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Category Archives: Great Salt Lake

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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Video: A quick trip to Stansbury Island

Last night I took the kids for a quick trip to the Great Salt Lake’s Stansbury Island.  Here are a few clips from the trip– filmed and edited on my phone. Man, mobile tech is getting awesome!

 
 

Chevron oil leak shouldn’t reach Great Salt Lake

I’m a bit late on this update, but emergency crews in Salt Lake City believe they have contained the oil from Saturday’s pipeline leakage to the Jordan River.  This is good news for the Great Salt Lake, but it’s no solace to the plants and wildlife who call Red Butte Creek, Liberty Park, and the Jordan River their home.  The cleanup continues.

According to Chevron officials, the leak was caused when an electrical arc traveling through a nearby fencepost burnt a quarter-size hole in the pipe.

 

Boats on parade: It’s sailing time on the Great Salt Lake!

Sailboats on the horizon during the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club's 2010 season opener (photo by Sue Butterfield, Tooele Transcript Bulletin)

The Great Salt Lake’s milky green surface was nearly flat last Saturday morning, and though the air was still chilly, sunny skies defied ominous weather forecasts from the day before. Several onlookers shot photos from the Great Salt Lake Marina’s observation deck. Utah State Parks Ranger aide Eric Johnson monitored his VHF radio as he stood quietly nearby, his gaze fixed on the cluster of 10 sailboats a half mile offshore.

“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water,” the voice of Father LeRoy Carter flowed over marine band 16 from the deck of the lead boat.

Marine band 16 is usually reserved as a universal calling and distress channel, but for a few minutes it was dedicated to the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club and Father Carter’s annual blessing of the fleet.

“Bless us with favorable winds and following seas,” he petitioned before Rescue One led the procession of sailboats back to the marina.

Click over to the TTB to read the full article.

 

Photographing Great Salt Lake poses challenges of patience

Our hyper-saline inland sea is eye-catching—that’s a given.  That’s why you can spot tourists aiming cell phones and point-and-shoots toward it from the I-80 rest stop at any given hour of the day.  It’s why so many bridal photographers drag their subjects to its shores to have them boulder hop at the marina or climb onto rusting train cars in their wedding dresses.

A long exposure captures lightning over the Great Salt Lake. (photo courtesy Charles Uibel)

The following originally appeared in the April 29 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

It might have been the fastest half-mile I’ve run since high school gym class.  I can’t be certain because I had no way of timing it; in fact, timing it was the last thing on my mind at the moment.  What particularly impressed me about my dash was the fact that it completely was spontaneous—involuntary, even.  One millisecond I felt the dense cloud of bugs envelop me.  The next I was sprinting at superhuman speeds over beach and bog, through a dense phragmites jungle.

Were the tiny flies biting me?  I didn’t matter.  They were swarming me by the thousands—latching on, transforming my head into a Dipterid Chia Pet.  No, I wasn’t scared of them.  But something about the way they feverishly burrowed into my eye sockets I found deeply disturbing.  Some flight responses can’t be suppressed.  I aspirated a dozen with every breath as I raced toward the safety of my car.  Yes, I had come to this forsaken Great Salt Lake beach to get a taste of the ecosystem, but this wasn’t what I had in mind.

“They’re midges,” a Great Salt Lake ecosystem biologist chuckled when I recounted my panicked retreat.  He recommended visiting the beaches earlier in the morning or later at night—or better yet, during high winds and storms.

That’s also what Salt Lake City based photographer Charles Uibel suggested, but for different reasons.  Uibel has a special affinity for the Great Salt Lake.  He’s been interpreting the lake and its environs through his lens since 2005.

“You need to go see [the lake] when there’s some weather, or else it is disguised as just a bland stinky mud hole,” he told me, although he considers the lake photogenic in any condition.

Our hyper-saline inland sea is eye-catching—that’s a given.  That’s why you can spot tourists aiming cell phones and point-and-shoots toward it from the I-80 rest stop any given hour of the day.  It’s why so many bridal photographers drag their subjects to its shores to have them boulder hop at the marina or climb onto rusting train cars in their wedding dresses.

So what makes the lake so visually arresting?

Geologically speaking, the lake is nothing more than pooled water at the bottom of the Bonneville Basin.  As a terminal lake, it contains all the minerals left over from Lake Bonneville and those introduced by rivers and streams.  Yet the lake’s chameleon surface and its islands create a starkly beautiful setting.

The key component of lake’s subtle ecology is algae.  Aside from imbuing the water with a patchwork of reds, blues, and greens, these algae provide sustenance for brine shrimp brine flies.  Believe it or not, these two minuscule creatures are responsible for the unique look of Great Salt Lake beaches.  At the core of each sand grain is a brine shrimp fecal pellet.  Over time, concentric layers of calcium carbonate form around these pellets until they’re washed onto an alkaline shore.

Shorelines are striped by wind-blown rows of amber-brown material.  These are the product of the brine fly, whose total lifespan from larvae to death is about a week.  After feeding on algae in their larval phase, the brine fly’s pupa traps air and floats to the surface.  Once the flies emerge and fly away, pupae are blown onshore in rows of millions.  The flies themselves stick close to the water; their remaining hours are spent mating and laying eggs on its surface.

Higher up on the food chain are the millions of shorebirds who stop to dine on shrimp and flies on their way along Pacific Flyway.  Their presence makes the lake a birding Mecca and fleshes out the lake’s wildlife scene nicely.

Rounding out the lake’s mystique are man’s attempts to comprehend it and his repeated—yet most often futile—quest to harness its charm.  The Great Salt Lake itself is an enigma.  It’s constant and imposing, yet distant and strange.

I’ve tried to capture this concept on film for years with varying degrees of success.  Truth be told, I’ve been photographing the lake longer than Charles Uibel has.  The difference is he knows what he’s doing, as evidenced by the stunning images featured on his website, greatsaltlakephotos.com.

This photo depicts a the bacteria-dyed waters in a solar evaporation impoundment. (photo courtesy Charles Uibel)

I turned to Uibel for a few tips specific to photographing the lake, then I set out to give them a whirl.

His first tip?  Watch the sky.

“The lake reaches far into the sky with its water vapor and weather effects.  So consider the sky.  It will tell you when you need to drop everything and go take pictures.”

Next, make it personal.

“Take a few moments to stop and become perfectly still,” he said.  “Then ask yourself, ‘What’s important here?’ Make the connection between you and the lake.“

His bottom line: “Don’t let other people’s photos interpret the lake for you.”

My first stop was to the Saltair area—my favorite place on the lake.  The current pavilion is picturesque, and ample relics of the old resort make excellent photo subjects.  Then I stopped at the marina to shoot spiders and docked sailboats.

Uibel suggested I visit the beach north of the I-80 rest stop between Saltair and Lake Point.

“It’s a beautiful, rocky, muddy beach,” he said.

He didn’t mention the midge flies, the last component of the ecosystem which was virtually absent until I walked onto the beach ½ mile from the trail head.  I snapped only precious few shots before the black cloud descended and my mad dash began.

The flies don’t bite.  The swarm is only a mating frenzy—a last hurrah before they, like their cousins on the water, die.  It’s thought that they swarm humans to reduce drag so they can devote more energy to the mating process.   The hundreds that accompanied me to my car were dead by the time I arrived at home.  While their millions of siblings will have been replaced in the ecosystem by the time you read this article, the Great Salt Lake—in some picturesque form—will remain forever.

———-

Check out Uibel’s work at www.greatsaltlakephotos.com.

 
 
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