On a calm Sunday afternoon in June 1883, Thomas Yates and some friends from the town of Benjamin, Utah set out for the shores of Utah Lake. When they arrived at the beach, the group of nine piled into a small rowboat and headed out onto the water. Recreational boating increased in popularity throughout the late 1800s, but inexperienced boaters weren’t usually prepared for Utah Lake’s dangerous conditions, including large swells and sudden storms. As recreators flocked to Utah Lake, the number of accidents and drownings grew -- a grim reminder of Mother Nature’s power.
Out on the lake -- and for an unknown reason -- Yates and his friends rushed suddenly to one side of the boat and overturned the vessel, throwing the entire party overboard. The boaters thrashed about in water reported to be about five feet deep. The day’s clear skies clouded over and a thunderstorm rolled in. On the shore, a bystander saw the group struggling and rapidly rowed to the rescue, successfully saving four of the friends. Unfortunately, the weather worsened and five members of the group perished in the rough waters, including Yates and his sister.
By the 1880s a small cluster of rowboats and sailboats were kept docked at Utah Lake for adventurous visitors. However, strong winds, violent thunderstorms, large waves, and an average depth of just nine feet created a perfectly hazardous environment for an amateur boater. Even the most experienced swimmers and sailors struggled against the natural landscape when the weather was rough.
Utah Lake continues to be a popular destination for relaxation and recreation. It also continues to be a notoriously dangerous lake on which to spend an afternoon. Dozens of swimmers and boaters have drowned in its waters, calling attention to the lake’s risky conditions. Thomas Yates and his friends were early victims of this risk, but sadly, not uncommon ones. Despite the lake’s reputation, humans continue to forget the dangers of the natural elements in favor of sport, risking their lives for an afternoon of fun on the water.
See “An Early Boating Accident on Utah Lake”, The History Blazer, July 1996; “Frightful Fatality,” Salt Lake Herald, June 12, 1883; Kaylee DeWitt, “Is Utah Lake Dangerous for Recreation,” ABC4 News, May 15, 2020; Utah Lake Commission, “How to Enjoy Utah Lake Safely,” July 27, 2020.