Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

Sinking of the Mabel Davis


Dublin Core


Sinking of the Mabel Davis


Recreational boating became popular on Utah’s lakes during the late 1800s, and some entrepreneurs took major risks to make a profit. Learn about one captain who even went down with his ship!

In the late 1800s, steamers and sailboats dotted the shores of Great Salt Lake, promising adventure for patrons and profit for boat owners. Hoping to capitalize on this growing interest in boating, a Utah County businessman named John Dallin purchased a sailboat in 1886 to start hosting excursions on Utah Lake. The only problem? His new boat, called the Mabel Davis, was docked at Great Salt Lake. Dallin’s journey to move the boat from one lake to the other would nearly cost him his life. 

Dallin decided the best option to relocate Mabel Davis would be to sail from Garfield, where the boat was docked on the south shore of Great Salt Lake, to Lake Park, a resort on the eastern shoreline, and then load the boat onto a railroad car. He confidently prepared for the solo trip, packing enough food and water for his journey aboard the Mabel Davis and cheerily waved farewell to the handful of spectators who watched him cast off from the beach.

Utah’s lakes are more dangerous than they appear, and it wasn’t long before the trip took a turn for the worse. Howling winds and large waves threatened the sailor and his boat. Unfamiliar with the shoreline, Dallin chose to drop anchor and wait out the storm. The anchor cable eventually snapped, and the boat was swept toward the rocky western shore of Antelope Island. Exhausted and scared, Dallin threw his remaining supplies on land and escaped the wreckage. Within minutes of his escape, the Mabel Davis overturned and smashed to pieces. As the sun rose over the hot August morning, Dallin wandered the island looking for clean water. Desperately thirsty and tortured by hallucinations, Dallin wrote a note identifying himself and his final wishes. It wasn't until later that night that workers on the island rescued him.

For businessmen like John Dallin, the popularity of boating and the chance to make a dollar was worth battling the elements -- even if it meant risking his life. Despite his near death experience, Dallin had a sailboat hosting excursions on Utah Lake by the next summer.


By Mikee Ferran for Utah Humanities © 2022


Image: Sailboat on the Great Salt Lake, c. 1874. Sailboats and other steamers dotted the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake throughout the late 19th century. Courtesy of J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.

See John F. Dallin and the Wreck of the Mabel Davis,” Utah History Blazer, November 1996; Ouida Nuhn Blanthorn, “Society, Cultural Development, and Religion,A History of Tooele County, Salt Lake City, UT: Utah State Historical Society, 1998; Richard H. Jackson, “Great Salt Lake and Great Salt Lake City: American Curiosities,Utah Historical Quarterly 56, no. 2 (1988): 128 - 147; “At the Waves’ Mercy!Salt Lake Herald-Republican, September 1, 1886.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org/stories.