In the 1960s, the Great Salt Lake was a vexing problem for the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. The inland sea gave the city its name, after all, but when visitors came to town and wanted to see it, they got little encouragement from the locals.

1965saltairtrain

A group of city officials and businessmen in an open-air Saltair train in a 1965 test run to Garfield.

The Chamber had a long history with the lake. It promoted swimming in its briny waters back in the glory days when Saltair was drawing half a million people a year, and through the years it worked on a variety of proposals to tap its resources. It even had a Great Salt Lake Committee.

So when Rex Firth, vice president and general manager of the Salt Lake, Garfield & Western Railroad, came to the Chamber with his ideas to revive the old Saltair run, he found a receptive audience.

Saltair, the grand resort on the lake, was built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1893 and quickly became one of the area’s crown jewels. Excursion trains, with the latest “rolling stock,” ran regularly, at least once an hour, and Saltair flourished through the years with its blend of music, dancing, entertainment, bike racing, and a giant roller coaster. After it burned down in 1925, it was sold to the Salt Lake Garfield &Western Railroad, which rebuilt it with even more elaborate facilities including 1,000 white-trellised changing rooms. It cost 25 cents for admission.

But that glory, too, faded away, and in 1965 Saltair was a ghost and the status of the lake was very much on the public’s mind. Firth knew he couldn’t turn back the past, but he could revive the old Saltair train run to Silver Sands and Sunset beaches. In August, the Chamber ran two demonstration trains to the beaches to help overcome the public’s prejudice.

“If Utahns don’t think the Great Salt Lake is worthwhile, they certainly won’t encourage many tourists to go there,” said Chamber executive vice president Maxwell E. Rich. “Our examinations have shown that the comments about the ‘big open cesspool’ simply are not true. The south end of the lake is a clean, decent place for family recreation.”

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Firth shows his refurbished Garfield & Western train to Chamber of Commerce visitors.

Soon the Chamber was promoting a package of tickets: $1 for adults, 50 cents for children under 12. The trains left the terminal at 1100 West and North Temple every two hours and returned from the lake every two hours from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Utahns liked the experiment. They rode inside in refurbished cars or outside in open-air cars out to the lake, enjoyed the train ride, waded a little or picnicked.

But after a while interest in the rail excursion fell off and it became impractical. Still, the Chamber remained as involved with the lake as it had always been. For example, in 1972, the Chamber’s Great Salt Lake committee helped secure funds for a brine fly control project from the county, state, the Lions Club, and private donors.

And in 1978, the Chamber’s Government Affairs Council’s Ashby Decker and Dan Berman reported that a lobbying team headed by the Chamber, and assisted by several other agencies, got $3.6 million in state money to permit installation of basic sewer and water facilities at the Great Salt Lake, with expanded parking and a visitors center.

Today, tourists visit the beaches by private automobile and use those facilities. But the problem of promoting the Lake is just as vexing.


Sources: Salt Lake Business Communique, July, August, 1965. April 1978; and 1978 Chamber of Commerce quarterly report in Chamber of Commerce collection in Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Linda Sillitoe, A History of Salt Lake County (Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah State Historical Society, 1996). John D.C. Gadd, “Saltair, Great Salt Lake’s most famous resort,” Utah Historical Quarterly Vol 36 summer 1968. Deseret News 22 August 1972, John S. McCormick, “Saltair”, in Utah History Encyclopedia. Don C. Woodward, edit, Through Our Eyes, (Deseret News Publishing Co, Salt Lake City, 1999).