12 December 2021

The Launch of the USS Utah and the Controversies Back in Utah

The battleship USS Utah was the subject of a few controversies that I think only residents of Salt Lake City can really appreciate.

 Launch of the USS Utah on Dec 23 1909

When the USS Utah was launched on December 23, 1909, several dignitaries from Utah attended the ceremony including Utah Governor William Spry and Utah Senator Reed Smoot. Both Spry and Smoot were prominent Mormons in politics. Smoot was also a Mormon Apostle (and a suspected polygamist which was the subject of the Reed Smoot Congressional hearings of 1904 to determine if he was even eligible to be a senator).

The day after the launch the Washington Post published a story about remarks made at the launch ceremony by Senator Reed Smoot; the Salt Lake Tribune ran this same story a few days later.

The Tribune (as did the Washington Post) reported that Smoot said: “Isn't it a happy coincidence that this auspicious launching of a great battleship called Utah should be made on the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith who first led the Mormons toward the state of that name.”

The launching of the USS Utah on Joseph Smith’s birthday was a coincidence (the US Navy even issued a statement to this effect) but many people in SLC took it as an official endorsement of Mormonism by the federal government.

The Desert News immediately rebutted stating “the anti-Mormon organ prints with the satisfaction of a practical joker,” referring to the Tribune. And further stated that Senator Smoot’s speech did not mention Joseph Smith… but perhaps Senator Smoot may have said it to some friends but that was no reason for such an uproar.

Back in Utah, religious leaders of SLC’s non-Mormon population were particularly perturbed indicating it was likely to stir up tensions in the local communities, which it did. The readers of the Tribune were outraged at the behavior of their elected officials and the US Navy while the readers of the News were outraged that any Utahn would take any offense.

After a couple weeks of the back and forth the controversy faded in importance and was taken up by other rivalries.
SL Tribune compares the size of the USS Utah to the Boston and Newhouse Buildings, SL Trib Dec 23 1909

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