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Category Archives: Saltair

Some Halloweentime Reading

Halloween is once again upon us, so here are a few spooky stories from the archives to get you in the spirit!

Ghosts in the desert? Past and paranormal meet in Old River Bed

Ghosts of Mercur Cemetery don’t reveal themselves easily

Spring Canyon Spooks: In search of the White Lady

‘There’s a body in there!’

Saltair’s spooky side shines in “Carnival of Souls”

 

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The story behind those Beach Boys photos at Saltair

The Beach Boys at Saltair circa 1968 (via Google Images)

GREAT SALT LAKE, CIRCA 1968—

The exact dates are fuzzy, but Bill Hesterman, Jr. and his younger brother Dave remember their first trip to Saltair like it was yesterday.

It was early on a Saturday afternoon when their father, Bill Hesterman, Sr., pulled the family’s red Toyota Land Cruiser off Highway 40 and aimed it toward the lake’s southern shore.  There, at the end of a mile-long trestle, stood Saltair—the world-famous “Lady of the Lake.”

Or Saltair’s ghost, at least.

The historic resort had been deserted for nearly a decade.  The locked gate at the trestle’s entrance was a half hearted formality.  The Utah State Parks Commission, to which the resort had been donated in 1959, had neither the resources to maintain the iconic pavilion nor an interest in restricting access to it.  Saltair hosted throngs of recreationists and big-name musical acts for nearly 60 years before it succumbed to the elements, extraordinary operating costs, and an ever-receding shoreline.  Now the dilapidated Moorish edifice appealed only to urban explorers and tourists who pined for its glory days.

It was those glory days that brought the Hestermans to Saltair that day.  Bill and Dave sat in the back seat.  Riding shotgun was The Beach Boys founding member Al Jardine, who was in town with his band mates to play a concert at Lagoon later that evening.   Jardine was stoked to explore Saltair.  Bill and Dave were stoked to be hanging out with their rock idol.  Hesterman shifted into 4-wheel-drive, hopped the railroad tracks and cruised the alkaline mile out to the ghost resort.

The Beach Boys stand on pier pylons behind the abandoned Saltair Pavilion (via Google Images)

Even casual Beach Boys fans know the band’s connection to Utah runs deep.  It’s well known that the band’s 1964 hit “Fun, Fun, Fun” was inspired by Salt Lake City teenager Shirley Johnson England, daughter of KNAK radio station owner Howard Johnson, who took her father’s Ford Thunderbird and naughtily cruised State Street.  And of course there’s the 1965 song, “Salt Lake City.”  The Beach Boys played Lagoon seven times during their formative years are set to headline BYU’s Stadium of Fire Independence Day celebration next month.

So what brought The Beach Boys to Utah in the first place?  How did little ol’ SLC become The Beach Boys second home?

It all started in the early 60’s when Hesterman, then a DJ and general manager of KNAK Radio, played a rough Beach Boys demo tape on the air.  “Daddy-O,” as Hesterman was known on-air, was likely the first disc jockey to play a Beach Boys record on radio outside of California.

And Utah listeners were smitten.  As the fledgling band’s sunny lyrics and rich harmonies began to define the surf rock genre, Hesterman promoted them heavily.  He arranged several Beach Boys concerts at Lagoon and later toured with the band in Europe.

Jardine reflected on those early Lagoon concerts in a 2010 interview in Goldmine Magazine:

“It was a magical time. It was like being in a time warp (I think). It felt like we were back in the 1940s and ’50s doing these big ballroom dances, which were so popular in that era.

“We set attendance records every year … it became an annual affair. That’s the kind of vibe we were having with our fans and [even] the promoters at that time. Everybody was pretty happy with The Beach Boys. It was reciprocal feeling, and we always set attendance records.”

He also talked about Hesterman:

“Bill Hesterman was the deacon in the Mormon Church — he never prophet-eltized (sic) or tried to push his particular faith on us. He was just a normal guy with a great radio voice and just promoted the heck out of The Beach Boys. That spilled over to the promoting of the Lagoon.”

Hesterman was actually a Mormon Bishop at the time, but I think we can cut Jardine some slack.

He became good friends with band and their manager, Murry Wilson (also the father of band members Brian, Dennis, and Carl).  When the Hesterman family traveled to California, they visited the Wilsons.  When the band was in Salt Lake, they hung out with the Hestermans.  While the tune “Salt Lake City” was a public tribute to their Utah fans, it was written in Hesterman’s honor.  And although “Barbara Ann” wasn’t written by The Beach Boys, they often dedicated SLC performances of it to Hesterman’s wife, Barbara.

The Hesterman children were given tour jackets and backstage passes to Beach Boys concerts, and were sometimes introduced by their father on stage.

Bill, Dave, and their younger brother Mark grew especially close to Al Jardine.

“I remember him picking me up as a little kid and holding me in his arms,” Mark Hesterman recalled during a phone interview earlier this week.  “He always seemed to be well grounded, just a regular guy.”

Bill “Daddy-O” Hesterman remained close friend of the band until he passed away in 1996, and his sons still keep in touch.

But back to that Saturday at Saltair.

According to Dave, the outing had been Jardine’s idea.  He had heard about the resort growing up and was intrigued by its musical heritage.  With the Lagoon concert several hours off, Jardine saw an opportunity.  They’d have plenty of time to tour the old pavilion before join up with the other Beach Boys for the concert.

They spent two hours wandering the pavilion and exploring underneath.  They climbed the grand staircases.  They walked to the middle of the dance floor, which for decades was the largest unobstructed dance hall in the United States.  They stood there for a while, just to take it in.  This was the place where generations of Utahns danced, fell in love, and thrilled to the music of the Mills Brothers, Phil Harris, and Nat King Cole.

“You felt like the ghosts of the bands were in the background,” Bill Jr. recalled.

Saltair featured the largest unobstructed dance floor in the U.S. (Utah Historical Society)

Though it was certainly run down, Bill Jr. said the old pavilion’s infrastructure seemed plenty solid—perhaps fully restorable with proper funding.

Leaving Saltair proved difficult when the Cruiser high centered on the railroad tracks.

“We were stuck out there in no-man’s-land,” Dave laughed.

Everybody got out and started to dig.  They tried rocking the Cruiser and using a railroad tie for leverage.  They worked for over an hour, racing against the clock and the darkening clouds and the next passing train.  Bill Sr. was fretful.  Jardine, according to Bill Jr., “thought it was great sport.”

They finally freed the cruiser and sped to Lagoon, arriving late to an anxious crowd.  With no time to clean up, Jardine joined his band mates on stage covered in Great Salt Lake mud.  By all accounts, the concert was great.

When Jardine told the other Beach Boys about Saltair, their interest was piqued.  It was decided (with a measure of reluctance from Bishop Hesterman) that they would all return to Saltair on Sunday for a photo shoot before leaving town on Monday.  On Sunday afternoon Hesterman, the band, and a photographer loaded into the Cruiser and drove west (Bill Jr. and Dave didn’t make the trip; Hesterman insisted they stay home and attend church services).

The cover of Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 19 (via Google Images)

As reported in last week, the photos taken that day were featured on a European repackage of Today! and a later Sea of Tunes bootleg release.  The guy in the middle of the cover shot?  Yep, that’s Bill “Daddy-O” Hesterman.

Aside from those photos, little is known about the trip or the photographer.  Calls to Al Jardine’s manager were not immediately returned (no shock there; the band is on tour and this is a modest blog).  But Jardine did mention the trip in the same Goldmine Interview:

“In 1968, Bill took us out to the Salt Flats out there at another old ballroom called the Salt Palace that had since — literally — started to fall into the Salted Sea in the Great Salt Lake. In the 1940s, there was a dance hall out there. The lake shrank away and Bill thought it would be a great place to have pictures taken. So we were sitting on pier pylons and goofing around in the sand out there. You can imagine that the Salt Palace was a hell of a place, and it must have really rocked… The Lagoon was our Salt Palace.”

Okay, so his names are off (the Salt Palace is a convention center in downtown SLC and I’m not sure what he’s referring to with the “Salted Sea”), but it has been about 44 years.  His comparison of Saltair to Lagoon is interesting since the two resorts were fierce competitors until the former’s demise.  Lagoon had solid local appeal, but Saltair was a nationwide destination and was frequently dubbed the “Coney Island of the West.”  The pavilion’s ornate Moorish design and location nearly a mile offshore gave it grand, almost ethereal presence.   This setting, combined with the popularity of saltwater swimming and the resort’s massive dance hall, made Saltair THE concert destination.    Had The Beach Boys been around even a decade earlier, they would have certainly played Saltair.

But their rise in prominence coincided with the end of the Saltair era and the beginning of Lagoon’s heyday.  Lagoon, as Jardine aptly points out, was the Beach Boys’ Saltair.  How appropriate that they, thanks to Bill “Daddy-O” Hesterman, were able to visit both over the same weekend!

——-

Those same pylons today (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Click here for my previous stories about Saltair.

 

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The Beach Boys – Saltair Connection

The Beach Boys – Saltair Connection

Today marks the release of The Beach Boys’ 30th studio album, That’s Why God Made the Radio.  The band is currently playing their 50th anniversary reunion tour, which will bring them to BYU’s July 4 Stadium of Fire show in Provo.  Since I’ve got The Beach Boys on my mind, and since I’ve always got Saltair on my mind, it’s high time I address the Beach Boys – Saltair connection.

What do Saltair and The Beach Boys have in common?  The answer may surprise you.  Sure, one was a long-vanished resort in Utah, the other a rock band from California.  But think about it.  Both spark thoughts of sun, sand, and saltwater.  Both were arguably products of genius, their legacies unmistakable.  Both have rocky—even tragic—histories.  Both have persisted through the years in some incarnation or another.

Oh, and one other thing:  these icons of music and culture met each other one summer day in the late 1960’s.

If you’ve done much research into Saltair history, you may have come across a photo or two of the Boys posing and goofing around at the old Saltair site.  The most ubiquitous is a shot of the band standing alongside a Toyota Land Cruiser with the dilapidated Saltair pavilion in the distance.  This photo appeared on two separate album covers—a European EMI repackage of Today! and a bootleg album titled “Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 19.”

Here’s the EMI album cover:

Photo by Clint Thomsen

The back features the same photo and a blurb by the late Dick Clark.  Saltair is instantly recognizable, as are The Beach Boys.  There’s Dennis with the beard, Carl in the denim shirt, Mike with the Newsie cap, Al with the wild red hair, and there’s Bruce on the right.  But Beach Boys fans and Saltair buffs alike continue to debate one question:

Who’s the guy standing with them?

Photo/Edit by Clint Thomsen

It’s no secret; it’s not well-known.  The online speculation is amusing.  He might be the Wilsons’ father, Murry.  Or Bruce’s father, or the band’s Mexican bus driver, or a Brazilian cabbie.  The truth makes a lot more sense and is actually quite interesting.  So who is that guy, and what brought The Beach Boys to Saltair in the first place?

Check back early next week for the answers to these questions and several other nice tidbits on The Beach Boys’ connection to Utah.

Or, since it’s already posted, just click here.

 

So long, Saltair Train: Iconic rail car makes final departure from Saltair

SLG&W Car 502 (the "Saltair Train") is loaded onto a salvage truck on February 18, 2012 (photo by Clint Thomsen)

To anybody who regularly drives the stretch of Interstate 80 between Magna and Lake Point, the “Saltair Train” was a familiar site.  Like the cinder block shell of the substation she stood near, the old passenger coach was badly blighted and covered with graffiti.  But Salt Lake Garfield & Western Railroad Car 502 was more than just a popular tag site or a hipster backdrop for bridal photographers– it was the last vestige of the original Saltair resort.

Yes, the original Saltair.  There have been 3.  The first, a grand resort pavilion, was built in 1893 and destroyed by fire in 1925. “Saltair II” was built roughly to the same scale and on the same site– at the end of mile-long long trestle, about 2 miles east of the current pavilion (Saltair III) at the freeway exit.  Saltair II itself was destroyed by fire in 1971.  When your grandmother reminisces about dancing the night away at Saltair, she’s talking about its second incarnation.

And she probably remembers riding to it on a train– quite possibly 502.  Some cars on the Salt Lake Garfield & Western line were open-air.  502 was a closed coach, and it carried happy passengers back and forth to Saltair for at least 30 years.

Saturday afternoon I was the last person to climb aboard the old rail car.  My visit wasn’t planned; I spotted the cranes on my drive home and quickly drove to the site.  A few moments later it was hoisted onto a semi truck bound for a Grantsville salvage yard, where it will be dismantled for scrap metal today.  It’s a sad end for this storied relic.

SLG&W Cars 501 and 502 at the old Saltair Site. 502 is on the left. Date unknown, Source: Grandma

502 was one of six “steel passenger motor cars” built by McGuire-Cunmings Manufacturing Co. in 1918 and shipped to Salt Lake City the following year. Cars 501 and 502 were rebuilt in 1950 as trailer cars and were given flat arch roofs.  The other cars were scrapped in 1953.  501 was displayed at the new Saltair pavilion (the one at the exit) in the 1980’s, and was scrapped in 2006.  502 was stored near the power substation at the old site.  It remained in decent shape well into the 1990’s, but has been the victim of severe vandalism and arson since.

Here’s an early, undated photo of Car 502 with its Saltair marking:

Source: UtahRails.net via Flickr

Here’s 502 in 1975:

Source: rrpicturearchives.net

In 1995:

Source: Doug Anderson, davesrailpix.com

And 2007:

Source: railpictures.net

I stood with landowner Ian Morehouse as the car two cranes lifted 502 onto the salvage truck Saturday afternoon.  Video below:

Morehouse, who also owns Saltair III, tried unsuccessfully to have car 501 preserved back in 2006.  He cited the tricky logistics and prohibitive cost of moving the car as primary reasons for nobody claiming it.  It might be said that the real demise of 502 came with the arson fire circa 2009.  Morehouse estimated that 80% of the car’s wooden structure was destroyed in the fire, making it restoration costly and near impossible.  He said it was a combination of recent pressure from Salt Lake County to clean up the site and the increased legal liability with the constant stream of visitors that prompted him to sell the car to the salvage company.

I’m not aware of any plans to demolish the nearby substation ruins, which lie on state lands.

For the record, I also made efforts to have 502 preserved about two years ago, before the land was purchased by Morehouse.  A few organizations showed interest, but none had space to store it or money to move it.  The salvage crew let me snap a few photos of 502 before the old coach made its final departure from Saltair.

Photo by Clint Thomsen

Photo by Clint Thomsen

Photo by Clint Thomsen

Photo by Clint Thomsen

Sad day.

UPDATE: Commenter Gilbert below has created a Flickr group to aggregate images of 502.  If you’ve taken photos out there, head over and add to the pool.

Here are several previous pieces I’ve written on Saltair:

Ghost towns? How about a ghost resort?
Old Saltair: Ruins are all that remain of “Coney Island of the West”
Saltair in flames: Video documents the ruin of famous Utah resort
Saltair’s spooky side shines in “Carnival of Souls”
Lakeside beach resort makes for a delightful summer outing

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Great Salt Lake, Saltair

 

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Saltair’s spooky side shines in “Carnival of Souls”

I’ve written a lot about Saltair’s charm and history, but since it’s a crisp October Thursday I thought I’d tap the old resort’s spookier side.

Some of the best (and possibly only) extant video footage of Saltair before it was destroyed by fire in 1970 comes from the 1962 horror flick Carnival of Souls, starring the alarmingly buggy-eyed Candace Hilligoss.  The movie features a young organist who takes a job in Salt Lake City.  While there, she’s inexplicably drawn to the abandoned remains of Saltair II.  Saltair makes several appearances throughout the movie, but the old place really shines at the movie’s climax.

I found the following clip on YouTube (hat tip: Brian Butko/Lincoln Highway News). It starts with Hilligoss’ character saying spooky things in her psychiatrist’s office before getting scared and driving out to Saltair.  The Saltair footage starts at about 1:56 with Hilligoss driving the Saltair approach.  If you’re into Saltair, you’ll love this.  If you’re not, this low budget B-movie scene will at least amuse you and spark the spirit of Halloween.  Enjoy

You can watch the entire movie on Hulu for free.

See previous Saltair blogging here.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2009 in Ghost Towns, Holiday Related, Saltair

 

Saltair in flames: Video documents the ruin of famous Utah resort

I’ve written about Saltair enough now that it merits its own category in my sidebar. If you’re new to the subject, check this out before watching the video below. I’ve read various accounts of the “Lady of the Lake’s” 1970 demise. The best comes from my cyber-pal Gregory Navarro:

I was doing homework with my girlfriend one November night in 1970 when Channel Four TV anchorman Roy Gibson came on and reported that Saltair was burning. I lived on the East Bench at that time, as did my girlfriend, and I ran outside to see the big candle burning near the horizon. I drove that 26 miles in about half an hour. By the time I pulled up to the turnoff on I-80 West, I could only see flames and plumes of smoke. Nothing else. On the news the next night, only the smoldering steel skeleton, melted asphalt and the pilings, like cemetery markers in neat rows, remained.

While researching my recent articles on Saltair, I came across some archival video of that 1970 fire.  I realize this may only be of interest to Utah history junkies, but it’s interesting to actually see the end of such a prominent landmark- a place that meant so much to so many of my older friends and relatives.

 
 

Old Saltair: Ruins are all that remain of “Coney Island of the West”

The following originally appeared in the August 13, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

The approach to Saltair I (left) near the turn of the century (source unknown), and the same view today (Clint Thomsen)

The approach to Saltair I (left) near the turn of the century (source unknown), and the same view today (Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

It’s early morning at the Lake Point railway station.  The sun has yet to fully emerge from behind the Oquirrhs, but the dry August heat has already announced its arrival.  You sit with your siblings in the cramped seat on an eastbound rail car.  Scores of your neighbors and townspeople pack the aisles and platforms.

It’s August 15, 1903: Official Tooele County Day at Saltair Pavilion.  The county’s entire population, it seems, has boarded the train’s ten passenger cars to visit the most thrilling resort in the west.  Try as it might, the blistering heat can’t spoil the excited spirit aboard the crowded coaches this morning.  The train lurches forward.  You’re finally on your way.

You watch out your window as the train rounds the mountain and approaches the legendary edifice.  Rising from the lake at the end of a mile-long trestle, Saltair seems fascinatingly out of place.  The sight of its onion domes and ornate archways against the lake’s bare backdrop startles your senses.

You’ll spend the day swimming in the lake’s salty waters, trying—but failing—to sink. You’ll watch the sunset from the narrow bathhouse arcs.   By the time you board the train again, the pavilion will be ablaze in lights and awash with the scents of corn dogs and popcorn.

Happy swimmers pose at Saltair (date, source unknown)

Happy swimmers pose at Saltair (date, source unknown)

It’s not difficult for me to imagine this scenario.  I felt that same excitement as a kid every time our family drove the current version of Saltair.  Known in historical circles as “Saltair III” (since it’s the third incarnation), the pavilion sits roughly 2 miles southwest of the original site.  While an outing to Saltair III in the 80’s may not has been as grand as a trip to the famed original, there was something enchanting about the lakeside resort and the notion of the lake as a getaway spot.

A traffic incident during my commute last week closed I-80 at the Saltair exit, giving me several hours to kill in the area.   Many of my fellow sidelined commuters parked at the Saltair III pavilion to grab a Coke and some salt water taffy from the gift shop.  I turned south on the frontage road and drove to the entrance to the original site.

Saltair I was built in 1893 under the direction of the LDS Church.  Intended as a wholesome alternative to the rowdier resorts springing up along the lakeshore, it was the most ambitious lakeside project to date.

For the edifice’s design, Saltair planners tapped architect Richard Kletting, who had already designed the Lake Park resort and who would later design the State Capitol.  Saltair was built over the water on a platform supported by 2500 pine pilings, nearly a mile offshore and accessed via railroad trestle.

The multilevel pavilion had a bizarre Moorish-Victorian appearance.  Crescent “arms” lined with bathhouses extended from each side.   Kletting’s goal was to overwhelm visitors and transport them to a world of “escape and pleasure.”

The resort boasted various rides, shows, and dining options.  Its signature attraction was the Giant Racer, a massive roller coaster that sent riders screaming through drops and turns over the water.

On one occasion, Orville and Wilbur Wright demonstrated their “heavier than air machine” at Saltair, making short, low flights above the pavilion.   Often billed as “The Coney Island of the West,” Saltair enjoyed considerable success until a fire destroyed the pavilion in 1925.

A larger, more colorful version was built in its place a year later.  “Saltair II” added even more attractions, focusing less on swimming and more on entertainment offerings as water levels receded.  High maintenance costs combined and nation-wide economic woes strained the resort, but another lucky generation of Utahns grew up dancing in its massive ballroom and relaxing on its potted palm walkways.

Saltair II was abandoned in the 60’s and was destroyed by fire 1970.  Saltair III was built in 1982 at I-80 exit 104 for more convenient access.  Knowledge of the original site and its legacy faded from collective memory as the years passed.  Few prominent sources adequately address its history.

A charred pile-on lies on the site of the old Saltair II pavilion.  A 1970 arson fire destroyed the structure (Clint Thomsen)

A charred pile-on lies on the site of the old Saltair II pavilion. A 1970 arson fire destroyed the structure (Clint Thomsen)

Old Saltair’s most visible remnants today are the cinderblock exterior of the power substation that served it, and the old rail car, which was an original Saltair coach.  Around these are strewn various parts and pieces of Saltair III attractions that were destroyed in the 1983 flood.

This property is privately owned, but the train car has recently found wide popularity with bridal photographers.  Trespassing photographers stage almost daily shoots there during the warm months.   The actual pavilion site is on public land, but should only be accessed via the Lee Creek Area directly to the east.

Significant remains still lie along the overgrown trestle that leads to the pavilion site.  I followed it, stopping periodically to examine the original salt-crusted pilings that supported the boardwalk.  Pilings marking the Giant Racer’s route also remain along with half-buried strips of metal that the bulldozers missed.  The site of the old Ship Café is littered with ceramic fragments of plates, cups, and saucers.  Anything completely intact was scavenged long ago.

As I traced the outline of the pavilion, I pondered the strange dichotomy this site presents.  Here, two mindsets have always coexisted at odds with each other:  the easy-going beach groove that Saltair attempted to harness, and the harsh desert environment that eventually did it in.

This dichotomy is best illustrated by album art from a 1967 Beach Boy’s record.  Photos show the band hanging out at a decaying Saltair II.  My favorite shot is of the boys balancing atop a tall collection of pilings that once served as a dock.  Those pilings still stand, and given their isolation, they probably will forever.

I returned to my car thirsty and exhausted.  On these flat beaches, one can easily lose track of distance.  The freeway had reopened, and it was time to make my way home.  Were I around in 1903, I wouldn’t have missed that first Tooele County Day for anything.   At least I made it in time for the outing’s 106 year anniversary.   Old Saltair’s remains may be scant, but out there on those flats, it’s spirit is as vibrant as ever.

 

Ghost towns? How about a ghost resort?

Saltair resort circa 1920 (source unknown)

Saltair resort circa 1920 (source unknown)

Many visitors to Utah wonder about the large, Moorish building that looms on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake.  Marinas and various industrial structures aside, it may well be the only commercial building on the lake.

The building is Saltair– Saltair III, to be exact.  It’s the third incarnation of the historic lakeside resort that was first built in 1893.  You can read a beautifully written history of the “Lady of the Lake”on my friend, Gregory Navarro’s old geocities page.

Fires dealt fatal blows to both of its predecessors, and Saltair III rose in 1982.  For more convenient acess to Interstate 80, it was built off of exit 104 rather than on the original site.  The original site sits quietly, abandoned and disheveled a full two miles northeast.

Last week, a traffic emergency during my commute home stranded me in the Saltair area for about 4 hours.  While many of my fellow traffic refugees stopped into Saltair III to wait for the freeway to reopen, I drove down to the trestle that leads about a mile offshore to the original site.

That outing will be the subject of this week’s Transcript Bulletin article, but here are a few pictures of old Saltair.  Some of the older ones I don’t have credit info for, so I apologize to the various historical organizations they probably came from.  The rest I took myself.

Saltair I (1893-1925) (source unknown)

Saltair I (1893-1925) (source unknown)

Saltair II (1926-1970) (source unknown)

Saltair II (1926-1970) (source unknown)

Saltair III (1982-present) (courtesy Michael C. Berch)

Saltair III (1982-present) (courtesy Michael C. Berch via Wikipedia)

Photo of Saltair II taken during the fire of 1970.  (courtesy Utah State Historical Society)

Photo of Saltair II taken during the fire of 1970. (courtesy Utah State Historical Society)

Wooden pilings line the old trestle that leads to the site (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Wooden pilings line the old trestle that leads to the site (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Remains of a ceramic cup lie partially buried in the rubble of Saltair.  I found this cup on the site of the Ship Cafe, a seafood restaurant at the pavilion.

Remains of a ceramic cup lie partially buried in the rubble of Saltair. I found this cup on the site of the Ship Cafe, a seafood restaurant at the pavilion.

Tall wooden posts that were used for docking boats at Saltair. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Tall wooden posts that were used for docking boats at Saltair. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

My column about old Saltair will run in tomorrow’s newspaper.  I’ll post it here sometime next week.

 

Lakeside beach resort makes for a delightful summer outing

Last Saturday’s weather could not have been more perfect for a day at the beach.  Yes, I’m perfectly aware that the nearest coastal beach is 683 miles from my driveway.  I’m talking about the salt-drenched beaches of the Great Salt Lake.  My recent visits to the Saltair area have been plagued by unbearable heat, and though the parking lot always seems to have a few cars parked in it, it’s been years since I’ve seen another soul on the beach.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I rode my bike to the top of a recently deposited dirt hill behind the pavilion and saw dozens of people frolicking on the distant shore.  Children waded in the shallows and teenagers lounged on inner tubes.  Tourists snapped pictures of each other against the backdrop of the turquoise surf.

The scene reminded me of an old picture- an iconic image very familiar to older Utahns and anybody who’s ever eaten at the downtown Chuck-a-Rama.

A crowd of swimmers beams cheerfully at the camera on a sunny 1920’s afternoon.  Some pose standing in the chest-deep water.  Many bob proudly on the waves like corks, with arms, legs and feet above the surface.  The colors of their matching rented swim suits- trunks and tank tops on the men, modest one-piecers on the women- are undistinguishable in the grainy black and white print.  Some bantering couples seem playfully oblivious to the photo shoot, and several women perch on a cylindrical buoy emblazoned with the famous Saltair dare- “Try To Sink.”

Framed by a sprawling Moorish pavilion in the background, the photo offers a nostalgic glimpse back to the days when the lake’s southern shores were vibrant with crowds, when families splashed together in the murky brine and men wore suits and top hats to beach resorts.

Early settlers were no doubt drawn to this peculiar inland sea by what Historian Dale Morgan called a pairing of “haunting loveliness to raw desolateness.”

The idea of an ocean-like environment in a landlocked desert was a paradox irresistible to early Mormon settlers.  They traveled westward on “pleasure excursions” as often as was practical to enjoy the allegedly therapeutic effects of salt water and the lake’s more sandy beaches.  Black Rock was the destination for a two-day July 4 celebration in 1851, a 4-hour trek made by nearly every Salt Lake City resident.

Concerned with the questionable standards of the various resorts that had sprung up around the lake, Mormon leaders spearheaded construction of a world-class resort meant to provide a recreational oasis for church members and compete the increasingly popular amusement park industry.

The original Saltair pavilion was built on a platform of over 2000 pine pilings.   The ornate Moorish edifice became the most popular destination in the golden age of “bathing resorts.”  Aside from swimming, Saltair offered dancing, dining, and boasted entertainment ranging from big acts like Nat King Cole to “Miss Annie May Abbott, the little electric magnet.”

Saltair was destroyed by fire in 1925 but was rebuilt a year later.  The larger, more colorful incarnation was the Saltair of my grandparents’ memories.  Saltair II continued in the grand tradition of its predecessor until the cost of upkeep in the harsh lake environment left it run-down and abandoned in the late 50’s.   Fire again took the “Lady of the Lake” in 1970.

Saltair III was constructed two miles west of the original at I-80 exit 104 and opened in July of 1982 to great fanfare.  The new pavilion was created by converting a surplus hangar from Hill Air Force Base, and was designed as a small-scale homage to the majestic original.  I remember paddleboats and waterslides, old train cars and gift shops; the overpowering taste of salt water while swimming with my aunt on the beach when I was very young.  The high waters at Saltair III may have been what sparked my love for the ocean.

The floods of 1984 put an end to Saltair III’s brief heyday.  Violent waves crashed against its walls, and the structure sat partially submerged for nearly a decade.  Saltair reopened on a limited basis in 1993 for concerts and special events.  The venue now bills itself as “The Great Saltair” and the new owners have big plans.  The dirt mound will be the seating area for an amphitheater, and barbecue pits will be installed later this summer.

Saltair’s new lease on life was evident as I raced down the mound and toward the shore about 1/3 mile ahead.  The flat distance between the pier and the shore was stable enough for riding, and I got strange looks from people making the journey.

Foreign tourists in particular seem to be discovering what many Utahns seem to have forgotten.

“The view is beautiful,” remarked an older man with a heavy Nigerian accent.  Clad in a full pinstripe suit, he stood at water’s edge admiring Antelope Island in the distance.  Jeremiah was with his son, Benson, who is here on a student visa.  Both will be returning to Africa soon and wanted to see the famous lake.

After taking their picture for them, I rode along the shore past more swimmers, including two women who spoke what sounded like Ukrainian.  I paused before heading back to the parking lot to watch gentle waves lap at the alkaline shore.  I wasn’t dressed for a swim, but but I longed to jump into the surf with abandon like the pioneer beachcombers of old.

TRIP TIPS

Saltair is located at I-80 exit 104.  Access is free and the pavilion is open daily during summer months from 9AM – 6PM.  Saltair hosts regular concerts and a unique gift shop, and is adorned with large photographs from the Saltair’s of yore.  The dirt mound I mentioned was being overlayed with sod as this article went to press.  Look for enhancements to the property this summer.  For more information, visit http://www.thesaltair.com.

Saltair I (photo courtesy BYU archives)

Saltair III during the flood years (Photo by Tammy Thomsen)
 
 
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