- 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
Now and again, on a picnic hill, when the incense of hamburgers and hot dogs grows thick and stupefying, I am moved to rise on my hind legs with a spatula in one hand and a bun in the other and give voice to an atavistic howl, a nasal, high, drawn-out ululation like that of a muezzin from a minaret or a coyote from a river bluff.
“Welllllll, they’re all hot, they’re all ready-uh! Faaaamous Coney Island red-hots! It’s a loaf-a-bread-a-pound-a-meat and all the mustard you can eat for a thin skinny little dime, folks! Step oooooovah!”
My grandchildren, embarrassed, interest themselves in ants and other small objects in the grass.
“Wellllll, it’s hot hamburgers, hot coffee! Ice-cold sweet milk, buttermilk, and nice fresh homemade pies! Step right up folks, get yours!”
Nobody responds to my call to prayer. They sneak looks at each other—Has he gone nuts? With dignity I lay down my spatula and remove my apron and let the little monsters serve up their own. They have lost the old-time religion. No elders have instructed them in the mysteries. They have no more idea how you prepare hot dogs for hundreds than they would have how to make loaves and fishes go around. I could tell them: Lay a napkin in the left hand, slap a bun into the napkin, split the bun with one slash of a razor-sharp knife, fork a wiener into the split, slash the wiener open, drop the knife, and with one sweep of a wooden spoon bathe the cleft wiener from end to end in mustard, just as the left hand closes bun and napkin around the oozing and succulent contents and thrusts it into some importunate hand, while the right hand accepts the dime. With that method, you can serve up a hot dog every six seconds, all the time rolling new wieners onto the grill, shifting buns, ringing up dimes, and keeping your mouth going on the supplicatory incantations. Watching these uninstructed modern kids drop their wieners in the ashes, set their buns afire, and spill the mustard, I am just as glad they don’t try the professional procedures. They would probably cut through wiener, bun, and napkin into their palms. I have seen it done, and perhaps done it.
What forever separates my grandchildren from me is that they never had a glorious summer job, at the age of fifteen, at Saltair, the stately pleasure dome that used to rise out of the waters of Great Salt Lake, eighteen miles west of Salt Lake City. And they are never going to, for the Coney Island of the West is as dead as the dime hamburger, and all its folksy magic with it. It lasted sixty-five years, from 1893 to 1958, and then it died of change. I am one of the few remaining members of its cult, one of the last depositories of a fragment of its liturgy.
They do not know what they have missed, but I am sorry for them anyway. They will never know the thrill of working in an enchanted palace whose onion domes float on the desert afternoon, and whose halo of light at night pales the stars. They know not the sound of gritty salt underfoot, or the sight of potted palms glittering with salt like tinsel. The smell of the humble hot dog cooking will never arouse them, as it does me, to uncontrollable glossalalia. Their ears will never prick, as mine do, to the spectral chanting of barkers, the thunder and screams from the roller coaster, the sob of saxophones from the dance floor. Nor will they ever hear, in intervals of quiet, the slap of heavy waves down under, down in the caverns measureless to man among the pilings. I went down there once, wading chin deep, and found the place shadowy, lit by flashes and reflections like a sea cave, and haunted by spiders as big as walnuts. The upper-world sounds of public pleasure were muted and far away. The down-under smells were not those of cooking and confections and orange peel and pop, but those of wet salt and brine flies—the same wild smells that had offended Captain Howard Stansbury when he surveyed this desolate dead sea in 1850. If I had been a thinking or prescient creature, I might have felt the shadowy quiet under the pavilion as a threat or omen. Something there was that didn’t love pleasure domes, that wanted them down. Having no history, and hence no feel for time, I took Saltair as I found it in the summer of 1924. So far as I knew, it had been there since the Creation, and would be there till Kingdom Come.
Great Salt Lake, though the biggest lake west of the Mississippi, is only the salty remnant of the freshwater sea called Lake Bonneville that in Pleistocene times stretched from Idaho to Arizona and from the canyons of the Wasatch Range (then fjords) far out into the Nevada desert. We know from layers of hard salt under the mud of its bottom that it has several times dried up entirely, only to be rejuvenated by a wet cycle. In his monograph on Lake Bonneville, G. K. Gilbert predicted that as Mormon irrigators took more and more water out of tributary streams, Great Salt Lake would shrink and perhaps disappear. After a rise in the 1870’s, perhaps because of increased runoff following settlement, it fell steadily, as he had predicted, until it reached an all-time low in 1905.
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.
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.
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.