Wondrous Water

Is the Fountain of Ute magic, or myth?

Fountain if Ute

So there’s this funny little shack on the University of Utah campus, pretty close to Rice-Eccles Stadium. The shack—marked with nothing other than a funny little sign—is at the heart of an interesting tale, a genuine piece of Utah folklore: the so-called “Fountain of Ute.”

What specifically, is the “Fountain of Ute?” And what is its place in Utah mythology? As with Ponce de León and a certain other fountain, I began my search.

A kind of quirky blog—at redthread. utah.edu—features a quirky little story on the shack, its sign, and its supposed mythology. The fact is that the shack—built in 1931—once covered a well that once supplied most of the U’s water. But as lore has it, that stream of cold, canyon water also happened to contain some seriously magical properties— or perhaps radioactive properties, the blog suggests, describing special superpowers like those possessed by characters in 1950s-era comic books.

The water was so special, it was said, that when ingested, it purportedly led to great athletic prowess on the part of the ingestor. Supposedly, a series of intramural athletes who drank from the well in the early 1950s had unprecedented competitive success, winning multiple titles in multiple sports.

Now, years later, the shack is locked, and the key is said to be missing (lost or hidden someplace on campus). Why no one just calls a locksmith seems beside the point; RedThread speculates that former Utah football coach Urban Meyer might have laid his hands on the key (leading to the team’s success in 2004), but its whereabouts are a mystery now (you could say the key is part of an Urban legend). Still, if Meyer had it, it certainly stands to reason that his successor, current coach Kyle Whittingham, got his hands on it, eventually—especially given his team’s undefeated 2008 season, which finished with Utah’s stunning 31-7 upset over fourthranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

But asking about this key caused me to get a lot of blank looks from people connected to campus: Old Utes, young Utes, former Utes, current Utes. Maybe it’s because the football team has actually lost this fall season—demonstrating that if Whittingham knows anything about a magical Fountain of Ute, the present-day Utes aren’t drinking from it (or at least not quite enough) anymore. And what about all those other coaches of all those other Utah teams for the past, oh, 60-70 years? Many have had success over the decades, but let’s face it: There really doesn’t seem to be magic radioactive water flowing for the whole lot of them. (Something tells me that if former U of U basketball coach Rick Majerus had known about a special water well, he would surely have been guzzling from it.)

Still, the quest meant finding out more. By putting some tough questions to the right people. Alas, officials connected to the U’s Athletics Department won’t talk.

“I have never heard of this, seen this building or this sign,” claims Liz Abel, associate athletics director and sports information director for the Utes. “But I’ve only been here for 26 years.” Understandable denials aside, that did seem a bit extreme—even for Utah representatives looking to avoid connections to magical radioactive water. Even I could at least confirm the existence of the funny little shack, which thousands of University of Utah students, er, stream by daily (and thousands more when games are played at the U’s Rice-Eccles Stadium during football season). I have driven by it, parked near it, and vaguely noticed it over the years.

And sure enough, there it is, at the south end of the parking lot just west of the stadium: a relatively nondescript, ramshackle brick building; small, weathered by time, and shrouded in mystery (and dandelions, but that’s another story). Indeed, the little building seems somewhat forgotten, like a structure from another era plucked up and then placed somewhat randomly in the shadows of the very modern football stadium, a few hundred yards from the humming TRAX station and just a few feet off a very busy 500 South. An anachronism, for sure.

A peek inside the smallish building—locked by creaky doors with worn padlocks—offers very few clues as to exactly what it houses or used to house, though one is able to see a “Danger – High Voltage” sign or two (another allusion to radioactivity, perhaps?). It certainly appears less magical than marginal.

On the outside of the building there are no obvious markings, except for that simple sign—maybe four feet wide by four feet high, hanging 25 feet or so above one of the locked doors—which says: “Fountain of Ute.” It looks like it belongs in a 1950s soda shop.

Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

Kirk Baddley BA’86, archivist for the U’s J. Willard Marriott Library, notes that “Fountain of Ute” is what people began calling the well because it supplied most of the University’s water for many years. The phrase seems to have become popular around 1950. “Even the Department of Physical Plant and Operations referred to it that way, evidently, which may in part explain the old sign,” he says. Well, that’s fun and sort of charming, in a “do you remember campus way back when?” kind of way, but it hardly explains all this mystery key stuff and unprecedented athletics success. But Baddley only wants to quell the quest.

“Let’s say for the sake of argument that there really was a group of people from the Department of Physics [which is what the blog contends] or someplace who played intramural sports together in the 1950s,” Baddley suggests. “Maybe it’s credible that the tale of the magical Fountain of Ute, the search for the key, et cetera, was cooked up by some alumni who might have been students in the 1950s.”

So there’s no key mysteriously hidden away somewhere? No key that guarantees access to a shack housing a magical, radioactive stream of water? No water that guarantees unbridled athletics success? Though my search was less than successful, I’ll set aside fact for faith. After all, like Ponce de León, don’t we all want to believe in the magic of a Fountain of Ute?

—John Youngren works in advertising for Love Communications in Salt Lake City and has written many previous articles for Continuum.

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