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Category Archives: Saltair

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.

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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)