- 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
Nothing availed. Personal wheels gave the public too many desirable alternatives. Reopening on May 27, 1955, Saltair held its own for two years only. Then another fire destroyed the bathhouses and pier, and in August, 1957, a freak windstorm tore through and blew down the roller coaster yet once more. Despite the engaging of such big attractions as Stan Kenton, Frankie Laine, and Nat King Cole, public response was unenthusiastic, and on Labor Day, 1958, the gates were closed for good. Since then, fires and winds and corrosive salt have swept the place, and salvagers have picked its bones.
And yet the something that wants a pleasure dome to rise out of the dead sea, at the edge of the sterile salt flats, is nearly as persistent as the something that wants it down. Saltair lingers in memories other than mine, a mirage, a fairyland that promises, at least to fifteen year olds of all ages, perpetual glamour. Let the lake level begin to rise in a new wet cycle, and another plan for rejuvenating Saltair will rise with it. Though I would not invest money in its resurrection, I would bet on the inevitability of the attempt.
Early in 1980 a Salt Lake City photographer, John Telford, produced a portfolio of ten Great Salt Lake prints that capture miraculously the moody light and startling contrasts of a lake that belongs on the moon. There is not a human being in any of the photographs, nothing but sand, salt, water as shining and heavy as mercury, islands like jutting bones. As an introduction to his own splendid images, Mr. Telford has inserted a print made from a glass-plate negative by C. R. Savage. It is a print of superb quality, from a superb negative, and it shows the Saltair pavilion as it looked around 1905. Savage caught the place out of season. No bathers clutter the water in front of the crescent of bathhouses, only a few human figures corrupt the perfection of the pavilion crowned by its domes and minarets. The carpenters’ Gothic gingerbread is as delicate as lace; everything about the pavilion is precise, cleanly defined, exposed luminously on a gray day without glare. It looks very much like the Saltair that I knew in 1924; if there are differences, I don’t want to know about them. Because this is a picture of perfection, in its way. This pleasure dome was never built. It was decreed, it rose like an exhalation.