Christmas at the sawmill – A true story of the Old West

Benjamin F. Johnson, 1818-1905.
Benjamin F. Johnson, 1818-1905.

The growing settlements in the mountain valleys of Utah needed lumber, and Benjamin Franklin Johnson’s mission was to provide it. The Mormon church’s Council of the Twelve had asked him to do it, so he regarded the task as a sacred duty.

The sawmill had been sited and built with his brother Joel’s expert help. But just as it began producing lumber, Benjamin fell gravely ill. He was bedridden for weeks while work went on without him, and his recuperation had hardly begun when Joel was called away to the southern settlements. The mill was now his sole responsibility, and convalescence was a luxury he could not afford.

From Benjamin Johnson’s journal:

It was now about Christmas. Snow was deep in the canyon, and I felt it a fearful undertaking in my condition of ill health. The mill, not paid for, must clear its own debts and should not lie idle while lumber is wanted. So the day before Christmas, with my wife, Sarah Jane, and her two little girls, I set out for the mill, and Brother John J. Crandall as sawyer, Charles Townsend who was in the mill with Br. LeBaron and some of my own boys.

It being Christmas eve all except Br. Crandall left us to go home. Our mill was near 10,000 feet in altitude and snow was already deep on the mountains.

On Christmas day the soft, damp snow fell in clouds, and the night following was made hideous by the crashing thunder of snow slides in every direction. In great fear of being overwhelmed we spent a night never to be forgotten. We had arranged for the hands, with supplies, to come up the following day, which now they could not do, and should they attempt might be caught in the slides.

I went down the Canyon to count 20 slides a fearful sight. About Noon Charlie Townsend arrived on foot and said the Canyon was blocked from near its mouth. After the storm all got to work and with shovelers, trampers, and oxen we soon opened the road, and men gathered in for logging.

It was fearful and dangerous to handle logs on the steep mountain sides of these narrow Canons, with snow from 5 to 20 feet deep, liable to slides and sudden storms, and I felt great responsibility resting upon me, for the lives of those with me. I had all my life held sacred the name of God, never permitting it to be profaned upon my inheritance, & calling the attention of my friends, family and work hands to the dangers around us, I told them by prophecy that everyone who remembered their prayers and held sacred the name of the Lord should be unharmed.

Having in my employ some most profane outsiders I feared they would be offended, but they accepted my words, attended family prayers, and, with the exception of one,-and he born in the Church. I heard of no other profanity in the Canyon; and he, falling a tree, upon himself, was brought down the Canyon upon a stretcher and for a time supposed to be dead. We ministered to him and he lived; the only serious accident through the winter.

Benjamin Franklin Johnson and his older brother, Joel Hills Johnson (who is my direct ancestor), were true pioneers of the American West.

I haven’t been able to find out exactly when this occurred, but it was probably sometime between 1850 and 1870. I’m also purely guessing about his brother’s involvement, but Joel did build several sawmills and was instrumental in the settlement of Utah, so it’s very possible that they worked together to build the mill.

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