The Colorful History of Ogden’s 25th Street
By Lynn Blamires feature writer for My Local Utah
The sleepy little church-going town of Ogden had no idea what it was asking for when it bid to be the “Junction City” for the two railroads that joined the continent in one long ribbon of iron rails at Promontory Point. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific met on May 10, 1869. Prior to that, stagecoaches served to bridge the narrowing gap between the two railroads for transcontinental passengers.
Need for Junction City
The Junction City would facilitate the transfer of eastern passengers coming in on Union Pacific trains to their western destinations on Central Pacific passenger cars. It would also serve the new Utah Central line between Ogden, Salt Lake City, and points south. Ogden won the bid in 1874, beating out Corrine, Uinta, and Promontory.
The Junction City designation brought the trains, a flood of people, and an economic boom. Ogden became the hub and shipping center for nine rail lines.
Territorial Governor Arthur L. Thomas reported that Ogden “was the most prominent railroad center between Denver and San Francisco.” Quoting census records, he stated that in the 10 years between 1880 and 1890, Ogden’s population had grown from 8,850 to 14, 919. “No other city in the West has increased so rapidly in population” during those ten years. (25th Street Confidential, Val Holley, page 7).
Hell on Wheels Comes to Ogden
With that boom came all the hell that was the Hell on Wheels of Corrine spilling out of the Union Station onto 5th Street for three blocks east wherein it was basically contained. In effect, the “wheels” were taken off their former designation. Instead of the temporary nature of the “Hell on Wheels” that followed the construction crews, this situation was more permanent. Fed, as it were, at the peak of its glory by 120 trains a day – these conditions remained until the 1950s when the trains no longer brought people to Ogden.
Conservative Party Loses to the Liberal Party
Ogden had two political parties at the time – the People’s Party whose voters were generally members of the predominate religion in Utah and the Liberal Party who represented those who were not affiliated with the Church. The huge influx of people tipped the balance of political power to the Liberal Party prior to the election of February 11, 1889 giving Ogden an all-Liberal Party mayor and city council.
Caught by surprise, the People’s Party cried fraud and made accusations that hundreds of non-resident voters were brought in to help steal the election. These accusations were extended to include actually blocking local residents from voting. Thus we see that these accusations are not new to the conditions we have recently witnessed in today’s political arena.
Under the Liberal Party’s administration, conditions on 5th Street were allowed to flourish and not in a good way. It was in the year of the Liberal Party’s sweep of the elections that the name of the street was changed to 25th Street. Marilyn Karras, a staff writer for the Deseret News in an article published August 10, 2000, wrote, “In its heyday, 25th Street was known worldwide as ‘Two-Bit Street,’ a moniker derived from its real name and a reference to prostitution, one of its most prosperous businesses.”
Wild West Alive and Well in Ogden
1889 saw a major immigration of “Gentiles” and by the turn of the century, 25th Street was a picture of the Wild West. Packed with saloons, gambling halls, opium dens, and bordellos – shootouts were not uncommon in the day. Among these immigrants was Belle London who was to become the most successful madam in Utah.
Brothel Established in Electric Alley
In 1893, Belle established Electric Alley on the north side of the buildings that fronted 25th Street. Her parlor house, number 10, was toward the west side, facing east on the Alley that was flanked by over 30 “cribs” or tiny apartments occupied by female boarders. It was accessed by a hidden walkway from 25th Street and was masked by more innocent operations like the London Ice Cream Parlor. It got its name from a string of electric lights that ran the length of the Alley
Prior to 1912, city officials were using fines as bribes to turn a blind eye to the salacious activities going on in the Alley. However, the demands of civil leagues became so strong that in June 1912 at midnight a raid turned the lights out ending the 30-year history of Electric Alley. It is only a parking lot today behind the buildings that front Historic 25th Street, but it is still marked by white letters on a blue Ogden street sign – “Electric Alley.”
While Electric Alley was shut down, Karras reported that “Ogden remained a haven for prostitution well through the 1940s and, in fact, prostitution was a central crime issue up until the mid-1960s with places such as the Rose Rooms and Wilson Rooms in the upper tenancies of 25th Street.”
Three Eras or Booms in Ogden
This Wild West boom was the first of three eras that make up the history of this notorious street. It lasted from 1880 to 1905. It was followed by the Prohibition Era from 1917 to 1933 and the repeal of Prohibition, which marked the third era.
Prohibition Was the Second Boom
The second boom was provided by the onset of Prohibition. The profits to be made from homemade alcoholic products and the lack of citizen compliance with the enforcement of Prohibition laws made it difficult to shut off the flow of liquor. Furthermore, immigrants brought a taste for ales with them. In making homemade liquors, people found a new path to the American Dream.
I have a story from my own family that helps me understand this situation. My grandfather worked for a zoo in South Dakota during Prohibition days to provide for his family. One of the city fathers had a relative that needed a job so my grandfather was laid off. Jobs were hard to come by during this period so he went to the local authorities for help. They understood his plight and told him that he could make his own bathtub gin to sell to provide for his needs. They promised that they would keep an eye out for Federal “Revenuers” and to warn him when they were in the area. He must have made good gin because my mom told me that Christmas time in those days was abound with presents.
Creativity was the name of the game for moonshiners. Copper stills were hidden very cleverly in fields and buildings, including those on 25th Street.
Al Capone Came to Ogden
During Prohibition, the famous Al Capone did step off a train and took a stroll down 25th Street looking for business opportunities. He is quoted as saying, “This is too rough a town for me.” (Salt Lake Magazine November 10, 2017) He promptly boarded the next train and left town.
What of the Stories About Tunnels
The Prohibition era gave rise to stories of tunnel systems that were dug under 25th Street to connect the basements of local businesses to aid the quick movement of illegal liquor and to hide suspicious activities. I have read a lot of accounts about these tunnels and while those who knew about them firsthand are not around to tell, there are far too many boarded, bricked, and cemented passageways to definitively deny the existence of some kind of tunnel system.
Ogden’s position as the rail hub during the Prohibition era brought a flow of thirsty people into Ogden and 25th Street rose to meet the demand. The Prohibition era also gave birth to a term used primarily during this time. The word Speakeasy was used to describe a place that sold illegal liquor. It wasn’t used much after the 18th amendment was repealed.
Military Installations Provided the Third Boom
With the end of Prohibition, Ogden experienced its third boom. The Great Depression created a short lull in activities, but in preparation for the Second World War, the Northern Wasatch Front was deemed a safer section of the interior for military installations. 1938 saw the completion of Hill Air Force Base. It was followed by the Ogden Defense Depot in 1941 and the Naval Supply Depot the following year.
A huge influx of construction workers, military personnel, and civil employees came through the Ogden rail hub to build and man these operations. 25th Street did its best to accommodate, but at the very least, it was overwhelmed.
A severe shortage of rooms had soldiers and workers on warm nights dropping on any open patch of grass in City Hall Park they could find to sleep. That shortage also affected romantic encounters. Val Holley described them as “fevered entanglements” in his book, 25th Street Confidential (page 78). The sexual activity on the street and in parked cars was blatant and frequent. The shrubs and bushes in the park only provided an illusion of privacy.
On the same page, “Ross and Jack’s, the popular all-night ‘burger-spud’ diner at 362 25th Street, had to start closing at 10:00 p.m. despite a record business; after that hour, the soldiers and munitions workers became too boisterous and propositioned the waitresses.”
25th Street Known Around the World
Because virtually every troop train was routed through Ogden, 25th Street was known internationally. It was on a military list of places for soldiers to avoid. Holley described the scene that would unfold as troop trains arrived in Ogden on page 79. When trains emptied, “Military police threw up their hands at the futility of controlling such mobs.” They headed straight to the bars looking for booze and women. Civilians were scarce at these times because they had enough sense to stay away.
Organized Crime Played a Part in the Third Boom
Organized crime also boosted the economy with license money from gambling syndicates. In many ways, it mirrored, on a smaller scale, the mob scene in Chicago and New York.
Airplanes and Automobiles Changed Travel Dramatically
What law enforcement could not do, air travel and the automobile accomplished. Rail traffic declined because airlines made it possible to cut travel times dramatically and automobiles provided unprecedented freedom to move about.
By 1950 there were only 20 trains coming through the Ogden station. Without rail traffic, the glory of 25th Street died. Hotels closed, bars tried to survive on business from local residents and the brothels went out of business.
25th Street Still a Rough Part of Town
That didn’t mean it wasn’t still a rough part of town. My brother-in-law had a friend who sold cars. In the 1950s, he drove a Corvette to 25th Street for the purpose of picking a fight. He was seen the next day with a cut on his forehead that needed stitches. The guy he picked to fight had a steel pipe.
It was popular in the 1950s for teenagers to park and watch the drunks on 25th Street. Men and women staggered out of bars falling over each other in feeble attempts to stay upright and using pathetic attempts to help those who had fallen.
Fast forward to today’s 25th Street. In spite of the demolitions and fires that occurred in the days of decline, a significant number of original structures remained to be renovated.
Face of 25th Street Today
Today it is a bustle of activity that appeals to state, local, and out-of-town visitors. Visit Ogden calls it “The Most Entertaining Street in Utah.”
The history is still there. You can take a leisurely stroll and read the markers with information about what and where. The restaurants are reason enough to go year-round. Go early and visit the art galleries before you eat.
The street comes alive as the weather warms up with the Farmer’s Market. It is filled with food, fun, interesting things to buy, and live music on the street. Other events include First Friday Art Strolls, the Harvest Moon Celebration, the Witchstock Festival, the Christmas Village, and the Wasatch Yeti Bash.
Discover the New 25th Street
25th Street isn’t what it used to be, it is so much more. Make a plan to discover the wonders it has to offer; you won’t be disappointed.