written by: Jeremy Pugh
Thousands of kids have come of age on the midway at Lagoon, Utah’s biggest and best amusement park. Writer Jeremy Pugh looks back at his own history with the park and the history of the park itself. Along the way we’ll examine the rides, how best to tackle a day at Lagoon and the cultural significance of this Utah icon.
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.
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 Friends
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.
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—Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, the Rolling Stones, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix all played in the Dance Pavilion.
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.
Starting in 1996, with the Wicked coaster, a custom-designed whoosh of a ride, Lagoon continued to expand its rides and 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 “Fright-mares,” 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.
Lagoon was a popular and nationally known spot for music performances held in the Dancing Pavilion. Later, after the big fire, the music moved to the new Patio Gardens that still stand as the open-air arcade today.
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
See more inside the 2017 May/June Issue.See more inside the 2017 May/June Issue.