Christmas at the sawmill: A true story of the Old West (and a ghost of posts past)

Merry Christmas, everyone! Since I don’t have any new Christmas content, I’m reposting last year’s. I hope you enjoy this ghost of a Christmas post past.

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

Salt Lake City and the growing settlements  around it desperately needed lumber, and it was Benjamin Franklin Johnson’s job to provide it. More than a job — a mission. The prophet Brigham Young and the Council of the Twelve had asked him to do it, so he regarded the task as a sacred calling.

Yet, sacred as his duty was, the mill was nonetheless also a commercial enterprise. Investors had put up money that must be repaid.

The sawmill had been sited in the mountains above Cottonwood Canyon and built with his brother Joel’s expert help. But just as it began producing lumber in late fall, 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 Brother LeBaron and some of my own boys.

It being Christmas eve all except Brother 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.

For the early pioneers, Christmas was a day of devotion, but not necessarily one of rest.

I haven’t been able to find out exactly when this occurred, but it was probably sometime between 1850 and 1860. 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: