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Murray Journal

Celebrating 100 years of Murray City Park

Jan 05, 2024 11:36AM ● By Shaun Delliskave

The iconic Murray Park jet is transported to its new location at Hill Air Force Base. (Photo courtesy of Murray Museum)

When you turn 100, you had better throw a big party. Since its founding in 1924, Murray Park has been the setting for countless birthday parties, making it only fitting that it receives a spectacular birthday bash of its own. Throughout 2024, Murray City plans to host a series of events and festivities, turning the entire year into a tribute to the park's century of community service and joy.

“We are preparing a publication for this celebration highlighting the first 100 years of the park. We are trying to gather stories and photos for this publication, and it will be printed by June 15,” Murray City Cultural Arts Director Lori Edmunds said.

Nestled along the banks of Little Cottonwood Creek, Murray City Park has served as the hub of recreation and entertainment for Murray residents for a century. Besides hosting countless soccer and baseball games and swimming competitions, the park has a rich history featuring diverse events. These include rodeos and horse racing, and it even once housed the Murray Nine, a professional baseball team that clinched a league championship. Additionally, the park gained international recognition during the 2002 Olympics by hosting a preliminary soccer match between Germany and Kazakhstan at the County Ice Center.

Murray City Park has been a stage not just for sports but also for the arts. The park's Murray Amphitheater was where pop star David Archuleta first performed on stage, marking the beginning of his career. The park has also hosted legendary performers like Johnny Cash during the Salt Lake County Fair. Adding to its diverse history, two elephants named Bunny and Willy spent a summer grazing in the park.

The park's origins date back to 1918, when city leaders first discussed acquiring land for a public park. In 1924, during Mayor Isaac Lester's administration, the dream became a reality when the city purchased eight acres from local farmers Sherman Freeze, William Smith and Henry Thayne for just over $8,000.

Situated in a flood plain, Murray Park was once a popular swimming spot at a bend in Little Cottonwood Creek. One of the park's earliest photographs features American Hill, located south of the Murray Park Center. This area is historically notable for having four wooden houses, rumored to have been places of ill repute that catered to smelter workers employed across the street.

The park quickly became a popular gathering spot, with the first official event being Arbor Day tree planting in April 1924, attended by many locals. Throughout the late 1920s, amenities like drinking fountains, a flagpole, cobblestone walls, globed locust trees, and lawn sprinklers transformed the space into an attractive recreation destination. 

One of the few reminders still in the park is a stone drinking fountain provided at the park’s dedication by the Murray City volunteer fire department.

In 1928-29, the city built Utah's first free public swimming pool, measuring 40 by 60 feet, in the park. The pool was so popular that a separate wading pool for children was added in 1930.

Utah Supreme Court Justice Richard Howe recalled that the pool was fed with water from the creek. “It was really cold most of the time,” said Howe. 

The Great Depression did not halt improvements to Murray Park. In the 1930s, projects undertaken by federal work programs like the Civil Works Administration, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and Works Progress Administration expanded park facilities substantially. Notable additions included a 1,500-seat stone stadium for softball, new tennis courts, bridges, roads and lighting allowing for nighttime activities.

Prior to the WPA cobblestone softball park, the creek carved a natural grandstand that served as Murray’s professional baseball team playing field. The team was going to host the Chicago White Sox in 1910, but spring flooding made the field unplayable, and the game was moved to Salt Lake City. 

Starting in 1938, the park underwent the first of several significant expansions when an additional 12 acres were purchased to accommodate the new county fairgrounds. The Salt Lake County Fair debuted there in September 1939, kicking off a more than 60-year tradition, with the fair calling Murray home until 1999. Buildings like exhibit halls, stables and a racetrack transformed a large section of the park into a fairground.

For Aleen Hale Holt, Murray Park was a destination worth the effort. "Riding my bike up and down the hills to get to the park was quite the workout," she recalls. Summers were spent swimming, ice skating, tubing the river, and enjoying the County Fair. "Murray Park was the hub of my childhood and even my children's lives," she adds.

In the postwar period, as Murray's population boomed, permanent park staff were hired for the first time. Ballfields, playgrounds, and picnic spots saw heavy use by community groups and families. In 1950, the Murray Women's Club sponsored a War Memorial Peace Garden, one of the first of its kind. Beautification continued with the 1961 opening of the Murray City Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, spearheaded by resident Joan Hardle.

When a traveling carnival went out of business, the park inherited a Ferris wheel and rideable toy train that had been used for decades. 

Paula Rasmussen recalls a distinctive feature of the park. "The big silver airplane was a highlight for many of us. It's a memory that brings back the joy of simpler times," she says.

During a unique period in its history, Murray City Park featured an unforgettable attraction: a real Air Force airplane repurposed as a playground slide. This aircraft, a T33 training version of the F80 Shooting Star, was donated to the city by the Air Force, thanks to the efforts of Park Commissioner L. Clark Cushing. Transported from Hamilton Air Force Base in California to Hill Air Force Base, it was then disassembled and delivered to Murray on a Utah National Guard truck, with an escort provided by Murray police and the Utah Highway Patrol. This iconic plane, a childhood favorite for many, was later removed around 1990 and now resides at the Hill Air Force Museum.

Recreational facilities grew in the 1960s-70s as well, with updates to playground equipment, a new bathhouse, a heated swimming pool, and an outdoor skating rink installed in the old pool. Ballfields multiplied, notably the Murray City Baseball Field finished in 1960 after a volunteer-led fundraising campaign. The field was later renamed Ken Price Field to honor a key contributor. The field would host the Babe Ruth League World Series in 2009 and 2012.

In 1967, the city hired architect A.L. "Ab" Christensen to design a 17-acre eastward expansion of the park. His novel "earth sculptured" plan used landscaped mounds rather than fences to divide areas. Developed sections included soccer fields, picnic pavilions and playgrounds threaded through wooded sections preserved in their natural state.

Murray's famous sleigh riding hill was, in fact, not a natural feature of the park but the creation of numerous dump truck visits to the park. Janeene Brown Timothy reminisces about the thrilling sled rides down the big hill. "We used old wood sleds with runners, which were much faster and more exciting than what kids use today," she said.

The park's cultural offerings grew in the 1970s-80s. The amphitheater hosting ballet, theater and orchestra performances was constructed in 1983 on former farmland donated by the Sardella family. 

Murray educator Kristin Loulias, who is a descendant of the Sardella family recalls the city taking part of her land through eminent domain. In 1990, her grandmother sold additional land to the city for the amphitheater.  

Loulias also sheds light on lesser-known aspects of the park. "There used to be quicksand pools near the park offices," she reveals. Additionally, she mentions the significance of three artesian wells near the park's offices, used historically for irrigation and home use.

Regarding the park, as it stands today, Loulias expresses mixed emotions. "While we would have loved to keep the farm, Murray Park has become a beautiful, integral part of Murray. Its immaculate maintenance makes it a safe and enjoyable place for everyone," she said.

Loulias hopes for more recognition of the land's history. "Parts of the old park have plaques about the families that lived and farmed here. I wish the same for our farm area," she said.

“In the late 70s and 80s, they had metal slides. It was like a spiral staircase leading up to the top. There was a little stream/creek that you could actually walk in and cool off. We had a lot of picnics there back in the day. The hills we would roll down and get so dizzy,” Brandy Linam Bowman said.

Playground equipment that seems implausible in this era of litigation was installed on the newly acquired portion of the park. West of the pavilion, a long slide took riders off one side of the pavilion hill, and a short, steep pipe slide sat on the other. To the east of the pavilion sat a brick igloo. The entrance would sometimes fill with water, leaving kids to enter from the dome on top. Parents would have to fish out small youngsters trapped in the igloo as they were not able to jump out.

Installations of public art went up as well, like the 48-foot-tall Chief Wasatch sculpture (part of the Trail of the Whispering Giants) erected at the east entrance in 1985. There was also an eagle sculpture. Carved of cottonwood tree trunks, the city gave up on trying to preserve the eagle when it started to rot, but the city has invested significantly to preserve Chief Wasatch. 

In the 1980s, the city installed two large water slides that attracted thousands of swimmers; the wait to ride the slides stretched longer than the slides themselves. The city would later install indoor slides for easier maintenance, but the base of the waterslide hill still sits south of the outdoor pool. 

Though the county fair relocated in 1999, two major recreational facilities were developed on the former fairgrounds in its wake. Salt Lake County built an Olympic practice ice center in 1999, while Murray City added the Murray Park Center gym and pool complex in 2001.

Continuous renovations, from playground updates to parking lot expansions, aim to keep the park relevant for 21st-century users while preserving its historic character.

Murray City’s culminating event will be on June 15, where there will be a whole-day birthday celebration. According to Edmunds, there will be history tours, plein air artists, music groups, and a car show. 

“We will invite the attendees to go to the amphitheater for a free showing of ‘South Pacific’ (the first play performed in the amphitheater). Rounding out the event will be celebratory fireworks. We are also pursuing having the park listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” Edmunds said. λ