12 February 2021

A Chinese Dragon Once Paraded the Streets of Salt Lake City

Chinese dragon at the 1896 Midsummer Carnival.
Colorization done by author. Image from UDSH.

A grand Chinese dragon once paraded the streets of SLC. But, it turns out that this dragon only made one appearance in SLC: the Midsummer Carnival, during the week of the 4th of July in 1896, the year Utah became a state.

The 1896 midsummer carnival was described as “brilliant and lavish” and “the grandest affair ever undertaken in Utah.” It included 4 different parades, carnival rides, Wild West Show, concert at the Tabernacle, chariot race, and the Chinese Dragon.

At the time, there were only 3 Chinese Dragons in the US: 1 in New York City, 1 in San Francisco, and 1 in Rock Springs, Wyoming. The dragon secured for the Utah midsummer carnival came from Rock Springs.

A committee of Utah Chinese (likely Ogden and SLC residents) went to Rock Springs to secure the dragon, which took some diplomacy as some of the Wyoming Chinese objected because it was sacrilegious to exhibit the dragon outside of Chinese New Year or a religious occasion. The Utah delegation convinced the Rock Springs Chinese that the 4th of July was “sacred” to Utah citizens and that the recent entry of Utah into the union made it even more significant.

The~200 ft long Rock Springs dragon came from China at a cost of $1500 (~$50K today). The skin of the dragon was made of ~500 yards of silk and satin fabric stretched over a bamboo frame and fastened together by rope with bamboo handles to control the dragon. It required 34 individuals (only Chinese permitted) to operate; one person each at the head and tail and the rest to operate the body.

The dragon’s head was bamboo and paper mache with copper scales. One report indicates it had “flashing eyes, smoking nostrils, and gnashing jaws…the latter being manipulated by a "mechanical contrivances” in the interior of the head. Another memory by Ivy C. Towler describes the head spitting fire from its vicious red mouth and the body coloring being red, yellow, and green.

The dragon was advertised to reappear in the 1897 Pioneer Jubilee but the committee was not willing to pay for the cost for repairs and transport. A substitute dragon was created instead. More on that story later.

I found no evidence that this dragon from Rock Springs ever made another appearance in SLC. And I found no evidence that a Chinese dragon was part of any SLC Chinese New Year celebrations.

A Chinese dragon did make an appearance at the 1904 Chinese Fair held at the (first) Salt Palace, built in 1899 and located on 900 South between Main and State streets. It measured 210 ft long and was part of an exhibition of other Chinese items and customs. It is unlikely that the dragon display at the Salt Palace was the Rock Springs dragon and is more likely that it was part of a traveling exhibition of curated items.

  • Salt Lake Herald 1896-05-16 The Midsummer Carnival
  • Salt Lake Herald 1896-06-28 Midsummer Carnival
  • Salt Lake Herald 1896-04-01 The Carnival Arrangements
  • Salt Lake 1897-07-26 Expense and Results
  • Millard County Chronicle Progress 1940-10-31 Find Skeleton in Dad’s Old Store in Rock Springs
  • Salt Lake Tribune 1897-07-23 Today’s Program
  • Salt Lake Telegraph 1904-08-11 Chinese Fair at the Salt Palace

Chinese dragon at the 1896 Midsummer Carnival.
Colorization done by author. Image from UDSH.

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