Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Brigham Young’s Swimmin’ Hole

Brigham Young’s Swimmin’ Hole

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 30, 2009

After a cool and unprecedentedly rainy June, Utah is gearing up to settle into a hot, dry July. I’d rather not run my air conditioner any more than absolutely necessary to sleep, so I sit here under a ceiling fan, with a desk fan trained on my face. There are only so many layers of clothing that a modest Mormon woman can shed, and only so many glasses of ice water will go down any one throat in a day.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I think, to step outside my door and slip into a pool of water, warmed by the sun yet cool enough to wash all the heat away …

That’s a pleasure the Brigham Young children enjoyed, from the late 1850s onward.

Today, the stylized Eagle Gate stretches across Main Street, anchored at one end by Brigham Young’s Beehive House and at the other by a pair of stately old apartment buildings (President Hinckley had an apartment at the top of one of them). Those apartment buildings rise above the site of the Young family schoolhouse and other outbuildings associated with the Young family estate – the smoke house, the lamb barn – and the path up the steep hill to the “White House” where Mary Ann Angell Young lived.

If you were walking east along Brigham Street (South Temple) on a summer day in the 1860s, you would pass the Lion House where many of the Young families lived, the church offices that connected the Lion House to the Beehive House which was Brigham’s primary residence, across the road closed off by the Eagle Gate, then past the schoolhouse. Then you’d see a strange, small building – what had once been a huge, enclosed carriage so large that it could carry an entire brass band through the city streets. Then there was a gap, then the smokehouse, and so on eastward.

That gap between the old band carriage and the smokehouse is what is of interest to us. Look closer, and you would see that flush with the ground was an enormous pair of barn doors, covering … something. When those doors were opened and propped up approximately perpendicular to the ground, you couldn’t have seen what they had concealed. That was the whole point. Those doors, when open, acted as walls to shield the site from the prying gaze of anyone – like you – walking along Brigham Street, or working in the Young grounds on the other side, for that matter.

The doors were the cover to a wood-lined pit, a font, a box … a swimming pool. Although the pool was used as a baptismal font (in a comment to an earlier post, John Mansfield pointed us to this Friend article on the baptismal sites of church presidents. “Heber J. Grant,” it says, “was baptized June 2, 1864, in a wagon box rigged up as an outdoor font behind Brigham Young’s school in Salt Lake City, Utah.” That’s a little garbled – the pool, at 12’x14′ was much too large to have started life as a wagon box – but the article is talking about the same door-covered hole in the ground), its primary purpose was as a swimming pool.

The pool was refreshed by a small stream of water diverted from City Creek and entering at the north side, and could be emptied through wooden “pipes” on the other side. Both entrance and exit could be shut off by means of small wooden doors, which allowed the depth of the pool to be regulated – Susa Young Gates remembers that the water depth was generally kept at three feet, although the pool could be made as deep as ten feet. The covering doors could be thrown open, the water warmed by the sun, and the pool, wedged as it was between the “walls” formed by the open covers on two sides, and on the other two sides by that old band carriage and the smokehouse, was a private, watery haven on hot summer days.

The old band carriage was part of the bathing establishment. There were doors at either end, and a partition divided the interior into two small rooms used as dressing rooms for the bathers. Girls, swimming in their underclothes or nightgowns, could step directly into their dressing room, but boys – “as became boys, for boys have never been over-troubled with modest qualms,’” says Susa – streaked bare-bottomed around the carriage and into the far door to dry and dress themselves. The carriage also provided a convenient launching point for swimmers; passers-by “would catch fleeting glimpses of slim naked bodies poised for flight into the pool below.”

The pool was reserved for the girls from 4:00 to 6:00 every afternoon – and heaven help the boy who was caught by an older sister anywhere in the neighborhood. Beyond that reserved time, the pool was available to the boys at all hours.

Very, very occasionally, brothers and sisters would share the pool. On those days,

Boys wore proper hickory shirts and stout homespun and home-made old breeches; while girls carefully chose their oldest linsey-woolsey dresses, reinforced with all sorts of discreet under garments. For boys might teach sisters to swim, but the strictest rules of propriety must be observed. And everyone kept a careful eye on the mischievously billowing skirt of the sister who essays to float or swim to keep the edges of decency discreetly close about the trim ankles – for every and sundry of those sisters bore the stamp of comeliness and shapeliness bequeathed by splendid Father himself.

[Susa said it, I didn’t.]

All that heavy clothing was, I suspect, one reason why the water level was usually kept to three feet.

I have to accept Susa’s claim that the pool was constructed solely for the children’s pleasure. Although it might be used for baptisms, the pool was unnecessarily large and deep to have been built specifically for baptisms. Ditto for its use as a livestock watering pond – unnecessarily broad, too deep, and I don’t think farm animals wandered indiscriminately around inside the walls of the Young estate. The band carriage/dressing rooms might have been placed there as an afterthought, but the pool itself seems suited for nothing so well as bathing and swimming.

And this afternoon, I’m going to wish I had access.



  1. That was wonderful, Ardis! I’d never heard of the “swimmin’ hole” on South Temple. Is this roughly where you’re talking?

    P.S. Do we know if splendidly shapely and comely Brigham himself ever splashed down?

    Comment by Hunter — June 30, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  2. That’s approximately it, Hunter. I don’t know how many feet from the intersection it was, but you’re on the right side of the right block.

    P.S. I secretly hope so, but I have no positive information, and am not sure I want to take my imagination in that direction. D’oh, too late!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 30, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  3. I am away from my library, but I think it was Mary Haskins Parker Richards’ diary that talks about “Bathing Machines” to preserve the modesty of beach goers. Imagine the scandal of today!

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 30, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

  4. This is super interesting!

    D’oh, too late!


    Comment by Ben Pratt — June 30, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  5. I think the descriptor “unnecessarly broad” could give creedence to the idea that Bro. Brigham likely *did* take the occasional dip, n’est-ce pas? 😉

    Comment by Chad Too — June 30, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

  6. The other day my wife went smimming wearing a full length dress, a swim suit was not conveniently available, and the alternative was simply not going to happen. She found the experience surprizingly comfortable and had no problem keeping afloat and uh…modest. Afterwards she suggested that perhaps we are too quick to dismiss the swimming fashions of the past as impractical.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — June 30, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

  7. When it came to building things, Brigham Young, former carpenter/cabinet maker that he was, was very hands-on and quite precise, as with the design of the piers and buttresses of the new Tabernacle and even the proper construction and siting of wilderness sentry shelters and observation posts used by the Nauvoo Legion during the Utah War. His instructions to Apostle John Taylor on how to build a hand cart in 1856 are a classic. Given this proclivity to,er, manage closely the fabrication of such artifacts, are there no presidential instructions re building “the pool”?
    Ardis’s description of the fastidiousness with which bathing/swimming took place in “the pool” are in sharp contrast with war correspondent A.G. Browne’s description for the readers of Horace Greeley’s “New York Tribune” of how James Buchanan’s two peace commissioners — Lazarus W. Powell, former governor of Kentucky, and Ben McCullock, U.S. marshal for the eastern district of Texas and former Texas Ranger — swam the Platte River in the buff en route to Salt Lake City during May 1858. Wonder if “the pool” was in commission that early. Powell made no mention of it, but he did take a dip in the Great Salt Lake and attributed its powers and Utah’s climate to the ensuing cure of his rheumatism.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — June 30, 2009 @ 6:35 pm

  8. Chad Too, further to your point, B.Y. did leave precise instructions re the dimensions of his own coffin, including an instruction about shoulder room that brings your thought to mind.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — June 30, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

  9. Like the post.

    The private swimming hole would have been a nice alternative to other public bathing sites around Salt Lake, including the very popular warm springs near what is now the boundary between Salt Lake and Davis counties. Later in the nineteenth century one could also witness the rise of several bathing resorts dotting the shores of the Great Salt Lake.

    Ardis-how long did the swimming hole exist? When did it disaappear?

    Comment by Brandon — July 1, 2009 @ 9:15 am

  10. Wish I knew, Brandon. Structures like this that were private, not built of permanent materials, and underground, are not apt to be noticed in formal records when they decay or are deliberately removed. I can’t hunt for it because there’s no logical place for it to have been recorded. Maybe someday I’ll run across a casual mention in a newspaper to something new being built on the site “where the former plunge bath of Pres. Young was filled in last fall” or something like that. It’s a lot of fun to connect the dots between casual, ambiguous references like that!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 1, 2009 @ 10:09 am

  11. True enough, Ardis, regarding the difficulty of finding traces in the historical record of something so ephemeral.

    It’s the detective work of history that makes the discipline so much fun. Let me know if you run across something.

    Comment by Brandon — July 1, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  12. FWIW, I ran across a book at Google Books that contains a couple of interesting (somewhat contemporaneous) paintings of the general vicinity that this post talks about (“Painters of the Wasatch Mountains,” 2006). While neither painting depicts the swimming hole, and while both paintings post-date Brigham’s death, some of BY’s children were still living in the immediate area, so the images may be of some illustrative relevance to the original post.

    The first image is on the bottom of page 37 and depicts “Brigham’s Backyard,” looking south at the back lots of the Beehive and Lion Houses (here).

    A second image is on the bottom of page 36 and depicts a view of South Temple looking to the northeast where the swimming hole would have been (here).

    Comment by Hunter — July 23, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  13. I *luv* those illustrations, Hunter. The swimming pool would be just out of range of either picture, but they’re wonderful aids to visualizing several familiar stories. Can’t you see the mountain lion cautiously exploring the backyard, sniffing at the haystack as he slunk by? Thanks!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 23, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  14. Ardis, don’t go researching this, but off the top of your head, how many currently living descendents does BY have?

    Comment by Bookslinger — July 23, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

  15. Bookslinger, I have 2760 identified descendants in my database, but I don’t know how many are living, nor have an educated guess as to how many are in the branches I haven’t been able to trace forward yet.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 23, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

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