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Summers at Saltair: A look back at Salt Lake’s Coney Island

SHARE Summers at Saltair: A look back at Salt Lake’s Coney Island

If you're spending your summer in northern Utah, chances are your plans don't include swimming in the Great Salt Lake.

Known for its corrosive waters, swarming flies and putrid odor, the Great Salt Lake's briny shores don't offer most people's idea of a fun day at the beach.

Top Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews of Salt Lake beaches describe countless "dessicated dead birds," a "blanket of black flies" and saltwater that assaults every cut, hangnail and invisible abrasion on one's body. But Utahns didn't always find swimming in the Great Salt Lake so offensive.

Early Great Salt Lake swimmers

Some of the first Mormon pioneers took a dip in the lake just three days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley. They recounted the experience with fondness, reporting that the water was so pleasantly warm no one wanted to leave it.

"We cannot sink in this water. We roll and float on the surface like a dry log. I think the Salt Lake is one of the wonders of the world," Orson Pratt said.

The novelty of "float(ing) like a cork" in the Great Salt Lake didn’t wear off on early Utahns. By the 1880s, a handful of commercial resorts sprung up on its shores and swarmed with bathers.

Bathers enjoy Garfield Beach in the 1890s.

Bathers enjoy Garfield Beach in the 1890s.

Deseret News archives

These vacation spots boasted all kinds of attractions — from Lake Point's dancing hall and white sand beaches to Lake Side's "City of Corrine" steamboat offering 25-cent boat rides to Garfield Beach's racetrack and bowling alley.

The last Great Salt Lake resort built before the turn of the century was also the grandest and most popular — the only resort to survive past the early 1900s. Opening on Memorial Day 1893 at a cost of $350,000, an elaborate domed structure named Saltair towered above the lake on 2,500 wood pilings.

Saltair lured 10,000 people to its official dedication and continued to draw impressive crowds well into the '30s and early '40s. While myriad natural disasters and other obstacles precipitated the resort's eventual decline, Saltair is still remembered fondly and lives on in Utah's cultural memory.

Bathers wearing Saltair bathing suits pose by a buoy that says "Saltair, Try To Sink" between 1893 and 1900.

Bathers wearing Saltair bathing suits pose by a buoy that says “Saltair, Try To Sink” between 1893 and 1900.

Charles R. Savage, BYU Lee Library L. Tom Perry Special Collections via Wikimedia Commons

Coney Island of the West

The vision for a resort as extravagant as Saltair began in 1891, according to Nancy D. McCormick and John S. McCormick’s history of the vacation spot titled "Saltair." In that year, officials from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints organized the Saltair Beach Co., purchased 744 acres of Salt Lake beach property and formed the Saltair Railway Co. to build a railroad from Salt Lake City to the planned resort.

The LDS Church's primary motivation for establishing Saltair was to provide safe recreation for families. During the previous decade, some church leaders worried about the influence of other Salt Lake beach resorts and their potential to morally corrupt unsupervised young people.

On Jan. 14, 1893, the Deseret News announced the LDS Church would build Saltair to be the "most magnificent in a long line of resorts." And Joseph F. Smith, then second counselor in the LDS Church’s First Presidency, wrote that Saltair would offer "entertainment of a high moral character as well as rest from the heat of the city."

Richard K.A. Kletting is photographed with his wife, Mary S. Kletting.

Richard K.A. Kletting is photographed with his wife, Mary S. Kletting.

Utah State Historical Society

Saltair's founders intended their resort to be a wholesome "Coney Island of the West," equipped with the entertainment and spectacle of the nation's best-known theme park.

Construction on Saltair began in February 1893, under the direction of architect Richard K. A. Kletting, who also designed the Utah Capitol Building, the original Salt Palace and other historic Utah buildings.

The original structure was an architectural wonder, McCormick and McCormick explain, the whole complex measuring over 100 feet tall and 1,000 feet in length. Saltair's "moorish” design reflected Near Eastern architecture popular in the late 19th century, with wings on either side of a domed central pavilion, and ornate onion domes along the perimeter adding exotic flair.

Saltair was extremely popular in its early years. According to McCormick and McCormick, total attendance during its first summer season was a little over 100,000 when the current population of Salt Lake City was less than 50,000. By 1906 attendance more than doubled, and in 1919 it reached 450,000.

R. Owen Sweeten, band leader, poses with the Saltair band in 1920. His band played for seven years from 1917 to 1923.

R. Owen Sweeten, band leader, poses with the Saltair band in 1920. His band played for seven years from 1917 to 1923.

Utah State Historical Society

The place to be

In its early days, Saltair’s primary attractions were swimming (or bobbing and floating) and dancing on what was advertised as the world's largest dance floor. Big band greats performed, including Phil Harris, Owen Sweeten and Glenn Miller.

At one point, the resort banned the lively Charleston dance "for fear all those people coming down hard on the downward beat would shake the whole pavilion into the lake," wrote American writer Wallace Stegner in "Xanadu by the Salt Flats."

Over the years, Saltair added a variety of other diversions including food and refreshment stands, rowboats, a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel, a penny arcade, silent movies and even a giant roller coaster, McCormick and McCormick write.

The resort also featured a number of impressive acts, such as aerial ballerinas, jugglers, diving mules and a demonstration of an early flying machine by Orville and Wilbur Wright themselves.

People dance at Saltair on what was advertised as the world's largest dance floor in an undated photograph.

People dance at Saltair on what was advertised as the world’s largest dance floor in an undated photograph.

Utah State Historical Society

For Mormons and non-Mormons alike, Saltair was a happening place for Utahns to visit.

Saltair’s setbacks

Despite its popularity and early momentum, Saltair was a magnet for natural disasters and faced numerous obstacles leading to its eventual decline.

In 1925, a fire broke out in its main pavilion, causing $500,000 in damage. According to McCormick and McCormick, the structure burned for 26 hours, and by the time firemen put it out, only the bathing pier, beach office, merry-go-round, pilings and giant coaster were left standing.

New investors pooled their resources to rebuild a second Saltair bigger and better than before, and it reopened with great fanfare several months later. But even with this new excitement, Saltair's golden years were already in the past.

Saltair II is photographed some time between the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Saltair II is photographed some time between the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Utah State Historical Society

Several smaller yet still destructive fires struck in 1931 and 1939.

The newly restored vacation spot also began to fall victim to competition presented by new forms of entertainment, such as radio and television available in the comfort of Utahns’ own homes. And the rise of automobiles meant Utahns could easily drive to recreation spots in other nearby towns, canyons and an increasingly popular Farmington theme park named Lagoon.

An undated photograph of the "Giant Racer" roller coaster on Saltair's fairgrounds.

An undated photograph of the “Giant Racer” roller coaster on Saltair’s fairgrounds.

Utah State Historical Society

Another gradual yet pervasive deteriorating force was the Great Salt Lake itself. High winds and salt spray eroded the structure’s boards and required Saltair's owners to repaint every year, McCormick and McCormick write. And over Saltair's lifetime, the lake slowly receded, leaving a wide, unappealing expanse of odorous mud between the structure and the water's edge.

While the number of patrons remained high during the Great Depression, according to McCormick and McCormick, World War II brought a shortage of workers and attendees, closing the resort from 1943 through 1945.

When Saltair reopened after the war's end, Salt Lake's Coney Island was truly on its last leg. After staggering through the next decade, another fire tore through the resort in 1955 and strong winds demolished its roller coaster in 1957.

By 1959, the state took control of the failing resort and shut it down. And in 1970, after years of vandalism and neglect, the abandoned structure burned to the ground.

Saltair II is photographed during a 1970 fire.

Saltair II is photographed during a 1970 fire.

Utah State Historical Society

A lingering legacy

In spite of its star-crossed history, Utahns couldn’t entirely forget the myth and magic of Saltair. In 1981, new investors began construction about a mile west of the original resort site, and Saltair III rose "like a phoenix" from its ashes, according to the official website.

The new venue doesn't bring bathers or offer carnival attractions, and it can't compare to the grandeur of its predecessor. Saltair III primarily hosts concerts and other events, but a variety of big musical acts have performed under its moorish domes, including Bob Dylan, Marilyn Manson, Ed Sheeran and Kendrick Lamar.

Saltair III is photographed from Chopper 5 on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005.

Saltair III is photographed from Chopper 5 on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

Today, the Saltair of summers past is still remembered fondly and lingers in Utah's cultural memory.

Its ornate towers and piers have been immortalized in the 1962 horror film "Carnival of Souls" and the cover of a Beach Boys album, while a moody 1991 Pixies song recalls a "palace of the brine" that stood under "the starry sky in Utah."

A concession stand at Saltair is photographed on June 4, 1955.

A concession stand at Saltair is photographed on June 4, 1955.

Utah State Historical Society

In his “Xanadu By the Salt Flats” essay, Wallace Stegner reminisced about a magical childhood summer at Saltair.

"What forever separates my grandchildren from me is that they never had a glorious summer job, at the age of fifteen, at Saltair, the stately pleasure dome that used to rise out of the waters of Great Salt Lake, eighteen miles west of Salt Lake City. … I remember it like lost Eden. And they actually paid me twenty-five cents an hour, $2.50 for a ten-hour day, just to work there. I would have paid them," he wrote.

After recounting the resort's inevitable decline, Stegner concluded that "Saltair lingers in memories other than mine, a mirage, a fairyland that promises, at least to fifteen year olds of all ages, perpetual glamour."

An undated photograph of a family on the beach at Saltair.

An undated photograph of a family on the beach at Saltair.

Utah State Historical Society