- Historic Sites
Xanadu By The Salt Flats
Saltair, the stately pleasure dome that used to rise out of the waters of Great Salt Lake, was the Coney Island of the West.
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
But even while it was falling, the Mormon Church gambled on its future and built Saltair. The church has always encouraged singing, dancing, picnics, family reunions, and other social good times of a decorous kind, and it felt the need of a place of public resort. Brighton, in its glacial cirque twenty-five miles up in the Wasatch, was hard to get to. The beaches on the east and south sides of Great Salt Lake had drawbacks, the former being muddy and the latter being harshly exposed, without a tree or any shade, and being, moreover, a four-hour haul in a wagon. On a blazing Fourth of July or Pioneer Day, the drive out could prepare people for water-based recreation better than the lake could satisfy their need.
For though many people find brine bathing exhilarating, it is a long way from comfortable. You have to learn not to dive, not only because the brine eats at eyes and nostrils like sulphuric acid, but also because the water is so heavy with salt that it can break a diver’s neck. You have to learn not to rub your eyes, or if you do, to suck your finger first. And when you emerge into the drying sun and wind you find yourself, unless there is a fresh-water shower handy, coated with salt like a codfish. There is no pleasure quite equal to a hard, salt-coated sunburn. Not even the similarity to the Dead Sea, in a society that delighted in biblical parallels, could make Garfield Beach and the other beaches places of pure pleasure.
The great Moorish pavilion that rose on pilings out in the lake, at the end of a four-thousand-foot causeway, changed all that. From its opening in June, 1893, it was an instant success. The crescent of bathhouses along the pavilion’s north edge provided showers of fresh water brought by tank cars from the Wasatch. You did not need to wade through drifts of smelly brine flies to reach the water, but went down steps from a boardwalk into water breast deep. You had all that well-advertised fun of bobbing around like a cork and having your picture taken with your feet out of the water and a newspaper spread before your face, next to a sign that said, “Try to Sink.” And when you came out and showered, tingly from the medicinal soaking and with all your cuts and scratches itching miraculously toward healing, you could go out onto the midway and be swept up, as I was swept up every day of my summer there, by magic.
You could eat all that junk food and junk drink sold by such missionary priests as I, or you could dine in the Leviathan, the enormous open-sided restaurant through which the lake breeze blew in the daytime and the land breeze blew at night. You could ride the roller coaster or win Kewpie dolls or stagger through the Fun House. You could watch sunsets as spectacular as any in the world, and almost as predictable as daylight and dark.
And you could dance. How you could dance. The floor, as big as the Mormon Tabernacle and domed over by the same sort of turtle-back roof, was locally believed to be the largest in the world, and may have been. Nine thousand people, on at least one occasion, danced on it at the same time to the music of R. Owen Sweeten’s band. Or bands. On special occasions, dancing was continuous, with a band at each end of the floor, one picking up as the other stopped. I remember the time when they forbade the Charleston for fear all those people coming down hard on the downbeat would shake the whole pavilion into the lake.
When the hippodrome wasn’t being used for dancing, it was used for other things: statehood celebrations, Tabernacle Choir concerts, band concerts, political rallies, even prizefights. In 1910 Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries were scheduled to fight forty-five rounds there for the heavyweight championship, but Mormon scruples got in the way and the fight was moved. No Mormon scruples stood in the way when Rudolph Valentine and his dancing partner paid a visit, in the twenties, but so many Mormons and Mormon cars stood in the way that he couldn’t get out to the lake and had to be rescued and delivered, an hour and a half late, by a special train.
Actually, there were fairly constant clashes between the recreational principle and Mormon scruples. Compared with the ordinary midway, Saltair was almost squeaky clean, but no one who worked out there could fail to learn which concessions people who wanted a drink or a bottle should be sent to, and there were girls who were around so frequently that we thought them employees. My brother, who worked at the bathhouses, had a lot of stories to tell, most of which I could not believe but would have liked to. And there were enough difficulties about illegal sales of beer, and disregard of the Sunday closing hours, so that eventually the church unloaded Saltair, taking pains to sell it to a syndicate of hierarchs whose standards were as high as the church’s own.