Tuesday, September 14, 2010

History of Antelope to Saltair and Blackrock swims - with correction on distances

After looking at the data from the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame, it is reported that the distance from Antelope to Saltair is 8.12 miles, and that Antelope to Black Rock is 8.2.  That is confusing to me especially since that 8.12 is the distance is what my GPS reports from last Saturday's race.  So this evening I checked out a copy of Dale L. Morgan's "The Great Salt Lake" book.  On p. 363 is where he sites the swimming records....

"In 1919 a professional swimmer, C.S. Leaf, negotiated the distance between Antelope Island and Saltair in 2 hours, 28 minutes and 27 seconds, and 7 years later a marathon swim was staged;  the event was won by Chick Mitchell.  The marathon was revived in 1930 and for 3 years was won by Orson Spencer; his record time, 2:20 was set in 1932.  The receding lake level, which left Saltair high and dry, killed the event, but in 1937 it was again revived under the auspices of Black Rock Beach.   
The distance between Antelope and Saltair was never formally measured, the promoters and swimmers being content to estimate that the distance ranged between 6 and 7 miles.  Continued agitation for national recognition of the event, however, led in 1937 to the survey of the new course, and the distance was officially established at 8.12 miles.  
Over this course Orson Spencer in 1937 and 1938 triumphed exactly as he had over the shorter one;  his record time of 3:40:52 was set in the former year.  In 1939, however, in rough seas E.C. Watson was not merely the winner but the only finisher, even Spencer being taken from the water a mile and a half from shore, nearly blinded by the salt, and far from the course.
The event was held for the last time in 1940, when Kenny Lyman finished ahead of Watson.  Convalescent from an automobile accident, Spencer on this occasion was not a participant.  The record for the Antelope-Black Rock course remains Spencer's time of 3 hours, 40 minutes and 52 seconds, set in 1937."

So the reason the course finish was moved from Saltair to Black Rock was because Saltair was so far from the waters edge.  In reference to the swimmers believing that the distance between Antelope and Saltair was between 6 and 7 miles (for the Saltair finish) is correct.  Here is the map from Antelope (even from a very conservative beach start to get the maximum distance) to Saltair.  It comes in at  6.55 Miles.  If you click the map below and then change the "Map Type" dropdown to "Satellite map", you'll see the landmarks clearly and that the distance of 6.55 is correct.

So the 2:20 time is for a 6.5 mile swim not an 8.12 mile swim (which is the distance to Black Rock).  If you carefully read the above quote, you realize that they're referring to the Black Rock finish as the 8.12 survey'ed distance.

"Continued agitation for national recognition of the event, however, led in 1927 to the survey of the new course, and the distance was officially established at 8.12 miles".

That clears things up for me.  When I read about the history of this swim in a book and the names of the few swimmers mentioned come into my mind it makes me wish I could go back in time to see those races and the excitement of those days before WWII.

I've recently wondered why Saltair and the Black Rock resorts lost their appeal and in p. 360 of Morgan's book he reasons:

"The war crippled both Saltair and the south shore resorts, the latter because of gas and tire rationing, the former becaus eht stock of the Salt Lake, Garfield & Western -- the electrified railroad serving it - went off to war, to the Army's Hill Field"
However in that same paragraph he says that it came back into popularity after the war:
"In 1946 both Saltair and the twin resorts on the south shore, Black Rock and Sunset beaches, hailed the return of the good old days, the rolling stock of the SLG&W returning to its own tracks, and John Q Citizen's car returning from hibernation in the family garage." 
So the resorts crept back into populartiy after the war, but not the marathon swim race?  Why the race never occurred after 1940 remains a mystery.  One question I have is, How did they get to their starting point from South Antelope?  I mean I had to jump through a few minor hoops just to get there.  Did they boat over from Saltair, or did they take the causeway from the north of Antelope like I did?   I bet they took the South Causeway to the south end of the island, which is now closed off.

Anyhow, reading this book and actually swimming the same event really gets me excited for the reintroduction of a recognized marathon swimming event in the Great Salt Lake.  Even though the historical route won't be used for logistical reasons, resurrecting a marathon swimming race in the Great Salt Lake fills my sails and gets me passionate about the sport.

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