Onion-tops and band music rise again at 'Saltair'

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Swimming in the Great Salt Lake is not recreation.

It is an experience. The extreme buoyancy of the supersalty water makes you float like a cork, forcing your legs to the surface. A splash can sting your eyes to no end and make your mouth parch. Without a freshwater shower afterward, your body becomes covered with white crystals.

For some people, the experience is pleasant. But it is the Great Salt Lake's scenic and moonlike beauty that makes it one of the valley's top attractions, along with the Mormon temple and the ski resorts.

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To draw more tourists to this dead sea of America would take a few more incentives than a dip in its salty sauce.

The first resort on the lake, built in 1870 by John W. Young, included a roller skating rink, a train depot, a merry-go-round, a pavilion, a sailing club , a dance hall for a 15-piece orchestra, and a three-decker sternwheeler more than 130 feet long for cruising the lake. It was the first of about 10 resorts on the lake, all of which have disappeared for various reasons.

The greatest attraction of all time, however, was the famous Saltair, a Victorian pavilion built almost a mile out into the lake in 1893, with massive cupolas, spacious promenades, and a place to dive in the dense water (if one wished to do so).

The Saltair closed in 1958 and burned to the water in 1971, and nothing has replaced it but a few snack shops and a sailing marina on the lake's south shore. Tourists have been left with a simple swim in the lake.

But Saltair rises again Phoenix-like and almost true to its original form.

On a 400-acre plot of beach leased from the state, three developers are reconstructing the five-story pavilion, using the skeleton of an old airplane hangar from nearby Hill Air Force Base. When finished later this year, it will re-create the onion-shaped cupolas, gingerbread architecture, and wooden arches of the old Saltair, complete with a hall for band concerts.

That's where the similarity ends. The new Saltair will be pure 1980s, a la Disney World. Among its attractions will be bumperboats, a long water slide in a tube, helicopter rides, a miniature dune buggy course, amphibious water tricycles, a mini-mall of food shops, and a seafood restaurant (although only shrimp live in the lake).

Saltair's key developer, Wally Wright, who is known for restoring Salt Lake City's old trolley barns into a successful shopping mall, was a Navy jet fighter who just loves to build slides and rides that approach loop-the-loop maneuvers.

He expects the new Saltair will draw about 1 million visitors a year. It is built on the sandy shore, not way out into the lake like its stilted ancestor. A long walkway will allow visitors to get near deeper water without walking through the masses of brine flies that usually swarm near water's edge.

Amazingly, Salt Lake County granted the Saltair partnership up to $5 million in industrial revenue bonds to build the new tourist site.

The lake attracts far more out-of-state visitors than locals. ''Most people from the city swim in the lake as a child and never come back,'' Mr. Wright said. ''They think it is a 'yucky' experience.'' As for him, he loves the lake so much that he goes water-skiing in it as often as he can.

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