News Release

Australian Connection to World Famous Salt Lake Tabernacle Organ

150th anniversary of the organ is being celebrated this year


The Salt Lake Tabernacle Organ is one of the most widely recognized organs in the world, both for its appearance and its 'signature' sound. The first organ in the Salt Lake Tabernacle was heard publicly for the first time during General Conference in October of l867. This organ has an important Australia connection few people are aware of. The original organ was built by Joseph H. Ridges, who came to Australia in 1852 from England and built an organ here before leaving for Utah in 1856.

The 150th anniversary of the inauguration of the first Tabernacle organ is being celebrated this year in a special exhibition at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City. Also, world-renowned Australian organist Thomas Heywood, who lives in Melbourne and concertized this summer in England and Germany will give a recital at the Tabernacle on 10th October.   

Joseph Ridges was born in 1827 and grew up near London. He was drawn to Australia by the lure of the gold rush. His interests throughout his youth in England, however were focused on pipe organs, both how they were built and how they were played.

While there is no record of Ridges having been formally apprenticed in the organ-building trade, he took advantage of his proximity to an organ factory near his home to learn everything he could about the construction of the pipe organ, which until the advent of the industrial revolution was considered among the world's most complex machines.

His fascination with organs also led him to “take long walks in order to visit some distant church and [meet the organist and get permission to study his instrument.] Many is the time I have been inadvertently locked in the church and had to remain there from morning service until evensong.”

Drawn by a “bad attack of gold fever,” he left England with his wife and young son in November 1852 and sailed to Australia. They landed in Sydney in April of 1853 and went to the suburb of Pennant Hills with friends from England who had encouraged them to come to Australia. Luke Syphus was a Mormon elder and shared his faith with Joseph and his wife while they were on the ship. It wasn't long before Joseph was converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was baptized soon after they arrived in Australia, "an action which I have never regretted.”

Rather than heading for the gold fields, however, the two men “joined forces and went some 400 miles (650 km) up the rivers and creeks into the dense bush.” In an interview with The Salt Lake Herald in 1901 Ridges said, “Elder Syphus and myself went into the hills to get timber, mahogany, growing there in great abundance. We used to ship it down the river, and thus made a living.”

It must have been quite lucrative, because Ridges returned to “beautiful” Sydney, “picked out a double-storied house, and having a little money coming to me I began to build my first church organ. I had plenty of time on my hands and I worked night and day at the instrument.”

When it was finished it probably had seven stops and about 300 pipes. Ridges set it up in his house and began to play. “As the tones filled the house and floated into the street, men and women came out of their home and stopped on the street saying, “Great God, there is a church organ in there, and we have not heard one for years,” he reminisced.

The organ quickly gained fame, and the presiding church elder in Australia asked Ridges to send it to Utah. Most likely they were already planning to “gather to Zion” with other church members heading to Utah, first sailing to California and then traveling the 1200 km to Salt Lake City via overland trails with wagons and mule teams.

Joseph dismantled his organ and packed it up in “moisture-resistant cases, some of them as long as a wagon.” They left Sydney in May 1856 in the company of 120 other Mormon immigrants on the Jenny Ford and dropped anchor in San Pedro Bay (Los Angeles) the middle of August, organ in tow. After wintering over in Southern California, they began their overland journey in April 1857, arriving in Salt Lake City almost two months later.

Ridges' organ was installed in the “Old Tabernacle” on Temple Square, which was in use from 1852 until the current tabernacle was completed in 1867. Planning for the new tabernacle was already underway when he arrived, and Brigham Young asked Ridges about the feasibility of building an organ similar to the one he had built in Australia but “commensurate in size and grandeur for the imposing edifice." It was a daunting challenge, as Salt Lake City was still “something of a wilderness outpost, inaccessible by rail until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in l869.”

Ridges responded, “Yes, we can; we can do anything we put our minds to.” With Brigham Young's blessing, he went to work, using trees harvested from the mountains for most of the wood pipes and console and bringing in timber from Pine Valley, Utah, some 500 km south of Salt Lake City for the large facade pipes. Cowhides were boiled down to make glue, and calfskin was used to hinge the ribs of the bellows.

Thus the same time pipe organs began being ordered from England for churches in Australia and shipped by sea, (a few of which ended up at the bottom of the ocean) Ridges' crews were laboriously hauling tens of thousands of board feet of timber from northern and southern Utah to Salt Lake City for the new Tabernacle organ.

For the next twelve years he worked on the instrument along with his assistants who, though not trained in organ building, were skilled carpenters, woodworkers, mechanics, etc.

In 1863 he traveled to Boston and purchased metal pipes and other needed parts not obtainable in Utah. While there he also observed the organ that was being installed in the Boston Music Hall, which heavily influenced his design for the casework of the Tabernacle organ.

When the organ was first put into service for October General Conference in 1867, it was far from finished, with only 700 of the organ's planned 2000 pipes in use. Ridges and his assistants continued working on the organ for several more years. The casework was completed in 1869. Photographs from 1874 show it had been enlarged to include three manuals and additional stops

Like all pipe organs, the Tabernacle organ required upkeep, cleaning and repairs through the years. It has been remodeled, upgraded, and enlarged several times in the 150 years since Ridges' original organ was first played during conference. The last major remodeling was undertaken in 1984 and was carried out slowly and meticulously over a period of four years.

This brought the organ to its current size: 11,623 pipes, 147 stops, and 206 ranks.  It is impeccably maintained by two fultime technicians, who care for it and the other organs on Temple Square.  The Tabernacle organ is ranked among the finest organs in the world, not only because of its size, but also because of the success of its tonal design. Aided by the unique acoustical properties of the Tabernacle, the organ's warmth and richness are immediately recognizable.  .

According to Richard Elliott, Principal Organist, "In the world outside of Utah, the Tabernacle organ has not only inspired millions and millions of listeners through its majestic and refined sound, but has also been responsible for launching literally hundreds of musical careers. It transcends all boundaries of creed, age, nationality and socioeconomic status.  Very few musical instruments on the planet have that kind of musical following."

As a result of the daily organ recitals performed at the Tabernacle as well as the weekly broadcast of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and numerous recordings, it is possible that the Tabernacle organ is more widely heard and enjoyed than any other organ in America.

The Tabernacle organ has much in common with the largest organs in Australia. The Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ (1929) at nearly 10,000 pipes is the largest organ in the southern hemisphere. The Sydney Town Hall Grand Organ (1890) with almost 9,000 pipes is renowned for its beautiful casework and has a sound reminiscent (to this writer) of the Tabernacle Organ.

The current world-renowned Tabernacle organ began with Joseph Ridges. In the epilogue to the monograph on Joseph Ridges cited below it states, We sing 'God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.' The story of Joseph Ridges provides ample evidence of that truth. It took thirty years to equip this curious, young English lad with the requisite skills and knowledge necessary to attempt the building of a major organ, to convert him to what was then considered a strange, new religion, and to lead him from his homeland on a circuitous and difficult route to a place of refuge in the desert of the American west. Yet, here he was, and in a few short years when he would be approached by Brigham Young about the feasibility of building an organ for a new, magnificent tabernacle, Joseph would be able to respond, “Yes, we can, we can do anything that we put our minds to.

Historical information for this article was taken from Joseph H. Ridges: London to Sydney to Zion 1827 to 1857 by John Longhurst, Organist Emeritus, Salt Lake Tabernacle Organ, and from articles found on the and deseretnews websites

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