Joe Hill, Sugar House Park and Memorial Day

The Better UTAH Beat airs Tuesday afternoons on KVNU’s For the People. Podcasts of previous episodes are available here.
I recently moved to a home in Salt Lake City near Sugar House Park. The specific neighborhood I live in, Liberty Wells, was once an orchard before being developed into homes just following what was then called the Great War. Mormon leader Wilford Woodruff’s house is just up the street. The area is steeped in historical significance.

I now take my evening run on a route that follows the newly created S-Line–the trolley-inspired Trax line that extends along 2100 South from the main Trax-line, up to 1100 East. From there I run to Sugar House park where I do a loop before heading back home. Sugar House Park is also steeped in historical significance–but it is a story most visitors rarely hear.

Sugar House Park used to be the location of the State Penitentiary. I can’t help but imagine the lives of the prisoners incarcerated there as I run the gentle slopes of Sugar House Park. However, it is one event in the park’s history that haunts me most: the execution of labor leader and songwriter, Joe Hill.

In what was probably the most high profile execution to ever occur in the state of Utah, Hill was executed in 1915 for the alleged murder of a Salt Lake City shop owner. Alleged is the operative word because the truth of the murder is perhaps lost to history.

The story of Joe Hill was extensively recorded by Utah’s own Wallace Stegner, the prolific novelist perhaps best known for his writing about the American West.

Though a work of historical fiction, Stegner’s own account is revered as an important telling of the events leading up to Hill’s execution. In Stegner’s words, “Fact and fiction had…become so entangled around the controversial figure of Joe Hill,” that a correct parsing of the historical record was perhaps impossible.

Whatever the truth of Hill’s execution, and no matter the extent to which people remember him, his death and words became an important rallying point for the labor movement in the United States. The story of Joe Hill, even today, extends beyond the mere facts, whatever they were, of the murder of a Salt Lake City shop owner.

“Innocent or guilty,” said Stegner, “He was already legend.”

“Murderer or martyr,” continued Stegner, “He was certain to resist absolute definition.”

Almost 100 years later and any sort of definition is now mostly forgotten as runners and walkers and skateboarders and rollerbladers enjoy the calm greenery of Sugarhouse Park. The memory of Joe Hill exists almost exclusively among a few labor organizers and academics scattered throughout the United States and, perhaps to a greater degree, the world.

As I leave for my evening run later today with thoughts of Memorial Day weekend still on my mind, my own thoughts will turn back to the beginning of the month–May Day–and to the equally heroic fighter-laborers who, though not veterans in the technical sense, certainly worked to award us freedoms in the workplace that we might have never otherwise gained.

In Joe’s own words, “There is pow’r there is pow’r in a band of workingmen.”

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