Great Salt Lake once a raceway of sorts

Published: Monday, Dec. 7 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Radio hosts Scott Simon and Erin Brady get ready to swim the Great Salt Lake during a fundraising event in 2002.

Paul Barker, Deseret News

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Utah is world-famous for the Bonneville Speedway on the Salt Flats. However, in the early 20th century, the Great Salt Lake itself was a raceway, of sorts.

Soaking in the Great Salt Lake was an extremely popular pastime in Utah's pre-World War II era. But there was more than just leisurely "floating like a cork" bathing going on — there were also periodic competitive swimming marathons held in the briny lake, which is three to five times saltier than the ocean.

The first such marathon was held in the summer of 1919 with intermittent races through the '20s and '30s. Swimmer Orson Spencer won all three races between 1930-33. One year, he won with a time of 2:20.00

Windy conditions meant rough waters in 1939, and Spencer pulled a muscle 1 1/2 miles out and had to be pulled from the water.

The final time the race was held was in 1940. Low water levels and the start of World War II ultimately doomed the races.

Aside from such marathon swims, there was never much regular swimming or diving going on in the Great Salt Lake. In fact, leaping headfirst into the thick waters of the Great Salt Lake is sometimes described as like hitting a board.

But there was plenty of floating on backs in the early 20th century. A favorite trick of bathers was to have everyone float on their backs and make a chain — people would hook their arms over the next person's feet, and the lead person would guide everyone around.

Some people wore bathing caps and kept handkerchiefs underneath, so if a dose of salt hit them in the eye, they always had a clean cloth to wipe it away.

Notwithstanding, after soaking or swimming in the lake, bathers always wanted a fresh-water shower to wash off the salt and mineral residue. With the demise of the Bamberger Railroad, which gave people access to the Great Salt Lake, after World War II and the popularity of the automobile in the early 1950s, Utahns discovered many other leisure activities.

Beach parties no longer favored salt water, or the shrinking Great Salt Lake.

Utahns' love affair with the lake had evolved. It was OK to visit the lake's shore once in a while or eventually to drive across the causeway to Antelope Island, but to actually swim in that lake water? Forget it.

SOURCES: "The Great Salt Lake," by Dale L. Morgan; "Saltair," by Nancy D. and John S. McCormick; Deseret News archives.

e-mail: lynn@desnews.com

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