Saltair: The Tragic Fire of 1925

by KIMBERLEE WARD

As soon as the Mormon pioneers settled the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847, they knew that the Great Salt Lake was something special. Three days after arriving in the valley, Brigham Young, the president of the Mormon church, and other church leaders traveled to the Great Salt Lake and enjoyed the buoyancy of the water. (McCormick & McCormick) From this time forward, residents and tourists have enjoyed the recreation found at the Great Salt Lake. Beach resorts began to emerge on its banks beginning in 1870. The one resort that was known as an American tourist destination was Saltair.

The owner of the new resort was the Saltair Beach Company and its largest stockholder was the Mormon Church. Church leaders wanted to build a resort that was family-oriented and intended that there be a wholesome atmosphere with the open supervision of church leaders. The Saltair Beach Company was established in 1891 and plans for the new resort started then. The beach resort of Saltair was built on the southeast side of the lake and was finished in 1893. The Mormon Church intended Saltair to be the “Coney Island of the West.” Saltair was advertised just as that before completion and for many years afterward. (McCormick & McCormick) A direct train route made the resort accessible to people all over the Salt Lake Valley. People visiting Saltair not only enjoyed the beach and the buoyancy of the Great Salt Lake, but also took pleasure in one of the first amusement parks west of New York.

After a record-breaking season in 1924, tragedy struck the beach resort Saltair. On April 22, 1925, as workmen readied Saltair for the upcoming season, a fire broke out in the Ali Baba Cave. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on April 23 that L.S. Peterson, an employee of the Saltair Beach Company, had smelled smoke and discovered “a wall of flame about four feet wide and running the length of the cave.” Peterson beat out the fire and was able to reduce the fire to embers before running for help. The Salt Lake Tribune quoted Peterson as saying, “I hadn’t been gone over two minutes and in that time [the fire] had started up again and spread before the wind.” The strong southerly winds helped expand the fire that eventually took over much of the beloved resort.

For several hours Saltair employees, workers, concessionaires, and volunteers from the Inland Crystal Salt Company struggled to save the pavilion. Firefighters from Salt Lake were called in and arrived at the resort in record time. (McCormick &McCormick) The Deseret News reported on April 22 that “fire station No. 3, located in Sugar House district responded to the call for the reason that it has the only pump that can be used for pumping salt water.” On April 23, the Salt Lake Telegram reported that two trucks of the Salt Lake County volunteer fire department from Murray had also arrived to fight the ongoing fire. The Telegram continued to say that “Claude Anderson, Superintendent at Garfield, arrived with six men and offered to dynamite the pier leading to the pavilion and hence stop the spread of the fire and was denied admittance.”

About 3:30 p.m., the winds shifted away from Saltair and it looked for a moment that the main pavilion could be saved. Just minutes later, the winds swerved back and the flames began to overtake the pavilion. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on April 23 that “tongues of the flame and smoke leaped fifty to one hundred feet [and] shot out and licked up the timbers and beams of the great structure as though they were cardboard.” The heat and smoke from the fire drove the firefighters away until the fire burned out of control. (McCormick & McCormick) The Telegram observed that “the smoke cleared slowly and left a gaunt-like pavilion, once the largest dance hall in the world, nothing but a network of wooden posts gnawed at by the tongues of fire.”

The fire continued into the evening and much of the famous beach resort was destroyed. On April 23 the Telegram noted the losses from the fire. The property lost included the Fun House, Dinty Moore’s, the Ali Baba Cave, the Hippodrome, the Old Scenic Railway, Dodgem, Ship Café, the dancing pavilion, a shooting gallery, the Automat, a photograph gallery, twelve hot dog stands, a bathing suit house, minor concessions, and stands and piers and houses. The Telegram estimated a total of $500,000 in damages with the total insurance coverage being $150,000.

Just one day after the tragic fire at Saltair, there was talk of rebuilding the beach resort. On April 23 The Salt Lake Tribune quoted part of the statement released by the president and manager of Saltair. It said that “[Saltair] was covered by all the insurance the company could obtain, but at this time that does not seem adequate to rebuild any such elaborate structure as has been destroyed. However, it is reasonably certain that a new Saltair will rise from the ashes of the old resort.” On the same day, the Deseret News reported that “Manager Stevens looks forward to 1925 being the banner season and expressed hope the resort would be restored in time to take care of hordes of tourists who will visit Salt Lake.”

After a visit to Saltair and an evaluation of the damages, the owners decided that the resort would open up for bathing at the end of May. On April 24 the Deseret News reported that “with every bathing house at Saltair beach intact … bathing in the lake will still be one of Salt Lake City’s finest attractions this summer.” Saltair’s President Ashby Snow issued orders for the wreckage to be cleared as soon as possible. At this time, plans regarding rebuilding of the pavilion and other structures were put on hold until after insurance adjustments had been made. However, the overall plan of the Saltair Beach Company was to rebuild the resort. The officers had decided to build on the same site and to reuse the same building plans for sentimental and historical purposes. (McCormick & McCormick)

On April 24, in both the Deseret News and the Davis County Clipper, there were articles regarding Ogden’s suggestion that the famous resort be moved closer to Ogden. The Deseret News reported that “Ogden’s Chamber of Commerce officers are suggesting to directors of the Saltair Beach Company a resort be built on the shores of the Salt Lake, somewhere in Davis County, instead of rebuilding Saltair.” The article continues to say that a letter was sent to Manager Stringham A. Stephens, pointing out the reasons why a move would be better for the Saltair Beach Company. The letter stated that “such a resort … would draw more people from Ogden, Logan, Brigham City and all northern Utah points, and would not be farther removed from Salt Lake than the present resort.”

The Davis County Clipper reported that the Ogden Chamber of Commerce had seriously considered the building of a resort on the lakeshore west of Ogden. The Chamber officers felt that if a resort were placed on the state highway, it would be “patronized by more tourists and would more adequately show the big things Utah has to display.” The Davis County Clipper reported in the letter sent to Manager Stephens that “if the new Saltair could be placed closer to Ogden such plans [for a new resort] would be abandoned and all would boost and support the new resort.” Ogden’s plan to move the beach resort Saltair closer to the highway never happened.

The Great Salt Lake has been an attraction to people from the beginning. People have traveled from near and far to experience swimming in the lake. They have enjoyed the many resorts that lined the shores of the Great Salt Lake, but none as much as the famed Saltair. The fire of 1925 was the beginning of Saltair’s decline. The community loved Saltair along with the many tourists who had visited the resort. For months and even years after the fire, there was talk of rebuilding the famous resort. No one wanted to see the end of Saltair. They wanted to hold onto what it once was.

Saltair did not open to the public when the owners and manager had anticipated. The resort reopened on July 1, two months after the fire. The summer of 1925 was the grand opening of Lagoon, which offered a larger scale amusement park to the community. (McCormick & McCormick) With the difficulties that the fire caused and the attraction of Lagoon, Saltair did not regain the patronage and splendor it once had. Toward the end of 1925, the new pavilion was built and the resort was expanded. However, Saltair never achieved the same success that it once had. A number of factors prevented Saltair’s overall success, including the advent of motion pictures and radio, automobiles and the Great Depression, which kept most people closer to home. In 1931, another fire overcame Saltair once again. The once famous amusement park and beach resort never regained the popularity and splendor that it once enjoyed during its first 30 years.

Kimberlee Ward is a senior at the University of Utah. She is majoring in mass communication and will graduate August 2010.

Sources

“Flames Leap in High Wind Over Buildings,” Deseret News, April 22, 1925, 1.

“New Building will be Upon Larger Scale,” Deseret News, April 23, 1925.

“Saltair to be Bathing Place This Summer,” Deseret News, April 24, 1925.

“Salt Lake’s Famous Place of Diversion Ravaged by Flames,” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 23, 1925, 1.

“Future of Saltair to Be Determined at Today’s Meeting of Directors,” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 24, 1925.

“No Decision on Saltair Made,” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 25, 1925.

“New Saltair on Old Site, Plan,” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 26, 1925.

“Great Dance Pavilion at Resort Afire,” The Salt Lake Telegram, April 22, 1925, 1.

“$500,000 Fire Wipes Out Main Portion of World-Famed Resort,” Salt Lake Telegram, April 24, 1925, 2.

“Ogden Suggest Davis as Center for Resort,” Davis County Clipper, April 24, 1925, 1.

Nancy McCormick and John McCormick. Saltair. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985.

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