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Uniquely Utah: A town stuck in time

Posted at 11:23 PM, Dec 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-13 01:24:06-05

OGDEN, Utah — The city of Ogden is one of Utah's most historic places, with 25th Street at the heart of the boom town’s past.

Known as "Two-bit Street," it was also known as one of the most dangerous streets in America during its heyday in the 1920s and 30s.

Over 100 years later, many of those same buildings and places are still standing, thanks partly to how infamous it was.

Walk up and down that same street today and the coffee shops, stores and restaurants comfort you into a sense of security. A hundred years ago, the street more or less looked the same — but with a very different feel.

The street was a rough and tumble place with prostitution, gambling, opium dens, illegal speakeasies and bootlegging.

But why did Ogden start down this path?

The answer lies in the thing that brought the town to life in the first place.

“Ogden was always very open about its vices that were available," said Sarah Langsdon, speaking with FOX 13 News while surrounded by books and documents on the topic.

Langsdon heads up the Special Collections Department at Weber State University, where it's their job to keep pretty much everything.

“Photograph collections, manuscript collections, letters, scrapbooks, diaries, that span from about the 1880s up to current," Langsdon said.

All of it together paints a history of what Ogden — and especially 25th Street — was like during those early days.

It all started around 1869 when the first steam engines started to make their way into the city.

Stemming out from Union Station was 5th Street, the name for what's now 25th Street.

Through its time, it was dubbed "Two-bit Street" and had many other not-so-nice nicknames stemming from its ability to bring in whatever vice one desired.

Entrepreneuring men and women took advantage of this fact, and as soon as the Golden Spike united the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869, Ogden was open for business.

It was only the third town founded in the West, with only Salt Lake City and San Francisco beating it to the punch.

“Because of the railroad, a lot of people from diverse backgrounds came into Ogden,” Langsdon said. That meant there was a lot of opportunity.

Over the next decades, the town grew and grew with many drinking establishments popping up.

In the late 1910s, there were more than 70 bars in around a 3-block stretch on 25th Street. So in 1920 when the United States passed the 18th Amendment and started Prohibition, that wasn’t going to phase the city.

“Prohibition was just a blip on the map for Ogden. There are lots of articles and stories about moonshine stills and doing raids," Langsdon said, adding with a chuckle: “I always joke with people that I think it was easier to get liquor on 25th Street during Prohibition than it is currently.”

Federal law, arrests and danger had little impact on stopping what was known as "Junction City."

The street itself was at the center of that fame.

“You could write a letter and just address it '25th Street,' and it would come to Ogden," Langsdon said.

But all that attention came with some rumors — some of which have persisted until today. One of the main ones quoted regularly is about Al Capone.

“The quote that he came into Ogden looking to expand his business and walked up 25th Street and said, 'This is too rough of a town for me,'” Langsdon said.

But despite every book, journal, letter and manuscript she has ever read, Langsdon said she has unfortunately found “no proof, no evidence that Al Capone ever came here.”

While he may have said it during his time running a mob empire in Chicago, that’s not very likely either — but another 25th Street rumor might have a little more legs.

The idea was that there is or was a secret tunnel that could take someone from Union Station all the way up to the Ben Lomand Hotel, about three blocks away.

This isn’t exactly true, since the city tore up the street in the 1980s and didn’t find any such passageway. But there were some interesting tunnels that interconnected the basements of buildings along the streets, which still exist today — and according to Langsdon, that is the source of those stories.

But no big secret tunnel or major mob connection makes sense, because Ogden never tried to hide its illegal activity.

Those in local government and law enforcement looked the other way when it came to those basement passageways

The 75 bars on the street turned into soda parlors with ingenious ways of hiding the liquor with stills connected to pipes.

So if someone needed a drink, it would flow right out of the faucets.

One might think those days are long gone, but along this street stuck in time, anything is still possible (well, almost anything).

Langsdon knows a soda parlor that ran a still into pipes to “serve” its patrons.

Today, that building on the southeast corner of 25th Street and Lincoln Avenue looks exactly the same — the same brick, siding, and decorative features bring you back to the turn of the century and the roaring nature of prohibition.

“It hadn't been occupied since the 70s. There'd been a fire at some point,” said Jared Allen, the current owner of that building. “And I know the fire department was actually notified, like, if it caught fire, just let it burn.”

The former site of a brothel and “soda parlor” where whiskey literally flowed like water is now restored into several shops, a hotel/Airbnb, and two bars named Alleged and Unspoken.

In true 20s fashion, Unspoken now occupies that basement space and is a speakeasy open on Fridays and Saturdays.

Allen started the project a decade ago with a mission to save everything — including doors, windows, radiators, signs, and of course, the now-bricked-in passageways between the buildings.

“Anything that we could save and salvage, we did," he said. "The street has had this reputation in this history of these wild fun nights.”

It wasn’t limited to the 1920s, though. After prohibition was repealed by the 21st amendment in 1933, the soda parlors turned back to bars where the brothels stayed in place and even became more popular.

More and more activity came to the town until it exploded in 1941.

The railroad brought troops from nearby Hill Air Force Base and from the rest of the country to rest before heading out again.

The "Crossroads of the West" became the site for tens if not hundreds of thousands of troops that were partaking in all 25th Street and the rest of Ogden had to offer.

“So that was why there was so much with it, with the brothels in with the bars,” Allen said. "Maybe they come back without a limb, maybe they don't come back at all, but they get to come to have, like, a night here on the street where they're like alive and free and get to do whatever... That's kind of cool... they got to spend that like last moment here before they went into some unknown terror.”

A man who knows that time well is Scott Van Leeuwen.

“The early days of 25th Street was really a rough-and-tumble street,” he said. “I’ve been here for 63 years.”

He owns the gift house — a business that’s been around since those days.

“This has been like my second home, and I've loved coming here as just about everything in here has a story," Van Leeuwen said.

At 17, he came in to buy a wedding ring for his wife. Every day since then, Van Leeuwen has worked in what’s dubbed "Ogden’s oldest and friendliest pawn shop," Van Leeuwen said. "It hasn't changed much since they invented pawn shops.”

His store is on the first block of the fabled street, and because of its prime location, it has had a front-row seat to history.

"I'd love 25th Street my whole life... even when it was a rough and tumble town,” Van Leeuwen said. "If you want to go get in a fight, you could darn sure go get the fight. As it went through its heyday — and I was kind of here for the heyday — I used to come to work and I'd see a blood trail going up the street, going up the sidewalk, always something going on out there. Somebody robbed a bank, you'd see him across the street. It was just an amazing time.”

It wasn’t just Van Leeuwen — lots of people shared that fascination with the street, and it was even a favorite family activity.

“The favorite activity, either on a date, a Friday night, or even with your family, was to drive down 25th Street Park. They would roll up their windows and lock the doors, and then just watch what happened,” Langsdon said with a laugh.

But nearing the end of the ’60s, the town was showing its age.

Now with many buildings and structures over a hundred years old, the town wasn’t the upscale vice-driving place it used to be but instead became only about the vices with a rundown attitude.

“As it got older, it deteriorated and deteriorated, you started to get a lot of stranger people coming in, "Van Leeuwen said. "We had a lot of ladies of the evening coming in.”

Then, the nail in the coffin came.

The railroad, which had brought so much life to the town, stopped coming. And with it, the spirit left as well.

“Once the railroad stopped coming through, the entire town just sort of crashed,” Langsdon said. "You wouldn't want to go down 25th Street — that was where all the homeless lived. All the businesses and shops kind of left.”

In a weird way, however, that has turned out to be a good thing because when everyone left, no one wanted to build — leaving the old buildings vacant and ready for restoration, and for those like Allen to leave their mark.

“Because this area was so nefarious and dirty, it was generally forgotten. The buildings didn't get knocked down for a JC Penney's or a car dealership," he said. "They just stayed the dirty stuff that they were and because they were there, now they had this amazing architecture to then preserve and bring back to life.”

Langsdon echoed that by saying: “You do have that sense of history that you could walk down and see. It'd be like, 'Oh, that's where that was,' or 'that's where that happened.'”

Today, the city and street thrive once again — maybe in a little different way. Gone are the days of bootlegging; boutiques are here to stay.

"And 25th Street has now become a destination for people to come,” Van Leeuwen said.

It's a Utah destination that has stood the test of time through war, poverty, vice, downturns and despotism, and it now shines bright as a town stuck in time.

“It's kind of amazing to watch as it happens, and to be part of it," Van Leeuwen said. "You know, it's not always glamorous, it's not always even legal, but it's still your history, and so you might as well just tell it.”