Apr 1, 2024 - History

Old News: The mythical hole in the Great Salt Lake

A newspaper headline reads: "FOUND AT LAST! A Subterranean Outlet to Great Salt Lake. A Horse and Its Rider Swallowed Up By the Earth.

A phony headline in The Salt Lake Democrat, April 1, 1885. Image via Utah Digital Newspapers, University of Utah

It's April Fool's Day, so let's revisit when a Salt Lake newspaper convinced the world that an underground river flowed from the Great Salt Lake, swallowing man and horse alike.

This is Old News, our weekly voyage down the currents of Utah history.

Catch up quick: There have been legends of a "subterranean outlet" flowing from the lake to the Pacific Ocean since the 1800s. How else could lake levels remain stable while being filled with river water?

Reality check: The lake is salty precisely because it's terminal, the Utah Geological Survey explains.

  • Rivers deposit salt and other minerals into the lake, and they can't escape as the water evaporates.

Context: Although Fremont gave up on the mythical outlet when he reached the Sierra Nevada, the legend lived on for decades.

Flashback: In 1870, some boatmen from Corinne, in Box Elder County, claimed their ship was almost sucked into an "immense maelstrom" in a report the Deseret Evening News wisely headlined: "IS IT A CANARD?"

  • The New York Times showed no such caution, reprinting a Utah Reporter story that described a Charybdian scene of "surging frothy foam … like the boiling of a mammoth cauldron."

Driving the news: The staff of the Salt Lake Democrat hoped to rekindle the fever dream on April Fool's Day 1885, when they printed a hoax story claiming that the earth suddenly gave way under a farmer's son and his horse as they herded cattle.

  • "A yawning chasm appeared" before the farmer's eyes, the story read, and "the last piercing shriek of his son was still ringing in his ears."
  • The farmer purportedly fished his son out of a 50-foot-deep cavern where salty water flowed southwest into the darkness. "If it is not an outlet, what is it?"

Winners & losers: In the following days, other Utah newspapers picked up the hoax story — and the Democrat proudly cited each one as a dupe in its April Fool's prank.

Zoom out: The Chicago Tribune appeared to be the Democrat's major coup, the vaunted newspaper having reprinted the entire phony article.

The bottom line: As Jonathan Swift said, "Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it" — so we're keeping our content above board today, as always.

Previously in Old News:

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