Living History: Original Saltair was a wonder of the world
Almost the first thing Brigham Young did after leading the Mormon pioneer company to the Salt Lake Valley was to look for someplace to beat the heat. Three days after his "This is the Place" moment, Young and the other leaders of the church found themselves bobbing like corks in the briny Great Salt Lake.
It was the inauguration of the Great Salt Lake as, for a time, one of the most celebrated and popular recreation destinations in the world.
The early getaway resorts along the shore were beyond the watchful eye of authorities. In 1891 the LDS Church committed to building a grand, family-friendly resort where wholesome recreation could be enjoyed, and monitored.
It was also meant to be a demonstration to the world that Mormons, far from being weird, hermetic religionists, could be fun and sophisticated. Statehood had been denied for half a century and, following its abandonment of polygamy the previous year, the church deployed a full-court press for respectability. It promised a "Coney Island of the West."
Richard K.A. Kletting, who would design the Utah state Capitol, was engaged as architect for the project. In 1893 the church's G-rated Xanadu was opened to the public. Called Saltair, it was an immediate success.
Photos show a sprawling, four-story gingerbread building with a massive central dome surrounded by onion-domed turrets and accessed by a broad causeway. Larger than two football fields and allegedly sporting the world's largest dance hall, it sat above the water on 2,000 pylons pounded into the lake bed.
Besides dancing and swimming, holiday-makers enjoyed a roller coaster, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, vaudeville acts, rodeos, midway games, boat rides and, curiously, bike races.
A rail line, also thoughtfully provided by the church, ran frequently between the resort and downtown Salt Lake.
Utahns were justifiably proud of their beautiful and exotic amusement park. Saltair drew half a million visits a year and became world famous.
The fire that broke out in April 1925 was fought for two days, drawing firefighters from all over the valley. At one point the wind shifted and a cheer went up when it was thought the resort was saved. But fickle breezes blew the flames back toward the main dome. It was a total loss.
Writing in the Utah Communication History Encyclopedia, Kimberlee Ward lists the damage: The Fun House, Dinty Moore's, the Ali Baba Cave, the Hippodrome, the Old Scenic railway, Dodgem, Ship Cafe, the dancing pavilion, a shooting gallery, the Automat, a photograph gallery, 12 hot dog stands, a bathing suit house ...
The ashes weren't yet cool before plans were made to rebuild. A new Saltair, built along the lines of the old, opened the next year. Just as grand as the old, it somehow never recaptured the glory days. Competing with radio, movies and an expanded Lagoon resort, Saltair had become what we would call today an "antiquated entertainment platform." It fell into disuse and had been abandoned for years when it also burned to the ground in 1970. (Another stroke of bad luck: The lake's level had fallen, and the resort was half a mile from water.)
They used to come by the thousands mustachioed men in seersucker with boater hats; women in billowing dresses twirling sun parasols; happy, excited children and had the time of their lives, boating, swimming and dancing late into the evening before catching the last train to the city.
The current modest Saltair (1982) has a scrappy history of its own, but its quiet daytime drowsiness is no help when trying to conjure the vitality of the original (wholesome) pleasure palace that once hovered like a dream over the water and was a wonder of the world.
Pat Bagley is The Salt Lake Tribune editorial cartoonist. Material from the Utah History Encyclopedia"Saltair chapter by John S. McCormick was used for background.
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