Historian says 25th Street's notorious reputation more about religion than prostitutes

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 1:58 PM

Becky Wright

Historic 25th Street is one of Ogden’s most popular destinations, known for its art galleries, restaurants, boutiques, farmers market and family-friendly festivals. It’s trendy and welcoming.

Years ago, it was called “Two-Bit Street,” known for its bars and brothels. Women who valued their good reputation stayed away, and there was a famous story that gangster Al Capone declared the street too tough even for him.

But historian Val Holley — whose “25th Street Confidential: Drama, Decadence, and Dissipation Along Ogden’s Rowdiest Road” is scheduled for release Oct. 15 from the University of Utah Press — says the street’s reputation grew more from politics than prostitution.

“Everyone in Ogden assumed 25th Street was notorious, and the rest of the state has judged Ogden largely on 25th Street’s awful reputation,” he said. “But let’s face it — Ogden has never been that big a city, and even at its most notorious, I can’t imagine Ogden had more houses of prostitution, saloons and gambling halls than Salt Lake City.

“So how could Salt Lake have turned around and pointed a finger?”

To be clear, Holley, who grew up in the area but now lives in Washington, D.C., doesn’t dispute the existence of vice on 25th Street.

“I don’t think women were likely to be on 25th Street unless escorted by a man, and even then I think it was very rare,” he said. “There are accounts of vagrants hanging out in front of saloons, or on the boardwalk by Union Station, with rude comments for women who passed by. ... It was not a comfortable place for women to be.”

And ladies, according to local legend, weren’t the only ones who thought the street was unsavory.

“You have the story that Al Capone came here because he wanted to expand his mafia empire, walked 25th Street, and said, ‘It’s too rough a town for me,’ and left,” said Sarah Langsdon, associate curator of special collections at Weber State University.

In the 1950s and beyond, parents were still warning their kids to stay away from 25th Street — so of course, local teens went to check it out.

“We would drive through town, and 25th Street was just kind of a thrill ride with your windows rolled up,” said Lee Witten, who works in the Union Station archives. “We’d see drunks, and there was an alley between 24th and 25th streets where we could drive behind the buildings — we’d go see if you could see red lights in the windows in the tenements.”

Culture clash

The key to explaining 25th Street’s notoriety, according to Holley, is understanding how the coming of the railroad changed Ogden.

The city was settled by Mormon pioneers, but the railroad brought newcomers who were not members of the church.

“So many of the hell-on-wheels people from Corinne came down to Ogden, after the railroad abandoned Corinne,” said Witten. “There were some legitimate businesses — hotels, restaurants and mercantiles — but there was also the darker element.”

The prostitutes, gamblers and alcohol peddlers were shocking to the original settlers, but it was the legitimate businessmen who really shook things up.

“You had the dominant religion struggling to retain political dominance, while at the same time the lifeblood of Ogden’s economy, which was the railroad, was leveling the playing field,” said Holley. “Beginning in about 1887, Ogden was discovered by investors, capitalists, entrepreneurs. ... As a railroad town, there were enormous possibilities there, so the demographics were really changing — the number of non-Mormon voters in Ogden was increasing.”

The U.S. government tipped the scales by passing the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which banned polygamy. Practicing polygamists were no longer allowed to vote, and neither were their wives or daughters — the Edmunds-Tucker Act removed women’s voting rights, which had been recognized by The Church of Latter-day Saints of Jesus Christ-led territorial legislature in 1870.

“In 1889, Ogden became the first major city in Utah to have a non-Mormon government,” Holley said. “The Liberal Party came to power in Ogden. The entire city government went Liberal — the council, aldermen, judges, everything.”

Fred J. Kiesel was the new mayor. He and his political allies set out to, as they put it, make Ogden “an American city.”

The change in leadership didn’t sit well with the LDS settlers, who ran candidates through the People’s Party.

“That is the point at which 25th Street became notorious, because the People’s Party used 25th Street as a political cudgel to discredit and disparage the Liberal Party. It became such a political hot potato that later generations mistakenly believed that the Liberal Party relaxed the municipal ordinances and allowed gambling and prostitution to flourish.”

Holley says the minutes of city meetings show that the new leaders did not relax those laws.

“There are all sorts of examples, well-documented examples, of the Liberal Party doing its job of enforcing municipal laws in Ogden,” he said. “In their first two years, they increased the size of the police force many times, as you would expect in a city growing in population. What’s more, twice the Liberal city council voted down proposals to extend the hours of operation of saloons.”

In spite of their efforts, the political fighting gave Ogden a black eye, and caused 25th Street’s reputation to swell.

Bootlegged booze

Historic 25th Street’s reputation continued to grow in later years.

“The first real interesting development in the 20th century came when alcohol was outlawed,” said Holley. “The entire country went dry in 1920, but Utah went dry three years earlier.”

Prohibition may have been passed in Utah even earlier, he said, if not for two state legislators from Ogden. One of the senators who argued against it was Edmund Hulaniski, a Civil War veteran who lived just off of 25th Street; the other was Rudolph Kuchler, whose family owned a cigar shop on Two-Bit Street.

“He almost single-handedly got the legislation for prohibition defeated in 1909,” Holley said of Kuchler.

Of course, when alcohol was finally outlawed, it was sold illegally on 25th Street.

During World War II, when thousands of soldiers passed through Ogden’s Union Station, many took a walk up 25th Street.

“Twenty-Fifth Street was known across the country,” said Langsdon, adding that word spread about a barbershop on the street where soldiers could buy a hollowed-out watermelon to carry banned bottles of booze on the train.

Things started changing in the 1950s, when city officials launched a stronger crackdown on crime.

Colorful characters

In addition to exploring Historic 25th Street’s reputation, Holley’s book shines the spotlight on some of the street’s famous and infamous people. Belle London, Harman W. Peery and Rosetta Ducinnie Davie each earned a chapter.

London ran houses of prostitution on 25th Street, from about 1890 to 1914.

“Some say she ran politics in Ogden,” said Holley. “She owned more property on 25th Street than almost any other individual.”

Peery served five terms as mayor of Ogden, during the 1930s and 1940s.

“Harman Peery had no qualms about filling the city treasury with fees and fines of vicious establishments — saloons, which were gambling joints, which were totally illegal and selling hard liquor … and, of course, houses of prostitution,” Holley said. “There are still a lot of rumors in Ogden that he got rich from allowing these kinds of establishments to exist on 25th Street, but the truth is he did not. … The funds went into the city treasury, not into Harman Peery’s pockets.”

Davie, like her predecessor London, ran brothels on 25th Street.

“She was a very beautiful woman, she was smart, and she was a good manager of business, but by the time she came around, changes in society, and expectations for law enforcement, made it impossible for her to have the career Belle London had,” Holley said.

Davie operated her “Rose Rooms” with the knowledge of the police and sheriff’s department.

“I asked an old member of the sheriff’s department how that happened, and he said both Rosetta Davie and her husband, who was a thief and a bootlegger … were valuable police informants,” Holley said.

Davie became known to the general public in 1948, after the “Jollification,” a party held in conjunction with an event sponsored by the Weber Wildlife Federation at the old Ogden Livestock Show coliseum.

“They always ended the show with strippers, and this is what the men expected, but before the strippers came out, there was legitimate entertainment,” said Holley.

The legitimate part of the show, in 1948, was provided by Weber State University, and included Holley’s father in a barbershop quartet called The Dorianaires. Former WSU administrator Dean Hurst, and former state legislator Laurence Burton, were also WSU students scheduled to perform.

“At this point, the audience was getting extremely unruly,” Holley said. “They started hurling bottles on stage, and yelling ‘Bring on the girls.’ … It turns out the strippers had been going around and giving out books of matches with the Rose Rooms logo on them, and the strippers had written their names inside of the matchbooks.”

The bottle-throwers weren’t arrested, but the strippers were.

Then and now

Witten says 25th Street really changed because of economics.

“After the railroad stopped coming through Ogden as passenger service, most businesses and bars sort of withered away, and buildings were abandoned,” he said.

Incentives were offered to new businesses, which turned Historic 25th Street into the respectable place it is today.

Now the street’s infamous reputation is embraced as colorful history.

“Twenty-Fifth Street had a scenario that did not exist in any other city in the world,” Holley said. “You basically had this notorious street plunked right down in the middle of a Mormon settlement.”

Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or bwright@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.

Val Holley’s book “25th Street Confidential: Drama, Decadence, and Dissipation Along Ogden’s Rowdiest Road” is set for release Oct. 15, by the University of Utah Press ($34.95).

The author, who grew up in Weber County, and now lives in Washington, D.C., is returning to Utah for a series of book signings and lectures:

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

Related Stories

×