Snowslides Devastated Northern Utah in 1875

Yvette D. Ison
History Blazer, April 1995

To the early Mormon settlers northern Utah was one of the coldest places on earth. Bishop Hammond of Huntsville, a former whaler in the Arctic regions, reported in the Deseret News on February 6, 1883, that the weather in Huntsville, Utah, was more severe than he had ever experienced in the regions of “eternal ice and snow.” His statement only confirmed what northern Utahns had been complaining about all along. Freezing winds, heavy snows, and chilling temperatures made life difficult, if not unbearable, during the winter months.

Of course, some winters were worse than others. In 1862 an enormous snowstorm hit Ogden Valley. According to local accounts, George Marsh Bronson went outside to feed his sheep on the morning after the storm. To his surprise, not one sheep could be seen! Taking a closer look, he discovered that the herd had been buried in the snow and had managed to stay alive by breathing through small air holes in the snow. After an entire day of digging, he recovered all the sheep.

The winter of 1875 may have been one of the worst ever. Following a storm in March temperatures in northern Utah reached as low as 55 degrees below zero. Children received frostbite by walking only short distances to school. In some areas snow reached a level of five feet. Some people were homebound for months.

High levels of snowfall increased the danger of slides. Snowslides in January 1875, as recorded by LDS historian Andrew Jenson, took many lives in the Wasatch Front canyons, including two separate slides in Little Cottonwood Canyon that killed a total of ten, one in Big Cottonwood Canyon that killed five, and a Utah County snowslide that killed one. The loss of life continued throughout the winter. On March 3 a slide in Little Cottonwood Canyon killed W. G. Thomas. On March 12 a tragic snowslide hit the small town of Liberty, Weber County. James Burt was leaving for work at 8 o’clock that morning when he turned to see his home, wife, and four children carried away by the slide. When the house finally stopped nearly four blocks away, neighbors rushed to the scene to rescue the family. All were saved except the little girl. She had evidently fallen from her high chair when the slide hit the house and died instantly. This snowslide took everything in its path. David E. Chard, interviewed at the age of 94, said that a haystack had been swept away with the slide and, a day later, he saw “an old cow sitting on top of the stack, munching hay.”

In addition to the Liberty tragedy, other snowslides in March 1875 caused destruction throughout northern Utah. On March 18 a slide in Dry Canyon near Providence, Cache County, killed a boy. Ezra J. Clark and his sons Justus and John were cutting trees to make railroad ties when a sudden gust of wind caused a snowslide. Ezra grabbed a tree branch and told Justus to climb on. When he did so the tree snapped and sent the boy into the rushing snow. He was found dead an hour later.

A snowslide in Green Canyon east of Paradise, Cache County, on March 17 carried James Smith a half a mile. When the movement finally stopped, Smith found himself on the verge of a cliff 40 feet high. He watched as snow tumbled over the edge. Luckily, he managed to escape and returned home.

The winter of 1875 was only one of many chilling winters that northern Utah has
experienced over the years. But its effect left lasting memories for those caught in the middle of nature’s path. An article in the Ogden Junction on March 13, 1875, describes the general feeling about the weather that year: “Just as we thought winter was gone for good and all, now comes another blinding snow storm that covers all things with a thick white sheet and fills the air with gloom.” Spring must have been especially welcome to northern Utah settlers in 1875.