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In 1904, Saltair was the bee's knees

In the 1960s, bathers sit practically upright in the lake's salty waters.
In the 1960s, bathers sit practically upright in the lake's salty waters.
Deseret Morning News Archives

"Saltair crowded as never before" — Deseret Evening News front-page headline from June 30, 1904.

Almost 100 years ago, a record 15,000 people gathered at the Saltair resort on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake, mostly to swim in the briny waters. Trains were full carrying people to the resort.

Salt Lakers in the early 1900s had to hunt for amusements. Entertainment wasn't beamed into homes or regularly available in theaters like it is today.

Saltair was to become the "Coney Island of the West" as it and other lakeside resorts catered to the craze for swimming, or rather floating — and not sinking — in the Great Salt Lake.

Probably little true swimming ever went on, because bathers would float like a cork and salt water irritates the eyes. No one dived more than once, because it was like hitting a board. But people would float on their backs and interconnect legs and hands and rotate in a circle.

Some lake bathers learned to wear a bathing cap with a clean handkerchief underneath. That way, they could wipe off their eyes if salt water splashed them.

Swimming in the lake was relatively safe, but the first recorded fatality came on July 8, 1896, when Charles Manca died of an apparent heart attack while swimming in the lake.

Bathing suits used in the early 20th century were heavy woolen ones that formed long skirts below women's knees. Many wore long stockings. Men wore suits that reached the knees.

Some marathon swimming races were also held in the lake and the Deseret News sponsored such a race in the 1920s.

The fickle lake fluctuated and caused many resorts to dry up and close. Saltair countered with a mini-train to take bathers to the water, a fresh-water pool and even an enclosed salt-water harbor to swim in. Amusement rides and dancing supplemented the swimming.

Several fires, windstorms and a lack of public support eventually caused Saltair to close in the late 1950s. It later reopened a few times, but never regained its magic.


E-mail: lynn@desnews.com