The four men knew they were in danger. Heavy, wet snow falling on an icy crust of old snow was the perfect recipe for avalanche on Jan. 7, 1912. The men left the sawmill anyway, their wagon loaded with lumber, and drove cautiously down Blacksmith Fork Canyon southeast of Logan, Utah.
Four miles below, the road was blocked by a snowslide. As the men worked to free their stalled wagon, a field of snow broke loose and crashed down upon them. George William Ellis of Smithfield, 45, father of seven with an eighth child to be born the following March, was crushed against the heavy wagon and died almost instantly. Daniel Fletcher Norris of Paradise, 23, married less than a year, was buried by snow and died slowly of suffocation. John Edward Miles, Jr. of Paradise, 21, son of the sawmill’s owner, was carried down the ravine and flung into a creek, his shoulders pinned against a rock by snow which hardened like concrete around him.
The fourth man, Lawrence Rossman, 37, an itinerant laborer who had recently come from the Nevada mines, was luckier. He came to rest buried to his armpits but with face and shoulders clear. Rossman fought to dig himself free, then staggered down the canyon on foot. He broke a path through new snow for eight miles before reaching the Hardware Ranch. A ranch hand then took him by wagon 25 miles to the nearest telephone, in Hyrum. From there Rossman summoned Sheriff N.W. Crookston, who notified the families of the buried men.
The avalanche had occurred at 10:00 a.m.; word didn’t reach Logan until 9:00 p.m. Sheriff Crookston promptly headed toward Blacksmith Fork Canyon with a search party. Some of Ellis’s friends left Smithfield, determined to bring his body home. Sawmill owner Miles with his own rescue crew set out from Paradise. Newspapers announced the deaths of Ellis, Norris, and Miles, Jr.
But back at the avalanche site, a miracle was in progress.
Miles, Jr., was alive. The swift-running stream in which he had landed severely chilled his body, but also washed a channel through the snow to create a narrow passage in which he could breathe. The rock against which he was pinned by compacted snow prevented him from using his arms, but also raised his face from the water. Miles was still in grave danger, but he was alive and he knew his father would look for him.
Throughout the long night as rescue crews toiled up the canyon from the towns of Cache County, Miles struggled to stay calm. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he became delirious; at times he seemed to float free of his body to watch the progress of would-be rescuers on horseback.
Crews arrived at mid-morning, 24 hours after the avalanche. They quickly located the body of Ellis in the wreckage of wagon and lumber. Norris’s body was found soon after, as was the body of one of the horses. A shout of surprise went up when the second horse was discovered – buried by snow, his nose had been pressed against Rossman’s leg; when Rossman dug himself out the animal was able to breathe through the hole left by Rossman. The horse was pulled alive from the snow.
It was John Miles, Sr., who finally found his son and lifted him from his icy prison. Young Miles was in bad shape, with frozen flesh and swollen limbs. Rescuers built a fire and many willing hands rubbed him vigorously with warmed alcohol until feeling returned to his body. He was alert and coherent, and managed to stand on his own feet before his father put him into a wagon for the ride home.
If Miles, Jr.’s survival was astonishing, his recovery was just as phenomenal. Three weeks following the avalanche, Miles married Mabel Pulsipher in the Logan Temple.
Few avalanche victims are so lucky, of course. Be careful out there.