The history of “pleasure resorts,” as they were commonly called in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is seen by many historians as central to understanding American culture and society in the last one hundred years. However, not much has been written or published about resorts in Utah. By the turn of the twentieth century, resorts of all kinds dotted the state’s cities, canyons, and lakes but, aside from Saltair, we know little about them. Many have nearly faded from historical memory (including Bountiful’s Eden Park, Salt Lake City’s Fuller’s Hill, Ogden’s Sylvan Glen, Utah Lake’s Geneva and half-dozen other resorts, and most of the Great Salt Lake’s nearly one dozen). About others whose names are more familiar, only a relatively little is known; they include Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace, Majestic Park, and Calder’s (later Wandamere) Park, Spanish Fork Canyon’s Castilla Hot Springs, Ogden Canyon’s the Hermitage, and Emigration Canyon’s Pinecrest. Even Lagoon, the most enduring of Utah’s resorts, still awaits its historians.
What is known about early resorts in Utah suggests they have come in a variety of kinds and sizes, from modest health spas, such as Castilla Hot Springs, to quiet mountain retreats, like the Hermitage or Pinecrest, to elaborate amusement parks, like Saltair, which by the 1920s was drawing half a million patrons a season. Also, most were relatively short-lived, including Eden Park (1894-96), Syracuse (1887-91), Lake Park (1886-95), Utah Lake’s Murdock Resort (1891-97), and the Salt Palace (1899-1910); Saltair (1893-1958), Saratoga (1885-present), and Lagoon (1896-present) are notable exceptions. Those that did survive any length of time evolved in the direction of, or began as, full-fledged amusement parks, offering a variety of attractions.
Many resorts came of age in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the products of a rapidly changing society, one that was becoming less rural and agricultural and increasingly urban and industrialized. The resorts eased people’s adjustment to life in that kind of society in several ways. They provided an appealing urban experience, one that offered fun and excitement, thereby legitimizing it. Even though resorts often promoted themselves close to nature, with their midways, boardwalks, concessions, and mechanical rides, they were clearly urban. At the same time, they provided a temporary escape from the city with its disagreeable features, dirt, pressures, clamor, danger, and drabness.
Resorts were viewed as a sign of an area’s growing maturity and coming of age. Thus, when Saltair was built in 1893 it was taken as an indication that Utah in general, and Salt Lake City in particular, had evolved from a strange, provincial backwater to an increasingly modern and up-to-date, city and state.
A major factor in the success of resorts was the development of urban railway systems, which made it possible for large numbers of people to easily and cheaply travel to them. Indeed, railroads commonly owned and operated resorts on or at the end of their lines as a way of stimulating passenger traffic. When, for example, the Great Salt Lake and Hot Springs Railway Company began the construction of tracks from Salt Lake City to Ogden in 1891, they proceeded in stages, laying track first to an existing resort, Beck’s Hot Springs, four miles to the north, then going as far as Bountiful, where they built Eden Park, then moving to Farmington, where they built Lagoon, and finally, in 1908, reaching Ogden.
Though resorts have sometimes been seen as serving a democratic function, catering to anyone who could pay, since they were rigidly segregated until the 1950s, they in fact demonstrated the very real limits of democratic theory and practice in Utah as elsewhere in the United States. In July 1910 Saltair’s management ejected an African-American from the resort solely because of his race. He sued; but the court ruled the resort acted within its rights if it refunded the twenty-five cents the man had paid for admission, and ordered it to do so.
Resorts in Utah have paralleled and reflected national conditions and patterns; but they also have reflected unique local conditions–in particular, the extreme tension between Mormons and non-Mormons that existed in the late nineteenth century and the movement toward the easing of those tensions that began in the early twentieth century. The Mormon Church, for example, established Saltair in 1893 in an effort to provide a wholesome place of recreation under church control for Mormons, particularly families and young people. For the previous ten years or so church officials had been concerned about “pleasure resorts” and their harmful influence on members of the church. In 1883 the church-owned Deseret News warned parents “to allow children of either sex of tender years to go unprotected to pleasure resorts where all classes mingle indiscriminately is criminal.” Resorts, it continued, exposed Mormon children “to the villainous arts of practiced voluptuaries” and “degraded character destroyers” who sought to “overthrow” the Mormon Church. Church officials were particularly distressed about the Garfield resort, which non-Mormons owned and operated. According to Mormon apostle Abraham H. Cannon, Saltair was intended for “our people” so that “they can have a place to go and bathe, if they so desire, without being mixed up with the rough element which frequents Garfield.” At the same time, the Mormon Church also intended that Saltair be the “Coney Island of the West.” Advertised as that for many years following its completion, it attracted an increasingly diverse group, particularly as the division that had existed between Mormons and others moderated. It thus benefited from the new spirit of accommodation, but served as well as an agency to promote it.
The heyday of resorts like Saltair was over in Utah, as it was in the rest of the country, by the 1950s. Since then, though Lagoon has continued to prosper, the term “resort” has increasingly come to mean “ski resort.” More than a dozen of these dotted the state by the 1990s, attracting hundreds of thousands of both in-state and out-of-state skiers. And, in many ways, the modern-day counterpart of pleasure resorts is the shopping mall with its myriad attractions and entertainments, crowds of people, fun, and excitement.
John S. McCormick