On July 24, 1917, the employees of Hancock Brothers, a Salt Lake City produce dealer, left “by automobile conveyance” for Pioneer Day picnics and entertainment from local musicians at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon.
Among the other events on that holiday, the 70th anniversary of Brigham Young and the first Mormon pioneers arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, were a doubleheader between the Salt Lake Bees and the visiting Vernon Tigers (which they split), and the “Whoop ‘Er Up Trail Blazing Sale” at the Walker Bros. Dry Goods store.
What Salt Lake City didn’t have that day was a parade. In 1917, as in 2020, global events played a hand in depriving the city of the spectacle of floats and marching bands and dignitaries in coaches.
Today, it’s the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fear of spreading a deadly virus in large crowds, that prompted Days of ’47 Parade organizers to postpone all events to 2021. In 1917, it was “The Great War,” which had ravaged Europe since 1914. The United States had joined only three months earlier.
“Because the nation is at war the heads of the city, county and state governments, as well as of the Mormon church, decreed that no public celebration, other than band concerts in the parks, would be held to celebrate the arrival of the founders of the state in this valley seventy years ago,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported the following day.
According to photos in the Utah State Historical Society’s archives, there were other parades in Salt Lake City in 1917 and 1918, the years the United States fought in what is now called World War I. They usually had a military atmosphere, with cadres of young men in uniform, for the purpose of gathering money for war bonds.
The history of celebrating the pioneers’ arrival in what’s now Salt Lake City began just two years after the event happened, in 1849, according to a 2015 article on the blog of the Salt Lake Chamber, which took up organizing duties in the 1930s. Some years, the celebrations were bigger than others.
Leaders threw a jubilee, a 50th anniversary bash, in 1897, said Randy Dixon, a retired archivist at the history department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It was a huge event,” Dixon said.
The highlights of the 1897 jubilee included five days of parades, some featuring pioneers, and a fireworks show to conclude the festivities. “Salt Lake, set in the valley amidst the hills, was crowned with a diadem of fire,” a Tribune reporter wrote in 1897. “The vaulted dome of heaven flashed and blazed with liquid light.”
After World War I, apparently, there was little enthusiasm to renew a Pioneer Day parade in Salt Lake City. On the first holiday after the armistice, in 1919, the Tribune reported on parades in Vernal and Spanish Fork, but not in the state capital. The tradition wasn’t fully reestablished until 1922, when a “Diamond Jubilee” was held to mark the 75th anniversary of the pioneers’ arrival.
The Salt Lake Chamber launched a regular event, Covered Wagon Days, in 1931. It began three traditions besides the parade: an observance in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, a children’s parade (discontinued in 2018), and a rodeo at what is now the Utah State Fairpark.
Covered Wagon Days shrank some during the Great Depression, but revived in the mid-‘30s, with the Chamber creating a company to operate the event. By 1940, the crowd on the parade route — down Main Street from the Brigham Young statue to 600 South, east to State Street, then back north to 200 South — numbered 150,000. Among the spectators that year was Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential nominee who tried, and failed, to disrupt Franklin Roosevelt’s bid for a third term.
In less than two years, though, the world would be engulfed in another war. This time, though, the Pioneer Day parade marched on — literally.
The 1942 parade marked the 95th anniversary of the pioneers’ arrival. Coming just over seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it doubled as a military spectacle, “the largest aggregation of armed force units and equipment ever assembled for a public procession in Utah,” The Tribune wrote at the time.
Covered Wagon Days continued during World War II, but the 1944 parade was abruptly canceled — though some 1,000 spectators showed up on Main Street anyway. The parade returned in 1945, after the Allies had defeated Hitler’s Germany and just weeks before the war ended in the Pacific.
Dixon said what Utahns today think of as the Pioneer Day parade, the Days of ’47 Parade, started in 1947 — the year the state celebrated the centennial of the pioneers’ crossing over Emigration Canyon. The nonprofit group Days of ’47 Committee formed then continues to organize the parade, rodeo and related events.
The lack of a Pioneer Day parade this year may leave many Utahns feeling a little hollow, Dixon said. “So many things have been canceled — theaters and all sorts of festivals,” he said. “People are not sure how to move forward.”