Stranded In Big Cottonwood Canyon: My first date gone awry

The following is a re-working of an article I wrote for the Tooele Transcript Bulletin a few years ago.

Maybe some things are just meant to be—no matter how hard you try to screw them up.

“We’re not too far away from the city, are we?” Meadow asked, veiling the uncertainty in her voice as best she could.  “Nah,” I reassured her, not elaborating that my definition of the term “far” at this particular moment was wildly subjective and that 4.5 miles by foot, in the mountains, at midnight, might be pushing the upper boundary of “not far.”

“Not way far,” I clarified.  What else could I say?

In hindsight, a night hike along what my friends and I referred to as “Certain Death Trail” in Big Cottonwood Canyon might not have been the best idea for a first date.  Especially given the fact that Meadow had just moved to Utah from the utterly flat state of Texas and had never been hiking before.  Somehow these thoughts failed to cross my mind a few days prior, when we met at a gathering of friends and I was arrested by her sultry hazel eyes.

“I’ll take her hiking,” I thought. “Girls dig outdoorsy guys who can take them on awesome hikes.  One look at the city from a canyon and she’ll be mine.”

Turns out my mistake wasn’t driving up the canyon or dragging her on a steep-ish two mile hike.  My slip-up occurred between those two events, but became apparent only after we had returned to trailhead parking lot and I noticed my keys were missing.

Initially, I convinced myself they must have slipped out of my jacket pocket at the overlook near the top. But a return to the top, scouring the mountainside by flashlight along the way, ruled that option out.  Meadow was incredibly patient with the repeat of the hike.

(Miles walked so far: 4)

I didn’t even want to consider the second possibility—that this strapping trail runner who, prior to the second two mile hike was well on his way to getting the girl, had accidentally locked his keys in the trunk of his 1991 Dodge Spirit.

The date, by all logic, was unsalvageable.  It was time for me to suck it up and somehow get this unfortunate girl back to civilization.  It was decision time.

Plan A: Somehow break into my car without shattering the windows and before she starts getting cold.

No dice.

Plan B: Start Walking. Stay upbeat. Avoid mountain lions and potential serial killers offering us rides. Then pick up the pieces of my shattered pride at the bottom.

“Hey, at least it’s downhill,” I told her.  She didn’t seem amused.

We joked about our misfortune, but our guarded laughter dwindled as we rounded curve after curve of quiet mountain road. We walked at least a mile (miles walked to this point: 5) before a normal-looking couple in a pickup offered to drive us to a pay phone (my phone was with my keys in the trunk). The awkward chitchat made the ride seem much longer than it was, but we were glad to be out of the mountains.

“So what are you going to do now?” The driver asked with all the compassion he could muster and still keep a straight face.

“Probably call a friend,” I lied as we climbed out of his cab at a grocery store in the valley, knowing full well that calling a friend would prove even more tragic than locking my keys in my car 4.5 miles up a canyon on a first date. The only thing worse than scaring a girl off is seeing her the next week at Leatherby’s, sharing a Banana Split with your friend that so nobly rescued her from her nightmare first date with you.

No, friends were definitely not an option. I picked up the pay phone and dialed the only person who could look past my idiocy and get me out of this mess. My mom arrived in short order, and we were soon driving back up the canyon with my backup key.

When we retrieved my keys and pulled out of the trailhead parking lot, I looked at the girl I was certain I’d never see again.

“I’m at a loss,” I blabbered, feeling about an inch tall. “I just don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she assured me, hinting that all hope wasn’t lost.. “This will be a great story!”

I agreed, and 14 years and 6 kids later, I still do.


Rose Springs’ Greg Robinson inspires students with life experience and music

This article originally appeared in the December 19, 2013 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

It’s a frigid December morning in Stansbury Park.  Students bundled in their warmest winter gear trickle into Rose Springs Elementary to finish off the school week.  The school’s snowy lawns and icy walkways leave no doubt that winter has fully arrived.  But as far as the students in Mr. Robinson’s 6th grade class are concerned, it might as well be July.

They sit quietly at their desks—some writing, some pondering—most tapping their feet to the beat of Katy Perry’s recent single, “Roar,” which pumps from the classroom speakers at a volume that would make a schoolmarm blush.

Their classroom is awash in surf-themed décor.  An eclectic mix of educational art, University of Utah football and band posters adorn the walls.  The writing and pondering and tapping continue until Katy Perry fades to The Ramones.  Then, as if on cue, all thirty students begin belting the words to “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” substituting “Sheena” with “Savannah,” the name of a beaming classmate.

The spectacle is a prelude to the class’s morning meeting, an energetic roster of participatory instruction that the students have dubbed “Head Strong.”  Overseeing it all from the corner of the room is their teacher, Greg Robinson, who students, parents and administration alike refer to as simply Mr. Rob.

Dressed casually in blue jeans and a Harley Davidson beanie, Robinson, 43, has said nary a word to the class since the bell rang. Instead, he lets the music do the talking: The Ramones’ “Sheena” is a signal for students to clear their desks.  They line up for lunch to “Pudding Time” by Primus.  The Coasters’ “Yackety Yak” cues their afternoon cleanup.

“Everything is music-based in here,” Robinson explained.  “They learn the transition to the music so they don’t have to hear from me all day.  The less they have to listen to me about tiny, procedural things, the more they might listen when I say something important.”

A Harley Davidson fanatic from the small town of Ferron in Emery County, Robinson spent 13 years as a Journeyman electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers before taking up teaching.  He’s soft-spoken, yet direct and humble in the extreme.  His tone with students is casual, yet positive and purposeful, exuding a certain blue collar accessibility.  He’s quick to turn the subject from himself and listen intently to the speaker.

Robinson’s approach to classroom instruction is anything but conventional.  He attributes this in part to spending thirteen years in a construction field before entering the classroom.

“I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today had I went straight from college to classroom,” he said.  “Having worked for so many people, some that I really loved and some that I had a hard time with, I approached with the thought that I want this to be someplace the kids want to be.”

Hints of Robinson’s second career—the one that would become his true passion—came in his youth by way of a high school counselor.

“He said you really ought to do something with the youth because you seem well suited to that,” Robinson recalled.  “And I thought, really?  I didn’t know what he was thinking because I wasn’t even a good student.  I barely graduated—no lie!  I didn’t get it, but then as I got into my career I thought maybe I do have something to offer.”

His opportunity came in 2002 when his wife, Tara, started a private preschool, which allowed him to enroll at Utah State University and earn an Elementary Education degree.  He graduated in 2006 and took his first job as a 3rd great teacher at Rose Springs in 2007.  He taught 3rd grade for two years before moving to 6th.  The switch meant that many students who were in his 3rd grade class came back around for his 6th grade class.

“There’s nothing more obnoxious than someone who loves their job, but I do,” Robinson said.  “I can’t think of a day where I woke up and didn’t want to come here.  I always want to come here.”

Does he ever regret trading a lucrative career for the classroom?  One word: “Never.”

“Both my brothers are still electricians with IBEW, and I’m very proud of them.  One electrician co-worker asked me how I can stand being in one place,” Robinson said.  “I tell them it changes every 30 seconds when you have 30 6th graders; the adventure is there.  I don’t need anything more than what these kids provide. When you see them want to be a part of the community and you had any small part in that, that’s where you get the reward.”

That sense of community, or as Robinson calls it, “the power of the group,” is a recurring theme in Robinson’s philosophy on teaching.  In fact he considers it crucial to academic learning.  He conducts most instruction with the entire group with emphasis on what he calls the “school family.”  He said the technique, though simple, is highly successful.

“You can take somebody with high intelligence and they share that.  Instead of putting up their little cubical and blocking out everybody around them, they share that knowledge with each other.  That builds everybody up, no matter where their level is,” He said.

Key to this strategy are the student’s desire to be in the classroom and readiness for a hard day’s work.  Notably absent from Robinson’s syllabus is homework.  He has his reasons.

“If they go home with frustrating homework every night, I don’t feel like they come in here ready for the day,” he explained.  “How can you expect them to want to come to school the next day when they’ve been hammering through homework all night?  Not only that but breaking down family ties—because homework’s is always a battle, always a fight.”

He said some individual homework is warranted on rare occasions to help bring up a reading level, but he avoids group homework assignments.  The policy thrills students universally and throws some parents for a loop.

I’ve had some parents say, ‘Where’s the homework?  We need homework!’” Robinson laughed.  “And I‘ve had others come in and say things like ‘Thank you!  I’ve been teaching my daughter to sew.’  Life isn’t all about school.  There are other skills to learn too.”

Robinson said his primary goal each day is to foster an uplifting environment for the students—hence the colors and surf décor.  He pointed to a baby blue surf board standing beneath a straw umbrella near the window.

“I’m not a surfer,” he stipulated.  “I’d sink that board. But I want it to feel like summer on a really dreary winter day.  In my very first class, one of the kids in the winter said ‘It’s snowing outside but it still feels bright and happy in here.’  I thought perfect.  That‘s exactly what I wanted.  I put thought into every single thing to somehow positively affect the kids, so they want to be there.”

Music is a constant in Robinson’s classroom.  He searches for songs that lend to a positive atmosphere and incorporates them into a master playlist.  Artists like Matisyahu and 311 are prominent.

“If you think about a car ride without music, it’s just not the same at all,” he explained.  “It builds a spirit in the room.  I feel like they’re happier to turn in their papers.  They’re happier to clean off their desk.  It creates a soundtrack for their year.”

Robinson’s methods are well received by Rose Springs administration.  Leon Jones, Robinson’s principal during his first five years at the school, called Robinson a “champion of the students.”

“He has grown to be one of the most effective teachers in building confidence and high achievement,” Jones said.  “He is a remarkable teacher.”

Current Rose Springs Principal Belinda Butler praised Robinson as a role model.

“He traded financial gain for the impact he could have on the children,” Butler said.  “He helps them understand that they can succeed and conquer.  His students adore him.”

Robinson spends his summers doing electrician work to make ends meet.  When weather permits—and it does more often than you might think—he rides his prized 2008 Harley Davidson Road King to school.  The bike’s name is Rooster (Robinson said he didn’t come up with name; it was inspired).

“We’re bros,” Robinson said.  Rooster’s part of the family.”

Robinson has no love for the limelight and almost bristles at recognition.  He said he is inspired by fellow teachers, administrators and his wife.  His focus is squarely on the success of the class with the long term goal is to developing kindness and compassion in his students.  To that end, the class does several service projects each year, including an annual outing to sing Christmas carols at the Cottage Glen assisted living center in Tooele in lieu of a class Christmas party.  They also donate presents to the Children’s Justice Center each year.  Robinson frequently tells his students that the legacy they leave behind is how they treat each other.

“People often ask how I can stand to be around kids these days,” he said.  “They say, ‘Kids are so disrespectful.’ And I’ll say, ‘I don’t think you spend enough time with them, because this is the best generation I’ve ever known.’  I’m a better person because of them.”

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Posted by on December 30, 2013 in Uncategorized


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KDYL: KSL’s Doug Wright Reflects On His Days At Tooele’s Old Radio Station

This article originally appeared in the 11/12/13 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

TOOELE, Any given day in 1968 – A young disc jockey sits in a small radio studio at the corner of Main and Vine, sorting through a stack of vinyl records.  The station’s reel-to-reel automation block has ended and it’s time to go live.  He unscrews the side of the massive belt-driven turntable, adjusts the gear speed and cues a Hank Snow track.  When he drops the needle, Tooele Valley is bathed with the lo-fi sounds of classic country music.

The station is KDYL 990 AM, “The Country Gentleman.”  The fledgling DJ is a high school student from Salt Lake City by the name of Doug Wright.  At age 16, Wright also serves as program director, news reader and janitor for the bare-bones, 1 kilowatt operation.  Being more of a rock and roll guy, he’s not particularly keen on the station’s country format.

But he’s obsessed with radio—and that is all that matters.

45 years later, Doug Wright is a mainstay at KSL Newsradio in Salt Lake City, and one of the best-known radio personalities in the business.  He sat down last month with the Transcript Bulletin to reflect on his radio career and its humble beginnings in Tooele.

“I always loved radio,” Wright said shortly after signing off his daily topical program, The Doug Wright Show, at KSL Studios in downtown Salt Lake.  “I was one of those geeky kids that would listen to those big old tube radios.  The game was to see how far away your mom’s old set could pick something up.  I remember thinking, if I could ever just be able to say that I was on the radio—just once—how cool that would be!”

Wright’s first turn behind a radio microphone, a volunteer gig at the University of Utah’s KUER, came when he was 16 years old.  After only a few months spinning records there, he set out to begin his commercial career.

“At that age you think you own the world and you think you’re a whole lot better and hotter than you are, and I just couldn’t understand why anybody wouldn’t hire me on a commercial basis,” Wright laughed.

After failing to find work in the Salt Lake area, Wright turned his focus westward to Tooele’s KDYL.

Relatively little has been documented about the early history of Tooele’s only long-lived radio station.  In fact, commercial radio amounts to only a side note in Tooele County history.  For most Tooele County residents, clear signals pouring in from stations in the Salt Lake market were local enough.  But that fact didn’t foil a significant run for Tooele’s AM station.

KDYL Tooele began airing in 1955 with the call sign KTUT, originally broadcasting from the Ritz Theater on Main Street.  The station was renamed re-branded KDYL in the mid-1960s and was purchased by Wendell Winegar, who moved it across Main to the building that now houses the LA Hispanic Market at the corner of Vine.  The cascading diamond shaped outlines of the letters K, D, Y, and L are still visible on the south face of the building.  The studio itself was located on the second floor in the southeast corner.  The station’s 200 foot tower still stands in a field at 600 N. 400 W.  The station switched from middle-of-the-road (MOR) programming to country in 1966.

The late 1960s marked a period of transition and mild upheaval for KDYL.  According to Wright, when Wright came calling in 1968, only the General Manager of the station remained.

“His name was Don Hall,” Wright recalled.  “And he was so desperate that, instead of seeing this pathetic little kid who wanted to be on the radio, he saw somebody that maybe could actually help him.  So I was hired pretty much on the spot.”

Together, Hall and Wright operated the small-town station using equipment that seemed ancient to Wright at the time.

“It was a great, great old station and everything was hand-me-down.  We used to just keep that place together with spit and bailing wire,” Wright said.

KDYL was a daytime station broadcasting between sunrise and sunset, with Wright at the helm as often as his schedule allowed.

“High school was kind of a casualty, if you want to know the truth,” Wright said.  “I was so in love with radio that high school, well…”

He commuted each day from Sugarhouse in his mother’s 1960 Plymouth.  Because his pay at KDYL was negligible, he financed the commute by working a part time job at a Salt Lake grocery store.

The station’s Schafer 800 reel-to-reel automation system allowed Hall and Wright to fill in parts of the day.  The format was country music, which Wright said was mainly geared to the adult population.  KDYL hosted weekly live show on Saturday mornings called “Country Jamboree” (or Country Jubilee—neither Wright nor Winegar could remember exactly), which featured local artists.  A block of Spanish language programming ran on Sunday.  For several years, KDYL covered Little League baseball games.  Surplus speakers from the Tooele Army Depot were installed on light posts along Main Street so listeners out and about could hear the coverage.  Wright remembers providing live coverage of a parade on Main Street by stringing a microphone through the roof of the building.

“It was a mishmash of things.  It was an eclectic place,” Wright smiled.

Hall and Wright integrated news into the programming where possible, but since a traditional news wire service proved too expensive, they occasionally lifted stories from newspapers (including the Transcript Bulletin).  Even so, Wright remembers the particularly jarring experience of going to a murder scene near the Tooele Post Office to gather details on the crime, then breaking into programming to provide updates over the air.

Particularly memorable to wright was the need for careful timing—especially when it came to the Tooele Valley Railroad, which used to run down Vine Street.

“You had to be really careful of what you were doing when the [train] came down,” he explained.  If you had a record on, it would just shake the needle right off.  If you heard that whistle blow as it would cross Main Street, you better not have a record on!”

In time, Winegar allowed Wright to break format on Saturday afternoons to play rock and roll.  This, according to Wright, was refreshing to younger listeners who began to visit him in-studio on Saturday nights.  He maintains friendships with many of them to this day.

“The kids just gravitated to it,” Wright recalled.  “I say ‘kids,’ but they were the same age that I was.  They kind of tolerated the country station, but it was so exciting to them to have something [of their own].”

Wright paused to point out that despite his initial aversion to the country genre, he acquired a taste for it while at KDYL.

“I used to joke with my friends, saying all I do out there is play Hank, Hank, Hank, and Hank.  Hank Locklin, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Hank Jr.  But it got in my blood,” he said.

It was also during his time at KDYL that Wright became fascinated with mining history.  After signing off the air, he would frequently take excursions to local ghost towns and historic sites.  While venturing further south into Juab County with a girlfriend from Tooele, he fell in love with the small town of Eureka and later bought a home there.

After about a year at KDYL, Wright returned to the Salt Lake market, finally landing at KSL in 1978.  Originally working as a fill-in host, he became Program Director and began hosting his own show.  The Doug Wright Show airs from 9:00 to noon on weekdays.  According to KSL Program Director Kevin LaRue, Wright’s show is heard by some 50,000 listeners each day.

Winegar sold the station in 1979 and KDYL continued broadcasting as such until 1982 when it released the call sign to a Salt Lake station, assumed call sign KTLE, and switched its frequency AM 1010.  The station switched ownership and formats several more times until 2009, when it was purchased by IHR Educational Broadcasting.  The station, now KIHU (for Immaculate Heart Utah), broadcasts Catholic religious programming.

The seasoned broadcaster looks back on his KDYL days fondly and said his experience broadcasting from Main and Vine helped shape his career.  He lamented the demise of small-town, community focused media like Tooele’s KDYL:

“When we lose that small town newspaper, that small town radio station, we lose a little bit of our soul.”

But channeling Mark Twain, he posited that the reports of radio’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.  It must adapt and evolve, but the need for local radio will always remain.

“There’s something to tuning in and knowing that person’s right there too, that they’re in the same time frame that you are in, that the weather you’re experiencing, they’re experiencing too,” Wright explained.  “The core of it is that friend on the radio.”


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What will become of the historic Benson Grist Mill? Make your voice heard

The Benson Grist Mill with Oquirhh Mountains in the background (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The Benson Grist Mill with Oquirhh Mountains in the background (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Last week the Tooele Transcript Bulletin reported that the staff of the historic Benson Grist Mill in Stansbury Park had been laid off due to county budget woes. According to the piece (the online version of which is behind the TTB’s pay wall), the mill complex will remain closed for a 30-day “timeout” period, during which the Tooele County Commission will decide its fate.

The mill’s temporary closure and uncertain future are alarming to those of us with a passion for Tooele County history, especially those who so diligently restore it from shambles in the 1980s.  I haven’t spoken directly to County Commissioner Shawn Milne about the mill, but I gather he understands the site’s historical value and will do his best to see that it re-opens under capable oversight.

But whose oversight?  Milne reached out to local residents today via Facebook to solicit feedback:

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My take?  It’s a no-brainer.  Assuming the LDS Church is interested in acquiring the complex, it would be the best steward hands-down.  Here’s why:

1.  Private ownership means tax dollars can be used elsewhere.

2.  The mill plays a major role in LDS Church history in the county.  It was built in 1854 by LDS apostle Ezra Taft Benson to serve the predominantly LDS population of the region.  The construction of the mill and the relics surrounding it (including the ruins of the Grantsville Woolen Factory) are archetypical of classic Mormon Pioneer architecture.  Who better to care for these old structures than the organization that originally built it, and whose heritage it so perfectly encapsulates?

3.  The LDS Church very capably oversees numerous historic properties.  And it’s the whole deal, too– preservation, maintenance, public tours, and…

4.  Archaeology.  The mill and surrounding structures are an archaeological treasure trove.  For everything you see above ground at that site, there’s triple that underground.  Tooele County never had the resources to fund true archaeological research at the site (example: in 2008 a portion of the original miller’s residence was accidentally unearthed by a Stansbury Park maintenance crew.  A photo or two was taken and the site was promptly paved over).  The LDS Church, however, has a full archaeological arm.  The mill has been dubbed the most significant historical structure in western Utah.  Just imagine what lies beneath!

I don’t know whether or not the County Commission has approached either Stansbury Park or the LDS Church about taking ownership of the mill, and these are just my initial thoughts spurred by Milne’s Facebook Post.  But I’m obviously concerned about the mill’s future, and given the two choices, this is the best way to go.

What are your thoughts?  Commissioner Milne’s Facebook question was posed specifically to Stansbury Park residents, but I’m sure the Tooele County Commission would appreciate your thoughts regardless of where you’re from.  Contact them via their website here.  I’ll post updates as I learn them.

My previous posts and articles about the Benson Grist Mill:

Historical discoveries still await in old E.T. City area
Preserving History: Stansbury couple’s work provides a look into county’s past
A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic



Sandstone, Detergent and Train Track Mirages: My Obscure Thanksgiving List

Wife.  Kids.  God.  Country.

Those are givens on any Thanksgiving list, but I’ll save those for the family gathering.  There are countless inconspicuous, even obscure, everyday things that also make me happy.  Here are the first ten that came to mind:

Stuff My Kids Say
Like this from my 7 year old on a recent desert road trip: “Dad, I think I’m having a mirage; there’s no way those train tracks are real!”

Stuff Steve Friedman Writes
Like this piece about wilderness survival, or this one about a folding bike.

Cherry Coke Zero (ice cold, of course)
The pleasure of Real Cherry Coke but without the sugar, the guiltlessness of Coke Zero, but without the weird peppery taste.

The Plants Outside My Office Window At Work
That took root in a concrete nook and remain defiantly lush and green all winter.  I keep meaning to ask somebody what they are.

Entrada Sandstone
The stuff natural arches are made of. Naturalist Edward Abbey said it best when he described the Moab area’s most famous landmark, Delicate Arch, as “an illogical geologic freak, a happening— a something that happened and will never happen quite that way again, a frame more significant than its picture, a simple monolith eaten away by weather and time and soon to disintegrate into a chaos of falling rock.”

This song by Matisyahu
That makes me want to scramble up a wall of Entrada sandstone.

Redeye Flights
Being really tired makes the prospect of a 5 hour flight much less daunting.  Chatty Patty is too bushed to make small talk, and I can be in downtown Manhattan before rush hour.

Beach Boys Session Recordings
Have Surfin’ USA and Kokomo become a little stale for you?  Spotify the Smile and Pet Sounds Sessions to enjoy hours of backing tracks, isolated vocals, and scrubbed takes of some of the greatest Beach Boys tunes.

The Missus and I were too busy to catch shows like Heroes and Prison Break during their TV runs a few years ago.  We’re even busier now, but when we do snag an hour of couch time, nothing beats no commercials and no wait between episodes.  I can almost forgive them for those incessant online pop-under ads.  Almost.

The Off-Brand Laundry Detergent We’re Currently Using
The scent of which reminds me of the the bug repellent Mom used to to slather us with on summer camping trips to the Manti-LaSal National Forest, just before sunset.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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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A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic

A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic

Ruins of the Grantsville Woolen Factory near Lake Point, Utah (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the October 9, 2012 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

If you drive the northern stretch of SR-36 with any regularity, you’ve seen the remains of that old stone building. That’s right, the picturesque, castle-like edifice off the highway’s west side, about a mile north of Stansbury Park. Chances are it catches your eye most every time you pass it. And even if you’re not a history buff, chances are you spend at least a moment of your commute wondering about it.

It’s got to be old, you tell yourself — pioneer era probably. But what was it? Who built it? And why was it abandoned?

Every old building has its story, and the Grantsville Woolen Factory is certainly no exception. Situated near the Benson Grist Mill in the historic heart of Tooele Valley, the 143-year-old building is one of the county’s most significant cultural treasures. But like the structure itself, the factory’s story isn’t completely intact.

The factory was a product of pioneer ingenuity in an era of extreme independence, when Mormon leaders encouraged pioneer communities to become as self-sufficient as possible. In the early 1850s, LDS Church President Brigham Young began counseling towns to build woolen factories. By 1857, several factories had been established in Salt Lake and Utah valleys. The most notable was the Provo factory, which was the largest woolen factory west of the Mississippi River.

Young brought the same counsel to Tooele Valley in 1867 when he encouraged a Grantsville congregation to improve their sheep breeds by building a factory of their own. Construction of the Grantsville Woolen Factory began the next year, financed by several prominent Tooele County citizens. The building was located in old E.T. City along Adobe Rock Creek, a sizable waterway fed by a network of brackish springs.

View southwest from the Grantsville Woolen Factory toward Adobe Rock Creek and Lone Rock Ranch (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Bishop John Rowberry was president of the company, with James Wrathall as factory superintendent and John Forsyth as machinery consultant. Various staff, including Forsyth, settled at the adjacent Lone Rock Ranch across from Adobe Rock.

The one and a half story factory measured 49-by-89 feet. Its walls were constructed of fitted blue limestone boulders cut from the nearby Oquirrh Mountains. Its upper room featured louvered windows and was supported with thick beams hewn from Oquirrh timber. It was accessed via two outside staircases. Twenty-five large windows on the lower story facilitated natural lighting, and machinery would be powered by a dam built across the creek.

The Deseret Evening News reported that the building’s completion was marked on Aug. 20, 1869 by an epic, all-night party featuring talks from local leaders, a substantial supper and dancing. Music of excellent quality and in any desired quantity was provided by bands from Tooele and Grantsville.

The factory was officially dedicated on April 29, 1870 by Elder John Taylor of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In the highlight of the event, the factory’s 350 spindles were briefly set in motion. The future of the Grantsville Woolen Factory couldn’t have looked brighter.

Grantsville Woolen Factory ruins, view toward northeast (photo by Clint Thomsen)

But according to the 1961 publication of the “History of Tooele County” by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, the factory operated only 10 months before closing. That’s also when the details get sketchy.

Some blamed a scarcity of raw materials for the factory’s failure. Some blamed the muskrats that constantly bored through the dam, hindering water wheel operation. Others, including Forsyth, said parts of the structure were built on quicksand. Each of these factors seems plausible. The “History of Tooele County” notes that pioneer sheep flocks were indeed small and their fleece light. Muskrats still menace the waterway today, and the soil along the entire channel is generally loose.

Whatever the reason for the decline in production, it was the quicksand that ultimately proved fatal. It happened, of all times, during a visit by the LDS church’s first presidency and other church leaders in late 1870. According to the book, the dam gave way as the men were feeding their horses, unleashing an “avalanche of water, seething, boiling, foaming and lashing with terrible fury from either bank of the yielding dam, in its rapid passage down the heavy grade.”

The dam was never rebuilt, and the factory’s machinery was transported to the Provo factory in 1872. Little is documented about the history of the factory after it closed. The “History of Tooele County” briefly mentions that the structure was later repurposed as a fishery, a dairy, a factory manufacturing overalls and even apartments.

Eventually the structure was completely abandoned. The roof was removed and used to remodel the historical adobe house still standing at Lone Rock Ranch. The wooden columns gave way and the narrower tops of the walls began to crumble. The Forsyth cabin was moved to the Benson Grist Mill complex in 1986, and E.T. City itself was eventually absorbed into Lake Point.

Adobe house at Lone Rock Ranch, built around 1909 (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The entire area, including the factory, the ranch, and Adobe Rock, is believed to have been acquired by Kennecott Utah Copper in the 1960s, although the exact acquisition date is unknown. Erda resident DeLaun Blake and his wife Wilhelmena said they leased the ranch to Kennecott from approximately that time to the mid-1990s. They were the last occupants of the adobe ranch house. Blake, 91, has fond memories of living next to the factory and is still amazed at the design.

“[The walls] are beautifully straight,” he said. “The amazing thing about it is they didn’t even have a cement foundation. They put mortar on the ground, put rocks in a maze with mortar that wasn’t straight cement. You look at it today and its absolutely straight walls—no bends or bows in them at all. You’ve never seen such great walls in your whole life.”

Blake recalled planting rainbow trout in the springs, lending credence to the creek’s viability as a fishery.

“It seems like they grew an inch per month,” said Blake. “I used to throw the line in the morning, catch about a 12-inch trout and eat it for breakfast. Boy, it was nice.”

Kennecott — now Rio Tinto — continues to lease the land for agricultural purposes. While the company has no specific plans for the factory ruins, Kennecott Asset Manager Jeff Lachowski said the company is mindful of history and is interested in preserving the site. Public access to the ranch and factory site is restricted. However, the restored Forsyth cabin at the Benson Grist Mill is publicly accessible.

Large carp have now taken over Adobe Creek. On a clear afternoon last week, dozens of them cruised the shallows on both sides of the broken dam. The factory’s vacuous rectangle was empty, save for the fallen beams. Wooden frames lined many of the glassless windows. Walking along the thick stone perimeter, one laments the factory’s premature demise.

Would the factory have continued to operate had the dam not broken? Would it be occupied by some other enterprise? Would there be more of it left? No one will ever know, but one thing is certain. The stately skeleton of the Grantsville Woolen Factory remains a solid testament to Tooele County’s pioneer spirit.

Stay tuned next week for a video tour of the ruins.

Photo by Clint Thomsen


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Why is NASA so interested in Mars? Consider the Bonneville Salt Flats

NASA’s Curiosity Rover survived its 7 Minutes of Terror and touched down successfully on the Red Planet’s surface late last night.  Watching NASA TV’s live coverage of the event was exciting for two reasons.  First, it was a raw peek into the minds of the scientists and engineers who have eaten, slept, and breathed this mission for years.  Relief, exhaustion, elation– all on uninhibited display.  I’m always amazed by the ordinary-looking people who figure out how to shoot something into space and make it land on an alien world in one piece.  That first image of the Martian surface was priceless; the awkward high fives in JPL’s Mission Control last night were even more so.

Second, the event was punctuated by a renewed interest in Mars and the U.S. space program in general.  Most NASA followers would acknowledge that public interest in launches and missions has waned considerably over the years.  What’s more, to much of the space community, the demise of the Shuttle Program last year signaled the end of America’s grand space exploits.  NASA-philes and the public alike were in desperate need of a new space success– some mind-blowing feat to rally around.  Curiosity didn’t disappoint. 

But why Mars?

I wrote the following story late last year for the 2012 edition of Tooele County Magazine while Curiosity was yet en route to Mars.  It’s focus is the Mars Opportunity Rover and the Martian connection to our own Bonneville Salt Flats.  It answers the “Why Mars” question and may motivate you to begin following both Opportunity and Curiosity on Twitter.  Enjoy.


It’s February 10, 2004—at least as Earth reckons it. The Gregorian calendar is irrelevant on the Red Planet, and is of little significance to the robotic dune-buggy that creeps along its surface. To NASA’s Mars Opportunity Rover, it is Sol 17—the seventeenth Martian day since it touched down in a small impact crater on the planet’s Meridiani Planum and began sending digital postcards 123 million miles back to Earth.

With its elevated camera rig mounted atop a six-wheeled chassis, Opportunity Rover looks like a mash-up of Disney-Pixar’s WALL-E and the Johnny 5 robot from the movie Short Circuit. It’s almost anthropomorphic guise is appropriate for its purpose: to act as proxy for humanity on Mars. Indeed, each of its movements is choreographed and remotely initiated by a handful of scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Of particular interest to the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) team is a rock outcropping on the crater’s rim that Opportunity photographed shortly after landing. Stone Mountain, as the MER team quickly dubbed it, was a mere 32 feet away from Opportunity’s position. It would be the rover’s first destination on Mars.

After two weeks of cautious driving, the rover has finally arrived at Stone Mountain. It extends its hinged arm toward the formation to take a spectral reading, then beams the results to its eager controllers on Earth. The analysis is staggering. The rock is composed of nearly 40 percent sulfate salt, including jarosite, which on Earth only forms in the presence of liquid water. The discovery is a solid entry in the growing body of evidence that Mars was once capable of supporting life.

Fast forward to 2011. Opportunity is still alive and rolling more than seven years past its original 90-day life expectancy, and two years after its twin, Spirit Rover, became stuck in a cache of loose jarosite and eventually died. Having arrived at Endeavor Crater in August, Opportunity continues to gather evidence of a wetter Martian past. Meantime, its space-bound counterpart, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), snaps photos from above. In fact, MRO Images released by NASA in August 2011 show what appear to be active seasonal brine flows.

Yes, active. Let that sink in for a moment.

Valid Questions         

In the context of human history, the reality of exploring another world—even via remote control—is nothing short of miraculous. The cost and effort involved in these missions are a testament to mankind’s irrepressible urge to, as one fictional explorer put it, “seek out new life.”

And yet, as successful as NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has been thus far, exploration of the planet with current technology is stifled by one maddening limitation: distance. The average distance between Earth and Mars is 49 million miles (depending on their positions in their respective elliptical orbits around the sun). For comparison, the average distance between Earth and the Moon is approximately 240,000 miles. The vast gulf between Earth and Mars makes manned missions yet infeasible and forces our reliance on these mind-bogglingly advanced, yet very delicate robots. Since landing in 2004, Opportunity has traveled just over 20 miles at an average speed of 0.00037 mph. Even the simplest rover behavior involves numerous lines of computer code transmitted once daily. Furthermore, Opportunity is incapable of sending physical samples back to Earth.

Simply put, actual hands-on exploration of Mars could be decades away. But since when have time and distance ever stopped us?

The search for life—or at least for conditions that might sustain it—led us to Mars, not because of its pop culture notoriety, but because science tells us it’s a likely candidate. The two planets are similar in land surface area, atmospheric chemistry, and rotational tilt. Like Earth, Mars’ topography shows evidence of historic climate variation. Mars is also a convenient candidate for study since many extreme Earth environments are geologically analogous to it.

Opportunity Rover’s salt discoveries, and the possibility of active brine flow on Mars, raise some bold, yet valid questions. Might the similarities between the sibling planets be biological as well? If some kind of crazy extreme life form was discovered on Earth, might it also have existed under similar circumstances on Mars? Might it still exist there?

Two months after NASA released those ground-breaking MRO images of possible active brine flows, I’m standing at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats, just northeast of Wendover. The flats, a 50-square mile salt playa, are a relic of ancient Lake Bonneville, which covered most of present-day Utah for tens of thousands of years. According to Dr. Marjorie Chan, professor of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah, understanding Lake Bonneville is key to understanding Martian water bodies. Its imprint on Utah’s geography includes a wealth of deltas, playas and terraced benches that enshrine a detailed geologic history. The Bonneville Basin is something of a Rosetta stone for studying groundwater flow on Mars.

In that context, the Bonneville Salt Flats are an analog within an analog. Not only do the flats look like alien terrain, they bear a striking geological resemblance to Meridiani Planum, Opportunity’s Martian home turf. But I’m not here for the rocks. I’m here because of biology professors Bonnie Baxter, Ph.D. and Betsy Kleba, Ph.D. of Westminster College in Salt Lake City. They intend to prove that despite popular belief, this mysterious world of salt and interminable space, is far from dead.

It’s late October and the flats are flooded with a shallow layer of brine, onto which the nearby Silver Island Mountains cast an eerily perfect reflection. This seasonal phenomenon results from year-round groundwater flow and is part of the playa’s natural rejuvenation cycle. Come spring the brine will begin to evaporate, leaving behind a fresh layer of bleach-white salt.

Crouching at the end of a spit, Dr. Baxter pulls a refractometer—an instrument used to measure the salinity of water—from her bag and dips it into the brine. “Oh my heavens,” she exclaims as she looks through its lens toward the sun, “It’s right at thirty percent!”

That’s slightly less salty than the Dead Sea, slightly saltier than the Great Salt Lake’s north arm, and nearly nine times saltier than seawater. The Dead Sea aside, one seems hard pressed to find an earthly environment more inhospitable to life. And yet, this hypersaline environment is teeming with countless primitive microorganisms appropriately called “extremophiles.”

Baxter and her colleagues have spent the last 15 years harvesting and documenting novel halophilic (Greek for “salt-loving”) microbes, mostly from the Great Salt Lake’s saltier north arm. The majority of them have been archaea, a type of single-celled microbe considered by scientists to be analogous to the oldest forms of terrestrial life. Today will mark Baxter’s first major sampling at the salt flats. She and Kleba comment excitedly on the flats’ otherworldly aesthetic as they unpack their sample kits.

Baxter’s passion for the Great Salt Lake and its environs became immediately apparent during a pre-trip interview.

“Great Salt Lake is such an icon,” she said, lauding its vital role as an extreme ecosystem. “But historically, everybody has been very irritated by it. I like to imagine that native peoples had a reverence for the flats and the lake.”

At that point, I thought it wise to refrain from sharing my childhood dream of walling off and diluting Stansbury Bay, then installing a wave generator, importing dolphins, and planting winter-tolerant palm trees—you know, so it could be more like the realocean. Instead, I pointed out that however modern Utahns might feel about the lake, the Mormon Pioneers were enamored with it and spent as much time on its shores as they could. My own fascination with the lake today lies in its geology and dissonant visual appeal. I hadn’t thought much about the biology—at least not on the microscopic level. And I wasn’t alone.

“It’s both a tragedy and an opportunity,” added Baxter. “If I’m the expert on [Great Salt Lake microbiology], it’s mostly because nobody else was doing this.”

A native of rural North Carolina, Baxter credits two particularly excellent middle school teachers for helping her discover a passion for science.

“A lot of people write off rural teachers, but they’re critical pieces to the social puzzle,” she said.

After earning her Ph.D. in Genetics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Baxter moved west for post-doctoral research and fell in love with the Great Salt Lake. Her interest in microbiology of the salt flats was sparked by Physical Scientist Bill White of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. He discovered bright green algae growing inches underneath the flats’ surface.

“I knew Bill White as a salt expert and he knew me as a salt-biology expert,” said Baxter. “He wanted to share what they were consistently finding, which was that algae was growing in the layer between the Gypsum and the Halite!”

As a professor at Westminster College, Baxter helped establish the Great Salt Lake Institute in 2008. She currently serves as its director. GSLI promotes education, research, and cooperation between universities and other organizations on all aspects of the lake.

Betsy Kleba earned her Ph.D. in Infectious Diseases and Immunity from the University of California, Berkeley. She joined Westminster as an associate professor in 2010 after post-doctorate work in Montana, where she also taught at the University of Montana and numerous middle schools. Last summer she and two students began work to characterize some of the novel microbes that Baxter had collected from the Great Salt Lake.

Kleba has a knack for explaining complex cellular processes in such a way that even non-scientifically oriented minds like mine can follow. She has me grasping concepts like microenvironment preference and cell growth within minutes of our arrival at the salt flats.

After determining the water’s salt saturation, the first thing both biologists note is the lack of a pink hue in the brine. Most halophilic microbes produce a pigment that protects them from ultraviolet rays, and in turn, gives the water a pinkish hue.

“The pink water near the salt refineries and up in the north arm—those are our halophiles,” Baxter explains. “Everywhere in the world where there is a high concentration of salt, the water turns pink. So why isn’t this pink?”

The existence of microbes in this environment never comes into question. Of that, Baxter and Kleba have no doubt. They wonder if conditions here may not require the pigment—another good reason to harvest samples. The study of halophiles in and around the Great Salt Lake is still in its infant stages. Many of the microbes that thrive here have never been identified by science and are still unknown.

Much of the preliminary analysis is visual, but these halophiles are unique even at that level. Microbes are typically distinguished by rod, sphere and spiral shapes. “But we’ve seen all kinds of different shapes,” Baxter says. “Particularly squares. We also see these little pyramids and crescents.”

She adds, “The squares have been very difficult to cultivate.”

The work of Baxter and others has revealed several basic characteristics of halophiles.  They flourish in hypersaline environments by maintaining a cocktail of salts, lipids and sugars inside their cellular membranes to balance the salt outside. It’s a delicate balance. Too much salinity inside and the cell withers; too much outside and it bursts.

The key to maintaining this balance is a protein called bacteriorhodopsin, which harnesses energy from light to pump salt ions across the cell’s membrane. “So these microbes literally swim toward the light,” Kleba explains.

Aside from their salt tolerance and natural UV protection, halophiles are able to survive desiccation (extreme dryness). They’re often found locked in a mineral matrix—their DNA nearly perfectly preserved. Baxter and colleagues recently found 250 million-year-old microbial DNA in a New Mexico salt mine. Just how long these organisms can survive in a desiccated state is unknown, but Baxter has successfully resuscitated recently desiccated microbes.

“These microbes can live virtually without water,” she says. “There’s a salt flat on Mars and we think water used to be there. If the water on Mars is gone but the salt is still there, could the microbes be dried up and hanging out in the salt crystals just like they do on earth? We have to understand these unusual life forms on our planet, so that when we do get samples from Mars, we’ll know what to expect.”

Baxter’s interest in hypersaline ecosystems extends to Earth applications as well. The lipids involved in salt balance, for instance, may lead to advances in bio-fuel development.  Halophiles’ UV defense could be replicated for use in sunscreens. The environmental and medicinal implications might be boundless.

Baxter and Kleba spend the next hour chipping salt samples from the spit and filling several bottles with brine. They’ll take them back to their laboratory at Westminster, where they’ll “plate” and incubate them. It will be several weeks before the microbes multiply enough to be analyzed. Baxter thinks they’ll turn out to be archaea, and she expects that at some point they’ll turn pink.

Two weeks later, I visit Kleba at the lab at Westminster. The salt flats samples are still premature, but Kleba pulls several already developed cultures from an incubator. Their colors range from pink to orange. Individual cellular communities—clumps of billions of multiplied cells—appear as small dots to the naked eye.

“What excites me most about starting this new line of research is that it has the potential to bring all of my scientific interests together,” says Kleba. “If we can identify and characterize organisms with unique metabolic capacities, we can then begin to understand the role these microbes play in the ecology of Great Salt Lake—and potentially harness their metabolic capacity in a way that can be useful to human-kind as well.”

I follow up with Baxter and Kleba in late December. Just as they suspected, the salt flats samples have grown and begun to yield white, pink, and red colonies. The variation suggests the presence of multiple types of organism, and the biologists have started separate cultures for each colony. Identifying them will require several more weeks of growth and analysis.

In the meantime, the Mars Curiosity Rover, launched on Nov. 26, 2011, is making its way to the Red Planet to continue the mission of its forerunners. The nearly one-ton buggy is expected to land in early August 2012 at Mars’ Gale Crater.

[UPDATE: Done.]

There it will analyze clays and salts as it explores a strange mound of layered sediment that rises higher than Washington’s Mount Rainier.

Baxter and Kleba cheer Curiosity’s voyage and await the next clues into the mystery of Mars’ past. Until then they’ll continue to study the biology of Mars analogs here on Earth with patience-tempered eagerness that only scientists seem truly capable of mastering. The truth is out there; finding it is a matter of methodology and dogged persistence. As Kleba reminds me during our most recent email conversation, this is literally “just the beginning.”

This “beginning” puts Tooele County’s Great Salt Lake and Bonneville Salt Flats front and center. Indeed, their mysterious existence of salt and interminable space is far from dead. Let that sink in for a moment, too.

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Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Space


Random Musings: Writing deterrents, fleeting thoughts, and a special place in Florida

Dear reader, please note the ‘Random Musings’ tag on this post.  No cool historical discoveries are contained herein.  No trail tips, no factoids about ghost towns or Saltair or bands I’m strangely obsessed with as of late.  Heck, I’ll even forgo my usual punctuation and style checks before posting.  Sometimes you’ve got to jam and let the notes fly where they will.

Writing is a difficult art, especially when there are deadlines involved.  But let me clarify.  Deadlines get a bad rap.  Deadlines are what make writing actually occur.  Were I to inventory the most popular articles on this website, chances are they were all written against hard deadlines.  But deadlines can also make writing seem like a job or chore, a perception that can spell creative doom.  Writers begin writing because there’s something fulfilling—even cathartic—about being able to translate thoughts and concepts into paragraphs that might interest somebody somewhere.  Too often, however, the creativity that spawns the desire to write is dulled by deadlines, word counts, and prescribed formulas—until the art is no longer expression of concept.  The art is figuring out a way to express concept to an acceptable degree within the parameters of formula, all prior to deadline.

It’s very easy to think too much when writing.  Frankly, thinking gets too good a rap.  Thinking is procrastination’s lamest excuse. Over thinking during the writing process can quickly lead to over-meticulousness: Gotta word that lead just right.  Gotta make sure the nut graph is placed just so.  Gotta search my website the words “which” and “storied” to ensure I’m not making inordinate use of them.  Because somebody will certainly notice and cynically recall it every time a new Bonneville Mariner post appears in their RSS feed.

All of this begets fatigue, which begets a weird, subconscious aversion to writing. I find that even the specter of fatigue can steer me away from journaling a thought, and that’s too bad.  How many fleeting thoughts—obscure, profound, or anything in between—go completely undocumented?

Take a thought I had yesterday about Florida, for example.  Somehow, amidst all the meetings and emails and errands that dominate my brain cycles, my mind turned for a vivid moment to a nondescript tract of land between the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT parks at the Walt Disney World Resort, which I’ve crossed many times but never actually set foot.

The only way to see it is to ride the Disney World Monorail between the Ticket and Transportation Center and EPCOT.  After leaving the TTC, the monorail route roughly parallels the road to EPCOT, weaving in and over a thick patchwork of swamp and subtropical forest.

The scenery itself isn’t unique.  Sandy ground dotted with saw palmetto, tall pines of some variety and moss-draped cypress—it’s the same flora that blankets most of the Sunshine State.  The difference lies in perspective and context.  These forests are usually seen from road level or from an airplane window thousands of feet in the air.  The monorail cruises at a maximum of 40mph about 50 feet of the ground, often at canopy level.

The perspective isn’t mind-boggling; it’s just different. I can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that so many acres of pristine forest exist between two of the most visited theme parks on the planet.  Aside from the main roads, no public roads cross this forest; only double tracks used by the occasional service vehicle.  It’s a birder’s paradise.  Deer, armadillos, and even alligators can be spotted along the 3 mile corridor.

(Surprisingly enough, there’s a lot of things to do at Disney World that are entirely free.  One can—and I have—spent days exploring the resort’s 21 square miles without ever entering a theme park or spending a penny.  Riding the Monorail is one of those freebies, and whenever I’m in Florida I make it a point to ride the Disney World Monorail along this route.)

I’ve taken photos through the monorail’s windows, but they don’t do it justice.  The part of me that automatically equates anything lush and “jungly” with happiness longs to wander through this forest.  If I could, I’d bushwhack westward from World Drive 2 miles through the heart of the forest to the Port Orleans Resort.  I’d start early on a spring morning with Camelbak packed with camera gear, Pop Tarts, a sidearm, and reservoir filled with slushy coconut water.  I’d wear high boots for the snakes and a long-sleeve hiking shirt for the bugs.  I’d fashion a makeshift walking stick from a downed slash pine branch and use it to ford the canal near for forest’s eastern edge.  I might be bleeding and exhausted by the time I walked through the Port Orleans’ front doors, but I’m pretty sure I’d be happy.

I’ll probably never make that jaunt.  Legal red tape aside, the logistics alone would make it darn near impossible.  But a man can dream, whether from the safety of the monorail’s cabin or between meetings in Utah.

And he’d be remiss if he didn’t at least write a blurb about it on his blog.

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Posted by on June 21, 2012 in Random Musings


UPDATED: The story behind those Beach Boys photos at Saltair

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


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.

UPDATE:  Just for fun, a few more photos from a visit on 3/13/2015:

IMG_9783 IMG_9785 IMG_9786Saltair Location


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