Mormon church's storied Granite Mountain vault opened for virtual tour

Published: Thursday, April 29 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

A row of cabinets holds film at Granite Mountain Records Vault. The Family History Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center presented a virtual video tour Wednesday morning of the vault, the seldom-seen site of records preservation and storage for the LDS Church.

Christina Smith, LDS Photo Studio

SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church is opening its storied vault — albeit in a virtual kind of way.

Kicking off the national Family History Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center was Wednesday morning's virtual video tour of the Granite Mountain Records Vault, the seldom-seen site of records preservation and storage for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Granite Mountain is home to some 35 billion images of genealogical information, contained mostly on 2.4 million rolls of microfilm, said Jay L. Verkler, managing director of the church's Family History Department and presenter of Wednesday's "tour."

Some 50-plus employees work at the secluded vault site, where records are stored, copied and digitized.

Granite Mountain doubles as a deep-storage facility protecting materials key to church operations, leadership and history.

If the casual observer sees LDS temples as being semi-secret, then the average Mormon may have similar leanings about the facility located not far up Little Cottonwood Canyon.

But church officials say Granite Mountain's protective status is not to be secretive as much as secure.

It's not a unique set-up. Large commercial or government perpetual storage sites are found in states like Kansas, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Virginia. A private enterprise using similar tunnels is a Little Cottonwood Canyon neighbor.

"Archiving is a trick," Verkler said. "They [archivists] don't want patrons touching their records."

Archivists are also concerned with the slightest contamination, including "blue jean dust," the cotton fibers created by brushing pant legs when large groups walk by, said Brent Thompson, director of the Church History Department's preservation services.

"In our business, we don't want foreign materials — we don't want the dust off their shoes, we don't want the fibers off their clothing," Thompson said.

"It's a preservation facility," he added. "If we are marching visitors through frequently, it would be hard to maintain temperatures and keep it under control."

In the late 1930s, the LDS Church's Genealogy Society of Utah began microfilming genealogical records. After amassing more than 100,000 rolls through the next decade and a half, a permanent storage site was needed.

Church officials considered preservation and storage operations as part of an $8 million, 15-story archival building on the corner of Main and North Temple streets, where the new Church History Library now sits.

"It was a great blessing that didn't happen," said Thompson, explaining mid-'50s storage technology was limited and construction lacked seismic codes.

Other potential sites included City Creek and Red Butte canyons, until an engineer/architect living in a cottage in Little Cottonwood Canyon remembered its sheer, vertical granite cliffs. He suggested tunnels into the rock might provide maximum protection and temperature stability.

Testing in the late '50s prompted the church to go full bore; blasting and excavating began in May 1960.

Crews drilled the arched tunnels 10 feet at a time, using ammonium sulfate and diesel fuel to blast every other night. On alternate days, the crews hauled out excess rock.

After tunneling nearly 700 feet without encountering cracks or fissures, the excavation met two challenges — water, and a different type of rock. Crews couldn't go farther.

"Finding that water was very valuable — it was a very big blessing," said Thompson, noting water is used for processing and washing off microfilm as well as in restrooms and heating and cooling systems.

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