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