Utah Historical Quarterly is the official journal of Utah history, published on behalf of the Utah State Historical Society since 1928. UHQ’s mission, from its earliest issues to the present, is to publish articles on all aspects of Utah history and to present Utah in the larger context of the West. UHQ’s editorial style emphasizes scholarly credibility, accessible language, and variety. The quarterly is filled with articles, book reviews, and photographs, as well field notes about documents, artifacts, historiography, oral history, and public history. Online supplements—including documents, galleries, and interviews—accompany each issue.
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UHQ winter 2019
Volume 87, Number 1
By Jeff Nichols, Guest Editor
There’s a sturdy cliché about the Great Salt Lake: most people think the lake is too much. Too flat, too shallow, too salty, too stinky to love—or even to refrain from fouling. All those characteristics have a basis in truth, of course. The lake bed—the remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville—is indeed very flat, and the deepest part of the lake is only about thirty-four feet. Since the lake is terminal, with no outlet, salts become concentrated; at certain times and places the water is super saturated with salt, at nearly 27 percent by weight, eight or nine times as salty as the ocean. The lake’s rotten egg smell results from nutrient-rich treated sewage water that causes algae blooms; we smell the decaying algae.
But despite this, people have loved and cherished the lake for millennia, and people have made many and various uses of it. Native peoples hunted and netted waterfowl and collected eggs in its marshes for at least twelve thousand years. Six generations of Anglo hunters have harvested those marshes, as altered and shrunken as they now may be. Brine shrimpers have built a thriving industry, supplying cysts for shrimp farms and “Sea Monkeys” (a brand name) for odd pets advertised in the back of boys’ magazines. Industrial firms extract useful salts from the water and surrounding flats. Sailors cruise the shallow waters. Recreational entrepreneurs built resorts, most famously Saltair, that thrived for years before succumbing to water (or the lack of it), wind, fire, and the public’s fickle taste in recreation. People have marveled at the lake’s weird beauty, and some of them have fought to defend it from its many dangers.
The edges of the lake are where most of the human action has taken place—the shoreline, the edge between land and water; and the surface, the edge between water and sky. The shallow, nearly flat basin bottom that the lake occupies means that its edges are constantly shifting—expanding in wet years, shrinking in dry ones. That dynamism means that fresh and salt water ebb and flow and mix in ever-changing ways. The plant and animal life those edges support are constantly recharging, advancing, retreating, dying in one place and thriving in another. The lake cannot be fixed but some creatures and some people have succeeded along the edges, while others have had a more difficult go of it.
Historians and other writers have paid attention to the lake, although less than it deserves. Dale Morgan published The Great Salt Lake, a volume in the Bobbs-Merrill Company’s American Lakes series, in 1947. That volume is unavoidably dated, and Morgan indulges in eloquent digressions about his abiding passion, the fur trade. A reader might wonder why Morgan keeps taking them to California. But it still stands as perhaps the single best thing anyone has written about the lake and its place in the larger Great Basin.
The Utah Historical Quarterly last devoted an entire issue to the lake in 1988, during a period when several heavy winters resulted in spring runoffs that forcefully reminded neighbors of the lake they sometimes neglected, now lapping at their feet. Articles in that wide-ranging issue included Gary Topping’s account of overland trails around the lake, partly inspired by 1980s salvage archaeology mandated by the West Desert Pumping Project, an effort to relieve flooding. The geographer Richard Jackson described the lake and its namesake city as curiosities of intense interest to overland travelers. Brigham Madsen detailed the first in-depth scientific expedition to the lake, led by Howard Stansbury of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. Madsen went on to edit Stansbury’s report in a magnificent volume, Exploring the Great Salt Lake: The Stansbury Expedition of 1849–50 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989). David Miller and Anne Eckman edited Seymour Miller’s memoir of his family’s sheep operation on Fremont Island. Roy Webb rounded out the issue with his profile of Thomas Adams, an engineer who revived the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club, fought valiantly but vainly to restore Saltair, and resisted efforts to dump mine tailings in the lake.
Since that issue the Great Salt Lake has continued to inspire writers and artists. Terry Tempest Williams reflected on the rising lake levels and the suspicious health problems of women in her family in her elegant, mournful Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (New York: Pantheon, 1991). Dean May (my late lamented mentor) wrote the text and Will South shot the photographs for a beautiful volume, Images of the Great Salt Lake: January 14–March 31, 1996 (Salt Lake City: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 1996). J. Wallace Gwynn published two editions of a massive, multi-disciplinary volume, Great Salt Lake: A Scientific, Historical, and Economic Overview (Salt Lake City: Utah Geological and Mineral Survey, 1980) and Great Salt Lake: An Overview of Change (Utah Geological Survey, 2002). Ella Sorensen (writer) and John P. George (photographer) teamed up for Seductive Beauty of Great Salt Lake: Images of a Lake Unknown (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1998). Marlin Stum (writer) and Dan Miller (photographer) contributed Visions of Antelope Island and Great Salt Lake (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1999). Gary Topping edited a fine collection, Great Salt Lake: An Anthology (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2002). More recently, my colleague Hikmet Sidney Loe published the eccentric and beautiful The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork through Time and Space (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2017), which ostensibly centers on Smithson’s iconic land art but also functions as a fascinating primer on all things Great Salt Lake and is reviewed in this issue.
The idea for the issue you hold sprouted from one of many seeds planted by the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. GSLI’s director, biologist Bonnie Baxter, and coordinator Jaimi Butler have helped to build an extraordinary network of lake lovers and scholars over the past decade. A small group of people linked to that network gathered at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge headquarters in January 2017 to talk about what Refuge director Bob Barrett called the “human side of the lake.” We dubbed our informal group the “Wetlands History Initiative Project”—WHIP—and began collecting documents, oral histories, and other lake-related materials. Check out Utah State University’s digital oral history archive (a project directed by Randy Williams, a contributor to this volume) at http://digital.lib.usu.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16944coll46.
This issue concentrates on the lake’s edges, in particular the marshes on the eastern and southern shores. Ducks and duck hunters are prominent characters in three articles, a focus that reflects the ecological richness of the marshes, the elaborate hunting culture that has emerged over more than a century, and the interests of the members of WHIP. Andrew Hedges opens the issue by describing the pioneering avian biology work of Alexander Wetmore in the Bear River delta before he became one of the great scientific leaders of the twentieth century. Jack Ray details the fascinating world of market and sport duck hunters and their contributions to wetlands conservation. Randy Williams takes an in-depth look at a veteran guide at the most storied of Great Salt Lake duck clubs. Michael McLane explores the warm springs at the southeastern edge of the lake and the recreational complex that once thrived there, now nearly obliterated by industry and transportation infrastructure. Christopher Merritt and Arie Leeflang close our theme by describing some preliminary but promising archeological work on Gunnison Island.
This issue offers, of course, only a narrow and partial look at the lake’s edges, and there is any number of other histories still to be told. The many ways that Native peoples used (and continue to use) the wetlands merit particular attention. The historian’s task has become particularly relevant in recent decades. The lake is under siege on many fronts: industrial development, agricultural diversion of its tributaries, toxic runoff, habitat destruction, and most importantly climate change, to name only a few. The lake’s human past informs its present and will shape its imperiled future. Perhaps we can learn valuable lessons from how people have used, and sometimes abused, the lake. We hope you enjoy these pieces, and we hope that you’ll share ideas for future Great Salt Lake history projects. The lake needs you.
RECENT WEB EXTRAS
Edges of the Great Salt Lake: M. Craig Dangerfield Oral InterviewJune 20, 2019
Edges of the Great Salt Lake: Lost Lakes and Ducks as Table Fare (Winter 2019)June 20, 2019
Gallery: Christine Armbruster’s Documentation of Small-town Utah (Fall 2018)April 29, 2019
Gallery: Calvin S. Smith (Summer 2018)November 7, 2018
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