The Salt Lake – Great yet not so great

I had such a busy day in and around Salt Lake City that it earned three posts. And now, while I may not have a lot left to do, I do have plenty left to write. (Surprise!) Setting out from Ogden, we’re going to head mostly south and a little bit west. For those following along on Google Earth, the next destination is The Great Saltair in Magna, Utah.

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain (and winds and floods)

I’m going to guess that if I were to ask you for the first adjectives that come to mind when you think of the believers who make up the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, you wouldn’t shout, “They love to party!” or “They love to dance!”. Part of that probably stems from the reputation that Mormons eschew the consumption of alcohol, coffee and tea.

(Those who think they have a prohibition against caffeine are mistaken. Here’s what the Salt Lake Tribune had to say about that myth:

The LDS Church’s health code, known as the Word of Wisdom, was issued in 1833 by Mormon founder Joseph Smith. It condemns alcohol, tobacco and “hot drinks,” which church leaders have subsequently described only as “coffee and tea.”

They say nothing about reasons for singling out those two drinks. Many members have presumed it’s because they contain caffeine and thus eschewed any beverages — especially soda pops — containing the stimulant.

The LDS Church recently reiterated its longtime position that the only barred drinks were alcohol, coffee and tea. That left church-owned Brigham Young University having to explain why it did not serve or sell caffeinated colas. “There’s no customer demand,” school spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said. BYU students then launched a petition drive to exhibit the demand.

Here’s another myth the paper dispelled in a story from November 5, 2012:

4. Mormons don’t dance

This falls in the “Mormons are like the Amish” misconception. Wrong. Dancing is fine. It’s a long-standing pleasure for the more faithful dating back to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. BYU dance troupes have won international acclaim.

In fact, historically, Mormons have relished singing and dancing. Many of the accounts I read about their westward migration contained reports of how vigorously the pioneers would sing and dance at the end of a long and strenuous day’s journey.

The earliest pioneers had to adapt to the land as well as adapting the land to their needs so building places for community recreation had to wouldn’t have great primacy. However, by 1870, the first known resort called Lake Side opened near Kaysville about 20 miles north of Salt Lake City. In the ensuing decades a number of other mostly small resorts opened (and some closed) along the lake – some of better repute than others.

All of that changed in 1893 with the opening of Saltair near the town of Magna. Conceived as the Western counterpart to Coney Island, Saltair, was jointly owned by a corporation associated with the LDS Church and another private entity the Salt Lake & Los Angeles Railway which was created for the express purpose of building a 14 mile rail line from Salt Lake City to serve the resort. A trip cost 50 cents and included admission to Saltair.

Built over the lake itself on more than 2,000 10-in wooden pilings at a cost of $350,000, Saltair opened on Memorial Day 1893. It originally had 1,000 bathhouses. Because the church held a 50 percent ownership stake, Saltair was viewed as a more wholesome alternative to most of the other lakeside resorts of the time although some viewed it skeptically because it was open on Sunday and because it served coffee, tea, and alcohol.

(Image from

The original Saltair’s reputation grew to the point where it became the most popular family destination west of New York drawing upwards of 250,000 visitors annually. But a harbinger of things to come happened in 1910 when a pair of windstorms destroyed 200 bathhouses and other structures. That was only the beginning of nature’s assault on the resort.

On April 22, 1925, a fire destroyed the original Saltair pavilion and a few of the resort’s other buildings. Fortunately, it was the Roaring Twenties so, funded by new investors, – most of whom were prominent Mormons, they not only built a new pavilion at the same location that became known as Saltair II, but they expanded the resort.

The new resort reopened in just two and a half months and featured a roller coaster, a tunnel of love, six bowling alleys, a Ferris wheel, fish pond, fun house, pool halls, penny arcade, photo gallery, shooting gallery and roller skating rink. It was also billed as having the world’s largest dance floor, where 5,000 people could fox trot at once in the open-air hall.

Still, its troubles continued. A fire damaged its roller coaster and several other of its rides in 1931. In 1932, a windstorm killed two construction workers. In 1933, the lake’s waters receded so far that it forced the construction of a new miniature railway to carry swimmers between the resort and the water. Fire struck again in 1939, destroying the pier.

The rationing of food and other resources and the reduction in the availability of human capital forced Saltair to close during the Second World War. When it reopened after the war, it faced heightened competition from other, more convenient entertainment choices. The resort’s allure faded and it closed in 1958. Still, a number of attempts were made to revive it over the next decade. They all failed and, in 1970, someone deliberately started a fire in the middle of the dance floor destroying the second Saltair pavilion.

But we’re still not done with the history (and disasters) at Saltair. A new group of investors decided to try to revive it again in 1981. They constructed a new pavilion out of a salvaged U.S. Air Force aircraft hangar approximately a mile west of the original. A few months after the new pavilion opened, it looked like this:

It took a few years but the waters receded and once again new investors restored and repaired the facility. Unfortunately, in what is a natural process for the Great Salt Lake, the waters continued to move away from the site making it of little use as a lakeside resort. What the owners hoped for can be seen in this postcard

but what they had  ended up looking more akin to what I saw the day of my visit.

(I took this photo with no zoom standing about halfway between the building and the lake.)

Although it fell into disuse in the late nineties and early 2000’s, in 2005 investors from the music industry pooled together to purchase the building to use a a concert venue. Between 2005 and 2011, the list of performers included George Clinton, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, Ruth Mendoza, Bob Dylan, The Used, Dave Matthews Band, The Black Crowes, Deadmau5, Tiesto, DJ Baby Anne, Evanescence, Panic! at the Disco. And it operates still to this day.

Why the Salt Lake is great – and why it isn’t

I’d guess that no visit to Salt Lake City can be considered complete without at least introducing oneself to the body of water for which the borough is named so of course I had to at least dip my toe into it. And I’d also guess that by now you know that I’m incapable of simply making such  declaration but I to write a brief treatise about the lake to accompany my toe dip.

Let’s start with what’s great about the Great Salt Lake. The first point is simple and straightforward: It’s the largest lake west of the Mississippi River and the largest salt lake in the Western Hemisphere. How big is it or, more accurately, how big was it?  Until the 21st century, in a typical year, its surface area averaged 1,700 square miles though it could swell to more than 2,100 square miles. That made it larger than the state of Rhode Island and, in many years, larger than the land area of Delaware as well.

However, by 2016, the lake covered an area barely larger than 1,000 square miles. Its surface elevation, which peaked at 4,212 feet in 1986 now equals its lowest point of 4191 feet to which it first declined in 1963. Because the lake has an average depth of only 14 feet (33 feet at its deepest point) a foot of water loss can make a significant difference in its total size. Here’s what that can look like (from

How the lake came to be

As the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, the process created Lake Bonneville which was actually a freshwater lake. (Bonneville is named in honor of the French explorer Benjamin Bonneville who, in 1837, was the first to map the outlines of the Great Salt Lake.) At 325 miles long, 135 miles wide and 1,000 feet deep, Lake Bonneville was about 1.4 times the size of Lake Superior so it was enormous.

About 17,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville overflowed at Red Rock Pass in Idaho and a yearlong flood ensued during which time the lake lost about 375 feet of water. As Lake Bonneville shrank, all of the minerals in it — including salt — concentrated into steadily less water and over time, the modern Great Salt Lake emerged about 10,000 years ago. (All freshwater bodies have some mineral content because rainwater leaches it from rocks and soil.)

If you look at the image above, you can see that the lake is fed by three rivers – the Jordan, Weber, and Bear. You need to note this for two reasons – one of which will become important later in the discussion. For now, just note that three flow in but none flow out. This makes the Great Salt Lake a terminal lake.

Left to only natural processes, a terminal lake would hold everything that enters it except water which it loses to evaporation. Together, in addition to the water they carry, the three rivers make an annual deposit of between 1.1 million and 2.2 million tons of leftover minerals – mostly salt – from the extinct Lake Bonneville into the Great Salt Lake.

In the map above, you see the northern section of the lake is called Gunnison Bay while the southern section bears the name Gilbert Bay. Since all three rivers flow into the Gilbert Bay section of the lake, the northern arm is naturally more saline holding steady at just below percent while the southern arm can fluctuate between as low as six percent or as high as 27 percent.

Natural processes aren’t the only forces at work on the lake, however. For example, five businesses extract salt and other minerals from the Great Salt Lake through solar evaporation ponds. Although no food-grade salt comes from the lake, the extracted salt is used for deicers, road salt, water softeners and salt licks for livestock.

Two lakes in one

In the course of my research about the Great Salt Lake, I happened across this rather curious NASA satellite image that provides a stark contrast between Gunnison and Gilbert Bays:

When I saw the two distinct colors, it fed a new mental tributary for my research to follow – a not uncommon occurrence. Although I knew about the water inflow and salinity differences between the northern and southern sections of the lake, I didn’t think that would account for such a stark difference in coloration particularly one that seemed so definitive. I was right.

Recall that the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 at Promontory Point.  In 1904, the Southern Pacific Railroad built a causeway across the lake that created not merely a shorter route that saved 42 miles but one of lesser grade and curvature that generated even greater time savings.

The initial causeway consisted of two earth and rock-fill embankments extending from each side of the late that were joined by a 12 mile open, wooden trestle that allowed the continuation of the natural exchange of water between the two bays. Maintaining the trestle proved to be quite costly and by the early 1950s, when maintenance costs became too high, the trestle was dismantled and replaced by a solid rock-fill causeway. If you’re looking at the picture you’ve probably guessed what happened.

Yes, where the open structure of the trestle allowed for the free mixing of brine water between the north and south arms of the lake, the solid causeway divided the lake into two bodies of water bringing a halt to the mixing of water. Anyone think there were some unanticipated environmental consequences?

Now we can return to the geography of the three rivers. Since they all feed the lake south of the causeway, the northern arm experienced the natural hydrological process of evaporation but with no inflow to replace any of the lost water. Its salinity increased to the point where the water became too saline for even one of the few species of plant or animal – brine shrimp – to survive in the northern lake’s salinity.

Eventually, in 1988 in an attempt to rectify or at least mitigate the damage, a 30 meter breach was created in the causeway. That first effort allowed the elevations and salinity to equalize to a certain extent. Still later, three large pumps were installed to keep salinity in the north arm at saturation levels about 27 percent salt while the south arm continues its natural fluctuation.

But the damage couldn’t be fully repaired and the salinity difference has created two different ecosystems on the lake that account for the different coloration. The south arm is dominated by blue-green algae, which colors its water green. On the north arm, higher salt content has promoted the dominance of a different type of algae called Dunaliella Salina. The north arm’s wine red color results from the beta-carotene and bacteria this alga releases.

And speaking of bacterial emissions, I was fortunate not to experience the effects of bacterial effluvia that so many in Salt Lake City cope with from time to time. You see, the Great Salt Lake is famous for occasionally emitting rotten egg odor. It’s a natural process. Some species of bacteria residing in the lake bed exhale hydrogen sulfide and when that bacterial count is high, the lake emanates the unpleasant odor associated with that molecule.

On my walk across that long stretch of exposed lake bed, I did encounter something else for which the lake is famous – brine flies. Although the flies are said not to bite people, I found their preponderant swarming presence discomfiting enough that, once my toe touched the water, I quickly retreated. I tried to capture the flies in one of my photos but this video does a better job (even if it’s a little shaky).

What’s a Todd trip without at least one stop at a cemetery?

Knowing that I couldn’t get to the Bonneville Salt Flats (a remnant of Lake Bonneville) where Con Air, Independence Day and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End among other movies were filmed, I knew there was one brief stop I could make that, while not a film site, does have a plausible relationship to the movies. I was off to visit the grave site of a man named Steven Allan Ford.

Those of you who have traveled with me know I enjoy visiting the graves of people who have influenced either my world or the world in general and sometimes I simply enjoy going to cemeteries such as Mirogoj in Zagreb that are renowned for their beauty. Often, the two overlap. This particular visit qualified on neither account but indulge me as I tell you a little about Steven Allan Ford.

Although he died a young man, Steven Allan Ford was a licensed minister of the Temple of the Jedi Order. On September 5, 2008, when he presided over his elder brother’s wedding, it was the first such ceremony performed by a Jedi Minister in Utah. (Remember that Charu had been impressed by the amity and tolerance he found when he was in Provo on a mission to sell books for ISKCON.)

Lest you think the Temple of the Jedi Order some sort of odd joke, here’s a statement from their website:

We are a Jedi church and international ministry of the religion Jediism and the Jedi way of life. Jedi at this site are not the same as those portrayed within the Star Wars franchise. Star Wars Jedi are fictional characters that exist within a literary and cinematic universe.  We are a recognized International Ministry and Public Charity…

They go on to state,

The Jedi here are real people that live or lived their lives according to the principles of Jediism, the real Jedi religion or philosophy. Jedi followers, ministers and leaders embrace Jediism as a real living, breathing religion and sincerely believe in its teachings. Jediism does not base its focus on myth and fiction but on the real life issues and philosophies that are at the source of myth. Whether you want to become a Jedi, are a real Jedi looking for additional training or just interested in learning about and discussing The Force, we’re here for you.

Perhaps objects, people and events are connected in ways we don’t yet comprehend. If you recall, some nine hours ago in real time, I made my first stop in Salt Lake City at the Up! house in the suburb of Herriman. The builder who constructed the house is Bangerter Homes. According to their website the address of Valley View Memorial Park is 4335 W 4100 S, West Valley City, UT 84120. (Remember that Salt Lake City and much of Utah uses a sort of hybrid system where streets have both names and numbers.) Imagine my surprise when I saw

the street sign as I turned onto W 4100 S and learned that I’d been traveling on Bangerter Highway. Oh, and one other thing, those who know me can look at the month and day of Mr. Ford’s death and will know that it’s a significant day in my life (and not the first time that date has popped up in this narrative).

Play Ball! The secret revealed

Thursday night when I returned to the hotel after my dinner and a walk about the neighborhood, I settled into the room to read a bit, transfer the day’s pictures from my camera to my computer and complete whatever housekeeping chores needed finishing before preparing for Friday’s activities. As is also my habit, I turned on the late local news primarily to serve as background noise but also to hear the weather forecast.

During the sports report, I heard that the Salt Lake City Bees had returned from a successful road trip and would be hosting the Albuquerque Isotopes Friday night. (The Bees are the Pacific Coast League AAA affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels and the Isotopes are affiliated with the Colorado Rockies.) As soon as I heard it, I could imagine no better way to spend my lone Friday night in Salt Lake City than at a minor league baseball game even if it meant changing plans and scrambling to be certain I’d be back in the city in time.

(The Isotopes, by the way, have one of my favorite sports team nicknames because of its origin story. In the March 4, 2001 episode of The Simpsons, Homer attempted to thwart a planned move of the Springfield Isotopes to Albuquerque by going on a hunger strike that ultimately failed.

Albuquerque had lost it’s franchise a few years earlier but in 2003, the Calgary Cannons moved there. The local paper held an online poll to choose a name for the new franchise and Isotopes received more than 80,000 of the 120,000 votes cast. Though I’ve never visited Isotopes Park, photographic evidence indicates 

that Homer and his family spend time there.)

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Bees home, Smith’s Ballpark, was less than two miles from the hotel and basically a straight shot down West Temple (or West 1300 South). I saved a couple of dollars by parking a few blocks from the stadium and bought a general admission ticket for $11.00 gambling on being able to find seat in the stadium rather than having to remain on the berm behind the outfield fence. A Shock Top draft and a burrito salad added another $18.00 to the night’s tab. I’d arrived early enough to have a look about the stadium and eat my dinner without rushing through either.

When I entered the stadium, a young woman handed me a towel that was imprinted with Salt Lake Gulls. It confused me a bit since I’d come to see the Bees but I thought, “A free towel is a free towel.”

The stadium’s setting, by the way, is quite pretty

with the trees behind it and the mountains in the distance but some other aspects only intensified the confusion I felt when I’d received the towel. You can clearly see the top of the dugout reads Salt Lake Bees. What you can’t see in this photo, but can if you look at the close-up of the scoreboard in the photos folder, is that the scoreboard read Dukes and Gulls. I asked two different ushers but neither had an explanation though the second chap did invite me to sit in the second deck along the left field line.

The game itself proved disappointing. Albuquerque scored in each of its first four at bats running out to a 5-0 lead that would end as an 11-1 thrashing of the home team. Though the announced crowd was more than 7,000, it seemed much smaller than that to me. I was sitting in the fifth or sixth row of perhaps 15 in my section and and there were only a handful of other people there with me.

One of them, a girl who passed me more than once on her way to and from the concession stands was wearing a t-shirt that drew my attention. By the fifth inning, I couldn’t contain my curiosity and I joined her and her family to ask about it. I don’t now recall whether the shirt had the name of a club team or a camp but what had intrigued me was that the sport was lacrosse. I learned from them that there are many club lacrosse teams in the Salt Lake City area and that when she returned to school this fall, her high school was adding a girls lacrosse team.

We talked about Maryland and their recent men’s and women’s national championships, the Terps’ Tewaaraton winning athletes and, more importantly to me, the growth of the sport in (to me) as unexpected a place as Utah. They also solved the mystery of the team names for me. That night was some sort of throwback night celebrating historical franchises the two cities had hosted prior to the current squads. With no rooting interest and the outcome in little doubt, I left at the end of eight innings hoping for a restful sleep before a long drive to the south and east Saturday.

Believe it or not, only two days remain for me to write about on this trip. Perhaps you’re disappointed. Perhaps you’re relieved.  Until next time.

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2 Responses to The Salt Lake – Great yet not so great

  1. connie bevitt says:

    Todd, what a primo video of the brine flies (and creepy, by the way). My mom’s side of the family had a significant number of Mormons. I grew up with the stories and the mysteries. And remember my Aunts drinking something that was the Mormon equivalent of coffee – without being coffee. Sadly I don’t remember the name.

    I recently heard on NPR that Salt Lake City has declared that they will be solely powered by renewable energy by 2032. I don’t know if this figured into the daily news, but it made national news.

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