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Early shipwrecks on the briny and unpredictable Great Salt Lake

A look at early shipwrecks on the briny and unpredictable Great Salt Lake

Sailboats zigzag on the Great Salt Lake on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019.
Scott Taylor, Deseret News

There seems to have been plenty of boaters on the Great Salt Lake in Utah’s earliest decades who shipwrecked, or nearly so — and a significant number of them ended up stranded temporarily on Fremont or Antelope islands.

Perhaps the lack of weather forecasting, sparse communication and underestimating the punch of the lake’s briny-laden waves all contributed to the disasters.

The first of these involves two near-wrecks by the lake’s first-known white explorers, the John C. Fremont party, which included mountain man Kit Carson, who conducted a U.S. government survey there. On Sept. 9, 1843, Fremont and four of his men paddled a poorly made inflatable rubber boat to Fremont Island. However, halfway there a strong wind began to blow and white caps appeared on the lake’s surface. They had great difficulty in reaching the isle, especially as air in the boat leaked out.

After their survey, they returned to the mainland, but faced a big incoming storm.

Carson’s diary stated they had not gone more than a league when an incoming storm threatened them and the boat was leaking air. Fremont urged them to “pull for their lives,” Carson noted, that “if we did not reach shore before the storm, we would surely all perish.” Pulling at the oars with all their might, they barely made it. “Within an hour, the waters had risen eight or ten feet,” Carson wrote.

Sailboats participating in the fleet buoy race sit on the Great Salt Lake waiting for the wind to pick up June 11, 2003, on the first day of Sailfest 2003.
Keith Johnson, Deseret News archives

Christopher Layton, a prominent early pioneer, is the namesake for today’s Layton City. One of Layton’s lesser-known experiences was a shipwreck in the Great Salt Lake. In April of 1872, a small steamship, the Kate Connor, owned by Layton, ran ashore off Antelope Island (then known as “Church Island”) and became stranded.

The Salt Lake Tribune had reported on May 2, 1872, that the accident happened during a big storm. There were about 10 people onboard the craft and it was carrying cedar posts at the time.

The fierce spring storm almost swamped the boat, and the passengers scurried to safety on Antelope Island. Eventually, a sailboat was used to transport them back to the mainland.


Next the wrecks get personal for me. A large pioneer map of the Hooper area, on the wall at the Hooper city offices (drawn and produced by the late Hooper historian John M. Belnap), lists Nelson Arave, one of my great-grandfathers, as having wrecked a boat on Fremont Island in the Great Salt Lake in 1874. Three years later, in 1877, there’s a reference in the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star (Vol. 39, p. 223) that states Nelson Arave had built two large boats to transport cedar posts and wood from Promontory Point to Hooper. Presumably, it was one of those two boats that wrecked on the isle.

Four years after Nelson Arave’s wreck on Fremont Island, one of his friends, Charles Smaltz, wrecked his large boat, too, on Fremont Island, in 1878.


The Salt Lake Tribune of May 18, 1875, reported that the City of Corrine Steamboat (150 feet long and three decks high) had carried 80 passengers on a recent Great Salt Lake excursion. However, a big storm struck and at one point the fear was the boat would capsize or sink. It didn’t, but the boat was eventually anchored about 200 yards offshore of Antelope Island to ride out the storm.

This was “one of the roughest voyages ever experienced on the Salt Lake,” according to the Tribune story.

The Salt Lake Herald in an April 21, 1882, story stated of the dismal history of boating in the lake: “The fate of these steamers makes it clear that the people of Salt Lake City are not of a sea-going turn.” The story also described the lake as “capacious.”


Four visitors to the Great Salt Lake shoreline are framed by the reflection of the setting sun in Salt Lake City, Utah, July 3, 2007.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

• Blanch Wenner, who lived on Fremont Island with her parents from 1886-1891, told the Salt Lake Telegram on June 17, 1939, that it sometimes took several days on a sailboat to reach the island in bad weather — and at times required a stay on Antelope Island first.

• The Salt Lake Tribune of Sept. 21, 1913, mentions a lawsuit over the wreck of the boat Argo that was used to transport sheep to Fremont Island and yet was destroyed in a storm on the lake in 1912.

• Finally, 15 Hooper boys took a 34-foot boat to Fremont Island in 1924 and were stranded overnight when the boat’s motor wouldn’t start. They used signal fires to alert relatives, but eventually got the motor running and returned to the mainland, according to the Ogden Standard-Examiner of Feb. 24, 1924.


And, even the 1930s weren’t always safe on the lake. Hazel Cunningham of Salt Lake City had a quest for Great Salt Lake marathon swimming and this effort also highlighted the finicky lake’s dangerous side. “Four rescued as boat sinks in lake storm” was a June 1, 1936 headline in the Salt Lake Telegram.

Her first attempt at a record swim was met with disaster as a sudden lake storm overturned the boat following along. A Salt Lake Tribune sportswriter and three of Cunningham’s friends spent four hours in rough water with her before being rescued. The boat tipped over about 3 miles from Saltair beach. (It was just over a month later when Cunningham successfully made her record swim from Saltair to Antelope Island in fair weather.)


There were, of course, shipwrecks on the lake after these. Bottom line is, the Great Salt Lake is not to be underestimated — even today.

Lynn Arave worked as a newspaper reporter for more than 40 years. He worked for the Deseret News as a reporter/editor from 1979-2011. His email is lra503777@gmail.com. His Mystery of Utah History blog is at http://mysteryofutahhistory.blogspot.com.