Ogden, Utah, may now be best known as an outdoor mountain town—with skiing in the winter and hiking, mountain biking, and fishing in the su mmer. But it doesn’t take much time in the city to realize that it has a historic past that’s much different, with the city changing drastically over many periods of development. From a Wild West frontier town to a transportation hub to a bootlegger magnet during Prohibition, Ogden has a fascinating history that’s unique in the state.
While it may get some argument from others in the state, Ogden claims to be the oldest European settlement in Utah, dating back to the founding in 1845 of Fort Buenaventura on the Weber River by Miles Goodyear, a fur trader. The Mormons who came to the state in 1847 met Goodyear and purchased (for $1,950) his fort and claim, which are the approximate boundaries of today’s Weber County.
The Brown family were sent by Brigham Young to begin settling the area in 1848, and the area was shortly known as Brown’s Fort. But by 1851, the name was changed to Ogden, named after a fur trader, Peter Skene Ogden, who had lived in the region dating back to 1825. It became the third city incorporated west of the Missouri River, behind San Francisco and Salt Lake City.
From 1847 to 1870, the community depended primarily on agricultural, with just a small settlements at the confluence of the Ogden and Weber rivers. But in 1869, things changed drastically. Ogden is the closest city to Promontory Summit, where the Golden Spike was used to complete the transcontinental railroad that year.
Ogden soon became a major railroad town, serving nine different rail systems. It became a shipping center for traffic on both the east-west and north-south rail lines, and business quickly grew in the city, to the point that it would rival Salt Lake City. "You can’t go anywhere without coming to Ogden," became the town’s slogan. The city remained primarily a railroad town, excelling with additional traffic due to World War I.
Prohibition came to Utah earlier than the rest of the country, in 1917. The railroad town already had a rough-and-tumble reputation, with gambling, shootouts, prostitution, opium dens and all other manner of vice quite common in the city. With prohibition coming to the state, Ogden became a center for bootleggers and speakeasies. The influx of illegal alcohol made the "wild west" reputation of the city grow even more, enough that Al Capone allegedly said that the town was too rough, even for him.
When prohibition ended, like most of the rest of the country, Ogden suffered during the Great Depression. With bootlegging no longer necessary, organized crime continued to move into the city to take control of gambling and prostitution. With train traffic declining, the city became focused more on vice.
World War II and Beyond
But as the nation prepared to enter World War II, rail transportation increased and Ogden once again became focused on transportation. It also became a hub of government agencies and services. Hill Air Force Base was built in 1938, as the area was considered a safe interior section of the country with easy access to transportation. A Navy Supply Depot was built, as well as the U.S. Forest Service regional office. During it’s peak business during World War II, more than 100 passenger trains passed through Ogden every day, and both German and Italian POWs were housed in camps in the area.
After the war ended, rail transportation never was the same. Between a lack of wartime demand for goods, the advent of air travel, and the Interstate Highway System, travel changed for good, and Ogden once again hit hard times. Those continued well into the 1970s, when the majority of the street’s buildings were unoccupied.
It wasn’t easy, but with the growth of the outdoor industry, driven elected officials, and a passionate community, Ogden transformed, and the boarded-up 25th Street properties eventually became hot commodities. The street is now filled with travelers, families, art collectors, recreation seekers and foodies. In a way, the town that was a transportation hub has gone back to that designation—but this time, as a way to introduce people to the outdoors.
Originally written for Utah Office of Tourism.