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Strange Legends Of The Great Salt Lake

By James Donahue

When driving I-70 across Utah you pass first the Salt Flats, a massive expanse of flat barren white landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see. Then you pass the Great Salt Lake which also appears to be a dead and decaying sea. You may choose to roll the vehicle windows up even in the heat of the day because of the noxious stench.

If you are driving east, you must pass this hellish place before reaching Salt Lake City. It awaits you if you are going the other way.

The flats are so smooth, hard and devoid of growing things they have been a favorite testing ground for high speed vehicles. You can drive on them for miles without hitting a stone or a bump.

The lake appears to be more than a mere "lake." Some have referred to it as a sea because of its massive size. Other than the Great Lakes, at 1,700 square miles it is the largest body of water to be found in North America. Unlike the fresh water of the Great Lakes, the Great Salt Lake is extremely salty; even saltier than the oceans. Early explorers believed it was in some way connected to the Pacific Ocean, but they were wrong.

While at first glance the Salt Lake appears devoid of life. This is untrue. The water is swarming with tiny brine shrimp. They are tiny half-inch-long creatures that exist in the water. When they die their bodies wash up on the shores, thus causing that sickening stench. The dead fish attract swarms of brine flies during the heat of the summer months. The natives of the area say that at certain times the area is literally black because of the large number of the flies.

One might think that such a smelly and uninhabitable place would have no human history or legends. But you are very wrong. The stories about the Great Salt Lake and the people who have attempted to deal with it abound. Most appear to be just tall tales but then, who knows the truth?

It is said that there are a few whales living in the water. It seems that a man named James Wickham decided to bring two small whales to the lake from Australia in 1873, apparently to test a theory that salt water creatures could live in the dense salty water. He placed the whales in pens at the edge of the Salt Lake. Not only did they survive in the waters, but the whales broke free and flourished, spawning a family of whales that populated the water. Then whalers hunted down the creatures and killed most if not all of them off.

Also seen in the area have been camels. It seems that the U. S. Military, which used the salt flats as proving grounds for military equipment, brought camels with them. The camels were more suited to live in the harsh environment than horses. Naturally a few of them escaped and their offspring still are to be found on occasion.

Various human efforts to cash in on the salt brine and brine shrimp found in the water. The shrimp are captured and sold around the world as food for aquarium owners. The Barnes and Co. Salt Works Company was operating on Salt Lake in the late 1800s.

It was in 1871 that workers for the salt company reported a strange encounter with a giant creature that they said had a head like a horse and a body like an alligator. They said the beast emerged from the water off Monument Point on the north shore of Salt Lake. It made a loud bellowing noise as it chased the men up a hill. They remained hidden all that day. When they returned to their camp they found that the creature had overturned large boulders and left its marks in the ground. Reports of similar sightings have been made since then. Some say the creature is an estimated 75-feet in length.

The native tribes have passed down a legend of a "giant mosquito monster" that has swooped down out of the sky and killed tribes people by sucking their blood. Such creatures have never been reported by settlers although two hunters, Martin Gilbert and John Barry said they encountered what they believed was a prehistoric flying monster on Stansbury Island in 1903. They said it was about 65-feet long, looked like an alligator covered in scales, had sharp teeth and glowing eyes, and flew up out of the water with wings that looked like those of a bat. They said it flew off at dusk and returned shortly afterward with a dead horse in its jaws. The story was published in newspapers as far west as Denver and east as Pittsburgh.

Then there is a grisly story of grave robber John Baptiste, a man charged with digging up and robbing an estimated 300 graves. It was a perfect crime for Baptiste, who earned his living as a gravedigger. When authorities searched Baptiste’s home they found jewelry and other personal items that had been buried in the defiled graves. He was arrested in 1862 and sentenced to exile on Fremont Island, one of Great Salt Lake’s 11 known islands. Baptiste was provided with a shack to live in and provisions to live on for the rest of his days. As the story is told, some weeks later, when people went to the island to check on Baptiste, they found the shack destroyed and no sign of the man. There was a major manhunt conducted, but Baptiste was never seen again.

The Great Salt Lake also is believed to have its own peculiar form of a Bermuda Triangle, where ships and aircraft have disappeared without trace. Aircraft from nearby Hill Air Force Base and Salt Lake International Airport have disappeared on flights over the lake. Some ships also have disappeared. Among the best known of these was the City of Corrine, which was said to have been carrying chests of gold when it went missing. Divers have found the water to be extremely murky and they have been hampered by the extreme stench of the lake. Thus the aircraft and ships that lie at the bottom of the lake remain lost to this day.

Lastly, Great Salt Lake also has experienced icebergs. Even though the salt water in the lake is unlikely to ever freeze over in the winter months, the fresh water in the streams that feed into the lake do freeze, and create large blocks of ice at the places where they empty into Salt Lake. When they occasionally get large enough and break free, they float around in the open water. In 1942 a block of ice estimated to be 30 feet high and about 100 feet wide was spotted. A severe freeze in 1984 created several large icebergs that were blown into the shore, smashing fences, cars and roads.