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Davis Journal

A look back at the history of Antelope Island

May 06, 2022 02:37PM ● By Tom Haraldsen


hough archeological evidence dates the earliest habitation of Native Americans in Utah to about 12,000 years ago, and artifacts discovered on Antelope Island date back to more than 6,000 years, it was in 1843 that legendary explorer John C. Fremont first mapped the topography of the Great Salt Lake and its islands. Two years later, he returned to visit the Great Salt Lake. 

Area Native Americans had told him he could easily ride his horse across the sandbar that linked the large island in the lake to the shore. Taking them at their word, Fremont took his guide Kit Carson and a few men and rode “across the shallows to the island,” recording later that the water never reached “above the saddle-girths” and that the “floor of the lake was a sheet of salt resembling softening ice, into which the horses’ feet sunk to the fetlocks.” When they finally reached the island, the party found grass and water, as well as a considerable herd of antelope, a few of which Fremont and his men killed for food. When they at last left the island and returned across the sandbar, they were accosted by a local Native American who claimed all the antelope on the island were his and they would have to pay for the animals they had killed. Fremont, not wanting to anger the man, gave him some cloth, tobacco and a knife to make up for the dead antelope – and to the island he gave the name of the beasts that roamed it. It became Antelope Island. 

Two years after that, the first Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.

By then, there was already at least one settler living on the Island, a man called Daddy Stump. Historians believe he might have been a “mountain man” who built a cabin and had a small peach orchard near a water spring on the south side of the Island. Fremont never mentioned him, but as pioneers began to travel to the Island, they encountered Stump, who LDS Church President Brigham Young himself later met. According to a history written by Fielding Garr, Stump helped bring the church’s cattle to the island in 1848. Garr built his ranch house about the same time, and the Fielding Garr Ranch remains a popular tourist attraction today on the Island. Stump disappeared sometime between 1849 and 1856, some assuming he may have been killed by Native Americans in the Cache Valley. 

Garr himself died on June 15, 1855, a year after grasshoppers depleted the island of feed, so cattle owned by the LDS Church were moved to Cache Valley for a season. They later returned, along with a sheep herd. 

Mining on the Island

By 1874, another industry of sorts came to the Island with the start of slate mining. The Deseret News of Aug. 12, 1874, reported that “ an inexhaustible body of slate, unsurpassed in fineness of texture and richness of color, has been recently examined and thoroughly tested and is pronounced equal if not superior, in purity, strength, and colors to any in the world.” 

Homesteaders began staking claims on the Island and the Union Pacific Railroad started acquiring patents on much of the land, and the LDS Church lost interest in the Island. In the late 1890s, bison, mountain sheep and English pheasants were brought to the island, and mining activities ramped up. The Davis County Clipper of March 17, 1899 reported that “of late considerable prospecting has been done on the west side of the first island (Church or Antelope) west of here, and since Prospector Leeche was killed over there, still more interest has been aroused in mining in that locality.” 

Later that year, reports in the Clipper and the Salt Lake Mining Review further detailed advanced mining activity. The Review reported that “Claim Holders on Antelope Island have filed a protest in the local U.S. land office against the issuance of patents to certain portions of the island as agricultural land, as they claim the ground is more valuable for minerals than for raising corn, wheat, Lucerne, or potatoes. With the magnificent showing of copper ore in the holdings of the mineral claimants, it looks as if it would be an outrage on the part of the government to bar them out and to give this barren section to individuals who merely want the Island as a grazing place for their cattle.” And in 1904, a few oil wells popped up on the Island as well as near Farmington. The Fountain Oil and Gas Company eventually had six rigs in operation on and around Antelope Island.

Wildlife on the Island

Bison were introduced to the state when William Glassman, a local politician, thought to bring back the species in 1891 — though things didn’t go quite as planned. As noted in excerpts from “East of Antelope Island,” a book commissioned by Daughters of Utah Pioneers in 1948 and published in the Deseret News in 2006, Glassman visited friends in Texas and saw bison grazing in the fields owned by a man that went by “Buffalo Jones.” Glassman was so intrigued, he bought a dozen of them and sent them to Ogden.

For whatever reason, the bison were accidentally delivered to a small town in Tooele County instead. They remained there until they were eventually purchased by the White & Sons Company in 1893 and relocated to Antelope Island. The same company added elk the following year, but the elk were later killed off by vandals.

More bison were added to the island in 1911, park officials stated in the book. By then, it had become one of the largest herds in the country. The Antelope Island herd was even featured in the 1923 film “The Covered Wagon.” Today, somewhere between 500 and 700 bison remain on the island, and 100 to 200 calves are born into the herd each year.

The Causeways

In 1967, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) investigated two potential sources for sand and gravel on the northern part of the Island for use in the construction of a causeway between Syracuse and Antelope Island. It was finished in 1969, the same year the state of Utah bought 2,000 acres on the north end of the Island to create a state park. Flooding in 1974 washed away that first causeway, and it was replaced in 1976 at a cost of $1.7 million. In 1981, the state bought 26,000 acres of the southern part of the Island, built a parking lot, picnic shelters and restrooms near the Bridger Bay beach and constructed 6-½ miles of paved road and 20 miles of gravel road on the Island. 

The Floods of 1983

No one could foresee what would happen two years later, in 1983. That was the year of tremendous rainstorms in the West. Flooding occurred from California across the deserts of Nevada and Utah, and the park closed when waters flooded the causeway, which was 5 feet under water. The white-sand beach at Bridger Bay was gone, and much of the developed visitor area along the bay was sliding into the Great Salt Lake. Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter purchased pumps to send water from the Great Salt Lake into the western desert. It was the year the Island held its first bison round-up, an annual event since. Visitation dropped to about 5,000 a year via a ferry boat service from Syracuse. The causeway was eventually rebuilt in 1992 and in 1993, Antelope Island State Park opened to the public. It was the same year pronghorn sheep were reintroduced, and in 1997, nearly two dozen Bighorn sheep were also back on the Island.

Visitors Center – Phase One and Phase Two 

In 1996, the current visitor’s center was built as a two-phase building project, but phase two has never been built and will be now. The director of Utah State Parks in 1996, Cortland Nelson, spoke at the April 8 press conference where plans for the new visitor and learning center were announced. (See separate story in this issue)

“It’s only been 25 years,” he said as those gathered laughed. “When we dedicated this building, I said, ‘This is phase one – phase two is coming.’ It is a wonderful opportunity to be here today. I have high praise for all of those who have had the sticktoitness to get this done – the Friends of Antelope Island, the state leaders like Steve Handy, and the dedicated staff that have been out here through the years. They have all contributed in their own way.”

“We recognized almost immediately after it was built that the visitors center was inadequate,” said Spencer Kinard, a member of the Friends of Antelope Island, the organization formed in 1995 to promote the Island experience. “It’s seriously undersized. Students come by the thousands and we’ve had no place to host or teach them. So it’s been our dream to find the money to do this remodel and expansion. We want to get the learning center, the theater and the auditorium built. We’re going to make a movie about the Island, so when people come here, they can stop at the center, watch the film, get an idea of what the island’s all about, and then go out and enjoy it.”

Final design work is nearly complete, and leaders hope to break ground on the expansion before year’s end. λ