Way We Were: The oldest profession in the Old West (UPDATED)
Park City Museum
Editor’s note: The Park City Museum announced Thursday it would postpone the “Bawdy Women of the West: The Myths and Realities of Prostitution” lecture as a precaution due to the coronavirus outbreak. The article is presented in its original form below.
On Monday, March 16, the Park City Museum will host a lecture called “Bawdy Women of the West: The Myths and Realities of Prostitution,” given by Michael Rutter, an Adjunct Professor of English at BYU. His books include “Upstairs Girls: Prostitution in the American West” and “Boudoirs to Brothels: The Intimate World of Wild West Women.” Rutter will discuss the legends and myths of prostitution in the west – sex work was an active business in Park City from the 1880s until 1955.
The most well-known “lady of the night” in Park City’s history was Rachel Urban – or, as most knew her, Mother Urban. Mother Urban was a madam active from about 1910 until her death in 1933.
Urban owned a row of houses along Heber Avenue (now Deer Valley Drive) at the mouth of Deer Valley (near today’s roundabout). In all, there were 16 houses in Park City’s red light district, serving mostly Park City miners.
The miners, at least, viewed “the row” as a necessity for the town. According to Park City historian Raye Ringholz, one mayor tried to shut down the red light district in Park City. Irate that her business was forced to close, Urban approached the superintendent of the Judge Mine, a single man, and made her case: Without the women in Park City’s red light district, the workforce of Park City miners, mostly single men, would be forced to go down to Salt Lake City to take care of their “business.” That meant absenteeism for a couple days out of the week. That, in turn, meant less ore mined and less profit for the mines.
The superintendent used his influence on the City Council and within a few days the row of houses were back up and running – with 25 “seamstresses” employed along the row.
But what did people around town think of prostitution?
According to a Park City old-timer, given the pseudonym Pat by The Park Record to maintain his anonymity in a 1979 interview, it was a mixed bag. Apparently, Pat was “never bothered… to be seen walking to the row,” saying, “I’d walk over there openly.” Meanwhile, he noted, prominent citizens avoided being seen, “but they were there, no question about that.” Pat himself was at least a little embarrassed about his excursions to the red light district.
Aside from those who frequented “the row” having mixed feelings, other Parkites accepted the business and its women. Not only did their business stimulate the local economy through monthly fines or “taxes,” both in good times and economic depressions, but Mother Urban, Bessie Wheeler, and others gave back to the community.
Parkite Jim Santy said the “nice bunch of ladies” gave money to the schools and even gave Park City’s switchboard operators candy every Christmas. Urban also hosted a Christmas party and other social events; she and Wheeler helped out-of-work citizens pay for groceries or helped injured Parkites pay their bills; and they paid their respects at most funerals.
Outside of Park City, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other groups opposed the “sin” of prostitution. These groups influenced state law enforcement and Summit County officials to ultimately shut down the practice in 1955 as part of the “Sin Raid” that also took away gambling and saw several business proprietors arrested for state law violations concerning alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and other “vices.” Park City authorities were not notified prior to the raid.
The lecture takes place at the Museum’s Education and Collection’s Center on 2079 Sidewinder Dr. from 5 to 6 p.m. Learn more about the vices in town in the “Sin City” exhibit at the Museum.
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Sundance Film Festival organizers in 2020 held a bonfire in Park City that looked toward the future. The novel coronavirus pandemic altered society shortly afterward, but many of the issues of note at Sundance that year remain difficult.