Ghosts Of Black Rock

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus”

Mark Twain

Black Rock is located at the northern tip of the Oquirrh Mountains where the range ends abruptly at the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake. This is a very historical place and it is an absolute shame that it is in the condition it is. Black Rock is now a place where fools go to practice their graffiti or throw their garbage. There are old pilings, large blocks of concrete that no doubt once served as breakwaters for the numerous resorts that have been located here over the years. Old supports of long gone piers jut from the salt water here at the edge of the inland sea. The place has a sort of skeletal appearance to go along with the ghostly history of the rock.

Many years ago, Black Rock was a very different place. Lush grasses, reeds and rushes once crept down to the beaches of the lake in this area. Streamlets of pure, crystal clear water, fed by the melting snows of the Oquirrh Mountains once flowed into the lake in this area. One of the first mentions made of Black Rock was Heinrich Lienhard’s Journal. In this journal Lienhard kept a daily account of what he observed and experienced as a member of an emigrant party which passed through Utah and crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert on their way west, only weeks before the Donner Party.

Here is an excerpt from that journal “August 8th, 1846; In the vicinity of this spring, stood an immense, isolated, rounded rock under which was a cave and those going into it found a human skeleton.” Now it is clear that the party was in the vicinity of Black Rock at the time but whether this is a description of Black Rock or one of the many caves and boulders just up the hill at the foot of the Oquirrh Mountains is unclear to me. There have been numerous reports of archaic human remains being found in caves in the vicinity of Black Rock. The area must have held some significance to the ancients as it was a much utilized burial ground. University archaeologists extensively studied the sites and much knowledge was gained concerning these peoples who lived in this area long ago.

In 1850, Captain Howard Stansbury was conducting a survey of the Great Salt Lake and adjacent areas. He utilized Black Rock for various purposes. Captain Stansbury kept a careful record of this expedition and these records culminated in the following work “An Expedition to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah – Including an analysis of its geography, natural history, and minerals, and an analysis of its waters” by Captain Howard Stansbury – Captain; Corps of Topographical Engineers, U.S. Army. This volume is another one of my personal favorites concerning Utah History.

The following are excerpts from this volume that relate to Black Rock “April 19th, 1850; After erecting a station on it’s northern point (Stansbury Island), it was my intention to proceed to Black Rock, a large isolated rock on the southern shore of the lake, midway between the two islands (Antelope & Stansbury), to erect a station upon it” In order to conduct his survey of the lake, Stansbury erected triangulation stations on the high peaks of the islands and other prominent landmarks. He continues “April 20th, 1850; A fresh gale was blowing in from the northwest which continued to increase during the day. The wind was excessively cold, and the men were obliged to wrap themselves in Buffalo skins to keep warm. Setting the fore sail, we ran to Black Rock, a distance of more than 20 miles in 3 hours. A station was framed from timbers previously cut in the mountains and hauled to the spot for the purpose; but the force of the party was not sufficient to raise it”. Stansbury goes on to state that they were able to erect the station on top of Black Rock the following day and that he had the crew of the boat camp at Black Rock while he went to Salt Lake for supplies.

Upon his return to Black Rock, Stansbury decided to test out a theory he had “Before leaving Black Rock, I made an experiment upon the properties of the water of the lake for preserving meat. A large piece of fresh beef was suspended by a cord and immersed in the lake for rather more than twelve hours when it was found to be tolerably well corned. After this, all the beef we wished to preserve while operating upon the lake was packed into barrels without any salt whatsoever, and the vessels were then filled up with the lake water. No further care or preparation was necessary, and the meat kept perfectly sweet, although constantly exposed to the sun. I have no doubt that the meats put up in this water would remain sound and good as long as if prepared after the most approved methods. Indeed we were obliged to mix fresh water with this natural brine, to prevent our meat from becoming too salt for present use – a very few days immersion changing it’s character from corned beef to what the sailors called “Salt Junk”

When I visited Black Rock and stood at the edge of the break water, listening to the waves lap against the rocks, I imagined Captain Stansbury and his crew, in their makeshift boat, traveling here and there around the lake. To think that those men camped near this spot and erected a station with tall timbers on top of this rock.

Stansbury was not the only one who would ply the waters of the lake. In 1854, Brigham Young had a ship constructed and named it “Timely Gull” in honor of the seagulls that saved the saints crops from the cricket hoards. Timely Gull was used for recreation purposes and for transporting livestock to and from Antelope Island. The ship was basically a 45 foot barge with a sail. Timely Gull operated on the lake from it’s mooring at Black Rock for 4 years until a storm broke it free from its mooring and swept it across the lake to the far shore where it was wrecked.

I was thinking of these things as I walked around Black Rock looking for a possible route to its summit. It was a cold, grey, blustery February day and the daylight was fading away. The flash of the strobe lights on the Kennecott Smelter stack to the east seemed to attack the coming darkness with a vengeance. The wind was blowing a bit harder now and the waves grew larger and were now crashing against the rocks. As I considered the coming darkness and a realization that I would not want to linger at the rock after dark, I found a notch on the west side that allowed relatively easy access to the top of the rock.

Once on top, I stood there in the breeze and surveyed the scene. It sounds corny but I was overcome with a feeling of loneliness and sadness, and a creepy feeling that I was not alone there. I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts but if I did, I would probably avoid Black Rock because I had the previously described feelings before I knew the heartbreaking story of Mrs. Charley White.

Mildred Mercer wrote a fine piece on the history of Black Rock and it is found in the book “History of Tooele County – Volume I” Tooele County Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1961. The following information on the story of the White family was obtained from that source. When Captain Stansbury and his outfit visited Black Rock in 1850, his assistant, Lieutenant John W. Gunnison (Gunnison died in 1853 on the Sevier River bend west of Delta when his expedition was massacred by Indians) made mention in his records that a Mr. Charley White and his wife had built a hut on the lake shore and they had a salt producing business in operation. Gunnison observed that Mr. White had 6 large – 10 gallon kettles in operation. He would boil 60 gallons of lake water at a time and could produce 300 pounds of salt per day. Gunnison stated that they could obtain 1 pail of salt from every 4 pails of lake water.

Charley White ran a herd of cattle in the area around Black Rock as well and he was constantly having problems with Indians running off with his stock. Apparently all was not well within the White home and Charley eventually left his wife who was known locally as “Mother White”, and their two children at Black Rock. Mother White continued to care for the animals and produce salt from the lake while raising her young daughter and son. Mother White was not a character to be taken lightly as she was described by some as a large woman who was always seen carrying a double barreled shotgun. She would have had to have been tough as nails to survive as long as she did on the shore of the lake, on the veritable edge of civilization.

If her husband abandoning her was not enough, one day in 1856, the two small children went wading in the lake about a ¼ mile from the shore. If you have ever waded out into the Great Salt Lake, you will understand the temptation to go ever farther as the water is still knee deep even a mile from the shore in many places. The winds can change the water depth abruptly however and waves can suddenly appear. This is what happened to the children. An un-expected gale rose up on the lake, driving waves at the children. The little boy was knocked down by a wave and he strangled and drowned in the brine. His sister ran to shore as fast as she could to get help but by the time Mother White reached the boy, he was long gone. She buried him on the slope of the Oquirrh’s behind Black Rock.

Mother White must have been very depressed after these events. The gnats and mosquitoes that gather by the millions in the area would have been enough to depress any person but these personal tragedies certainly made things much worse. Mother White and her daughter continued on at Black Rock until 1861 until they mysteriously disappeared. It was commonly believed that she had been murdered for her cattle as some of her stock was later seen with some men in Tooele Valley. One theory was that her body was sunk in the Great Salt Lake near Black Rock. Others believed that her body was discarded in a shallow grave up Black Rock Canyon. What happened to her daughter is not known. Whatever the truth of the story is, if there were ever a reason for a ghost to haunt a place, Mother White certainly would have plenty of reasons to haunt the rock.

Many other interesting events transpired at Black Rock and not all of them are melancholy. In 1851, 150 carriages, buggies, and wagons traveled from Salt Lake City to Black Rock where cannon were fired and a large American Flag was unfurled from the top of the rock in celebration of the 4th of July. Patrick Edward Connor operated several ships from Black Rock that would haul ore from the Stockton Mines across the lake to Corrine and the railroad for transport to smelters. There was also a large resort at Black Rock in the late 1800’s that consisted of 100 bath houses, a large pavilion, an amusement park with a large merry go round, and the visitors would arrive by train from Salt Lake City in open air cars.

Today, Black Rock is not even a shadow of the bygone glory days as it is an attractive place for scum to paint graffiti, litter, or conduct unscrupulous and illegal transactions. That being said, It is a very interesting place and a significant landmark and part of our heritage. I just wish that some entity would clean it up, protect and preserve it in some fashion for future generations to enjoy as the view to the west from the rock across the lake can’t be beat. To get there take the Saltair exit #104 off of Interstate 80 and get on the north frontage road and drive west past Saltair and the Great Salt Lake Marina. The road will become unpaved, rocky, and bumpy but most cars can make it the last ¼ to where the road terminates on the edge of the lake at Black Rock. Again, not a place you want to be after dark but if you have not been to Black Rock or to the Great Salt Lake in general, it is a very interesting place, if not a spooky one – worthy of a visit.