Utah garnered national attention even before it was officially a state and has periodically found itself in the news for events both positive and negative. Here are 14 times that Utah was in the national spotlight.
1) The Completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad (1869)
Utah wasn’t even a state yet when it made national headlines. The ceremonial driving of the last stake (the Golden Spike) occurred at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869, which connected the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads for the first transcontinental line in the country.
2) Utah Became the 45th State in the Nation (1896)
It took Utah 50 years to gain statehood. Utah leaders and the U.S. Congress did not see eye-to-eye regarding the potential size of the state, and the Mormon practice of polygamy. Finally, in 1895, Utah adoption a new state constitution that banned polygamy. President Cleveland proclaimed Utah a state on January 4, 1896.
3) Reed Smoot Hearings (1903)
Polygamy put Utah back in the national spotlight during the Reed Smoot hearings, which began in 1904. Senator Smoot, an LDS Apostle, had been elected to the U.S. Senate in 1903. The Senate was reluctant to seat him. While Smoot wasn’t a polygamist, he was one of the LDS Church’s top leaders and the Senate was concerned that his church was perpetuating polygamy, which was illegal. The hearings lasted four years and were highly publicized. The public eagerly watched and listened as 100 witnesses testified on polygamy and the daily practice of the religion. In 1907, the hearings finally concluded, the Senate voted and Reed Smoot won.
4) Execution of Joe Hill (1915)
Joe Hill was a famous labor activist who came to Park City to work in the mines in 1913. He was unpopular with mine owners, due to his efforts to organize and form a union. Hill was accused of murder in 1914, found guilty and sentenced to death. International outrage ensued -- many felt that he was being framed because of his labor organizing activities. President Woodrow Wilson asked Utah’s Governor William Spry to pardon Hill, but Spry refused. Joe Hill was executed by firing squad.
5) Bonneville Speed Record Set (1935)
Over the years, many land speed records have been set and broken at Bonneville Speedway. The first such record happened on September 3, 1935, when Malcolm Campbell was the first person to drive an automobile 300 mph.
6) Gary Gilmore Execution (1977)
While all executions garner national attention, this particular one go a lot of press because it was the first execution in the United States in almost 10 years. A 1972 decision found that the death penalty was, “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the Supreme Court ordered that all death sentences in the country be commuted. Then, in 1976, another decision ended the moratorium. Death penalty proponents and opponents watched closely to see which inmate in the country would be the first executed. The State of Utah executed murderer Gary Gilmore by firing squad on January 17, 1977.
7) Barney Clark Receives the World’s First Permanent Artificial Heart Transplant (1982)
In 1982 Utah was the spotlight of the entire world when Barney Clark received the Jarvik 7 Artificial Heart at the University of Utah Medical Center. Dr. Robert Jarvik developed the artificial heart and Dr. William DeVries implanted it on December 2, 1982. Mr. Clark, who was not expected to live more than a day or two following the transplant, volunteered to undergo the surgery to help further medical research and development. Surprisingly, he lived for 112 days. The Jarvik 7 is still in use today, mostly as a temporary bridge to keep patients alive until a donor heart is found.
8) Sharlene Wells is Crowned Miss America (1985)
The Miss America Pageant was rocked with scandal in 1984, when Vanessa Williams, crowned Miss America 1984, was found to have posed for Penthouse Magazine. The following year, the pageant needed to crown someone squeaky-clean, with indisputable morals. Sharlene Wells was a resident of Salt Lake City, BYU graduate and member of the LDS Church. When she won the pageant, the rest of the country (or at least the people who cared about beauty pageants) was fascinated by the stark differences between Williams’ conduct and that of Wells.
9) Senator Jake Garn Travels in Space (1985)
Utah Senator Jake Garn became the first sitting senator to travel in space when he joined the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985. Senator Garn got so spacesick during his 2.5 million miles of travel, that NASA created a “Garn Scale” for space sickness -- somewhat of a joke that stated that “Garn-1” was the worst possible sickness. Senator Garn later wrote a novel based on his experience on the Discovery, “Night Launch.”
10) 2002 Winter Olympic Bid Scandal (1998)
In the fall of 1998, Utah was preparing for the 2002 Winter Olympics when allegations of bribery between the Salt Lake Olympic Bid Committee and International Olympic Committee were raised. Frank Joklik, President of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee resigned, as did other committee members. The IOC eventually expelled 10 members and sanctioned an addition 10. Utahns worried that the international scandal would damage Utah’s reputation -- and the Games.
11) 2002 Winter Olympics (2002)
The 2002 Winter Olympics commenced on February 8, 2002, and proceeded to put Utah in the international spotlight again. This time, viewers all over the world watched world-class athletes compete in events all over the state. The Olympics were considered a success in several ways -- viewers set records (over 2 billion people watched) and the state managed to raise enough money that there was a surplus. The extra money went to fund the Utah Athletic Foundation, which helps keep Utah’s Olympic venues open for Utah residents to enjoy.
12) Elizabeth Smart Kidnapping (2002)
On June 5, 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom in a Salt Lake City neighborhood. The kidnapping quickly got national attention, and more than 2,000 volunteers searched for Elizabeth. The family placed billboards across the state and kept their missing daughter in the media spotlight while she was missing.
13) Elizabeth Smart was Found (2003)
Elizabeth Smart was found just miles from her home on March 12, 2003. People all over the country were thrilled and fascinated. Later details about the kidnapping, and kidnappers Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee, continued to make national headlines throughout their trials. Today, Elizabeth Smart is a wife, mother, commentator for ABC and advocate for victims of child abuse and human trafficking.
14) Trolley Square Shootings (2007)
On February 12, 2007, Sulejmon Talovic shot nine people at Trolley Square, before being shot and killed by Salt Lake City SWAT members. Five shoppers were killed; another four were injured. The mass shooting got national attention, but so did the heroism of Ogden City off-duty police officer Kenneth Hammond, who was at the mall with his wife when the shooting occurred. Hammond has been credited with saving many lives when he engaged and distracted the shooter until the SWAT team arrived.