A Fatal Snowslide in Provo Canyon

Robert Carter
History Blazer, December 1995

Frost and snow covered the ground that cold morning near the Telluride School of Electrical Engineering at the mouth of Provo Canyon. That was normal for February 19, 1897, but something else bothered William Slick, a resident student of the school, as he arose from his bed and gazed out the window. Something was not as it should be. There was no sound of rushing water from the Provo River. In fact, there was no Provo River!

Will suspected a snowslide up the canyon had temporarily dammed the stream, and after breakfast he saddled a big black horse and with several others rode up the canyon to investigate. Some miles up the gorge and just west of where the South Fork joins the main canyon a huge avalanche had tumbled down from the south slope. At it deepest point, the slide measured fifty feet, and it extended to the canyon walls on the opposite side, damming the Provo River. It also covered part of what was called Ferguson’s Flat, a fairly extensive meadowlike area on the north side of the river. Slick noticed that the house and store of William W. “Billy” Ferguson were nowhere in sight.

William Ferguson, one of the most colorful characters in the history of the canyon, had made it his home now for about ten years and had been the tollgate keeper for the Provo Canyon Toll Road Company during the last few years of its existence. He liked life in the canyon, and when the maintenance of the road was taken over by the county, he decided to stay and homestead the meadow where the last tollgate had been located. Ferguson lived alone in the canyon; his wife and grown children lived in the valley. He operated a halfway house and store where travelers could take a moment’s rest from their journey, water their horses at the trough filled by the cold spring, and pass a few moments in conversation. They might decide to extend their stay and order a meal cooked by Billy himself. There was even an extra bed if it were a late hour and the wayfarer exhausted or the weather too intense to make travel safe or comfortable.

The atmosphere at Ferguson’s Flat was casual with entertainment furnished by Billy and his menagerie. His love for animals was obvious. He kept an assortment of dogs and cats on the ranch in addition to a fleet of pigeons. He would whistle a certain way and coax his pigeons to land on his head and shoulders. It is reported that even wild birds could be lured to eat from his hand. One of his dogs, Belle, was quite a dancer. Billy would play a lively tune on the guitar and say, “Come on now, Belle–let’s see what you can do.” Belle would prance round and round on her hind feet just as proud as her owner.

But Billy was not playing his guitar now, nor was Belle prancing. They were trapped somewhere in that mass of snow, rock, and twisted trees. Will Slick went to Provo to notify Ferguson’s family and raise a rescue party. The other men from the power plant school got picks and shovels and went to work trying to locate Billy’s house. The avalanche had come from a canyon to the south and slightly west of the flat. The deepest snow backed up across the river and the meadow, but some had run up the north slope of the canyon and rebounded onto Ferguson’s house. The fury of the rebounding slide had swept the frame house off its rock foundation and carried it some distance to the northeast. The roof and walls of the cabin were crushed. The avalanche seemed not to be satisfied until it had buried its human prey, for just fifteen feet from the cabin the snow was only two feet deep.

Will Slick had taken the river bottom road toward Provo as fast as conditions would permit. On the way he notified farmers and the Ferguson family of the tragedy. He continued on into the center of Provo recruiting help as he rode. He returned to the canyon accompanied by some 500 men. By the time they reached Ferguson Flat, the workmen from the power plant had already found what was left of the room in which Ferguson had spent his last night. With the reinforcements adding fresh vigor to the search, Billy was soon found on the shattered remnants of his bed. A rafter from the roof lay across the right side of his head, and a five-inch pole lay across his chest. Billy, it seems, had died instantly. So had his faithful dog Belle whose crushed body was found in the same room. The search for more bodies was continued, but none was found.

It appears that at least one man delayed his final appointment with fate by deciding not to stay at Ferguson’s that miserable night in February. Years later a man named Will Richmond told Ferguson’s daughter that he had traveled down the canyon that evening. He had stopped at Billy’s, had supper, and had almost been persuaded to stay. After considering for a moment, however, he had decided to brave the chill and travel on to Utah Valley that night. This decision saved his life.

Billy’s body was put in a wagon that evening of February 19 and taken to Provo by Fred Ferguson, his son, and Thomas John. Billy was buried on February 21.

Sources: Daily Enquirer [Provo], February 20, 1897; Salt Lake Herald, February 20, 1897; Salt Lake Tribune, February 20, 1897; Daily Herald [Provo] April 15, 1955; “Tollgate in Provo Canyon,” MS A1973, Utah State Historical Society Library, Salt Lake City.