The Rich and Unknown History of Trolley Square


Amen Koutowogbe

Trolley tower at Trolley Square in Salt Lake City, Utah on Aug. 8, 2022. (Photo by Amen Koutowogbe| The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Allison Stuart, News Writer


Standing at the top of the iconic Trolley Square water tower, one can see the entire Salt Lake Valley. Located in the heart of the city, the current shopping center holds an important place in Utah history.

According to Michael De Groote, the director of communications for S.K. Hart Management, the history of Trolley Square dates back to 1847, when Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leader Brigham Young designated the land for public space, and was chosen to build a territorial fairgrounds.

The fairgrounds flourished for several years, holding events such as fairs, wild west shows, hare coursing and balloon ascensions. According to the Trolley Square website, after Utah became a state in January 1896, the first state fair was held at the Exposition Building.

‘The center of football’

According to De Groote, the beginnings of the University of Utah football team have roots in Trolley Square.

“What Trolley Square is today used to be the center of football in Utah,” De Groote said. “People would just gather around in the open area … and they would play the football games here.”

De Groote said the first football game the U ever played was in 1892 against Utah Agricultural College, now Utah State University, in the Exposition Center — where they lost 12-0. The location became a hotspot for local teams to play, including teams from Fort Douglas, the YMCA and Salt Lake High School, which eventually became West High School. 

Early on, the U’s team was “trounced” by Salt Lake High School before they put together a team that practiced more often and could eventually win, according to De Groote.

“The University declared themselves territory champs because they’d beat the high school … so they assumed they should be the state champs, [which] brought about a lot of controversy,” De Groote said.

Trolley Square Emerges

The square gets its name from its original purpose — trolleys. In the late 1800s, horses and wagons were replaced with decadent train cars that were powered by electricity.

De Groote said back in 1908, the railroad business was booming in Utah, which led the railroad mogul E.H. Harriman to form a trolley system base in the state. Harriman invested several million dollars into building the best facilities and equipment to house the trolley hub he envisioned.

But where does the water tower come in? 

“As fire was always a risk, Harriman included the iconic 50,000 gallon water tower which is a beloved landmark on display at Trolley Square today,” the Trolley Square website says.

But by the 1930s and ’40s, the train boom began to slow, and the trolleys were beginning to be replaced by buses that could do the same routes. The last trolley was put out of service in 1946.

And so the trolley barns mostly sat empty until 1972, when local developer Wally Wright converted them into a historically sensitive shopping center, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Wright modeled the shopping center after the popular Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and ushered in a new era of prosperity and success. He used the trolley barns, renovating them to preserve the history that made the original shopping center.

De Groote said the mall featured many attractions, including restaurants, bars and an ice cream shop. 

The Present

In 2007, there was a shooting at Trolley Square, where gunman Sulejman Talović killed five people and injured four. During the 2008 recession, the ownership filed for bankruptcy. The complex was bought in 2013 by Khosrow Semnani, founder of S.K. Hart Management, who modernized and renovated the mall. This included updating the water tower with new lighting and adding a Trolley Square Museum, which opened in 2016 and aims to showcase the rich history of Trolley Square, as well as pioneers in Utah history.

Today, the shopping center is home to a handful of restaurants and stores, including the Old Spaghetti Factory, Desert Edge Brewery and Whole Foods.

U Pre-Nursing student Lauren Larson holds fond memories of Trolley Square.

“When I was in high school, I would always go to Trolley Square with my mom to check out the Pottery Barn and then get food at the Spaghetti Factory,” Larson said. 

Thomas Moore, an employee of Weller Book Works, said he’s developed a strong liking for the shopping center.

“I’m fond of several of the nearby shops as well, in particular, MyAmour Café, if I’m in the mood for an appetizing hot beverage,” Moore said. “There’s a display on the first floor I like to look at: a charming miniature model of what the building looked like when the trolleys still ran.”


[email protected]