At one point the water in Lake Bonneville was 1000 feet over the salt flats. The lake was the size of Lake Michigan in the Great Lakes system. At one point, Lake Bonneville broke free and spilled much of its contents through the Red Rock Pass to the north into the Snake River. Evaporation of remaining water left ultra-high concentrations of salt and other minerals in the soil. Now when ground water floods the lake, it picks up minerals as it percolates to the surface. The summer months’ evaporation cycle starts again and leaves the salt and minerals as a new salt crust layer.
The lake was named, oddly enough for a man who never saw it.
In 1833 Joseph Walker mapped the area around the Great Salt Lake. In doing so, he crossed the northern section of the salt flats while in the employ of a Capt. Benjamin Bonneville. Turns out, this Captain Bonneville was a pretty cool dude for the 1800’s. He petitioned the Army for a leave of absence so he could go explore the Pacific Northwest and report back what he found. The Army approved and, through private funding, Bonneville basically went backpacking with about a hundred guys for the next 4 years. You can read about him in Washington Irving’s book The Adventures of Captain Bonneville.
In Bonneville’s employ the aforementioned Joseph R. Walker, a general wilderness scout and trapper kind of guy. Bonneville sent him south west to explore and discover a route to what is present day California, but at the time was actually controlled by Mexico. During the trip he discovered the salt flats and named the lake for his boss.
Interesting side-note; In 1845 John C. Fremont, also a member of Bonneville’s initial party ventured across the salt flats and mapped his passage as The Hasting’s Cutoff, siting a 500-mile cutoff the existing path to California. The following year two families were heading west and after much hardship they decided to employ The Hasting’s Cutoff and venture across the salt flats. It being the wrong time of year for the best conditions for travel, the party broke through the salt and were mired in the mud of the lake bed. Abandon wagon parts could be found on the flats up until the 1930’s and wagon tracks were still visible in 1986. The delay caused by travel conditions on the Hasting’s cutoff had serious implications down the road for the Donner-Reed party as they headed into Sierra Nevada Mountains, to say the least.
The next big name in the history of the salt flats as it pertains to us, is William D. “Bill” Rishel.
“Big Bill” Rishel was an avid fan of two wheeled travel. He got his nickname by winning a bet on a mile long drag race for lack of a better term. He was caught up in the two-wheel frenzy of the time, “Handle Bar Fever.” However these are bicycles we are talking about not motorcycles.
In 1896, noted publisher and media mogul William Randolph Hearst, never one to let a publicity event opportunity go by, decided to sponsor a transcontinental relay race from San Francisco, home of the Hearst owned San Francisco Examiner, to New York City, home of the Hearst owned New York Journal. Each rider would be riding a Stern’s YELLOW FELLOW bicycle and carry and “official packet” from the postmaster in San Francisco to the postmaster in New York, which would be signed by city officials along the route. This race was called The Yellow Fellow Transcontinental Relay.
Hearst hired avid Salt Lake City cyclist W.D. Rishel to organize the route through Nevada-Utah-Wyoming. Rishel and a partner tested the route over the Salt Flats and although they had troubles, they decided that would be the route used in the race. Bicycle clubs in nearby Ogdean UT weren’t happy the route went south across the flats instead of through their northern town. They came up with their own route, pitched it to Hearst as a race within a race and suggested that they would accost the rider and steal the “official packet” from the rider of the previous leg and guard it with their life as they took their route toward the rider of the next relay leg.
This is how the Sept 30th, 1896 issue of London’s The Sketch magazine chronicled the events of the race as it passed through the Salt Lake area. “On August 30 the New York journal a principle promoter of the scheme, flared with head-lines telling how Ogden had kidnapped the message, dodged through canyons at daybreak, and left Salt Lake out. Governor Wells and thousands of citizens vainly waited at the Capitol. This was a reprisal for an original scheme to abduct the message across the desert, and the scheme succeeded, though it took some breakneck riding to do it. All Ogden City knew the plot, but kept dark, and so Salt Lake wept saltier tears. And That, as the head-lines declared, was how “The Bold, Bad Ogden Men Stole Salt Lake’s Glory.”
Even though the salt flats weren’t used in the Yellow Fellow Transcontinental Relay Race, Rishel knew a good thing when he saw it. In 1907 Rishel and two businessmen took a Pierce Arrow Automobile out onto the surface of the flats to test the location for drivability. Thus begin the love affair for automobiles, speed, and the salt flats.
More on that in the next issue!