Inspired by the printing presses of Regent Street that busily churned for years publishing The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, the Regent Street press sheet winds its way down the street.
Along its meandering path you’ll find stories about the long and diverse history of this part of Salt Lake City. Once called Commercial Street, Regent Street has been the site of Salt Lake City’s red light district, a home to Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, a center for headline news in the 20th century, and now is at the heart of the city’s cultural core.
“In those days the hot spots of Salt Lake were located in a tidy manner on a street that ran between 1st and 2nd South and Main and State. Within the street were saloons, cafés, parlor houses, and cribs that were rented nightly to the itinerant ladies of the calling. It was against the rules to solicit, so these soiled doves would sit at the top of the stairs and coo their invitation to ‘C’mon up, kid.'” – John Held, Jr.
John Held, Jr. (1889-1958) was an American cartoonist, printmaker, and one of the best known magazine illustrators of the 1920s. He worked as a cartoonist at The Salt Lake Tribune and illustrated covers for LIFE, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
Plum Alley ran north and south dividing the city block between Main and State Streets, the cross streets being 100 South and 200 South. During the early 20th century, within and around Plum Alley, the Chinese developed a microcommunity with grocery and merchandise stores, laundries and restaurants.
“On New Year’s Day they had a big New Year’s celebration in Plum Alley, some of them old guys would come over and give us the red envelopes with lucky money in them. That was quite a haul, when you’d get up there you might get twenty bucks in silver dollars.” – Henry Ju
Henry Ju (1923-1990) was the son of Joy Ju, one of the first merchants on Plum Alley. The family store, Wo Sang, sold merchandise such as chinaware and silk from China.
“The Salt Lake Theatre was opened to the public March 8, 1862. It was built by Brigham Young at a cost of $200,000.00 and equal to any opera house in the East. It had an orchestra, stalls, first, second, and third circle, three boxes on either side reserved for Brigham and his family. At that time no money was in circulation, and you paid for your ticket with produce – butter, eggs, vegetables, et cetera.” – Eveline Brooks Auerbach.
Eveline Brooks Auerbach (1859-1924) was born in the California mining town of Timbucktoo in 1859. Her family lived as merchants in various towns in the western U. S., eventually settling in Salt Lake City. In 1879 she married Samuel Auerbach, a German-Jewish immigrant in the goods business in Salt Lake City. She raised a family and lived in Salt Lake City for most of the rest of her life. Her published memoir touched on business and social conditions as well as relations among religious groups.
“We will have to go to work and get the gold out of the mountains to lay down, if we ever walk in streets paved with gold.” – Brigham Young, an original settler of Block 70.
For more than half a century, Plum Alley & Regent Street were home to Salt Lake City’s Chinatown. Almost 1,000 people lived and worked on Plum Alley at its zenith in the 1890s.
Many Chinese people immigrated to the western United States in the second half of the nineteenth century to build the first transcontinental railway – completed May 10, 1869.
By the late 1880s Plum Alley was home to an established Chinese-American community – during that era in Salt Lake City, nearly all people of Chinese origin were barred from renting or owning property outside of Plum Alley.
“From a corner there comes the cry of ‘hot tamales,’ in a nearby mission there is the sound of a hymn, and this is mingled with a coarse song from a Maison De Joie nearby; the Evangelists on the street are listened to when they can be heard above the traffic and the music from the houses; Chinese merchants sit on their doorsteps and indulge in gossip and smoke after their day’s trade is over; occasionally a female figure flits in from one of the side streets and is swallowed up in the darkness of Plum Alley and it needs not more than one guess from the uninitiated to tell where she has gone to. All this before 12 O’clock.” – The Salt Lake Tribune – 1900
“The theatre is the only art medium which has a universal, popular appeal – it can & must be within the reach of the masses, that the divine spark within shall not die in us.” – Maud May Babcock
Maud May Babcock (1867-1954) was the first female member of the University of Utah’s faculty. She taught at the university for 46 years, beginning in 1892. While there she established the University Theater and the first college dramatic club in the United States.
“It was one of President Young’s prides to have it a perfectly high class place of amusement – no detail was too small for him to supervise and he was justly proud of the results.” – Sara Alexander – Pioneer era star of the stage. (The Salt Lake Theatre – 1861)
“The City of the Saints, and its street and houses were almost hidden by the trees of many orchards, which made and oasis of brighter green amid the sage-gray sadness of the open valley. And in the midst of the green, above the trees, one could see as he came out of a canyon mouth and across the eastern bench land, a white, oblong building. It was this Play-House.” – Alfred Lambourne – Landscape painter, early scene-painter at The Salt Lake Theatre.
Built in 1961 on the Northwest corner of State Street & 100 South Street.
Pony Express Riders sworn oath:
“I, do hereby swear before the great & living God that during my engagement & while I am an employee of Russell, Majors & Waddell – I will under no circumstances use profane language, I will drink no intoxicating liquors; that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the first and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, faithful to my duties, & so direct my acts, as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”
Salt Lake City’s Pony Express Station was located at 143 South Main Street.
“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.” – Wallace Stegner
Wallace Earle Stegner (1909-1993) was an American novelist, environmentalist, and historian. Although he had lived in many places, he always referred to Salt Lake City as his “hometown.” Educated at the University of Utah, he is considered among the most influential Western writers and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.
History of Salt Lake City’s Red Light District
The growth of Salt Lake City in the 19th century mirrored that of other Western cities in many respects, including prostitution. A red light district emerged on Regent Street in the 1880s and continued to exist there through the early 20th century, with some brothels persisting on Regent until the 1930s. Regent Street’s location within the commercial district on Block 70’s interior made it a setting where prostitution was tolerated as it was not easily visible from the major streets surrounding it. Brothels were unofficially regulated (through intermittent arrests and fines for people engaged in the trade) in this area until 1908, when the red light district was moved to the west side of Salt Lake City.
Describing the area in 1900, The Salt Lake Tribune stated: “From a corner there comes the cry of ‘hot tamales,’… in a nearby mission there is the sound of a hymn, and this is mingled with a coarse song from a maison de joie nearby; the evangelists on the street are listened to when they can be heard above the traffic and the music from the houses; Japanese, Chinese, negroes, and white mix together in a friendly way; occasionally from one of the saloons some tough… is seen to shoot out of a door-he doubles his fist, Vows vengeance and then slides away; out from a dark and badly-scented alley comes a pale-faced man whose chief occupation in life is to smoke opium; Chinese merchants sit on their doorsteps and indulge in gossip and smoke after their day’s trade is over; … occasionally a female figures flits in from one of the side streets and is swallowed up in the darkness of Plum Alley, and it needs not more than one guess from the uninitiated to tell where she has gone to. All this before 12 o’clock.”