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

19 Aug

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.


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

  1. Michelle Powell

    October 12, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    I recently read this article in the Tooele newspaper. My parents live in Lakepoint, and saved it for me because I LOVE hearing about the history of Utah, ESPECIALLY around the 1920s and such, and ESPECIALLY Saltair! My hubby and I met at Saltair at a dance in 1997, and I have always been intrigued by it! Thanks for writing such a great article! 🙂

  2. bonnevillemariner

    October 13, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    Michelle, thanks for the comment! Saltair is definitely an interesting chapter in our history. Have you been able to read my other Saltair-related pieces here on the blog? Just click the ‘Saltair’ category in the sidebar. And stay tuned…more neat Saltair stuff is coming later this week…

  3. Ruth Nichols

    February 2, 2010 at 4:09 am

    Great article. I’m looking for someone that can tell me what the colors were on the Salt Air II roofs and buildings. I would like to do a large scale painting – all of the photos are black and white of course and the postcards that I’ve seen are of the first Salt Air. Any information would be great.

  4. Susie

    March 17, 2010 at 1:53 am

    wonderful, happened upon this by way of about 3 articles…of which i wasn’t even interested in but great little bit of info. Good job!

  5. Dan Veith

    April 6, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Thank you for the great article. I am an avid 3D modeler(computer)and I fell in love with Saltair I from an old Photograph on the Shorpy photo-archive site. I am currently attempting to model the pavilion and piers with a realistic background. Your comparison shot really helped me as far as orienting the model. Looks like the trestle was pointed just northwest of Antelope Island. Very enjoyable read. Thanks again.

    • bonnevillemariner

      April 6, 2010 at 8:18 pm

      Thanks, Dan! I’d love to see your model when you’re finished.

  6. Dan Veith

    April 7, 2010 at 9:20 am

    Thank you! Will do. I’d be honored.

  7. Sally

    April 13, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    My friend and I are doing a research project on the Saltair and would love it if you could give us some more information on it. We would be very grateful to you. Please email us, and we would be grateful if we could send you some questions or have an over-the-phone interview with you. We would really appreciate it! Thank you!

  8. Sally

    April 21, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    Do you know anything about the old rollercoaster at the Saltair? Or about the train going to the Saltair? We would love it if you emailed us back. Thanks!

    • bonnevillemariner

      April 21, 2010 at 7:58 pm

      Sally, I do know a thing or two about the Giant Racer and a little about the train. I actually emailed you a few days ago. If you didn’t receive it, feel free to try me at bonnevillemariner at

  9. ClassicCoasterFan

    September 2, 2011 at 4:04 am

    I just came across your web site and was also wondering if you could share some of the history of the famous Giant Racer coaster? I primarily research old parks and coasters in the Pacific Northwest but recently acquired a great photo of Saltair’s GR coaster that I want to post on my web site. I have visited the RC database and other Saltair resource related sites and found the history to be a bit construed. So, I am very interested in any historical info you might have to share. I also need your help in identifying the year of my photo. Thanks so much. ~Lisa

  10. Albert

    October 17, 2011 at 12:02 am

    Hey! Great Article, very interesting and full of information. I’m a photography student up at the university and wondering how to get to the old pavilion site so I can take a few pictures for a project. I noticed two roads that lead out towards the lake and was curious if you have directions and instructions. Many Thanks! – Albert

    • bonnevillemariner

      October 20, 2011 at 1:01 am

      Albert, thanks for stopping by and commenting! Getting out there is fairly straightforward. Take I-80 to the Saltair exit, then follow the frontage road east for about 2 miles. The old pavilion site is located at the end of the spit straight out from the cinder block building. Take note, however, that the building and train car are on private property. You’ll need to enter the beach area at the turnoff a few hundred feet east of the cinder block building, and walk to the spit diagonally from there.

      • Albert

        October 25, 2011 at 9:08 pm

        Excellent! Many Thanks! 😀

  11. Cordo Lan

    October 29, 2011 at 4:24 am

    I found an animation of Saltair Resort here. Enjoy….

  12. Anthony

    September 30, 2012 at 4:37 am

    I have some interior pictures of Saltair II during a costume party in the late 1920’s if you are interested. Would you like me to email you a copy ?

    • Bridger

      September 30, 2012 at 5:05 am


      Most definitely! I’ll shoot you an email and you can respond.

  13. Carole

    June 21, 2013 at 2:06 am

    My grandfather was in charge of running the giant roller coaster and both my parents worked at Saltair

  14. Big See

    October 28, 2013 at 2:50 am


    I recently watched a home movie from about 1940 that I found on the Internet Archive. It featured a family of 3 doing the “Circle Tour” of southern Utah/Arizona (Zion/Bryce/Grand Canyon). About 3/4 of the way through (the 27:00 minute mark), they are shown bathing at a resort in Salt Lake City called “Saltair”, complete with images of a train with that logo as well as a ride to/from the bathing area on a small rail car. I wanted to learn more about this place and I found your website. Not sure if you have watched it, but here is the link in case you are interested. I found it fascinating, especially since the film quality is excellent (full color) for a home movie of that era:

  15. Trace Bakelar

    March 20, 2015 at 5:06 am

    I live in the Salt Lake area and about 40 years ago I was nosing around the old pylons from the original Saltair and found a china coffee cup. it is white with blue decorations. I have tried to find out if it was from the restaurant. Do you have any pictures or information about the china or coffee cups that were used at Saltair?

    • Steven O. Steele

      September 2, 2015 at 3:05 am

      The cup you have is from the Old Ship cafe which was located next to the Hippodrome on the south side of the SALTAIR pavilion. I have some china I dug up in 1967. This was from the 1st SALTAIR that burned down in 1925 but was rebuilt for the 1926 season.

  16. Corey L Hodges

    June 13, 2021 at 12:55 am

    Great story, a pleasant reminder of family values and how much times have really changed. Thank you so much for walk back in time. I definitely have my memories of the the beach party’s in the late 80s when dump truck’s of beautiful California sand had been dumped along the shore line. Listing to live concerts next to a blazing beach fire with my girl by my side. Times have definitely change haven’t they.


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