History lecture will take a dip into the Great Salt Lake | ParkRecord.com

History lecture will take a dip into the Great Salt Lake

University of Utah professor Dr. Gregory E. Smoak will give this month’s Utah History Lecture on Friday, May 29, at the Park City Library. His topic is the history of the Great Salt Lake.
Courtesy of Gregory E. Smoak

“The Great Salt Lake” lecture by Dr. Gregory Smoak
4 p.m. on Friday, May 31
Park City Library’s Community Room, 1255 Park Ave.
Free, but RSVPs appreciated
malena.stevens@parkcity.org

Throughout the centuries, the Great Salt Lake has fascinated residents, recreators and artists.

Mineral extractors, swimmers and classic landscape artists such as Alfred W. Lambourn to more contemporary artists like Helen Lea have utilized the largest saltwater lake in the Western hemisphere since the valley was settled by Mormon pioneers, said Dr. Gregory E. Smoak, a professor of history at the University of Utah and vice president of the National Council on Public History.

Smoak will touch on those topics when he presents this month’s Utah History Lecture at 4 p.m. on Friday, May 31, at the Park City’s Community Room, 1255 Park Ave. The lecture is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are needed so organizers can plan for refreshments.

RSVPs can be made by emailing malena.steves@parkcity.org.

The lecture will focus mostly on the lake’s place in Utah’s history since statehood.

“In the 19th century, it was a major tourist attraction, and through the 20th century to today it tends to be forgotten,” Smoak said. “While it certainly was a wonder of the world, many Utahns don’t visit it today, and many still don’t know too much about it.”

Smoak theorizes several reasons why the lake isn’t popular today, such as its smell and the fluctuation of water levels.

“Regardless that it can smell bad, it’s hard to get to, because aren’t many places for a body of water this large to really see it,” he said.

Antelope Island, located in the southeastern portion of the lake, is the best place to see the water, Smoak said.

“The other good place to see the lake is at its the south end where the Great Salt Lake State Park, Saltair concert venue and the Salt Lake Marina are,” he said. “But as you move north from there, the extension of wetlands and salt flats and remoteness of the lake make it fairly hard to see.”

Another offputting aspect, he says, is the fluctuation of lake level.

“The lake itself is akin to a shallow pan, and its absolute average depth is 30 feet,” Smoak said. “What that means is (that) as the lake level drops, the shoreline changes radically.”

The original Saltair, which was a resort during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had to accommodate for the unreliable level of water.

“(The resort) was built on 2,500 pilings that extended 4,000 feet into the lake, and at times, it even approached to being dry,” Smoak said.

The third reason people stopped visiting the Great Salt Lake is because of the rise of automobile tourism after World War II, when Utah marketed its other aspects..

“We see Utahns and Americans visiting the Big 5 national parks – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands – as well as venturing into the mountains to take advantage of the state’s ski industry,” Smoak said.

In addition, the subjects of promotional photographs of the area have changed over time, he said, citing the work of another historian named Jared Farmer.

“If you look at early 20th century photographs of Salt Lake City, they are almost always looking from the southeast to the northwest, where the city is framed by the lake,” Smoak said. “But if you look at photographs put out by Utah tourism (agencies) today, the city seen from the opposite direction, and it is framed by the Wasatch Range.”

In the 19th century, it was a major tourist attraction, and through the 20th century to today it tends to be forgotten.

Dr. Gregory E. Smoak
vice president of the National Council on Public History

Smoak will also talk about the rise of the lake’s industry sector that includes the extraction of salt, potassium sulfate and magnesium chloride.

“The extraction of salt started days after the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in 1847,” he said. “They would boil down water, a process that was being used by the indigenous peoples before that.”

Another natural resource that the lake provides is barely visible to the naked eye: Brine shrimp and their eggs.

“Brine shrimp is, to me, one of the most curious industries of the Great Salt Lake,” he said. “It started with gathering live shrimp to be used as aquarium food, but it has evolved into an industry that gathers eggs.”

The brine eggs are processed and shipped to Southeast Asia and South America for aquaculture, according to Smoak.

“The eggs feed prawns and tilapia and other farm-raised seafood,” he said. “A few of the eggs are still sold as Sea Monkeys and pets.”

Lastly, Smoak, who is also the director of a research center called the American West Center, will also relay some of his findings from a project called “Saline Stories,” a collection of oral histories of the Great Salt Lake.

“I asked people what their first experience with the lake was,” he said. “We have talked with scientists, artists and people involved in recreation and game management.”

Smoak, who has lived in and out of Utah since the 1980s, can’t wait to share his appreciation for the Great Salt Lake.

“To me, it’s always been an interesting and surreal landscape, and I like that,” he said.


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