- 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
During the summer of 1924 we knew Saltair at its absolute peak. From its low in 1905 the lake had begun inexplicably to rise, and in 1910 was up eight feet. By 1924 it was at its highest measured level. The Jordan River sewage, brine flies, and other tourist attractions were all washed far inshore, and the pavilion rose out of clean water. The air was dry, keen, bracing, a combination of sea and desert. The view was, and is, one of the great views of the world, whether one was coming out across white flats toward chemical-blue lake and brown islands, with Saltair’s painted domes bellying over the water like the spinnakers of a fantastic fleet, or whether one was going back toward the city and the noble curve of the Wasatch, touched even in August by high snow. Tourists were enraptured, locals complacent, money easy, the twenties in full flower. I remember it like lost Eden. And they actually paid me twenty-five cents an hour, $2.50 for a ten-hour day, just to work there. I would have paid them .
As good as any part of the Saltair experience was the going out and the coming home, especially the coming home, on the open excursion cars of the electrified Utah and Nevada Railroad, whose directors were snugly synonymous with those of Saltair. Since the stand where I worked stayed open till the last dog was hung, I always took the last train, the eleven o’clock, perching in my ice cream pants and my straw skimmer where I could watch the city’s lights and the dark loom of the mountains rush toward me across the flats. We were buffeted by the night wind and the salt-flat smells. Necking couples sat on the steps, eyed with disapproval by matrons in charge of large families. Boys worked their way fore and aft along the cars, risking their necks and interrupting the neckers. Whole cars sometimes burst spontaneously into song. If we were lucky, a moon would have floated free of the Wasatch and would be washing the broad valley with silver. Sometimes we came in like an old-fashioned hayride, the little kids asleep, the lovers quiet, the singers all sung out. It was too good; we should have known it wouldn’t last.
All through its history Saltair suffered from the forces that wanted it down. Every winter the salt-laden wind ate its paint off. Waves heavy with salt washed away bathhouses and tore out stretches of causeway. There was a succession of fires. Then in April, 1925, just about the time I was beginning to dream of another summer out there, I stood on the lawn of my high school, on the eastern edge of the city, and watched smoke and flames erupt at the edge of the lake. Smoke on the water, fire on the flood. It made a spectacular blaze, visible from every point in the valley.
There was immediate talk of rebuilding it; so indispensable a public facility couldn’t be allowed to sit out there on its charred stumps. But there were cautionary circumstances. The insurance had covered less than half the rebuilding cost. Any potential operator was looking at replacement costs of at least $185,000, as well as at the high expense of maintenance. The short season of only a hundred days, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, was made even shorter by early-spring or late-fall cold spells and by violent summer thunderstorms. And there was the growing ubiquity of the automobile, which released people from the need for public transportation to public places of resort, and freed them to hunt up private places in the mountains, and other resorts such as Lagoon, where there were trees, coolness, and swimming “in water fit to drink. ”
Those considerations delayed the rebuilding until 1929, and 1929 was too late. For one thing, the lake had begun to fall again in 1925. For every foot it fell, it shrank drastically in size, leaving its exposed flats littered and smelly. People who always had assumed that the lake water, 26 per cent salt, would kill anything, now began to wonder if that polluted shore was safe. The beaches on the south end, clean and with newly installed fresh-water facilities and even a little carefully nourished shade, were more attractive. Through the declining years of the Depression nobody much but tourists came to my old place of magic. The lake shrank until the pavilion stood high and dry, and swimmers had to be taken out to water, a half mile or so, in cars. Automobiles parked down under, among the salt-crusted pilings where I had once waded chin-deep inspecting spiders and mysteries. The giant roller coaster, half rebuilt in 1931, was again destroyed by fire, and as soon as they started rebuilding it again, a windstorm blew it down, killing two workmen.
It is like the story of a glamorous woman growing old and stooping to ever more embarrassing pretenses. With face lifts and paint jobs, the Coney Island of the West limped through the 1930’s and into the 1940’s, until it was closed during World War II and the rolling stock of its railroad turned over to Hill Air Force Base. After the war all that rolling stock was converted into scrap, and the old excursion-car experience was over.
But the resort itself was not dead. Stubbornly (someone must have loved it as I did, as people love the San Francisco cable cars), the Ashby Snow family that then owned it renovated it for a third incarnation. In 1954 they re-roofed the hippodrome and refinished the dance floor, created parking space, restored old concessions and added new ones, diked a six-acre area around the pavilion, and pumped in lake water to set the place once more in the salt sea.