City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

July 28, 2017

July 16th Revised, Reposted

Bird dialects; Grasshoppers and Locusts

2:30 p.m. With the continuing heat, an inverted layer of polluted air continues to building in valley, but the pollution has not yet entered the canyon. Today, the canyon air is clear, but later in the summer, the inversion layer will rise in altitude. A small black and white “bee” hover next to the road, but on closer inspection, it is a fly – Sacken’s bee hunter (Laphria sackeni). I find a small stink-bug like insect on several plants. It is a 3mm dark grey diamond with a orange-yellow border. It is probably a member of the Bordered plant bug (Largidae family), but I can find no specific specie example in my guides. Another dead Grasshopper (Melanoplus sp.) is on the road, and the continuing seasonal heat removes other characters from late spring’s cast. Yellow sweet clover has lost its leaves and become dried green sticks. Pinacate beetles have not been seen for a week.

Fruits betray infrequent lower canyon plants. On the trail spur leading from the road up to the Pipeline Trail, there is a single lower-canyon example of a dwarf Mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina) with bright red-fruit. Near mile 0.2, one Western blue elderberry bush (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) sports deep blue fruit.

I have continued self-study on learning to read the bird soundscape of the canyon (May 6th), but I have become disillusioned with my reference recordings of bird songs. It is evident that the canyon’s birds use calls that not among my reference recordings, and I suspect between some unrelated species that the birds are imitating each other’s calls. I have followed another of the many Lazuli buntings in the lower canyon today, and they use a trill call that is not in my sample recordings. Like birds, the several species of grasshoppers that frequent Utah are difficult for amateurs to distinguish, because they are mostly are seen only during flight before they disappear into thick grass.

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Birds form regional dialects (Podos and Warren 2007, Luther and Baptista 2010). A consequence of this is that without amateurs building a large centralized body of recordings, no one reference audio will sufficient for a local area. Only long experience, in which visual observations can be paired with local dialectal calls, can make one a “wizard” of the local bird soundscape.

Grasshoppers are often confused by North American lay people, including myself, for a variety of insects, including katydids and locusts. The Mormon crickets (Anabrus simplex H.) of that religion’s 1848 “Miracle of the Gulls” (Nov. 30th) were katydids and not crickets. In addition to katydids and grasshopper outbreaks that continue to the present day, historically, Salt Lake City was also visited by many locust plagues. There are several species of grasshoppers in Utah. The principal kinds are Melanoplus confusus Scudder, Melanoplus packardii Scudder, Melanoplus sanguinipes Fabricius, Camnula pellucida Scudder, and Aulocara elliotti Thomas (Watson 2016).

Salt Lake City and Utah were one of many regions that were devastated by the Rocky Mountain Locust outbreaks of the nineteenth century. Between the 1855 and 1900, the Plains states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, and the Intermountain States (Colorado, Wyoming, southeastern Idaho and Utah) were inundated with periodic plagues of this mega-pest locust. In one June 1875 stream seen crossing the Nebraska plains, a swarm of 3.5 trillion locusts were seen (Lockwood, 19-21), and on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, drifts six feet high and two miles long, or 1.5 million bushels, were reported by Orson Pratt (Lockwood, 10; Deseret News May 25, 1875). The volume of the Salt Lake 1855 locusts were sufficient to cover four and one-third of Salt Lake City’s ten acre blocks with a one foot layer, or about 507 Salt Lake City ten acre blocks, or 0.8 square miles, one-inch deep (id). While the exact population of Rocky Mountain Locusts at their peak is unknown, one carrying capacity estimate for the western and plains lands puts the maximum 1875 Rocky Mountain Locust population at 15 trillion insects (Lockwood, 163-164). In terms of biomass, the Rocky Mountain Locusts of 1875 weighed in at an estimated of 8.5 million tons, and this compared favorably to the estimated 11.5 million tons of the 45 million North American bison of that same time. Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri were particularly hard hit by the 1875 locust outbreak, and those states and the federal government had to reluctantly implement large scale relief programs to aid bankrupted and starving farmers who had moved to those states and taken up undeveloped farm lands under the Homestead Act (Lockwood, Chap. 5).

The crisis lead to a governors’ commission, the creation of the United States Entomological Commission headed by prominent entomologists Charles V. Riley, Cyrus Thomas, and Alpheus Spring Packard, Jr. to study the insects, and the Entomological Commission issuing several classic nineteenth century scientific reports (Riley 1877, Packard 1877, United States Entomological Commission 1878 and 1880). Figure 1 of the Commission’s 1878 First Report elegantly shows the migration patterns of the Rocky Mountain locusts from their permanent nesting zones somewhere in the foothills leading to Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming and their circular migrations west and south to Utah and north and east through the Great Plains. Key among the Commission’s findings were that the Rocky Mountain locusts had a permanent nesting zone and within that zone, they preferred a particular type of sandy soil in which to reproduce.

The impact of Rocky Mountain Locust invasions were also substantial in Salt Lake City and Utah. In May 26, 1875, Wilford Woodruff, church apostle and then president of the Deseret Agriculture and Manufacturing Society noted that significant locust “grasshopper” infestations occurred in Utah in 1855 and during each year from 1866 to 1872. The 1855 invasion was the worst. Packard reported that in 1855, about 75 percent of all food stuffs were devoured, and this required the Utah settlers to live on thistles, milkweed and roots (Packard, 603-604). Heber C. Kimball estimated that there was less than fifty acres of standing grain left in the Salt Lake Valley and that the desolation stretched from Box Elder county to Cedar City (Bitton, Davis, and Wilcox, 342-343). The 1855 outbreak was part of a larger outbreak that covered present day Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, parts of Texas, and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains (Packard, 34). The 1855 outbreak was followed by one of the worst winters in Utah history, the winter of 1850. 1850 marked the end of the 1300-1850 Little Ice Age. In the 1850s, one Salt Lake child described dunes of dead locusts along the Great Salt Lake shoreline as high as houses (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 1986). In June 1868, Alfred Cordon reported crossing a locust stream while traveling north of Salt Lake City for four miles, and in Tooele, an 1870 resident described the destruction of all of his crops (Bitton, Davis and Wilcox, 338).

As the Rocky Mountain Locust hordes passed, they would lay eggs in favorable sandy soils, such as those found in the foothills above Salt Lake City. In August 1879, Taylor Heninger and John Ivie of Sanpete County estimated that Rocky Mountain Locusts had laid 743,424,000 eggs on each acre (Bitton, Davis, and Wilcox, 344). On August 28th and 29th, 1878, the Entomological Commission’s Packard witnessed a few locusts hatching from the benches above Salt Lake City (e.g. including the present day Avenues foothills) for a radius of ten miles (Packard 1880 at Second Report, 1880, 69-70).

Through 1896, further outbreaks occurred, but the locust population continually diminished in size through the Plains and the Intermountain states (Bitton, Davis, and Wilcox, Table; United States Entomological Commission 1880). Without explanation, by the early 1900s, the Rocky Mountain Locusts disappeared, and by 1931, it was considered extinct (Lockwood, 128-136). That made the North American continent the only continent, excluding cold Antarctica, that is free of locusts. In 2012, a locust outbreak destroyed part of Russia’s wheat crop, resulting in that country halting wheat exports, and another Russian outbreak occurred in 2015. Curiously, since there were some many of the locusts, adequate specimens were not preserved in the United States’ academic insect collections.

Various theories arose between the early 1900s and the 1950s concerning why the Rocky Mountain Locusts became extinct (Lockwood, Chap. 10). Lockwood reviews why each was discarded in turn: The end of the Little Ice Age in 1890 and the decimation of the bison populations occurred after, not before the locust outbreaks. The decline of the rate of fires associated with the decline of Native American populations was rejected because Native Americans did not burn a sufficiently large part of the Great Plains. In another theory, the Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanopus spretus) in response to the planting of alfalfa by farmers phase transformed into another grasshopper that still exists today – the Migratory grasshopper (Melanopus sanguinipes). This was rejected because the number of alfalfa fields planted in the Great Plains was insufficient to deny the Rocky Mountain Locusts of their preferred food sources (id).

In order to obtain further evidence regarding this last theory, in the 1980s, Lockwood and colleagues searched glaciers in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana for Rocky Mountain Locusts that had been preserved. Eventually, frozen locusts were located in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and at Knife Point Glacier in Wyoming. Subsequent taxonomic comparision confirmed that the Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanopus spretus) and Migratory grasshopper (Melanopus sanguinipes) are two distinct species (Lockwood, Chap.s 10 and 11). Genetic testing in part confirms that conclusion (Chapco and Litzenberger 2004).

Then what caused the extinction of the Rocky Mountain Locust – the mega-pest of the nineteenth century? Lockwood suggests that the permanent breeding zones of the Rocky Mountain Locust were similar to the Monarch butterfly (Lockwood, Chap. 13). The Monarch butterfly overwinters in a few small forest groves in California and Mexico. The Monarchs (of which I saw two of in City Creek Canyon on July 24th) could easily be made extinct by a few loggers armed with chain saws. The Rocky Mountain Locusts concentrate their favored breeding zones on sandy soils in foothills raised above stream banks. Lockwood suggests that a triumvirate of three human activities brought the end to the locusts. First, farmers in Wyoming or Montana flooded, as suggested by the Entomological Commission in 1880 (Second Report, 311-313, Utah irrigation practices), or farmed the relatively small permanent breeding refuges of the Rocky Mountain Locust. Farmers also planted alfalfa for cattle feed, a plant disfavored by the locusts. Second, ranchers released millions of cattle that quickly denuded sandy grasslands next to streams and canyon headwaters. Third, this led to cloud-burst flooding that washed out the breeding areas and-or covered breeding zones with layers of thick mud. Combined, these factors destroyed the Rocky Mountain Locusts permanent breeding refuges and led to their extinction.

These factors were also seen locally in the Salt Lake Valley. On their arrival, Euro-American colonists found a valley inundated with Rocky Mountain Locusts and kaytdids (March 6th). Their first tasks included forming a committee of extermination to kill much of the bird life in the valley that might eat agricultural crops and that incidentally eat locusts (March 6th). They then released some of the 4,500 cattle brought with the first 1848 settlers on both the valley floor and the foothills, and planted large tracks of grains on the valley floor. Next they began lumbering operations that denuded the upper canyons (March 13th and March 14th), and removal of the time resulted in cloudburst flooding (March 11th and 12th, July 7th) (id).

In modern Utah, outbreaks of less robust katydids and other grasshoppers still occur. On May 7, 2002, former Governor Micheal Leavitt declared a state of emergency in Utah due to an outbreak of Mormon crickets and other grasshoppers in which 3.3 million acres in Utah were infested (Ut. Exec. Order May, 7, 2002, Karrass 2001). Grasshoppers periodically infest up to 6 square miles in the Salt Lake valley, but their cousins, the Mormon cricket (Anabrus simplex H.), had their last 2 square mile outbreak in 2009 (id). Statewide, grasshoppers peaked in 2001 (1.4 million infested acres) and 2010 (approx. 800,000 acres) (Watson 2016, Karrass 2001). Acres infested by Mormon crickets crashed from 3 million in 2004 to only 10,000 in 2016 (Watson).In Salt Lake County, the last Mormon cricket infestation was about 1,300 acres in 2009 (Watson 2016). Given the rapid urbanization of the west half of the Salt Lake valley beginning in 2008, the katydids’ breeding ground on the valley floor has been further reduced, and thus, it is unlikely that they will return here. On July 16th and after their hatching, I saw four Mormon crickets in the trees around mile 0.5 in City Creek Canyon.

This does not mean that the ecological niche occupied by the Rocky Mountain Locust and the Mormon crickets remains empty. On July 6th, I estimated that in the foothills surrounding the north end of Salt Lake City – these are the same hills that Packard saw Rocky Mountain Locusts rise from in 1879 – there were 310,000,000 million House crickets (Acheta domestica) with a mass of 85 tons on the city’s northern foothills. Unlike the larger Utah grasshoppers and katydids, the House crickets do not invade the valley floor, and they are not perceived as a pest despite their numbers.

Mormons have a cultural tradition of storing one year’s worth of food against hard times. This practice has a thin doctrinal basis. There is an ambiguous reference in their texts directing members to “organize yourself; prepare every needful thing, and establish a house . . . ” (Smith, Doctrine and Covenants, 109:8), but a more direct religious source is Levicitus, Chapter 25:1-13, of the Christian Bible. In Levicitus, followers are enjoined to observe a fallow seventh sabbath year after six years of harvests. The fifty year after seventh sabbath years is to be a jubilee year in which debts are forgiven.

In present day Mormon country from Idaho to Arizona, selling and buying a year’s worth of dried disaster supplies is big business. Probably, this cultural practice is an echo of western colonists’ encounters with the now extinct Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanopus spretus). Numerous plague scale invasions of this locust visited Salt Lake City between 1855 and 1877.

The outbreak of 1855 was seven years after the 1848 “Miracle of the Gulls” katydid incident. On July 13, 1855, church apostle Heber C. Kimball drew the parallel between biblical injunctions in Leviticus to allow land to lay fallow every seven years and the need to store food stuffs to tide a believer over the seventh Sabbath year:

“How many times have you been told to store up your wheat against the hard times that are coming upon the nations of the earth? When we first came to the valley our President [Brigham Young] told us to lay up stores of all kinds of grain, that the earth might rest . . . This is the seventh year, did you ever think of it?” (quoted in Lockwood, 44-45).

After touring the devastation of the 1868 locust outbreak in the Salt Lake valley, Brigham Young in a sermon to the Mill Creek congregation returned to the need to keep a seventh sabbath year of provisions on hand as a hedge against calamity:

“We have had our fields laden with grain for years; and if we had been so disposed, our bins might have been filled to overflowing, and with seven years’ provisions on hand we might have disregarded the ravages of these insects, . . .” (quoted Bitton, Davis, and Wilcox, 354).

Thus, the Mormon practice of storing a year’s worth of food supplies is in part inspired by their encounter with the extinct Rocky Mountain Locust.

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On July 16th, 1946, the Salt Lake Telegram reported on the costs of recovery from an August 1945 cloudburst flood. The airport was wrecked and a flash flood down Perry’s Hollow ripped through the city cemetery and tombstones were swept onto N Street. The downtown flooded:

Two hours later [after the cloudburst] State St. was still blocked by the overflow from flooding City Creek. Boulders weighing 300 and 500 pounds were left along the way. Parked automobiles were carried for blocks. Tree branches and trash cans were left in four and five-foot drifts.

On July 16th, 1940, a young bicyclist lost control of his machine and was injured on crashing into a tree (Salt Lake Telegram). On July 16th, 1922, hundreds of young girls hiked up City Creek Canyon as part of a city parks recreation program (Salt Lake Telegram). On July 16th, 1916, the YMCA planned a hike up City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Telegram). On July 16th, 1891, District Court Judge Zane in Duncan v. E. R. Clute declared the City’s water main improvement district that developed the City Creek water system infrastructure to be unlawful and he suggested that the City Council should be impeached for implementing their plan (Deseret Evening News). On July 16th, 1882, Salt Lake City passed an ordinance establishing the Salt Lake City Waterworks for the development of water system infrastructure in the city and in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald). The ordinance set a schedule of connection fees to City water mains (id).

June 14, 2017

June 10th

Sego Lilies and Cheat Grass

6:30 p.m. The jet stream has reconnected over the Intermountain west to its usual spring route, and this has brought back strong, cooling breezes. This evening, I drive to the end of the road at North Terrace Hills Drive to walk up the trail from the Avenues to the south ridgeline of the Salt Lake salient that looks down into City Creek Canyon. I am looking for the Sego lily which blooms this time of year. One-quarter mile below where the trail intersects the road, I find patches of this Utah state flower (November 30th) among the parched Cheat grass. It is a bulb flower that rises from the hard ground sometimes without any leaves, and its four inch blossoms have delicate cream petals that are yellow at the base surrounded by splashes of dark red-purple. Against this central yellow backdrop, contrasting thick, white-colored stamens rise. I estimate about 80 lilies along are within a 100 feet along the trail for one-half mile below the ridgeline. Like most native desert wildflowers, it is a metaphor for beauty under adversity.

Also along the road are blossoming Canadian thistles (Cirsium arvense). Although a weed, its three inch light purple blossoms are a visually pleasing example of complexity in nature. Hundreds of small, spike like petals surround a central circular whirl of about 150 short, cylindrical, vertical stamens. The whirl pattern in its stamens betrays two counter-spirals of stamens that are arranged in left and right spiraling Fibonacci series.

Near the Sego lilies, there is a 10-inch diameter coyote burrow in the road bank to the west of the trail. That it sits along a heavily traveled mountain biking trail – perhaps between 50 to 100 people traverse this route each day – is unusual. It is not clear whether the burrow is currently occupied. The mouth of the burrow shows no recent signs of entry or exit, but there is contrasting excavated soil radiating below the entrance.

Below the ridgeline back over a mile to the trailhead, Gambel’s oak forest covers most of the land to the west of the trail, but the oaks only cover patches of ground to the east. Birds sing from their hiding places. I see Black-billed magpies at the trailhead and a Green-tailed towhee within the first quarter-mile. Near the ridge, Song sparrows, Black-headed grosbeaks, a hummingbird, and chukars are heard. From their calls within one-third of a mile of the ridgeline, I estimate 150 birds are present. None appear to be flying.

I reach the east-west running ridgeline and begin to climb another 150 feet to a small peak to the east of the intersection of trail and ridge. As with my last visit to this peak (January 5th), wind is blowing strongly from the north. The reason for the song bird’s grounding becomes apparent: in the steady wind, an avian farmer, a Cooper’s Hawk, hovers motionless about 20 feet above the ridge. The low Sun is filtered through clouds to the north, and its light sets the yellow molted breast feathers blazing. The hawk continues for hover for another minute, turns and glides off to the east just below the ridgeline.

From the peak, which bears a concrete and metal Salt Lake City survey corner marker indicating an altitude of 4,905 feet, or about 900 feet above the valley floor, there is a clear view down 20 miles of Wasatch Front Mountain Range from Grandview Peak and Little Black Mountain on the north, to Lone Peak on the south. In the evening light, the two sandstone geologic “U”‘s synclines that define Red Butte Canyon, Emigration Canyon, and part of Parleys Canyon are easily seen (January 9th). These sit on top of a larger deeper “U” shaped syncline of limestone that stretches from City Creek Canyon on the north and emerges again in Millcreek Canyon on the south. Perhaps this geology also explains why the streams in Red Butte and Emigration canyons reduce to trickle. Unlike City Creek and Millcreek with their limestone upper canyons, the surface bedrock of Red Butte and Emigration are porous sandstone. (Parleys Canyon contains two dams that hold back the stream.) Underground water may not be trapped along limestone layers. This is speculation, and another possibility is that Red Butte and Emigration canyons, unlike City Creek, were never reforested after the foresting and mining eras of the last half of the 19th century. Summer surface water may simply evaporate. To the west, the jet stream is marked by a fast moving line of clouds that extends from the southwest to the northeast.

Looking at the lands around the peak, they are one-third green oak forest, one-third dried brown Cheat grass, and one-third still green native brome. It must have been an impressive spring sight of green meadows before the invasive grasses arrived. The peak itself is covered in Cheat grass about six inches deep, and because of this year’s heavy winter snow, an acquaintance reports stands several feet in height along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail below this peak. The cheat grass is read to burn, and within the last week across the state, six large cheat grass wild fires of over 1,000 acres have burned. Several smaller cheat grass fires of a few acres in size also occurred in Salt Lake Valley over the last week, but those were quickly suppressed. Although overgrazing immediately after the Euro-american colonization of the valley in 1847 quickly converted fire resistant native bromes and bunch grasses to non-native adventive grasses spotted with sagebrush (March 13th), cheat grass was not present in the valley or on the Avenues ridgeline. This weed grass was introduced in California in 1870 (id), and the grass followed along the railroads lines east (Monson and Kitchen, 1992, p. 24), but may have also traveled as a contaminant in feed grain (id at 33). Cheat grass was first collected in Utah in 1894 by M. E. Jones on Provo, Utah (Barbour and Billings, p. 264; Monson and Kitchen). How fast it overtook native grasses statewide is unclear, but in 1932, Pickford of the Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station noted that while Cheat grass, which he called Downy brome, was found in all areas of the north half of the state, it was only dominate in the Great Salt Lake area (Pickford, 1932; Monson and Kitchen, 24). Pickford found that Cheat grass was most dense (11 percent coverage) on plots that had been both grazed and then subjected to a grass fire, but it was absent from plots that had never been grazed or subjected to a burn. What makes Cheat grass different is the higher frequency of its burn cycle and the higher temperatures at which it burns (Monson and Kitchen, 24). There is a direct relationship between the level of the prior winter’s precipitation and cheat grass fires in the following summer (Monson and Kitchen, 24). One-hundred and twenty-three years later, this hot burning grass covers the Avenues ridgeline, more than half of the City Creek canyon walls of the Salt Lake salient, and much of the State. The state and federal agencies spend about 83 million USD per year fighting wildfires in Utah (Stambro et al, 2014, Chap. 9), and much of that total is related to cheat grass fires.

The peak is also covered in unidentified, one-half inch nymph crickets. When walking forward, every step raises five or six nymphs that jump forward to avoid being crushed. They are marvels of camouflage, and their dark brown, light brown, dusky yellow and dirty white colors perfectly match the surrounding dried grass. They move at the slightest provocation and it takes several attempts to locate one for a photograph. Even knowing where it is, I have to stare at the brown grass for fifteen seconds before I can make out the cricket’s outline.

Despite the invasives, the expansive view of the surrounding hills and mountains is inspiring, and I return home a happy and contented person.

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In Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 10th, 1853, he notes honey locust, black willows and blackberries are in bloom. He hears a robin. On June 10th, 1856, he watches a huckleberry bird and finds a pigeon woodpecker nest with young. On June 10, 1857, he sees a snake. On June 10, 1860, he examines a bat suspended in the daytime forest.

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The Fibonacci series seen in the whirls of the center of a bull thistle plant reappears in many plant contexts, including how seeds are distributed around a pine cone (Klar, 2002) and how branches are radially distributed around on tree (Nelson 2004). The study of the arrangement of leaves on a plant is called phyllotaxis. There are several competing hypotheses for how leaves self-assemble themselves themselves in a Fibonacci series, and the prevailing theory is that these spatial patterns are the result of most-efficient packing solutions (Klar). Hormonal diffusion is also theorized but the actual mechanisms are unknown (id). Limited progress has been made in defining the theoretical mathematics of how a circle of undiffentiated meristem plant stem-cell tissue can transform into a spiral pattern and on identifying candidate biochemicals that control the process (Flemming, 2002).

Restoring areas contaminated with cheat grass has proven difficult and expensive in terms of both capital and labor (Barbour and Billings, p. 264; Monson and Kitchen). Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have spent over 150,000 USD since 2008 trying to rehabilitate about 180 acres (0.3 square miles) in City Creek and Parleys Canyons that are contaminated with both Yellow starthistle and Cheat grass (see May 21st). The best strategy for restoration is reseeding following a cheat grass fire, but its effectiveness is limited to level areas (Barbour and Billings, 264-265) and not the steep slopes of City Creek Canyon and the Salt Lake salient. Although the city considered a controlled burn program in City Creek in 2010 (Gray and Harrison, 1999; Salt Lake Dept. of Public Utilities 2010, Salt Lake City Corporation 2010a), it was not pursued, and currently the Utah Conservation Corps is using the labor intensive method of manually denuding and spraying fields in lower Pleasant Valley, including along a steep slope (May 17th and May 21st).

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On June 10th, 2006, students at the Design Workshop recommend daylighting City Creek Canyon stream from the mouth of City Creek, along North Temple, all the way to the Jordan River (Salt Lake Tribune). Daylighting means raising the creek which now traverses the city’s center in underground pipes back to the surface. (Prior U.S. Corps of Engineer and City proposals recommended daylighting City Creek beginning at 700 West.) On June 10th, 1898, the National Guard plan exercises in City Creek Canyon (Deseret Evening News).

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