The Day the Sky Fell in Salt Lake City: April 5, 1876
Arsenal Hill, site of the huge 1876 explosion, was located where today's DUP Museum stands.
By Lynn Arave It was the LDS Church General Conference that started off with a bang.
On April 5, 1876, 4:48 p.m., the powder magazines at Arsenal Hill (west of where today's state Capitol stands), exploded with a fury of 40 tons of gunpowder that Deseret News reports compared with the devil himself.
A trio of explosions rocked the city the afternoon before the semiannual four-day conference started. The Arsenal, the only building then on Salt Lake City's northwest bench, was leveled."Terrible disaster. Terrific explosion of forty tons of Giant, Hercules, blasting and other powder. Four persons killed instantly and others injured. Great damage to property" was the following day's headline in the Deseret News.
The raining debris covered a two-mile radius. The explosions were felt in shaking buildings as far north as Kaysville. Four different gunpowder magazines exploded, creating four separate bombs of debris.
Some people shouted "A volcano!" Others "An earthquake!" as an immense mass of flame shot heavenward. One reporter described the calamity as the former with "a column of smoke and debris as grand as Vesuvius ever belched forth."
Hundreds of people were lying on the ground, women and children screamed and many men turned pale, according to Deseret News reports. Some ran toward the explosion, others away. Many animals bolted away from wagons, frightened by the loud noise.
Two young men, identified as Frank Hill, 18, and Charles Richardson, 18, were near the building at the time of explosion. They had been tending cattle on the hill earlier in the day and were known to have been shooting a rifle at birds. They were killed instantly by the explosion. The men were suspected of causing the explosion when a burning paperwad from their shotgun ignited some loose gunpowder.
No specific blame for the explosion was ever laid, but a jury requested additional precautions for any other explosives kept in the city.
Vandals had previously shot through the Arsenal's main iron doors with guns for used for sport and target practice. The Arsenal building was made of rock, with a tin roof, but a thicker iron door was added after repeated vandalism.
Also killed were Mary Jane Van Natta, struck by a rock on the head as she was pumping water outside. James Raddon Jr., 5, died when he was struck in the chest by a rock while playing outside. Another woman was said to have died from fright after the explosion.
Broken glass created the biggest problem, with virtually all Main Street businesses and several nearby LDS meetinghouses hardly having an unbroken window left. The walls of the 20th Ward schoolhouse were badly damaged. There were no reports of damage to the Salt Lake Temple, under construction at the time, but it was likely only in the first story stage.
Several merchants were charged with selling glass at twice the usual price in the days after the explosion.
A large boulder went through the mayor's roof and two floors of his new home. A flying rock also took away part of the ear of a son of D.P. Kimball.
Several residents reported moving babies or children from rooms that were soon thereafter heavily hit by raining debris. Several dozen boys playing baseball to the west of the armory were knocked to the ground twice by the explosions and found shelter to avoid the biggest shower of debris.
President Brigham Young's flour mill, a half-mile away up City Creek, was destroyed, as were the covers for the city waterworks and the adjacent building near City Creek. One of President Young's daughters, siting near a window on South Temple, also suffered a head wound from shattering glass.
One Civil War veteran said after the explosion he saw less damage in Fredericksburg after a month of cannon bombardment there.
"The Prince of the Power of the Air had a roisterly time on Wednesday afternoon . . . Not many of our citizens, previously, had any realizing idea of the immense reserve force stored up in a few grains of charcoal, and nitre and sulphur . . . The explosion has been the main topic of conversation in the city ever since and will be more or less for future days to come. Years in the future, the time of it will be referenced to as an era, whence and with which the happenings of other events will be calculated and compared," the Deseret News reported two days after the explosion.
Other newspapers made the disaster sound even worse. For example, one other newspaper headline read: "Nearly every house in Salt Lake more or less wrecked." Other stories also spoke of 200-pound boulders, although the largest confirmed boulder of debris to hit downtown was 115 pounds - a rock that struck the Theatre Saloon on 100 South.
Still, the Deseret News reported every building within a 1.5- to 2-mile radius of the explosion sustained some sort of damage. But apparently no general conference talks made reference to the disaster, or at least nothing was recorded by conference reporters.
The Arsenal building was reduced to craters. It was privately owned by the DuPont Co. and had cost $26,000 to build. According to some sources, the Arsenal was at the top of Main Street, about two blocks north of Temple Square and approximately where today's Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Building stands at 300 N. Main. However, photographs taken in the Arsenal area after the explosion make it look more likely the building was at about 200 N. Main. The arsenal was never rebuilt.
The area surrounding Arsenal Hill in the 1860s and 1870s consisted of bare, open fields. The Arsenal Hill area was vacant, probably because not until the late 1880s was a year-round water supply secured for the area.
This, of course, was long before the area came to be known as Capitol Hill. The entire plateau between Ensign Peak and Temple Square was originally called Prospect Hill. Then, when the Arsenal was placed there - probably in the early 1860s - it became Arsenal Hill.
Not until Feb. 28, 1888, did Elder Heber J. Grant propose that the Salt Lake City municipality donate 20 acres of the former Arsenal Hill property for a future Utah State Capitol site. The actual donation took place on March 1. The Capitol building was slow in coming and wasn't started until 1913 and completed in 1915.
(-Written by Lynn Arave and originally published in the Deseret News, April 2, 1995.)
The modern Salt Lake City.
-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org