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History of The Bonneville Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flats occupy over 30,000 acres in the western deserts of Utah. The Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake, located near Salt Lake City, Utah, are remnants of an ancient Great Lake -- Ancient Lake Bonneville. Lake Bonneville was named after Benjamin de Bonneville whose explorations in the 1830's proved that the area was part of an ancient basin. Geologists believe that the Ancient Lake Bonneville was formed about 50,000 years ago and lasted about 25,000 years. The lake had a maximum depth of 1000 feet (305 meters), and was 150 miles (240 kilometers) wide and 350 miles (560 kilometers) long. The lake maintained different levels for extended periods of time during the course of its lifetime and you can see traces of these ancient shorelines carved into the mountains that surround the Salt Flats. Eventually, the lake fell below its lowest outlet, creating an arid depresion and a remnant lake. The remnant lake, the modern day Great Salt Lake, contains the heldover salt and other mineral deposits of the ancient Lake Bonneville. The arid depression, the Great Salt Lake Desert, is home to the Bonneville Salt Flats.

Humans have been involved with the Bonneville Salt Flats for at least 10,000 years. Excavations of Danger Cave, just north of Wendover, show that Native Americans used the location as early as 10,300 years ago. The 1820's saw the arrival of American Jim Bridger and other mountain men who explored the Great Salt Lake desert region. Scouts Kit Carson and Joe Walker led Captain John Fremont's survey party as they made the first documented crossing of the desert in 1845. Joe Walker wrote that this route was to hazardous for settlers to use on their way to California. However, a young man named Lanford Hastings retraced the route a year later and publicized it as a "shortcut" to California. The famous Donner-Reed party took the "Hasting's Cutoff" in 1846. The party failed to take enough water for the trecherous desert crossing and they were delayed by wagons sinking through the salt layer to the mud below. The resulting delay was what was primarily responsible for their late arrival to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This led to their ill-fated decision to cross the Sierra's in the winter.

W.D. Rishel was instrumental in setting the future fame for the Bonneville Salt Flats. Rishel first came across the salt flats in 1896 while scouting a route for a cross country bicycle race. He then later convinced a daredevil named Teddy Tezlaff to attempt an automobile speed record at the salt flats. In 1914, Tezlaff came to the salt flats and, in a Blitzen Benz, set the first unofficial land speed record on the salt flats of 141.73 M.P.H. In the 1930's, international recognition came to the Bonneville Salt Flats when a Utahan named Ab Jenkins convinced British racer Sir Malcom Campbell to a speed records challenge over the salt flats.

Since 1914, hundreds of land speed records have been set on the Bonneville Salt Flats. By the late 1940's the Bonneville Salt Flats had become the standard location for land speed records. Progressive barriers of 300, 400, 500, and 600 M.P.H. were broken with Craig Breedlove being the first to break 600 M.P.H. with his jet powered car in the 1960's. The races for land speed records are still held annualy (conditions permitting) in late summer. All these races are open to the public with many records in the smaller class categories are still broken or pushed every year. However, because of a deterioration in the salt surface, the fastest jet engine vehicles now race for the record in the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada.

To find out more information on the races, contact the West Wendover Tourism & Convention Bureau at 866-299-2489 or the BLM at the Salt Lake office (801)-977-4300.

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Copyright 1999-2007 James Eveleth. All rights reserved.