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.