I-beams rising over a newly laid foundation on April 18, 1910, as two night watchmen waited for the silence of downtown Salt Lake City to be broken by hundreds of early risers intent on catching a view of Halley's Comet.
The silence was broken, all right, but not by sleepy stargazers. A few minutes past 3 a.m., a terrific explosion, fueled by dynamite and nitroglycerin, erupted from the northeast corner of the construction site. The concussion knocked one of the watchmen to the ground, twisted part of the hotel's iron framework beyond repair, and shattered windows in the office buildings across South Temple. In the words of one witness, there was "not enough glass left to make a pair of spectacles." Downtown residents covered in dust and shards of glass ran into the street, some convinced that the comet had actually struck Salt Lake City.
Miraculously, no one was injured beyond a few cuts and a bad scare.
Investigation began before daylight, with suspicion instantly falling on the ironworkers' union, which had objected to the open-shop policy of the hotel's contractor. The union also was suspected the previous December when a similar bomb exploded in the hotel's foundation, but no solid evidence was found to link either crime to any culprit. Proclaiming his union's innocence, Secretary John J. McNamara of the International Structural Ironworkers later offered a $500 reward for finding the bombers.
As the sun rose on the morning of April 18, someone on the street glanced up at the Mormon Temple and noted damage that had gone unseen in the darkness - while no windows were broken, the blast had ripped the trumpet from the grasp of the Angel Moroni statue atop the building's tallest eastern spire. The golden angel had not quite lost his horn, but it was knocked at least two feet out of alignment.
Soon the presiding bishop's office put out a call for steeplejacks to climb the temple tower and repair the statue. Arthur Smith of New York City assembled a team of four experienced climbers, and they went to work late in May.
After gaining the temple roof via freight elevator, the steeplejacks used ropes to hoist their ladders - some as long as 35 feet - from the pavement. For three and a half days, the men worked to lash the ladders to the tower. Crowds watched from the street, especially on the fourth day when the ladders topped the third parapet where the smooth granite spire rose sharply into the sky. The weather was perfect. Not a breath of wind threatened Smith as he completed placement of the final ladder and began his climb toward the statue.
Reaching the tip of the spire, Smith eased himself away from his ladder to clear the round ball upon which the statue stood. Grasping the angel's feet, he pulled himself up until he stood behind the statue. After placing the last ladder behind Moroni's back and roping it in place, Smith scrambled up and seated himself on the angel's shoulders, his legs circling the angel's neck.
Compared to the hours necessary to reach his perch, Smith found the repair work surprisingly easy. It took him only 30 minutes to wrestle Moroni's trumpet back to his lips and to hammer the bent horn straight. Then he climbed down, removing ropes and ladders as he went.
For their four days of work, the steeplejacks received the contract price they themselves had bid, amounting to $7.81 per man per day.
More than two years later, the Hotel Utah bombings were solved when three men - including McNamara, the union man who had offered a $500 reward - confessed to having set both bombs, along with dozens more around the country, one of which had killed 21 men working at the Los Angeles Times.
* ARDIS E. PARSHALL, AEParshall@aol.com, is a Utah historian.