Spending summer nights at Lagoon has been a beloved tradition for generations of Utahns. But how did this amusement park transform from a marshy boating lake in the late 1800s to a home for some of the country’s most unique roller coasters? Here are some highlights over the decades that illustrate the cultural significance of this Utah icon.
1886: A Park on the Great Salt Lake
Lagoon’s story begins in 1886, 10 years before Utah became a state, with a resort on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, west of Farmington. However, the Lake Park Bathing Resort, the progenitor of Lagoon, soon enough fell victim to a receding lake waterline, which revealed unappealing and funky smelling blue mud. It shuttered in 1895.
1896: Bamberger’s project: The Lagoon
That didn’t stop railroad tycoon Simon Bamberger from buying seven acres of marsh west of Farmington in 1896, where he excavated a boating lake and relocated Lake Park Resort’s abandoned buildings. He called it The Lagoon. Meanwhile, Bamberger’s railroad (It ultimately connected Salt Lake and Ogden) delivered Salt Lake crowds to The Lagoon’s picnic grounds. Trees and a dancing hall were added (no dancing allowed on Sundays!) and the first amusement ride was built, Shoot the Chutes—it resembled today’s Log Flume ride. Bamberger tried to start a horse-racing track in 1910 but soon learned gambling would never be allowed. When Bamberger was elected the first and only Jewish governor in 1917, he gave up his stake in the park, to meet the ethical standards of the time.
1920: The Lagoon Dipper
In 1920, the new owner A.C. Christensen brought the “Thomas Edison of Roller Coasters,” John A. Miller, to Farmington. Christensen had been on one of Miller’s coasters at Kennywood Amusement Park in Pittsburgh and had convinced Miller to build one of his contraptions in Utah. Miller’s $75,000 coaster debuted in 1921 as the the Lagoon Dipper. It operates today, still one of the most popular rides in the park, known simply as the Roller Coaster or the White Roller Coaster (although recently, park managers opted to start replacing the coaster’s wood with unpainted brown pressure-treated lumber.)
1928: A Lull
Simon Bamberger’s son Julian took control of the park in 1928 and Lagoon limped through the Great Depression, but managed to stay open by focusing on its Dancing Pavilion and the touring big bands of the era. Lagoon also had famously built the state’s first filtered-water swimming pool and encouraged Utahns to shun the GSL with its slogan, “Swim in Water Fit to Drink.” Lagoon was forced to close its gates in 1942—there was, after all, a war on.
1946: Meet the Freeds
Bob Freed was in Germany at the end of World War II when he got a letter from his brother Dave pitching a partnership in the resort business when he returned from the war. When the four Freed Brothers (Robert, Dan, David and Peter) gathered back in Utah they saw an appetite among young people for amusements and entertainments. They signed a 30-year lease with the Bambergers to run Lagoon and the park opened its gates in 1946.
1953: The Great Fire
On Nov. 14, 1953, a massive fire engulfed the amusement park. Firefighters from around the county and 500 volunteers fought the blaze but most of the park, including the beloved Dancing Pavilion, was destroyed. A valiant effort preserved the still-in-operation Carousel (you can still see the scorch marks) and most of the wooden Roller Coaster. Lagoon was rebuilt and reopened in 1954 with the new attractions, including the Rock-O-Plane, Roll-O-Plane, the Octopus, the Spook House and Tilt-A-Whirl and the Patio Gardens, an open-air performance and dance hall. The children’s ride area Mother Goose Land was created and remains largely unchanged.
1961: The Golden Age
The modern era of Lagoon began with its resurrection. The Freeds tried to top themselves every year with a new attraction. And Bob Freed developed a knack for getting big musical names to come to the park, turning the Dance Pavilion into a popular and nationally known spot for performances. After the big fire, the music moved to the new Patio Gardens that still stand as the open-air arcade today.
Here are some highlights:
- Ella Fitzgerald: played 4 times
- Louis Armstrong: played 7 times
- Johnny Cash: played 10 times
- The Beach Boys: played 12 times
- Ray Charles: performed in 1963 and 1966
- The Rolling Stones: played in 1966
- The Doors: played in 1967 and 1968
- Jefferson Airplane: played in 1968
- Janis Joplin: played in 1968
- Jimi Hendrix: played in 1968
1965: Civil Rights Lagoon
Farmington City, up to 1965, had Jim Crow laws that prevented African-Americans from entering many areas of Lagoon. This didn’t sit well with Bob Freed, who booked many musicians of color to play Lagoon. He successfully fought to integrate not only Lagoon but Salt Lake’s Terrace Music Hall owned by Lagoon.
1976: The Silver Age
In 1976, Lagoon unveiled Pioneer Village, a collection of actual pioneer homes and buildings preserved and filled with artifacts from the era. That same year they rolled out their first steel coaster, the Jet Star 2, which is still generating sore necks today. The park would go big in 1983 with Colossus, a double loop steel coaster. At the end of ’80s, the ”fit to drink” swimming pool was replaced with a water park. The Freed family became the sole owners of Lagoon, making it the largest family-owned amusement park in the United States.
1998: To Infinity and Beyond
Since the late ’90s, Lagoon has kept expanding their slate of coasters, including Wild Mouse, Spider and the milder BomBora and The Bat. 2007’s Wicked is a custom-designed whoosh of a ride, and Lagoon even got into the coaster design business with its full-inverted and terrifying Cannibal. The old Log Flume got some splashy competition in Pioneer Village with Rattlesnake Rapids. And the park extended its season with “Frightmares,” a spooky haunted amusement park. The family ritual of going to Lagoon or sending the teenagers off into the summer night remains a Utah tradition.
This was originally published in our May/June 2017 issue. For the faint-of-heart, check out our grown-up’s guide to Lagoon’s most popular rides. And while you’re here, subscribe and get six issues of Salt Lake magazine, your guide to the best of life in Utah.