As governor of Utah Territory in the 1850s, Brigham Young was prepared for anything from establishing a provisional state to dealing with hostile Indians, from masterminding the systematic colonization of his domain to warding off New Mexican slave traders, from planning an effective mail service to controlling the hordes of gold-rushers cutting across Utah on their way to California. But when the waters of Great Salt Lake began rising, Young found himself at sea with the problem of keeping lake islands accessible to the community as herd grounds.
One hundred and thirty years later, another governor, Norm Bangerter, faced with a similar quandary, met the challenge by installing $60 million pumps to move the overflow lake water into the western desert. But in 1854, Brigham Young’s answer was to build a boat.
The winter of ’53 saw lake levels swelling almost as precipitously as they did in 1986. Antelope Island was the community pasture for Mormon cattle, ideal for its isolation and protection from marauding Indians, but that isolation was now becoming a serious handicap. The sandbar between the island and the mainland, once easily crossed on foot, was deepening under the briny overflow and increasingly difficult to ford. When conditions did not improve and the shoreline crept higher, Young ordered construction of a boat capable of ferrying livestock to the island.
Aside from the buffalo-hide “bullboats” used by fur trappers in 1825 to explore the inland sea and Capt. John C. Fremont’s inflatable rubber raft of 1843, there were but two other boats on the lake in 1853: the skiff Mudhen, built to explore its waters in 1848, and Capt. Howard Stansbury’s flat-bottom yawl, Sally, employed in the 1849-50 U.S. topographical survey. As historian Dale L. Morgan remarked in his book The Great Salt Lake, “It is not known what happened to either of these boats, but neither would have been of much service for ferrying stock.”
Young’s new vessel would be 46 feet long and designed with the future in mind. Always the visionary, Brigham Young christened the ferry the Timely Gull. The boat had “a stern wheel propelled by horse power,” according to The Deseret News, July 6, 1854. Later the Gull might be converted to steam. A Utahn who went east on business that fall shopped for an engine and fittings to take back with him, making it known that a boat already had been built and was awaiting a power plant. Word was that such a vessel on the lake in high water might run down the Jordan near the city and connect it with the most northern settlements.
But in these early years, the Mormon settlement had better use for steam engines than an occasional ferry. So it was that after two years of service, the governor in 1856 ordered Timely Gull fitted out as a sailboat and its “horse power” put out to pasture. As Morgan explained, “It was fortunate that the boat was ready for use by the early fall of 1854. Even during the spring, the lake had been so high as to swim a horse on the Antelope bar, and cattle taken off the island at that time had to swim the greater portion of the way. Spring brought astonishing floods, raising the Jordan to levels higher than had ever been known, and by fall, had it not been for the ‘Timely Gull,’ [livestock] on the island would have been marooned.”
In autumn of 1854 and the early spring and summer of 1855, onslaughts of grasshoppers wreaked havoc and devastation on Mormon crops. While the lake might have served as a protective moat against the cricket infestations of ’48, the flying hoppers had little trouble reaching the islands. Great dark clouds of the insects swarmed over patches of green that disappeared in their wake.
When it became apparent the herds would have to be moved or perish from starvation, Young and others took Timely Gull to the island and ferried 500 head of cattle to the mainland; these were driven to new herd grounds near Utah Lake, and the following year to Cache Valley, thus managing to stay just a jump ahead of the grasshoppers.
Valiant as its service was, Timely Gull came to an untimely end in 1858 when a gale swept the ferry from its moorings at Black Rock and piled it up; the derelict wreckage was visible for years. As for the lake itself, the levels dropped markedly until 1862, then once more began a sustained rise. Until then, it was possible to move between the island and the mainland without swimming horses or cattle, but after ’62, barges were necessary to move the stock.