Wednesday, 12 August 2015

A Sinner's History of Utah: The Commercial Street Red Light District

posted on 8/12/2015 by the Salt City Sinner

I moved from Utah to the American South as a teenager, and pretty quickly learned that if you hail from the Beehive State, there are a series of extremely dumb questions you will be asked when people first meet you that would not be asked of someone from, say, South Dakota or Maine.

 “Are you Mormon?” is obviously the first one – and a pretty reasonable question, all things considered. That is usually followed up with some sort of question about polygamy, however, which is lazy and ignorant and gets old remarkably quickly. Sometimes I would be asked if one can buy alcohol in Utah. This is, again, a not entirely unreasonable thing to ask, especially since many of these interactions took place back in the days of private clubs and membership cards – but it did strike me as a little silly given that I was often asked about Utah and booze while going to college in Conway, Arkansas, which is a town located in a dry county where sales of all alcohol were prohibited at the time.

beer, which has never existed in Utah, being brewed in Utah

Indeed, Utah has a long and complicated history with alcohol and other “vices.” The Mormon pioneers may have been the most significant and influential component of the white colonization of the region, but they were far, far from the only ones to settle and leave their mark, even in the early days.

Just as the Latter Day Saints built their own civic infrastructure – banks, stores, centers of art and learning – non-Mormon residents of Utah have, from the beginning, had our own shadowy parallel set of structures. This is not to say that Mormons and gentiles do not have a shared history or shared spaces in the public and private realms, but only to note that just as American history is not simply the history of white Christian America, the history of Utah, especially the history of places like Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Park City, is not exclusively the history of Mormon Utah.

In the spirit of taking an entertaining and marginally informative look at the odd nooks and weird crannies of Utah history, this is the first in a series of posts I’m calling (with apologies to Howard Zinn) “A Sinners’ History of Utah.” Today’s installment:

The Commercial Street Red Light District

In the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, between State Street and Main Street, an alleyway connects 100 South to 200 South. Regent Street, as it’s now called, is currently undergoing a $12.8 million renovation (along with Orpheum Avenue and a now-defunct but soon-resurrected access alley called Regent Walk) as part of the construction of the new downtown performing arts center. Regent Street’s gentrification is a benign affair – no historic homes are being torn down, nor are any landmarks being razed – and I’d say that Regent Street has paid its dues, given its sordid past, back when it still went by the name Commercial Street.

Salt Lake City began its life in 1847 as Great Salt Lake City (the “Great” was dropped in 1868). Salt City might be the home of Temple Square, the Church Office Building and other landmarks of Mormonism, but from the get-go it has also been the commercial center of Utah, and thus has drawn an assortment of sketchy heathens, eager capitalists, immigrants, and many folks who probably qualify as all of the above.

When these enterprising souls struck out for the Utah Territory, they brought their tastes and habits with them, and thus saloons, tobacconists, gambling dens, and brothels flourished in Salt Lake City and elsewhere. Far from being shocked and appalled at such establishments, some Latter Day Saints – either the smart ones or the opportunists (or both) – invested in and/or operated them, thus turning a tidy profit.

By the 1870s, much of Salt Lake City’s traffic in vice took place on Regent Street, which was at the time known as Commercial Street. At this time, houses on Commercial Street generally had a legitimate business (usually a taproom or tobacco shop) on the ground floor, with prostitutes living and working on the second floor. Famous madams such as Helen Blazes and Ada Wilson kept things running smoothly, bribing the right officials and keeping tabs on the women working there.

The golden age of prostitution on Commercial Street lasted from about 1870 to 1908, by which time a formal system of “fines” (which were more like monthly operating fees than punitive measures) and the registration of both madams and prostitutes. The quasi-legalization of prostitution and its accompanying regulation and taxation created a lucrative system that provided Salt Lake City, still in its infancy,with a reliable and vital stream of revenue. That this bustling hotbed of for-profit sexxxytime fun was located less than a mile (6/10 of a mile, to be precise) from the LDS Temple is a fact that I imagine did not sit well with local civic and religious leaders.

one of the "stockades" that moved the red light district westward from Commercial Street
As a result, a push began between 1903 and 1908 to relocate Salt Lake’s red light district. In 1908, a new “stockade” system was implemented by Mayor John Bransford, pushing the city’s quasi-legal prostitution trade west, to an area between 500 and 600 West and 100 and 200 South. The new red light district was run by a prominent madam from Ogden, Dora Topham.

These “stockades” are a story for another day – for now, let’s remember that for almost 40 years, Salt Lake City’s Commercial Street – now Regent Street – was the center of the sin trade in Salt Lake City, proving (as if this humble bloggue needed any further proof) that this, our beloved City of Salt, is a place where sinners and saints live cheek by jowl, side by side, peacefully tolerating each other’s existence.


  1. I help with a group on Facebook (
    and would love to have this page on that group.. we can do 2 things... you could join, if you are on FB, and post it.. or I can share it... Let me know.. I love the way you write :)

  2. My mentor, John S. McCormick, has written a lot of stuff about the non-traditional side of Salt Lake City.

  3. Interesting and detailed info
    I believe the area may have also been a very small China Town for awhile. I remember walking down it as a child and seeing the SL Tribune being printed n huge presses while my family peered through large glass windows
    That would have been in the late 1970's