Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Dashing Through the Snow

Dashing Through the Snow

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 28, 2009

In honor of yesterday’s first snowfall of the season here —

Had you lived in Utah in the 19th century, you might have welcomed frost and snow with enthusiasm: When the ground froze, streets that had been churned inches deep in mud suddenly became hard enough to walk across. Even better, when the snow fell, the sleighs came out.

“Lots of sleighing now,” read an 1868 Salt Lake newspaper. “Big sleighs and little sleighs, cutters and bobs, one horse affairs, and from that up to Wells, Fargo & Co.’s eight horse institution. The streets are filled with the music of sleigh bells from morning till noon, and from noon till night.”

Not everyone appreciated the merriment associated with sleigh rides. An 1859 editorial did not appreciate “those who are in the habit of yelling and whooping like savages [as they] pass through the streets on their nocturnal excursions in sleighs” and called for “municipal rules and regulations” to curb such “brawling in the streets.”

Without doubt, the most famous Utah sleigh was the “Julia Dean” built by Brigham Young for the 1865-66 winter season. It was long and broad, “shaped something like a canoe,” one daughter recalled, with its front and rear seats higher than those in the middle. The driver’s seat rested between two graceful carved swans, and a team of six horses pulled the sleigh built for 24 riders, “although when we children piled in for a merry ride over the frosty streets there was more likely to be twice that number tucked in between the buffalo robes and the blankets.”

Many have assumed that the mammoth sleigh owed its name to Young’s presumed infatuation with the actress Julia Dean Hayne. She spent almost a year in Salt Lake playing at the theater, establishing residency to divorce her first husband and being courted by her second husband, Utah’s territorial secretary James G. Cooper. The actress Sara Alexander, who was present at the event, and Nettie Young, old enough to recall it, denied this, saying that the “Julia Dean” received its name through a prank of 15-year-old Ernest Young. As the sleigh was being readied for use one day, Ernest found a torn theater poster with the actress’s name in large print. He pasted the poster on the back of the sleigh as if it were the stern of a boat, “in a spirit of mischief. But there it stayed to the delight of everyone and the sleigh was never known by any other name.”

The “Julia Dean” was used by the Young family for a few years, then sold to Hiram B. Clawson. During his ownership, the sleigh once led a funeral cortege: “The public hands … were gratuitously furnished with the large Julia Dean sleigh, which held nearly 30, and which headed the large procession to the graveyard.” When it became too decrepit, the beautiful old sleigh became a feedbox for horses on a Davis County farm, where it was eventually kicked to pieces.

Sleighs could be as useful as they were recreational. In January 1876, a train leaving Logan ran into a storm at Mendon. The engineer tried to force his way through, then tried to back the train toward Logan, but the engine ran off the track. Passengers and crew spent a cold night in the mountains. At ten o’clock the next morning, the stranded party heard the jingle bells of rescuers, as Bishop Henry Hughes of Mendon led a caravan of sleighs filled with picnic baskets, and then ferried the passengers into town.

On an earlier occasion, a sleigh brought new federal appointees on the last 250 miles of their journey to Salt Lake, no other conveyance being able to cross the Wasatch mountains during the storms of January, 1868.

Most of us get no nearer to sleigh riding than singing “Jingle Bells.” But if you have the chance, go dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh. Pick me up first — I want to go, too.



  1. Me too!

    Comment by Eric Boysen — October 28, 2009 @ 8:19 am

  2. When we were “snowbound” in Chicago during the record snowfall winters of 77-78 and 78-79, we used to pull our son to church on a Radio Flyer sled, wrapped up in blankets (no buffalo robes, unfortunately).

    Also unfortunately, we had no sleigh bells or horses with bobbed tails.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 28, 2009 @ 8:37 am

  3. I wonder why Wells Fargo had an 8 horse sleigh? If 6 horses could pull nearly 50 adults (that’s a school bus!) What would an even bigger team be needed for? Heavy loads, like gold maybe? Steep terrain? Deep snow?

    My favorite BY sleigh story is the one of Heber J Grant hooky-bobbing as a young boy and the sled going to fast for him to let go.

    Comment by Clark — October 28, 2009 @ 9:24 am

  4. This was fun to read. Thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — October 28, 2009 @ 10:09 am

  5. I spent a lot of time with horses as a kid during the summers at my grandfather’s farm in Idaho, but never was there in the winter, and never have ridden in a horse-drawn sleigh. It sounds like great fun. The closest I ever came was when I was a deacon, and our adviser had a car hood pulled off of an early 50’s Ford sedan. He’d tie it behind his pickup truck, and pull us around the unplowed streets of our Ogden neighborhood during the winter, at night. It always had to be on streets where none of us lived, as we knew our parents would put an end to it if they found out.

    Comment by kevinf — October 28, 2009 @ 11:13 am

  6. This post mentions two topics I want to know more about: actress Sara Alexander and transportation in early SLC.

    My family were theater lovers for generations. I remember my Mom complaining about them tearing down the old SL theater. (She was 19 at the time.) Miss Alexander was an acquaintance or friend of the family. I know a little about her, but thus far information is scarce.

    My great-grandmother was disabled but still got around in 1880s Salt Lake. I have been researching to find out how she might have traveled.

    Another fascinating post. Thanks again.

    Comment by Phoebe — October 28, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  7. Speed, Clark, speed! The same mentality that puts 430 horses under the hood of your Corvette.

    “Hooky-bobbing”? That’s new to me–we always called it “bizzing”–but having heard a whole lot of stern lectures from my father about how dangerous and foolish it was, we talked about it a lot more than we did it.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 28, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

  8. We called it “hooky-bobbing,” too, growing up (Idaho, 1970s and 80s). Except in our case, our dad was the one who would take us!

    Comment by Hunter — October 28, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  9. It’s fun to hear you guys reminisce. And Phoebe, I’ll keep your interests in mind for future posts. I know I have some good material on Sara Alexander somewhere in this computer …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 28, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

  10. After I posted here I did another search on Utah Digital Newspapers. The first time I did this a couple of years ago I turned up one article, this time many pages, which led to Google, which led to Family Search. I have a lot of mentions, but still not a lot of biographical information on her, so if you do come across Sara in your files, that would be great.

    Comment by Phoebe — October 28, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

  11. I went on a sleigh ride in Garmisch, Germany on Christmas morning once… it was overrated.

    Comment by spoiled party pooper — October 28, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

  12. kevinf in #5: I know from personal experience that hooky bobbing (I’m from Idaho, too, Hunter) on a car hood (or in my case, an old pick-up hood) is all fun and games until the driver tows you over a cattle guard. Yeah. That was the last time I tried that stunt…

    Comment by Clark — October 28, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

  13. What a neat experience that we sadly rarely have now. Some day I’ll try it out somewhere . . .

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — October 29, 2009 @ 2:35 am

  14. I once roasted chestnuts over an open fire, and I can tell you that it was definitely overrated (both the act and the eating).

    I’ve never ridden in a horse-drawn sleigh, but I would like to try it sometime, preferably bundled up. Right now, we’ve had 18+” of snow fall here since Tuesday night, with a strong wind blowing, and another 4-8″ due by late this afternoon. I’m not looking forward to using the snowblower to clear our driveway (which is about 150 yards long). ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — October 29, 2009 @ 10:21 am

  15. My great-grandfather in Centerville, Utah was a crotchety old man (according to my mother, who was terrified of him). He had a large sleigh as well as the horse-drawn hearse. Every winter he would go around town and pick up the widows in his sleigh and take them to his big rock home, where his wife had dinner prepared for them.

    My brother owned a sleigh during my teen years. We loved it after a snow storm when we heard him coming up the road with the sleigh bells jangling. We would throw coats on and jump in his sleigh for a ride.

    Shortly after my husband and I were married, he heard of an old cowboy in the Murray, Utah area who had a sleigh and bells for sale. We bought them and fixed up the sleigh. It was probably a crazy thing to do, because we didn’t have a horse. However, a friend did, which we borrowed a few times. At lease once during the winter, we loaded up our sleigh and went to Star Valley, Wyoming to stay with friends. We would hook up their horse and bundle up in blankets and a big dog, in minus 20 degree weather, and think it was great. We eventually sold the sleigh, but we still have the two strands of bells.

    Comment by Maurine — November 1, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

  16. You’re making it very difficult for me to obey the commandment not to covet, Maurine. What memories!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 1, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

  17. Phoebe,

    Don’t know if you will read this as it’s been about 5 months since this was posted, but Margaret Finlayson Maxwell researched Sara Alexander’s life and wrote an article on her that was published in Journal of Mormon History, v. 32, no. 2 (Summer 2006) p. 87-111.

    You might enjoy reading that.

    Comment by Mary B — March 2, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

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