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Looking back at Sugar House Park's history as former prison

Posted at 5:51 PM, Oct 27, 2023

SUGAR HOUSE, Utah — The vivid view of the Wasatch Mountain Range is enjoyed every day by visitors to Sugar House Park, but it wasn’t always this way in this area. These mountains were once the backdrop of generations of prisoners.

From 1855 to 1951, Sugar House Park was once the site of Utah’s first state prison.

According to the Utah Division of State History, the area for the prison was selected by Brigham Young in October 1853 mainly because of its safe 6-mile distance away from downtown Salt Lake City.

The stoned-walled territorial prison featured 16 cells dug into the ground covered by iron bars. The inmates that resided there ranged from marauders and convicted polygamists to agitators.

The prison expanded over its centennial existence, housing over 500 prisoners at various times. As could be expected, this place has left a legacy of fascinating and often morbid stories.

“The morbid side of executions was that it was a community event,” said Wendi Pettett, executive producer, and co-host of the Demolished Salt Lake podcast. “People went to watch like the community went to watch the executions.

“So anyone who died in the prison, who was not, their family did not come and get the body was buried on site," said Pettett. "There were about 35 graves, just outside the prison walls.”

For generation residents of Sugar House, the park’s past is still alive in some family stories.

“I had a grandfather who grew up in sugar house, and he had to walk past it to get to school,” said local historian Fiona Robinson Hill. “And he was terrified of it. And when we asked him to tell me more, he passed away before anything and didn't really want to talk about it.”

Legend also says the ghost of a warden who was beaten to death by prisoners now haunts the park on horseback.

But as residential development crept closer to the expanding prison, the proximity became a problem. Between 1855 and 1878, over 40 prisoners escaped.

By the 1930s a new site was chosen, the Point of the Mountain in Draper. In 1951, 575 prisoners were bused from Sugar House Prison to their new home in Harper. However, not only the living were moved but also the dead. Living prisoners exhumed the bones from the prisoner graveyard and moved them to the new site.

The governor at the time, Bracken Lee, had planned to have the city pay for the prison who would then have plans to convert it into a park. The Salt Lake City would make their final payments in 1956, though the keys to the prison were already handed to Mayor Earl Glade by that time.

A trust was created to be in charge of developing the land into a park, named the Sugar House Park Authority, which had been incorporated in 1957. It would remain the park's owner until 99 years, ending December 31, 2055.

Today, while old penitentiary is long gone. The area where it once sat is divided into Sugar House Park and Highland High School. And while the prison no longer sits there, echoes of its past never quite fade away.

“Energies just don't go away after we die,” Robinson Hill said. “And that's what ghosts are, they're the lingering energies.”