Lying within the rugged wilderness of the state of Utah, shimmering like a mirage in the desolate scrubland surroundings is one of the largest and most unusual lakes in North America; the Great Salt Lake. With its fishless briny waters shimmering in the hot sun and much of its north and west shores uninhabited mountain peaks and barren salt flats, this enormous, enigmatic lake is a somewhat haunting place steeped in history, natural wonders, myths, legends, and mysteries. Here is a place thick with not only intriguing natural phenomena, but also its fair share of weird history and high strangeness.
Located in the northern part of Utah, Great Salt Lake is the largest salt water lake in the Western Hemishpere, and after the great lakes the largest lake by surface area in the United States. It covers an average area of around 1,700 square miles (4,400 km2), although this can fluctuate somewhat due to the effects of evaporation on its shallow waters, which only reach a maximum depth of around 33 feet (11 metres). The lake is so large that it exerts a strong influence on the weather of the surrounding area stretching for hundreds of miles. Great Salt Lake is a remnant of what was once an even larger lake called Lake Bonneville which was a pluvial lake, or a landlocked basin filled with water from melting glaciers and precipitation, that covered much of Utah during the ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch, which lasted from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago. At its peak size, Lake Bonneville covered around 22,400 square miles (58,000 km2). Over time, the water of this vast lake seeped out, and coupled with the effects of environmental warming, it broke up into the smaller Great Salt Lake, Utah Lake, Sevier Lake, and Rush Lake, with Great Salt Lake being the largest of these.
The lake is unique due to its unusually high salt content. Although Great Salt Lake is fed by three major rivers and several smaller streams, there are no outlets, and this coupled with the effects of millions of tons of minerals being constantly brought here through these inlets, as well as constant evaporation, have made its waters extremely saline, around 5 to 6 times saltier than seawater on average. Early explorers to the area, baffled by such a salty lake so far inland, were mistakenly convinced that it was an extension of the Pacific Ocean, connected somehow through a subterranean tunnel system. The highly salty water has made the lake popular with swimmers due to its ability to allow them to effortlessly float upon the surface.
This unusually high level of salinity has rendered the lake inhospitable to most aquatic organisms, and although fish can be found in the various surrounding incoming waterways and marshes, they are not able to survive within the lake proper. The only naturally occurring creatures that call this place home are the ubiquitous brine shrimp, which are tiny crustaceans barely half an inch long with transparent bodies, brine flies, and a few species of bacteria and algae. There are so many brine shrimp, in fact, that Great Salt Lake is the world’s largest exporter of the creatures and their eggs, cornering around 90 % of the market. The harvested brine shrimp are used mostly as food for the aquarium trade, as food for prawn farms in Asia, and in the testing of various chemicals, drugs, and toxins. This staggering number of brine shrimp unfortunately is one of the reasons that a sickening sulphur-like stench is known to waft off of the lake. The shores of the lake are also clouded with thick swarms of brine flies during warm weather peaks, which are so numerous that at certain times of the year there are as many as 370 million flies per beach mile, making the air absolutely black with them.
The lack of aquatic life diversity has often led to Great Salt Lake being referred to as “America’s Dead Sea,” however this couldn’t be further from the truth. The vast numbers of brine shrimp and brine flies found here serve as food for a mind boggling array of birds which flock to the region by the millions, as well as many species of native birds and waterfowl. The surrounding marshes are also home to abundant bird life, and the fish that live in the inlets are fed upon by terns and even pelicans. Two areas known as Bear River Bay and Farmington Bay are known to develop lower salinity levels than the rest of the lake during melting snows, sometimes even approaching those of fresh water, which increases the biodiversity found in those areas, allowing for a larger variety of invertebrates and even fish that boldly venture into the less salty water found here. The incredible diversity of birds that congregate in or around Great Salt Lake has made way for several bird refuges and sanctuaries scattered throughout the region.
Although Great Salt Lake itself is far too salty to really support complex organisms other than brine shrimp within its depths, there is still a rich and strange history of people trying to populate the lake with various types of aquatic life nevertheless. In the 1800s there were numerous attempts to stock the lake with sea life such as oysters, eels, and crabs, yet all of these attempts failed as none of them could survive the extreme salinity levels and temperature fluctuations here. Even stranger was one man’s reported attempt to introduce whales to the lake.
In Linda Dunning’s book, Lost Landscapes: Utah’s Ghosts, Mysterious Creatures, and Aliens, it is mentioned that in the late 1800s, a whale farmer by the name of James Wickham had the somewhat far-out notion of populating Great Salt Lake with whales, which he was confident could survive in the lake’s salty water. Wickham allegedly spent a year in Australia capturing whales in a ship specially built to hold enough seawater to haul the whales back to the States without injuring them. In 1873, two 35 foot long Australian whales were caught and brought to Great Salt Lake, where they were kept in a custom built pen at the mouth of the Bear River. Unfortunately, it was not long before the two whales made a break for freedom, smashing out of their enclosure and disappearing into the lake. The whales could not be found and were presumed to have died until 6 months later, when the animals, now 60 feet long, were spotted cavorting about out on the lake with an entourage of smaller whales ranging from 3 to 15 feet in length, presumably their offspring. According to the account, the whales thrived in the lake until they were eventually hunted to extinction by whalers, although there have been sporadic reports of whales in the lake since then. Whales are not the only unusual out of place animals reported from the lake. The areas surrounding Great Salt Lake have produced reports of camels roaming around, probably the descendants of escaped animals used by the military for use in the harsh desert conditions in the early 1800s.
For a place that is known as being so inhospitable to aquatic life, there are certainly a lot of alleged mystery creatures that have long been said to to dwell here as well. Native tribes of the area used to tell early explorers of a fierce monster with a huge head that prowled the waters near shore and was known to snatch birds and even horses or cattle from the shallows. This monster was often blamed for the many cattle that often mysteriously disappeared in the area. Another mysterious lake monster was reported in the 1840s, when a man known only as Brother Bainbridge reported seeing a creature that looked like a dolphin swimming out in the lake near Antelope Island, the largest of the lake’s 11 known islands. Yet another mysterious water creature is an alligator-like monster that reportedly lurks within the lake’s depths. In 1871, a J.H. McNeil and several other employees of the Barnes and Co. Salt Works Company reported seeing a huge creature that looked like an alligator with the head of a horse off Monument Point on the northern shores of the Great Salt Lake. The creature reportedly let out a deep bellowing noise and chased the men up a hill, where they remained hidden until daylight. Upon returning to where they had seen the monster the day before, they discovered overturned boulders, tracks, and ground torn up by the thrashing creature. Alligator-like creatures have been spotted from time to time in the lake since then, ranging in size from between a modest 5 feet all the way up to a truly monstrous 75 feet long.
The waters of Great Salt Lake are not the only place to harbor alleged mystery monsters. The skies are also said to be prowled by a strange creature the Native people of the area refer to as “The Great Mosquito” or “The Giant Mosquito Monster,” a winged abomination said to suck the blood from its victims and blamed for the death of many tribesmen. Giant winged creatures had long been occasionally reported around Great Salt Lake, but the most well publicized came in 1903, when a story concerning the sighting of an enormous winged monstrosity reminiscent of a flying prehistoric creature such as a pterosaur was widely circulated in several newspapers including the Denver News, the Logansport Pharos, and the Pittsburgh Press, among others. The reports stated that two hunters by the names of Martin Gilbert and John Barry allegedly spotted what they referred to as a “prehistoric monster” at a place called Stansbury Island. The bizarre beast was described as a combination of fish, alligator and bat, and as being equally at home in the air or in the water. It was reported as being 65 feet long, and covered horny scales, with a head like an alligator, a gaping maw filled with saw-like teeth, and piercing, glowing eyes. The wings were described as bat-like and stretching around 100 feet from tip to tip, and it was also mentioned as having a tail similar to that of a fish. The men allegedly saw the creature fly off at dusk and return some time later with a whole, badly mangled horse in its jaws. The hunters then described how the monster disappeared into a cave with its grisly catch and that they could hear the sickening crunching of bone for around an hour before they carefully made their way back to their camp on the other side of the island.
In addition to strange water beasts and flying prehistoric creatures, Great Salt Lake is also allegedly home to tiny horses the size of dogs said to roam the shores and some of the islands, a mysterious tribe of Natives that reportedly ride around on elephants, a lost tribe of “white Indians” that lives on the lake’s islands, and bizarre white bears that stalk the salt flats. These so-called “Salt Bears” are said to so completely blend into their surroundings that only their black eyes are visible. The mystery bears are said to terrorize drivers along lonely stretches of road and have even been blamed for damage to roads that cross their domain. There are also strange creatures that Native people of the area referred to as “Water Babies.” These creatures were said to be the size of a human being and their appearance was like a classic mermaid, with long black hair and a fish’s tail. The most unusual feature was their undulating vocalizations, which were said to sound like a baby’s crying, hence their name. Water Babies were seen as dangerous creatures that supposedly seduced victims into the water where they were dragged down to a watery death.
Beyond its more unusual mystery wildlife, Great Salt Lake is also a haunted place said to be inhabited by a wide variety of ghosts and spirits. There are numerous legends and stories revolving around ghosts in the area but perhaps the most well-known, ominous, and indeed grisly of these is that of the notorious grave robber John Baptiste, an infamous criminal who is said to have desecrated and defiled up to 300 graves during his gruesome crime spree. Baptiste had been working as a gravedigger when suspicion fell on him after several graves under his watch were found to have been defiled, including those of three outlaws named Lot Huntington, Moroni Clawson and John P. Smith, who had been shot and killed while trying to escape from the posse that had been hunting them down. An investigation into the desecrations of the criminals' graves led officials to the home of Baptiste, who was further incriminated when it came to light that he had been selling jewelry he had procured from corpses, and he was arrested in 1862.
The case was surrounded by a good amount of public outrage over Baptiste’s morbid and deplorable crimes, made even worse when he reportedly turned up at his trial wearing a suit that had been clearly stolen from a well-known storekeeper that had died and been buried in it some years earlier. Baptiste was found guilty of his crimes, and the story goes that it was decided that rather than imprison him he would be exiled onto one of Great Salt Lake's islands. It is said that his forehead was marked with indelible ink branding him as a grave robber for all to see, and some stories even say his ears were cropped like those of cattle. He was then banished far from the angry crowds screaming for vengeance to the remote, barren, and uninhabited Fremont Island, then known as Miller’s Island, where he was provided a humble shack and some provisions with which to live out the remainder of his days in forced solitude. Three weeks later, when someone went to check up on his progress, it was found that the shack had been dismantled and Baptiste was nowhere to be found. The only evidence as to what had happened to him was a cow hide that looked as if it may have been used to fashion ropes to lash a raft. Other than that, no sign was ever found of Baptiste even after extensive manhunts and searches. It was as if he had simply vanished from the face of the planet.
In the years after the disappearance of John Baptiste, there were tantalizing clues as to his fate and even sightings of the man, but nothing ever conclusively led anywhere. The most promising find was when duck hunters found a human skull lodged in the muck of the lake in 1890, followed by the subsequent discovery of a headless human skeleton with a ball and chain attached to its leg, but authorities maintained that Baptiste had never been fitted with such a chain. Where he went remains a mystery to this day, but if locals are to be believed the whereabouts of his ghost are no mystery. The apparition of Baptiste is said to stroll along the shores of Fremont Island wearing old fashioned clothing and carrying a shovel, sometimes moaning for vengeance, and is sometimes referred to as “The Monster of the Great Salt Lake.”
Such wrathful ghosts and spirits are sometimes blamed for inexplicable aircraft crashes in Great Salt Lake, of which there are many. The Great Salt Lake has become somewhat known for being a veritable inland Bermuda Triangle of lost aircraft, many of which have gone down under mysterious circumstances. The main flight path for nearby Hill Air Force Base crosses directly over the lake and many flights headed to Salt Lake International Airport pass over the area as well. Over the years an inordinate number of airplanes and helicopters have found their final resting places at the bottom of the lake, often under clear conditions and with experienced crews. One of the more bizarre crashes happened when a World War II pilot crashed his plane into the lake and then reportedly emerged from the water several days later with no recollection of where he had been.
In addition to the aircraft, many schooners, transport vessels and other ships traversing the lake have mysteriously sunk as well. One of the most famous of these was a boat called City of Corrine, which legend has it was laden with chests of gold when it sunk here. The wreckage of the ship has never been found and its precious cargo is said to be still sitting somewhere at the bottom of the lake. One of the culprits behind these missing ships is reported to be sudden, inexplicable whirlpools which open up without warning and are said to lead down into dank, subterranean chasms that swallow up vessels to never be seen again. Whether such whirlpools really exist or not, many of the wrecks of ships and aircraft indeed have never been found, although this is most likely partly because the visibility in the lake is actually quite poor and there is also a thick, foul smelling sludge at the bottom of the lake that divers have described as being a nauseating layer of stench and decay. It is unknown just how many wrecks lie lost forever within the depths of Great Salt Lake, but there are certainly many, and the lake has certainly garnered a sinister reputation for swallowing up the creations of man. There has even long been rumored to be an ancient city from a lost civilization buried somewhere beneath its waters.
Aside from Great Salt Lake’s more bizarre and paranormal mysteries, there are also a great many natural mysteries to be found here as well. One of the more unpleasant aspects of the lake is the fetid, wretched stench that it sometimes produces. The smell is produced largely by a combination of the rotting bodies of billions of brine shrimp, decomposing algae, dead fish that have been washed into the lake from rivers to die, and other various organic materials baking in the hot sun. On some days the smell is said to be overpowering, and indeed is one reason why past efforts to build resorts around the lake have failed. While the presence of this stench is not news to locals and visitors, there was once believed to be sudden gouts of toxic fumes that would gush from an unknown source and instantly kill anyone unlucky enough to be in their path. Early explorers claimed that the poisonous clouds could drop cattle in seconds and were extremely wary of the slightest hint of their telltale odor.
Another weird natural phenomena associated with the lake is the alleged presence of “underwater quicksand” which is said to quickly devour those who walk upon it. One report from 1939 describes how a man lost 6 horses, which all immediately sunk into the sand after wandering off a sandbar into shallow water near Fremont Island. There have even been stories of whole herds of cattle being sucked into the earth with shocking rapidity after wading into the lakes shallows. Despite such tales, experts have said there is no evidence to support the idea of underwater quicksand.
Adding to these mysteries is the bizarre story of a mysterious, noxious mass of floating decay that was 8 feet thick and first reported in 1966 in the south arm of the lake at a depth of 22 feet. The mysterious oozing slime was described as having a horrific smell reminiscent of rotten eggs. When the Utah Mineralogical and Geological Survey took a core sample of the perplexing mass in 1969 in an effort to find answers, it was found to be an odiferous material that had the consistency of “a roll of baker's dough ready for the oven.” The sludgy, putrid layer suddenly and inexplicably vanished in 1991 and it is still not understood what it was. It is most often thought to have been either an unusual mass of brine fly larvae or a layer of pickled raw sewage from the era before the 1950s when dumping sewage into the lake was common practice. If it was brine fly larvae, this would not be the first case of such a phenomena as one of the great early explorers of the area, John C. Fremont, once reported coming across a vast mass of such larvae measuring 10 to 20 feet wide and 7 to 12 inches deep along the shore. Considering that Great Salt Lake is known to have a stinking layer of sludge along its bottom in some areas, the sewage idea is probably not so outlandish either, although no one has any answers for why the mysterious foul mass suddenly disappeared.
Great Salt Lake also has the distinction of being one of the few lakes that has boasted full, honest to God icebergs. It may seem an odd thing to find here, especially considering that the salt water in the lake is usually too concentrated for it to freeze over. However, there have been extraordinary instances when a layer of freshwater has become suspended over the highly saline water below. In combination with the right atmospheric conditions, this top layer can freeze and create thick layers of ice, when then break up and form icebergs. This freak occurrence has been recorded a few times in the lake’s history. One such iceberg in 1942 was reportedly 30 feet high and 100 feet across. In 1984, during a period of unusually low salinity, a number of large icebergs were formed during a severe freeze that roved across the lake reportedly smashing into and bowling over anything that got in their way, including fences, cars, and trees.
The Great Salt Lake of Utah is an enigma, not only in its very existence and nature, but also the numerous mysteries that seem to orbit it. It is at once both vibrant and alive yet stark and dead, imbued with majestic beauty yet at the same time a barren wasteland of salt flats and parched earth. It is a unique treasure trove of biodiversity, natural splendor, eccentric history and at times awe inspiring beauty that at the same time seems a place somehow haunted by some undefinable menace. It is certainly one of the weirdest and most intriguing natural formations to grace our landscape.