'Memorial to pioneering spirit' to have new function as temple

The Church President who dedicated the Uintah Stake Tabernacle in 1907 said he would not be surprised "if a temple was built here some day." (Builders of Uintah, p. 205.)

Ever since President Joseph F. Smith dedicated the tabernacle on Aug. 24, 1907, the building has stood as a memorial to the pioneering spirit of the valley's Mormon settlers. Now, nearly 87 years later, the First Presidency announced that "following extensive study, we have concluded to use the shell of the building, restoring its original outside appearance, and creating within it, a beautiful temple." (See article this page.)The dedication of the tabernacle was a landmark event in the lives of Church members who helped establish settlements in the Uinta Basin's Ashley Valley in eastern Utah, some 180 miles east of Salt Lake City, in the 1870s. Although Latter-day Saints have become mainstays of the valley's history, they were not the first who gazed upon it or settled it.

In the summer of 1776, a party composed of 10 Spaniards - the Escalante Expedition - traveled through the valley. In 1825, members of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company passed through the area; the valley was named after a member of that company, Gen. William N. Ashley. (Jim Bridger, then a young man and later a famous frontiersman, was also in that party.) On July 21, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln established the Uintah Indian Agency in the Uinta Basin. Pardon Dodds, the first agent to take charge of the reservation, arrived at a place called "Whiterocks" on Christmas Day in 1868. Whiterocks became the first settlement in what later became Uintah County.

After others had begun settling the valley in 1873, Latter-day Saint families began moving into the area. The settlers faced much hardship, particularly during the winter of 1879-1880, as reported in a historical report in the June 22, 1963, Church News:

"No globules of fat rose to the top of the bubbling water in which bobbed several chunks of deer meat. Feed was so scarce in Ashley Valley, Utah, in the winter of 1879-80, that the deer had no fat at all.

"The Pioneer settlers who had come into the area just a year or two before did not even have an onion or a potato to boil with the meat. There was just a small ration of bread to augment their diet of tough venison. The supply of flour was very low and the deep snows precluded any effort to send wagons out of the valley for more.

"The harvest had been poor that fall because of the grasshopper plague that had scourged the valley. And now the severe storms and cold were taking a heaving toll in cattle."

The struggle for survival occupied nearly all the settlers' energies for several years. But conditions eventually improved and the settlement began to flourish. The Uintah Stake was organized July 11, 1886, comprising what was formerly the eastern part of Wasatch Stake. (Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p. 895.) Headquarters of Wasatch Stake was in Heber City, some 130 miles to the west of Vernal.

The town of Vernal, although not the original settlement in Ashley Valley, became the main settlement, growing from a cluster of cabins. The lot for building the Uintah Stake Tabernacle was purchased for $400, and quarrying operations for the foundation stone to be used in constructing the building began in 1899, according to a Deseret News article on June 5, 1984, about the historic structure. Ground was broken in April 1900. The walls were erected and the roof put on in 1901. Work continued for five years, with the finish work - plastering, doors, windows, heating, fencing, painting - being done from August 1906 to August 1907."

According to Builders of Uintah, members of the Uintah Stake worked and sacrificed to build the tabernacle: "It was a tremendous problem to raise the money. Men worked, the record states, night and day in completing the building. Then on Aug. 22, 1907, a company from Vernal drove to Green River [Wyo.T to meet the stage from Dragon [in Uintah County on Evacuation CreekT, and greet President Joseph F. Smith and his company. They camped at the river and had lunch, then traveled by horse and buggy the balance of the way. Bishop Shaffer of the Naples Ward and about 150 children met the party and sang for them. President Smith shook hands with each one."

Although most of the work for the tabernacle was paid for as construction progressed, it was reported on Aug. 23, 1907, the day before the scheduled dedication, that $1,885 was still owed on the account.

The Deseret News article of June 5, 1984, recounted that historical event: "Not wanting to dedicate the building under the cloud of indebetedness, President Joseph F. Smith said if local members would raise the $885, the Church would give the $1,000. The $885 was raised in a few hours by public subscription and the building was paid for in full.

"The tabernacle was dedicated in two ceremonies at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., on Saturday, Aug. 24, 1907. Although seating capacity was estimated at 1,800, more than 2,000 people managed to attend. President Smith was the principal figure at the dedication. He spoke several times over the weekend and at the quarterly conference on Sunday."

In recent years, as stake centers have been built in the area and the building has not been needed for stake conferences, the tabernacle has stood mostly as a pioneer landmark. During the past 10 years, it has been vacant most of the time, although it has been the setting for some community events, such as a story-telling session held in conjunction with an "Outlaw Trail Festival" and Christmas programs. Because of safety concerns, the building essentially has been off limits to the public during the past few years.

The grounds of the tabernacle have continued to be used for such events as Primary activities and gatherings for July 4 and July 24.

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