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Lake Bonneville

Lake Bonneville was a predominantly freshwater lake that formed about 32,000 years ago and covered 20,000 square miles (almost a quarter of Utah). It reached depths of 1,000 feet, compared to about 33 feet today and a 13-foot average depth). 14,500 years ago, a breach in a sandstone wall, now known as Red Rock Pass, Idaho, resulted in the biggest flash flood this planet has ever known. Water poured through at an estimated 159,000,000 gallons of water every SECOND—the lake dropped around 350 feet in just a couple of weeks. Only 500 years later, severe droughts nearly eliminated the lake altogether! Old shorelines and fossils left by Lake Bonneville can be found and seen up in the mountain ranges surrounding the Salt Lake Valley. Great Salt Lake as we know it formed around 11,000 years ago due to relatively stable weather conditions, evaporation and a flat landscape with no outlet. Freshwater from the Bear, Weber, Ogden and Jordan Rivers, as well as groundwater and many small streams, keep the lake at a relatively constant level while continually concentrating minerals and salts through evaporation (although some are sequestered naturally by algae use of nutrients and other algae that have heavy metal binding properties).

Prehistoric time

Lake Bonneville fauna included the ground sloth, giant bear, black bear, mammoth, two species of horse, camel, extinct large deer, mule deer, extinct pronghorn, two extinct species of bison, musk ox, mountain sheep, fish, amphibians (mainly frogs), lizards, snakes, birds, rodents and rabbits. This is not a conclusive list, as there have been few extensive paleontological digs. In fact, most discoveries have been practically accidental. American Indian life consisted of the Shoshone and Fremont tribes who fluctuated in population and location with lake water levels. Typically, tribes were a mix of farming and foraging communities. Farming never really caught on due to increases in population growth creating otherwise unnecessary friction during times of food shortage between tribes. As long as smaller population sizes were maintained, the wetlands surrounding the lake provided abundant animal, bird and plant food.


In the 1700s and 1800s it was believed that a subterranean channel linked the lake to the Pacific Ocean. At the head of this channel was a gigantic whirlpool between Fremont and Antelope Island that tore boats to shreds. Eyewitnesses reported this phenomenon as late as June 10, 1870 in the Salt Lake Herald. The rumor of a lake monster lasted even longer!.


The first documentation of a salty inland lake originated from the Timpangotzis Indians sharing their knowledge of the land with the Dominguez and Escalante expedition in 1776. The expedition noted this topographical information and left without investigating further, as they were anxious to get home. Therefore, the claim of the first white man to actually see the lake belongs to a trapper. We just don't know which one! Around the 1820s, four trappers claimed to have seen the lake first: Etienne Provost, Jim Bridger, Peter Skene Ogden and John H. Weber. John C. Fremont took the elevation of the lake in 1843 at 4,200 feet and was indubitably the first to do so. In 1849, the U.S. government directed the Stansbury expedition to make maps of the Salt Lake Valley, including the lake. Several of the islands on the GSL were named for expedition party members. As the expedition leader, Howard Stansbury named the biggest island after himself. Albert Carrington and J.W. Gunnison staked their claims to somewhat smaller islands.

Uses of the land

Today, most entrepreneurs know what businesses will be the most lucrative and successful on the lake. In the past, it was not always so and numerous enterprising individuals tried out their ideas. In the 1890s, Alfred Lambourne tried to grow a vineyard on Gunnison Island. He planted 1,000 vines, which ultimately failed due to the lack of water on the island. On the same island, George Frary harvested guano for three years, ultimately giving up due to the lack of money in the business and Charles Stoddard built a homestead in 1932, but his well turned out to be full of salt water! "Daddy Stump", a well known and old mountaineer, grew Utah's first homegrown peaches on Antelope Island. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints (LDS Church) later purchased and converted Stump's property, as well as some property on Stansbury Island, into a stock range in 1849. Attempts to establish sea life (i.e., oysters, fish, eels) invariably failed on account of the harsh environment as well. Incidentally, the Miller Brothers sheep also did quite well on Fremont Island due to isolation from predators.

Fremont Island was used by Judge Wenner as a retreat for tuberculosis and in 1862 it became the home of exiled John Baptiste, a grave robber who pillaged over 300 graves! Unfortunately, he escaped within a few weeks, merely by building a raft from his cabin planks, and was never seen again.