Salt Lake’s Post War Calamities

Linda Sillitoe
The History of Salt Lake County

A heavy snowmelt following the 1951–52 winter brought flooding. Streams filled the Mountain Dell Reservoir and swelled Emigration and City creeks, and then rushed into the city. Streets in the eastern part of town were deluged; storm sewers flooded as waters poured down Thirteenth South Street to the Jordan River where obstructions sent floodwaters surging into westside neighborhoods. Altogether the city spent more than a million dollars on damages, although without the city crews’ efficient response, the sum could have been far higher.

The floodwaters eventually reached the Great Salt Lake, which also demanded attention. Valley officials had long assumed that the Great Salt Lake’s salinity would neutralize or sterilize any pollutants from industries or residents along the rivers that fed it. By 1950 the error in that assumption became obvious. As the lake rose in the mid-1950s, raw sewage seeped from the north bays to the resorts on the south shores. News of the pollution chased swimmers from the buoyant waves.

High waters contributed to the demise of Saltair in another respect. The freshwater swimming pool the resort built to increase attendance washed out as the lake’s level rose. In addition, fires in 1955 and 1956 were followed in 1957 by a freakish wind that toppled the giant racer. Not even ballroom dancing could keep the resort alive, although local musician Ardean Watts and his orchestra and nationally-known groups such as the Mills Brothers and Bill Haley and His Comets drew crowds. In 1959 Saltair’s owners gave the resort to the state, and it closed. Eleven years later, Saltair burned to the ground as firefighters watched, unable to drive their trucks over the rotting boardwalks to put out the flames.

Transportation became increasingly important as more residents commuted farther to their jobs. Even though valley residents were as addicted to car travel as any Americans, public transportation got a boost in 1953 when private bus companies united as the Utah Transit Authority. Mass transit use, nevertheless, declined as increasing numbers of automobiles claimed the roads and interstates.

By 1960 bus ridership plummeted to twelve million passengers with the average rider just fourteen years old—too young to drive. This was a significant decrease from the thirty-three million riders during World War II, when most valley residents lived in Salt Lake City and automobile use proved impractical and even unpatriotic. Bus ridership rose to over nineteen million by 1980 as the service improved valley-wide, but automobiles remained the transportation of choice.

Throughout these decades the facilities of the Salt Lake City Municipal Airport expanded and modernized, and it attained new status as the Salt Lake City International Airport in 1968. The extended runways and expanded terminals, however, could not prevent a tragedy.

In 1965 a United Airlines 727 jet crashed when its landing gear failed to engage. The plane swerved, belly-to-concrete, caught fire, and skidded to a halt, flinging one engine one hundred feet north of the main wreckage. Forty people died, thirty-six were hospitalized, and another dozen came through without serious injury. The crew and passengers hailed from throughout the United States and included several Utahns, as well as two Federal Aviation Agency inspectors who survived.