Saltair: The Coney Island of the West

Though it seems almost inconceivable today, the Great Salt Lake was once a popular vacation and recreational site. It was so popular with many of the early settlers that several resort complexes were constructed in order to satisfy the recreational demand. Of the many resort edifices built during this time, the most famous and lasting is the Saltair palace. While it no longer functions as a lake resort, the Saltair palace has found new life as a popular venue for music acts and other events.

While early Mormon settlers often talked about building resorts along the Great Salt Lake, recreation along the salty shores wasn’t able to take off until completion of the Utah Central railroad in 1869, which made journeys to the lake much quicker and more convenient. In 1870 the first two resorts were constructed, one of the east part of the lake and one on the south. Several others were constructed in the 19th century and they became popular destinations for the mostly Mormon community that lived in the area.

In 1893 the first complex known as the “Saltair Palace” was constructed. It was advertised as the “Coney Island of the West”, and its remarkable architecture was an impressive sight. It was more than 1,100 feet from tip to tip, and the pavilion itself was more than one hundred feet high. Over three hundred tons of steel girders were used in total, and there were four domes (one on each corner of the central complex.) There were picnic and luncheon areas as well as general use rooms for parties and other events. The Saltair palace enjoyed enormous success until 1925, when a fire broke out and destroyed the entire complex. Because of its popularity, a second complex was built in its place. The “Saltair II”, or second pavilion, was finished in 1926.

Saltair Palace continued to be a popular tourist destination and a local favorite, but a second fire in 1931 caused significant damage to the complex. While the structure wasn’t completely destroyed, attendance at the resort dropped dramatically (the Great Depression and World War II were also factors in Saltair’s decline). The salvageable portions of the structure were still used from time to time to host a variety of smaller shows, but it never regained its status as popular beach resort location.

An arsonist’s fire in 1970 destroyed what was left of Saltair II. In 1981, local investors pooled their resources to try and build a new resort (named Saltair III), but an extremely wet year caused the lake water levels to rise above their historic limits, flooding the new complex. In the early 2000s new investors (many from the music industry) set out to renovate Saltair III and turn it into the popular music venue, it’s main function to this day.