christenson's boyhood adventures and the inn's demise despite his family's best efforts to save it.
"Emigration Canyon was where my father could easily escape the summer heat and, since he was a rebel at the time, find refuge from his daily life," said Christenson, an 80-year-old retired law professor, from his home in Cincinnati.
His father, Gordon B. Christenson, was a well-known Salt Lake City lawyer and public servant. During World War II, he worked for the Office of Price Stabilization rationing products ranging from rubber tires, automobiles, gasoline, sugar and metal typewriters to coffee, butter, meats, shoes, processed foods and bicycles.
"It was about then dad bought a cabin high up the mountain overlooking the Pinecrest Inn with Emigration Creek running between us," Christenson told me. "Without question, he loved the southern view and it was within driving range on rationed gas. I remember us piling into his 1939 Dodge filled with enough gas to get up the 13 miles to the cabin and then coasting all the way back down the road to the city."
Christenson also remembered the road to Pinecrest as a steep, roughly graded, rarely oiled, often flooded narrow dirt lane. "You had to be careful nearing the top to avoid hitting a car that might be coming around the bend," he said.
In 1919, Pinecrest Inn changed ownership. Purchased by Bishop Joseph Glass of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, it was converted into a summer retreat for the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
It then was acquired by the LDS Church and was rented out as a winter resort, summer inn, restaurant, nurses' training center and refuge for children suffering from polio.
In 1947, the elder Christenson negotiated a lease with the LDS Church to restore the inn to its pristine quality.
"Dad thought it was a good way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the pioneers coming into the valley and revive the once magnificent structure," Christenson said.
The lease also required that he put in a new parking lot and improve the road, and eventually the grand lodge opened with sterling service, exquisite landscaping, deluxe suites, live bands, ballroom dancing and wonderful dinners of fresh mountain trout, thick T-bone steaks and mouth-watering fried chicken.
It was a gracious operation with a promising future. It also required a lot of work.
Earning 40 cents an hour, 16-year-old Christenson weeded the driveway, washed dishes and mopped the extensive flooring the ballroom alone extended beneath the 200-foot-long veranda.
When it was closed for winter, he would shovel paths through the snow to the coal drop-off site below the inn and relay back buckets of coal to stoke the furnace.
Pinecrest Inn was popular but impossible to maintain. Its restrictive lease, prohibiting beer licenses and "set-ups" for mixed drinks, crippled its competitive edge and profits.
"Dad thought the realty arm of the church, having leased the property, should help with the winter upkeep and maintenance of the wooden water pipes," Christenson said. "When he offered to buy the inn, they refused to sell it at a fair market price. He lost his shirt."
Shouldering his responsibility, the elder Christenson repaid every cent owed. From their cabin across the way, they watched in sorrow as the inn was demolished, scavenged and finally, in 1951, burned to the ground.
"It was tragic," Christenson said. "But my father had the courage to attempt to restore a wonderful part of the canyon's past during an era of elegance. I was fortunate enough to be part of it when coming of age."
Eileen Hallet Stone, an oral historian, may be reached at email@example.com. Special thanks to Carolyn Tuttle.