Historic Preservation Commission
Riverton, Utah: A Legacy of Peace, Progress & Tradition
Located in the southern end of Salt Lake Valley, the first people to live in the area that is now Riverton settled in the mid-1850s. Among the first settlers, Nicholas T. Silcock settled with his family in the spring of 1865 on land he purchased from James Gordon for $2,500.
These early settlers lived in a widely scattered condition along the river bottom in crude dugout homes. Although the early accounts disagree, Archibald Gardner may have been the first to live on Riverton land. For this reason and because he was the largest land owner, the bottom land along the Jordan River and the region around it was called Gardnersville. After a few years, Gardner sold his land to other men who engaged in farming and stock raising. They irrigated their farms from a ditch which hugged the base of the bluff west of the river bottoms.
Riverton’s original growth was slow because of the lack of water for irrigation. When more water became available, the town began to grow. The first step toward this accomplishment took place when the local settlers took it upon themselves to build a ditch to carry water up the bench land. This cooperative effort resulted in a narrow channel being dug as far north Riverton. At this point, the County, which was already doing work on the Utah and Salt Lake Canal or “Big Canal,” took over the project and named it the South Jordan Canal. This canal was completed around 1876. The larger Utah and Salt Lake Canal was finished in 1881. The thousands of acres of tillable land that these canals opened for cultivation added many new residents to Riverton.
Lars Jensen had the first rock house built on what was referred to as “benchland” west of Redwood Road in 1870. Samuel Howard helped survey the road West from Jordan to Bluffdale. It is reputed that Redwood Road got its name from the redwood pegs that were used at this time to mark the survey line.
The Beginnings of Community
Early in Riverton’s history, a branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized. Nicholas T. Silcock was named as the first branch president in 1870. In 1879 a meeting house was constructed of adobe brick on 1300 West at 13150 South. This building also served as a schoolhouse and a community meeting place for the small town. It was a large one-room structure which was later used as a blacksmith shop. Afterward it was remodeled and converted into a home.
As Riverton continued to grow a judicial precinct was established. This took place in 1879. At this time the name of the settlement was officially changed from Gardnersville to Riverton by Judge Charles Smith. By 1886 the Riverton Ward was organized and Orrin P. Miller was made its bishop. The meeting house was enlarged in 1888 with a back addition built on the east end. When completed, the whole building had been given a “T” shape.
Plans were soon underway for a new meeting house. Richard Kletting was selected as architect. He was also architect of the Utah State Capitol and the old Saltair Pavilion. Willard C. Burgon was named building contractor and a site was donated by Thomas Page on Redwood Road at 12800 S. Construction began in 1899. The Foundation was built of granite hauled from Little Cottonwood Canyon by wagon as was all the other material. The entire community worked to see its completion. The structure was ready for use in the summer of 1908 and was dedicated on December 20, 1920. It was used by the Riverton Ward, which after Bishop Miller was presided over by Bishops Gordon S. Bills (1900-1921) and David Bills (1921-1927), until the ward’s division in 1927. The Old Dome Church, as it has come to be known, continued to be used by the Riverton First Ward until it was torn down in 1940.
By the beginning of World War I in 1914, with its additional irrigation water and influx of people, Riverton prospered as an agricultural community. Its thriving business district bore witness to this prosperity. Construction was begun on a two-story commercial building in 1893 by Daniel Densley on the corner of 12600 South and Redwood Road. Located on the northeast corner of the street, it was built of brick and housed the largest dance floor in the south end of the valley on its second story. Dances, wedding receptions, political rallies, community plays and traveling group performances were held there. Businesses were housed on the first floor and at one time or another they include a general merchandise store, post office, bank, harness store, implement shop, carpentry shop, shoe repair store, and beauty and barber shops. The Commercial Building was torn own in 1939.
The Page-Pixon (later Page-Hansen) store was built around 1881, west of Redwood Road at 12760 South. The large department store sold everything from building materials, coal and dry goods, to groceries, grain and housewares. This building was set back off the road and had a tie rail in front of it for tying up horses.
The Jordan Valley Bank was started in 1905 as a community bank. This bank was first housed in the Page-Hansen Store then the Commercial Building. In 1922 it moved across the street to the south. Other businesses coming to Riverton in the 10-year period before and after the First World War included Bill’s Meat Market, Gilbert Lloyd’s Blacksmith Shop, Riverton Motors, the Riverton Canning Factory, the Riverton Alfalfa Mill, Utah Poultry Company and numerous others ranging from theaters to mercantile stores.
Farming was also a major Riverton business. Just before the turn-of-the-century, the farmers in Riverton gradually began to change from self-sufficient farming to commercial farming. In its early years Riverton’s farmers were mostly self-sufficient, producing almost everything they needed. This was no longer the case when farming became a business. Riverton farmers were becoming specialists concentrating mostly on alfalfa, wheat, sugar beets, tomatoes, poultry, sheep, and dairy cows. At this time, on land purchased from Samuel Howard in 1898, the LDS Church began to store tithed produce and livestock. It was not long until the hill upon which this enterprise was located, 1150 West 12400 South, became known as Tithing Yard Hill.
The town’s farmers were aided by the technological developments of the time. These included the advancements in farm machinery as well as the coming of electricity and the railroad. Electricity first came to Riverton in 1912. Riverton’s homes were usually equipped with a single cord dangling from the ceiling with a single clear light bulb. The light from this bulb could range from a dull red glow when the city’s lines were overloaded to a bright blinding glare at time of full power. In 1913 the Salt Lake and Utah Railroad (Orem Line) was started and went through Riverton west of Redwood Road. It was used as a commuter and freight line and stretched from Salt Lake to Payson in Utah County. Trains used this line from 1914 to 1945, after which the rails and ties were removed. Riverton had its own train depot which was also torn down when the line was closed.
Riverton’s schools were also experiencing changes and improvements at this time. The community’s first school had only one room. It was located in the old adobe meeting house used by the LDS branch on 1300 West.
In 1892 a new two-story brick schoolhouse was built at 12830 South on Redwood Road. This structure had four rooms, two upstairs and two down, and the first classes were held in January 1893.It was used by grades one through eight, two grades to a classroom. John Hansen was the first principal of this school. As the population grew, additional classrooms were needed and another building for elementary grades was erected in 1909 to the north of the four-room schoolhouse. In 1925, the south building was torn down and the north building remodeled. However, before the remodeling was completed, a fire struck, completely destroying the school on July 30, 1926. A junior high continued to be built on the south lot and the new elementary school which matched the junior high in brick color and design was erected on the site of the fire-destroyed building. Both these structures eventually became the Riverton Elementary School complex. The increased population of the 1970s and 1980s necessitated the construction of two new Riverton elementary schools. Southland elementary was built on 2700 W. and 13675 South, and Rosamond Elementary at 1975 West and 12195 South.
The 1920s and 1930s were hard on Riverton’s populace. With the coming of the Great Depression, the town’s business district fell on hard times. The Jordan Valley Bank closed its doors in 1932, never to open again. Many lost their life’s savings. Farmers were faced with depressed prices throughout most of the twenties and this got even worse in the thirties. Many gave up their farms and this began Riverton’s transformation from a small farming town to a suburban community. The metamorphosis was aided by the increasing availability of the automobile. Rivertonians could now easily work in Salt Lake City and surrounding areas. By 1948, Riverton had grown sufficiently to be incorporated into a city.
Temporarily halted by World War II, the final stage of the farming community’s evolution occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. Land prices skyrocketed and Riverton’s subdivisions expanded. Farmers sold land at prices many times the price they paid for it. Land was out of reach for young farmers, many of whom moved to Idaho and other neighboring states. This was mirrored throughout Salt Lake County as the number of farms decreased from 2,595 in 1950 to 798 in 1969. Nevertheless, Riverton’s population more than tripled between 1970 when it totaled 2,820 inhabitants, and in the mid-1980s when it reached around 10 thousand.
Photo credit: Used by permission, Utah Historic Society
Additional text: Scott Crump