Utah mountain cabin community hoping for national historic designation

Sep 29, 2022, 10:36 PM | Updated: 10:40 pm

Just off I-80 in Parley’s Canyon hidden past a gate, a road winds away from the roar of traffic and into the tranquil babble of a canyon creek.

“It’s just a great place to be,” said John Felt, who has been coming up to Mt. Aire since he was a young child.

While breathing in nature gives the community of Mt. Aire its name and appeal, the people like Felt attached to the nearly 50 modest cabins lining the canyon really love it for its past.

“I think about my grandmother. She lived up here all summer,” Felt said. He explained how his grandmother bought the cabin he now lovingly keeps up 70 years ago.

But the hand-troweled stone walls go back much further than Felt’s own family history. Families influential in the founding of Utah, made Mt. Aire their getaway.

“It was built in 1890s, so it’s well over 100 years old,” Felt said. He described how one of the sons of Parley P. Pratt built the square stone structure, as part of three stone cabins built by the Pratt sons.

Parley P. Pratt was known as the man who surveyed the canyon that now bears his name, and building the first road through Parley’s Canyon. He was also an early leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and was one of the first members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The Pratt sons staked claims in the canyon along with Willard B. Richards and his family members. Willard B. Richards was the son of Willard Richards, who served as private secretary to Joseph Smith, and helped establish Deseret News– serving as its first editor-in-chief.

Richards was also known as surviving the attack in Carthage Jail that killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

Not only was Richards’ son involved in homesteading Mt. Aire, his daughter Sarah Ellen Richards Smith also had a cabin built. She was one of the wives of Joseph F. Smith, son of Hyrum Smith and nephew of Joseph Smith. Joseph F. Smith was President of the Church for nearly two decades and also served in Utah’s territorial legislature.

Over the years, the cabins multiplied as families grew. Today, somewhere around two dozen summer cabins built between the late 1800s to 1930s remain, many passed down from generation to generation in the Richards, Smith and Pratt families.

“Most of the cabins here are historic, and many of them have been preserved to be in the condition that they were in when they were built,” said Frank Nilson, standing next to a hutch filled with historical photos in the dining area of one of the Pratt cabins.

Frank Nilson doesn’t just appreciate the history, he comes from it.

He explained how his great-grandmother is Sarah Ellen Richards Smith. Her son Franklin Richards Smith was Nilson’s grandfather.

Nilson is the fifth generation to own a cabin up Mt. Aire, and while his cabin isn’t the original cabin his great-grandmother enjoyed on hot summer days, Sarah Ellen’s cabin is still standing up the road from his.

His family purchased one of the stone Pratt cabins when he was in high school. His kids grew up spending summer days playing by the creek that runs adjacent to the humble building, and now his grandchildren will.

“What a wonderful place to grow up, and to have a place where your family memories and your family ties bind you all together,” Nilson said, as tears welled in his eyes. “And that’s what we’ve enjoyed here for 130 years.”

But Nilson’s fondness for the past, is turning into fear for the future.

“It’s a very emotional thought to think that what we have here could be altered and taken away from us,” Nilson said, getting choked up.

He and other Mt. Aire residents are leery of a proposed limestone mining project over the ridge. The proposal is embroiled in controversy and a legal battle.

Controversial Parley’s Canyon mine proposal gets permit, but could become a legal battle

Worries expressed by residents range from impacts on air pollution, to water quality, to blasting.

“When we have these structures that have been here, some of them for 120, 125, 130 years, what is going to happen when we start having dynamite so close to us?” Nilson questioned. He and Felt explained that the stone cabins are not reinforced, and they worry about walls crumbling. Some cabins sit high in the hills on wooden stilts two stories off the ground.

That’s why Nilson and other cabin owners are coming together to apply for a National Register of Historic Places designation for the entire Mt. Aire community.

“We would have some backing to help us preserve what we have here,” Nilson expressed, as his hope.

Right now, they’re in the process of documenting each historic building, and the unique stories behind them as they begin the application process.

Owners and Mt. Air descendants share the hope that they can keep the area intact for the future.

“I just enjoy coming up here because it’s so peaceful,” Felt said.

“I want this to continue to be the beautiful, serene place that it is,” Nilson said. “Where I can bring my grandkids and they can have fun.”

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Utah mountain cabin community hoping for national historic designation