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Brigham Young Fought Rising Salt Lake, Too
Hal Schindler
Published: 12/31/1995 Category: Utah Page: K45

As governor of Utah Territory in the 1850s Brigham Young was prepared for anything from establishing a provisional state to dealing with hostile Indians, from masterminding the systematic colonization of his domain to warding off New Mexican slave traders, from planning an effective mail service to controlling the hordes of gold-rushers cutting across Utah on their way to California. But when the waters of Great Salt Lake began rising, Young found himself at sea with the problem of keeping lake islands accessible to the community as herd grounds.

One hundred and thirty years later, another governor, Norman Bangerter, faced with a similar quandary met the challenge by installing $60 million pumps to move the overflow lake water into the western desert. But in 1854, Brigham Young's answer was to build a boat.

The winter of '53 saw lake levels swelling almost as precipitously as they did in 1986. Antelope Island was the community pasture for Mormon cattle, ideal for its quiet isolation and protection from marauding Indians, but that isolation was now becoming a serious handicap. The sandbar between the island and the mainland, once easily crossed on foot, was deepening under the briny overflow and increasingly difficult to ford. When conditions did not improve and the shoreline crept higher, Young ordered construction of a boat capable of ferrying livestock to the island.

Young's new vessel would be forty-six-feet long and designed with the future in mind. Always the visionary, Brigham Young christened the ferry the "Timely Gull." The boat had "a stern wheel propelled by horse power," according to The Deseret News, July 6, 1854. Later the "Gull" might be converted to steam. A Utahn who went east on business that fall, shopped for an engine and fittings to take back with him, making it known that a boat already had been built and was awaiting a power plant. So it was that after two years service the governor in 1856 ordered "Timely Gull" fitted out as a sailboat and its "horse power" put out to pasture.

As historian Dale L. Morgan explained, "It was fortunate that the boat was ready for use by the early fall of 1854. Even during the spring, the lake had been so high as to swim a horse on the Antelope bar, and cattle taken off the island at that time had to swim the greater portion of the way. Spring brought astonishing floods, raising the Jordan to levels higher than had ever been known, and by fall, had it not been for the 'Timely Gull,' [livestock] on the island would have been marooned."

In autumn of 1854 and the early spring and summer of 1855, onslaughts of grasshoppers wreaked havoc and devastation on Mormon crops. While the lake might have served as a protective moat against the cricket infestations of '48, the flying hoppers had little trouble reaching the islands. Great dark clouds of the insects swarmed over patches of green which disappeared in their wake. When it became apparent the herds would have to be moved or perish from starvation, Young and others took "Timely Gull" to the island and ferried 500 head of cattle to the mainland; these were driven to new herd grounds near Utah Lake, and the following year to Cache Valley, thus managing to stay just a jump ahead of the grasshoppers.

Valiant as its service was, "Timely Gull" came to an untimely end in 1858 when a gale swept the ferry from its moorings at Black Rock and piled it up; the derelict wreckage visible for years. As for the lake itself, the levels dropped markedly until 1862, and then once more began a sustained rise. Until then it was possible to move between the island and the mainland without swimming horses or cattle, but after '62 barges were necessary to move the stock.

In 1872, a three-decked stern-wheeler steamboat named the "City of Corinne" was launched to haul ores of the Tintic mining district from Lake Point to Corinne by sailing twenty miles up the Bear River. But within two years the lake level was such that the river became unnavigable. 'City of Corinne' was used as a passenger boat for a few years, and then retired from Utah's "maritime" service.

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