Betty G. Spencer
Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994
American Fork, in northern Utah County, is located fifteen miles northwest of Provo and thirty miles southwest of Salt Lake City. It is bordered by Utah Lake on the south and by the Wasatch Mountains to the east. Adjacent to it lie the recently organized communities of Highland and Cedar Hills, the unincorporated area of Manila, and the nearby cities of Pleasant Grove on the east, Lehi on the west, and Alpine on the north.
In the early days of the nineteenth century, the Rocky Mountain region was a treasure-house for valuable furs, particularly beaver, which were found in large numbers along the mountain streams. Utah Valley was visited by some of the fur trappers and hunters, and Utah Lake and the streams running into it became known to them. The streams running into the lake were known as forks, the principal ones being Timpanogos (Provo), Spanish Fork, and American Fork. The first settlers on the American Fork Creek took the name of the stream for the settlement.
American Fork was settled by Mormon pioneers in the summer of 1850. Stephen Chipman and his son William Henry, along with Arza Adams and his son Nathan, were en route to Fort Provo to trade when they camped overnight near American Fork Creek. Cottonwood trees along the creek and lush meadows on the lowlands toward Utah Lake convinced them that this would be an excellent place for their cattle and sheep.
Chipman, Adams, and Ira and John Eldredge went to Brigham Young and received permission to “go take up land you want.” Heber C. Kimball was present at the meeting and asked them to survey a tract for him adjoining theirs. The first survey was completed by Ira Eldredge under the direction of a Mr. Fox, who was head surveyor in the territory. This was known as the “Big Survey.”
During the late months of 1850 and the spring of 1851 other settlers were attracted to American Fork; they included Leonard E. Harrington, who came as Kimball’s agent. He served for twenty-nine years as American Fork`s mayor, bishop, and postmaster.
Matthew Caldwell, a member of the Mormon Battalion, arrived in American Fork in the fall of 1850, having crossed the plains with a company of emigrants. He, his wife, and three children brought with them a herd of cattle. Brigham Young had directed Caldwell and his herders to proceed to American Fork with the livestock. Caldwell is believed to have built the first house in American Fork, cutting the logs near Fort Provo. Other log houses were quickly erected against the coming winter.
At a conference held at American Fork on 18 September 1852 it was decided to lay out a city on American Fork Creek to be called Lake City. It was incorporated by legislative act on 4 June 1853. The community was known as Lake City until 1860 when the city charter was amended. The name was then changed back to American Fork in keeping with the wishes of the people and to avoid a confusion of mail with Salt Lake City.
American Fork was also known for a time as McArthursville, taking the name in all probability from Duncan McArthur, who owned a farm between American Fork and Pleasant Grove, and after whom the McArthur irrigation ditch was named.
The first settlers of American Fork located at various points along the creek, and when the townsite was surveyed only a few people moved to the town lots. However, in 1853 General Daniel H. Wells of the Nauvoo Legion gave orders that forts should be built for the protection of the settlers if trouble broke out with the Indians. On 23 July of that year a meeting was held in the schoolhouse. Parley P. Pratt and Lorenzo Snow were present and counseled the people, who then unanimously agreed to take immediate steps for the building of a fort.
Most of the log cabins built on the nearby farms were moved within the confines of the proposed fort, which was eighty rods long and seventy-four rods wide, containing approximately thirty-seven acres. Some parts of the wall were built to a height of eight feet, but no part attained the planned height of twelve feet. As the local Indians became less aggressive and more peaceable, the necessity for the wall decreased and the work was never pushed to full completion.
The original purpose of settlement was to establish cattle and sheep ranches in the lush meadow lands. As additional newcomers arrived, crops were planted and an agrarian lifestyle was begun. During the three years that the majority of the settlers lived within the walls of the fort, they raised their crops and tended their herds on individual farm or range plots, returning to the safety of the fort each evening.
To facilitate the raising of crops, it was necessary to irrigate the various parcels of ground. The abundant supply of pure drinking and culinary water was a rich asset. People from the Pleasant Grove area had been the first to claim water from American Fork Creek for irrigation purposes. They constructed a crude dam either late in the season of 1850 or early in 1851, making a ditch to carry the water to their lands.
The first irrigation ditch in American Fork was made by the Mott brothers—Stephen, Israel, Hyrum, and Squire—in 1851. Lehi (then called Dry Creek), organized at about the same time as American Fork, took up to one-third of the waters of American Fork Creek by authorization of the legislative assembly of the territory of Utah.
One of the first local commercial enterprises was the Arza Adams gristmill; the general mercantile business of Marx and McKenzie came in 1852. Richard Steele opened a small glass and crockery store; this was followed by Alexander Miller, Arza Adams, John Hindley, and William Helley with their own establishments. Grant’s Emporium, as well as Bates’s and Boley’s also offered goods. Major business houses included the American Fork Co-Operative Association, which was sold by shareholders in 1930, and Chipman Mercantile, which closed in 1979 after celebrating its centennial seven years earlier.
The construction of Columbia Steel Company (later United States Steel and still later Geneva Steel) in Utah County in 1942–43 and the influx of many easterners assigned to key positions at the plant brought a local residential building boom, the greatest to that time in the community. The population of the community increased to 4,500, necessitating a vigorous public-works program to provide increased utility services.
A city-owned hospital was opened on Main Street in 1937, and a new, modern facility was built in 1950. After many improvements and additions, the hospital was sold to Intermountain Health Care in 1977 and a state-of-the-art facility was constructed in 1980. An extended-care facility and expanded emergency room have since been added. The latest technological equipment serves patients.
Many clubs as well as civic and service organizations are dedicated to increasing local intellectual and artistic awareness, service to others, and community betterment. The community is also enriched by the American Fork Arts Council, which presents a variety of arts events throughout the year, as well as the Utah Regional Ballet and the American Fork Civic Chorus. The Utah Pageant of the Arts drew wide audiences from 1973 to 1992, enhancing the cultural climate with its productions and affiliated programs.
Progressive community schools are served by the Alpine School District, with Utah Valley State College and Brigham Young University just minutes away.
Recreational and leisure needs of residents are met through a fine new fitness center, a year-round recreation program, the popular Tri-Cities golf course, and the American Fork Boat Harbor. Recreational and camping areas, such as Tibble Fork and the Alpine Scenic Loop, are also nearby in beautiful American Fork Canyon.
The downtown has become fragmented, with shopping malls located at both the eastern and western boundaries of the business district. Financial institutions serve all banking needs. Two business parks attract high tech development.
American Fork is a city of well-kept private homes, condominiums, and apartments. There is a high percentage of home ownership, and well-maintained public parks are found in every area of the rapidly growing community of 18,000 (in 1993), up from the 1990 census figures of 15,696 people. An innovative, full-service public library serves the community and was built in 1968 without a bond issue. It has been continuously upgraded, with plans for further expansion underway.
The LDS American Fork Ward was organized on 25 May 1851 with Leonard E. Harrington as bishop. In 1901 four wards were divided from it, and Alpine Stake, with Stephen L. Chipman as president, was organized. The Community Presbyterian Church was organized in 1877 and celebrated its centennial with a restoration of the original building. There are currently four LDS stakes and forty wards in American Fork, along with the Community Presbyterian Church, St. Peter’s Parish Catholic Church (organized in 1973), Calvary Chapel, and a Jehovah’s Witness congregation. Members of other religious denominations also live in the city.
See: George F. Shelley, Early History of American Fork, With Some History of a Later Day (1993); Betty G. Spencer, American Fork, a Great Place to Grow (1988). Polly Aird, “Small But Significant: The School of Nursing at Provo General Hospital, 1904-1924,” Utah Historical Quarterly 86, no. 2 (2018),