The phantom flotilla of the Great Salt Lake

This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 1960 issue of the Pioneer


The strangest, biggest, most famous lake after one leaves the Mississippi is the of the Great Basin of North America, Out West it is a fact that water, not land, has always been our problem. In that light any water, fresh or salty, trout-filled or brine shrimp impregnated, gains importance and attention perhaps out of proportion to its worth. This desert sea holds no promise for the fisherman, little encouragement for the boatsman, and all but disqualifies swimmers who like exercise. It is far down the list as a useful work of nature, but it’s very unusualness is its very attraction. Any U. S. map includes the irregular blob of blue waters and all statistics boast that one-fourth of each cup of it is pure salt. We remember that wars have been fought for salt, but we shrug our shoulders, well never run out of it. A historic marker inland from the pavilion claims there are six billion tons of salt available here and glibly estimates this tonnage would fill five railroad trains of salt reaching to the moon!

Three days in the Valley were enough to convince the colonizers that the silver streak of water beyond the Western Jordan must be explored and claimed. A party left the and made it west to Black Rock, bathed in the salt sea and returned to camp the next day -—- the date of bathing: Tuesday, July 27, 1847.

From that day, all valley people have been under obligation to try the waters of the ancient sea. Other waters challenge “try to swim” — our salty liquid commands, “try to sink.” Dried salt clinging to the skin after a semi-tepid, semi fresh water shower leaves a suspicion that we might be breaking out in an incurable disease, or else better get home soon to take a bath. But lack of swimming, lack of fishing, and the most difficult of boating have never discouraged real lovers of the lake from returning again and again.

The official taking-off place for an excursion to Saltair was the Old Saltair Depot, near the old Jordan river crossing at North Temple. On this spot Thomas Jeremy had his willow basket house in pioneer times. A cottonwood tree he planted in 1852 grew so large it gave more protection from the elements than did the nearby station house. Its giant height of 115 feet belied its humble beginning. This ancient shade perhaps saw more merrymakers come and go than any other living thing in the valley — to say little of the hoboes who built fires beneath it to keep themselves warm. Its scarred and burned trunk was a loving landmark. Out by the Jordan that tree, that depot deserve a co-picture with Saltair with the captain “Pleasure.” From leavetaking to arrival, the depot marked the beginning and the end of complete joy.

The train ride home was almost worth all the rest of the pleasure. Get on the open car. Negotiate the first step with a great heave of weight, leap up the other two and beat eager competitors to a favorite outside seat on the long bench worn smooth by sliders into place. It was always possible to get an extra friend or two on the benches, for it was imperative that no group was broken up. In case of an overflow, the boys always offered to ride on the steps, which they dared to even though obvious signs of warning were authoritative. How exciting it was to see our escorts jump to the ground at a siding and saunter along the tracks with careless mien, only to bound back and swing aboard in approved trainman fashion before the train got too far under way. How we always hoped for a desert fire out there in the vast midnight wilderness. And stray sparks did ignite the brush and we sped through the flames feeling as refugees from disaster. Noise was our chief reminder that youth s energy must be expressed in shouts, giggles, screams, songs and general disorder. If you could not hear yourself think, well, that was not the place for contemplation anyway.

The researcher for romance has no better field than to remember Saltair. Moonlight with a trail of liquid beauty right to the deck of the old Ship Cafe always convinced us that we were bound for China. In the marvelous ’2Os our Bishop was the manager of Saltair. His consideration of our neighborhood boys in assuring them summer jobs, and his generosity in passes to us girls made the atmosphere perfectly congenial. The situation was ideal — supervision under the eye of one dedicated to our welfare, and recreation the best in the world with companions of whom our parents approved. To speak of those days is to arouse a thousand smiles.

We have salt storms in our Valley and as we smell the pungent, acrid salt in the air and wash it off our cars and notice the greening bronze on our historical monuments…. that old feeling of homesickness sweeps over us, and we say with the old, old-timers, “Those were the days!”

And indeed, those were days, until the shoreline crept away from our feet and we finally had to take a miniature train to take us for a swim. One authority on shorelines estimates the waters of Great Salt Lake cover 1,000 square miles less than in 1893 when the pavilion was constructed. In 1927 the waves lapped the first floor boards, and in storms of great violence the picnic area became drenched. The potted palms rolled to and fro as though a ships deck tossed beneath them. But steadily since, the thousands of piles which support the resort have been exposed to an unsanctified view.

A sawtooth chart of the official notations of the fluxations of the lake may give the scientist an idea of what the great dead sea has been and will be; but it gives no satisfaction to a man and his kids out for a days pleasure at Saltair. However, the gauge of our happiness was not the fluxuating level of the brine, rather how long we could stay in and how much food we could eat afterwards. As we got to be teenagers we also rationed our time to see how much dancing we could do before the last train pulled out for the city. One never forgot the night a leading department store gave away a car and 30,000 people paid entrance at the gates, while 5,000 couples crowded the dance floor at one time, never needing to rest as the two dance bands alternated their playing. On the lower floor nearly a thousand girders of wood and cement divided the space into areas for family dinners and club and church banquets. A stage at one end gave us all a chance to show off. If this was going to end up a dry lake, at least we had known it when the lapping waves on the ancient piles was music to our ears.

In 1927 we swam in front of the pavilion, that is on the city side, with a buoy floating near to steady the timid, and incidentally to advertise the place. One could sit on the deck of this safety island, or crawl to the round center seat, on whose side was painted in patriotic tricolor “Saltair: Try to Sink.” A-bobbing there in the shadow of the Islamic temple set in the desert for dancing and dining was sheer delight.

By 1956, where once we had securely floated with yards to spare, we observed a high, dry beach. The piles which support the ballroom were also in clear view, and one could have walked under the giant structure dry shod By then the desert side of the resort was to be seen by the bathers who had to board the little train and travel fast to catch the ever-receding waters.

Back there in the ’20s with flood often threatening the nine acres of cement which was the solid floor of the resort we could not imagine ever being able to see dry land below us. Nothing could ever change this magnificent place of happiness, or so we trusted. Thirty years later a naked forest of uniform ten-inch trunks greets the eye. It is dark under there. Only once in seventy years has the sun shown on these monarchs of the mountains. For a brief period after the big fire of 1925 they were exposed to the natural elements of the forest — wind, rain and sun. They gave the picture of a giant’s upside-down hair brush which was anchored in the sea. In no time at all the gastly, whitening piles were hastily covered by a new phoenix of a pavilion which arose over warm ashes.

Now, in I960, the entire structure resembles a multipede whose thousand legs stiffly stick in the drying ooze of the lake bottom, and are forever embedded in salt.

Beneath its belly is darkness where once saline seas rippled in ceaseless motion. It balances on its back a mosque once dedicated to pleasure. On its steps now rest the carcasses of two birds. Tumbleweeds roll their inquisitive way on ghost walks.

And as we tread those walks peculiar ghosts accompany us. There is a trio who never saw lake but drew attention to its whereabouts. A fortunate guesser, one La Hontan, in 1689, told Europe there was a lake here. Father Escalante, in 1776-77, came in close, trusted the Timpanogos Indians ’story of a lake north of their valley, but he shied off to the Milford area.. Captain B. L. E. Bonneville, an army man on hunting leave in 1833 didn’t bother to pack in this far. He preferred a cozy winter at Fort Nonsense on the Salmon. These three wraiths didn’t get here, but their names are honored on our maps.

Other odd facts are encountered as one views the pavilion and the lake in the moonlight. On a wild night, with white caps endlessly chasing the receding shore the violence of the brine is easily believed to be caused by a historic monster who rears his horse’s head and writhes his fearful dolphin’s body about as if to escape this salty prison. Only infrequently since 1848 has he been observed, but with a seventy-five-mile-an-hour-wind which disturbs deep home, he lashes out in frustrated fury. Look close. There he is.

Not so ghostly, but with a legendary past, is a full that swoops and cries as it comes to flat on the soapy surface of the liquid salt. The inland seagull is a thing to catch the breath. Legend and love tie this graceful bird to our hearts. Its once voracious appetite for crickets has placed it high on the sentimental ladder. Its picture should always be taken with a sheaf of wheat. Here’s an equation to ponder: A gull is to a sheaf of wheat as a dove is to an olive branch. Our daily bread was preserved for us by gulls.

Other phantoms draw in closely. The lure of the lake, after its triangulation by the Stansbury Survey, languished for a time until valley men established homes and provided for creature comforts. By the ’70s a number of resorts were seen on the south and east shores, each one a haven of rest and a boast of the proprietors. Legendary names, some of them are: Lake Side, Lake Park, Clintons Landing, Lake Point, Garfield Beach, and more lately Sunset Beach, and there is forever and ever Black Rock. The call of the sea has always been on the inland man’s ear and these resorts came and went in answer to that call.

Far younger ghosts hover near the mountain sea. A couple of valley boys tried to tame the waves and the dried- out shores and won world fame through their efforts. One Ab Jenkins, in his “Mormon Meteor,” out on the flashed by on spinning tires to world renown and the award of the Mayorship of Salt Lake City. One Orson Spencer swam from island to shore in 1938, that is from Antelope to Black Rock, over a course only a superman would attempt. His record has never been broken. One way or another, in the water, on top of it, or over the dried bed of its ancient salt men have loved the lake and tried to prove it.

A phantom flotilla sails by when the moon is high. In the lead is Jim Bridger in a skin boat who sailed the Great Salt Lake in 1824. On a bet he had come to the salt sea, spit out the brine with a colorful expletive and claimed these were the waters of the Pacific. The next person floating by is James Clyman, bull boat captain, who first appeared here in 1825 and 1826. By 1843 a rubber contraption, 18 feet long, got under way toward Disappointment Island with Pathfinder Fremont at the helm, A twenty-foot log, soaked in City Creek waters, became a skiff called the “Mud Hen,” and thus the Mormons went to sea that spring of 1848 and inaugurated a century of lake pleasure and exploration. They advanced to Castle Island, the Disappointment of Fremont, and dreamed of inhabiting every desert island worthy of the name.

By the next year the government surveyor Howard Stansbury became a habitue of the lake. He sailed from one triangulation station to another in the “Sally,” a tiny skiff whose scientific name was “The Salicornia ” Alongside plowed with difficult heaviness, a dignified wooden barge, nameless, a carrier of the “possibles” for a year or so of mapping this blue beauty.

Since 1850 landlubbers have launched a flotilla of craft each properly christened, each proudly the boast of her crew. For four years, beginning in 1856, the ‘Timely Gull,” Captain Dan Jones, cargoed cedar logs and fine salt for the trade. The successive “Cambrias,” one, two and three, Captain David L. Davis, became notable up and down the inland sea. For sixty years this man Davis was the chief navigation authority hereabouts. His catamaran style boat, with two keels, was described as the answer to keeping afloat in heavy salt seas. A merchandising achievement in lake boats was the “Kate Connor,” builder Gammon Hayward. This craft carried ties across the lake to supply the railroad as it prepared to unite the nation.

Navigation took on dignity when the “City of Corinne,” at a cost of $45,000 was launched. Its Chicago engines had come around the Horn and its redwood construction was the best California had to offer. This three-deck, sternwheeler, was built with the excuse of utility — hauling ore from the south shore to the mills at Corinne. Very soon it became a pleasure boat, but finally docked where it became a hotel. It changed its name to Garfield because it feted a national president, then burned to the water line. Over its ashes grew a town (now a ghost), and a smelter, each named for the boat turned tavern.

The anomoly of the lake is everywhere present — a boat that went on land — a train that went to sea. For among our not so dead ghosts we see that train far to the north, across the Lucin Cutoff, a California-bound crack train as it streaks its way over thousands of pilings akin to those that hold up our nearly ghost pavilion. A whistle, an echo of lonesomeness is heard, it is a real live promise of adventure across the desert islands of this famous dead sea. We wonder whether we have yet had all the pleasure this salt lake offers. In 1902 this famed track for trains cost eight million dollars and took 3,000 men nearly two years of hard labor to build. It used 38,000 trees each 100 feet high. For twenty miles the wooden tressel supported rails and ties which were to last nearly sixty years. The choice of the route of a train across water was believed to be of permanent value, for by 1959 a completely earth-filled road bed had replaced the creaky, collapsing, burned-out, wooden trestle.

Perhaps the historic Saltair pavilion is in its well-deserved interval of siesta. Perhaps the ghosts beneath the ripples will lie more resignedly in their salty caves; perhaps the modern flotillas will replace these wraiths of buffalo skin and India rubber. Perhaps a restoration will bring back those “good old days” for swimmer and dancer. Modern reality is not far away from this replica of a mosque. The drone of light racing boats is heard and over the placid waters one sees the shadow of a helicopter or a pattern of circling army planes awaiting their turn on an air strip. The advance, prophetic picture is only complete when one sees a milk streak high above the incomparable sunset — it is the signature of a jet.

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