Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Biggest Fish Story in Utah: Sardine Canyon

   Sardine Canyon at the nearly 6,000-foot elevation Sardine Summit. Actually traveling southbound here is where Wellsville Canyon ends and Dry Canyon begins. The real Sardine Canyon is northeast of here.

 Tens of thousands of people a day motor along at 55 mph on the four-lane Highway 89/91 through what has firmly been named Sardine Canyon, the main passageway between Brigham City and Cache Valley/Logan.
How that fishy moniker has been affixed to a mountainous area devoid of any truly narrow geography, or fishing areas begs an investigation of history. 
That’s especially the case, since today’s highway does not even travel through the original Sardine Canyon of pioneer times.
Various legends peg the Sardine name origin on three different possible sources: 1. That the first settlers ate a lunch of canned sardines in that area en route to Cache Valley; 2. That there were small, sardine size fish spotted in a stream by some of the first pioneers traveling through the area; (1)  3. That there was a narrow section of canyon in the area that inspired the first settlers to affix the sardine title. (2)
 What is the truth?
I used to lean to the first explanation, but after further investigation, the only reason that makes sense is the No. 2 possibility. So, it is still a fish tale ...
First of all, a true geographical sketch of the area is in order.
Although place names can eventually become what the general populace calls something, today’s “Sardine Canyon” is not the original Sardine Canyon of pioneer times.
Technically speaking, Highway 89/91, an approximate 18-mile stretch from Box Elder to Cache County, traverses three separate canyons – none of them named Sardine by official U.S. Geological Survey designation, or State of Utah highway maps. The highway departs Brigham City and travels  east and north  through Box Elder Canyon to the community of Mantua. Next, traveling steeply uphill is Dry Canyon, ending  at Sardine Summit (5,899 foot elevation). After a steep downhill segment to Dry Lake, Wellsville Canyon completes the trilogy of canyons into Cache Valley. (3)
It is today’s populace and news media who favor calling all three canyons by the “Sardine Canyon” name that overshadows any geography lesson or official map.

 The Dry Lake area of Sardine Canyon. Water is here only in the wettest of years.

 Is there a chance the Sardine Canyon name for U.S. 89 will 

ever officially appear on maps?

Barry Napier of the U.S. Geological Survey's National 

Mapping Division office in Salt Lake City 

once said it's often the case with maps that local 

predominant usage over many years can lead 

to a nickname being listed on maps.

 The road alignment through the area has changed 

significantly over the decades. The first Mormon settlers on 

the way to Cache County in the fall of 1856 likely traveled 

about the same route to Sardine Summit and to about Dry 

Lake as we do today. However, then – presumably because 

of water sources and an easier route – headed directly east 

to Sardine Spring. 

 Then, they followed the original Sardine Canyon northeast 

into Cache Valley and near today’s Hyrum Reservoir and 

Mount Sterling Cemetery. That was the original path into 

Cache Valley.

Above: Where the original Sardine Canyon road headed, located south of today's Sardine Summit.

The first real road in the area went through the side canyon 

that begins just north of Sardine Summit, following part of 

the original pioneer route, but then headed east along 

today’s Mt. Pisgah Road and into McMurdle Hollow and into 

the community of Hyrum. (4)

 The first newspaper mention of the “Sardine Canyon” name, 

that could be located, was from Logan in the fall of 1880. (5) 

A map from Sept. 4, 1878 in the Cache County Surveyor’s 

Office, also uses the name Sardine Canyon. (In 1878, there 

was a side route possible through Wellsville Canyon, instead 

of Sardine, but that was only considered a secondary route 

at the time. (6)

 A 1915 newspaper article described the experience of 

driving a Studebaker “light six” model through the northern 

section of the route south into Box Elder County. Mr. L.E. 

Dresbach drove the automobile, loaded with five people. It 

was previously “regarded as impossible” to make such a trip 

in an automobile.

“To Paradise and then west over the Sardine Canyon road 

practically in high gear and at the rate of 25 miles per hour 

until the top of the cutoff was reached,” it was reported in the 

newspaper. (7)

             A 1983 Deseret News graphic by Craig Holyoak shows the 3 Sardine Roads.

 Some decades later – in the 1920s – the next version of 

road started about 1,000 feet north of the original pioneer 

route. This road wound around the ridge east of Dry Lake. It 

is still visible while driving along U.S. 89/91 today. The road, 

the first alignment to be paved through the area, eventually 

intersected the original Sardine Canyon. Portions of this road 

are still paved, but weather is eroding away the asphalt and 

sections have been removed. (8)

  According to newspaper reports, the second version of the 

route to Cache Valley opened  in September of 1924, was 

24-feet wide and had a maximum grade of 6 percent.  It cost 

$200,000 to construct this nine-mile section of road, between 

Mantua and Wellsville.

 This road was also a landmark for the west, marking the 

completion of the last link of a highway from Grand Canyon 

National Park, to Zion National Park and north to 

Yellowstone National Park.

 Above: Looking southeast from "Dry Lake," the second version of the Sardine Canyon roads can be spotted on the hillside, winding it way around and into a different area than today's road.

 Furthermore, the road with its compact dirt composition and 

lower grades, was open in winter much more often than the 

original highway through the area. This meant Cache Valley 

was not isolated for months during the snow season, but 

more like weeks.

 “Hundreds of ‘autoists’ who already traveled over the new 

road are high in their praise” of the new gravel/hard dirt road, 

the newspaper reported. (9)

 By the following month, the county believed it had solved 

the snow blockage problem in Sardine Canyon by 

constructing a special cabin for a winter patrolman who 

would live there in the winter and have a ‘two-ton tractor” to 

plow the snow. (10)

 Despite all the initial praise for the second “Sardine” 

alignment, there were serious travel problems in later years. 

For example, in January of 1949, this road was closed for a 

full month. The winter of 1948-49 was northern Utah’s 

combined snowiest/coldest winter season on record. (11)

                    The northbound view on U.S. 89, looking at the Wellsville Mountains.

(Even today’s modern “Sardine Canyon” route can be 

plagued by snow and ice. In fact, Sardine Canyon often 

makes the news shows, because of periodic winter accidents 

reported there.)

 The third and final alignment is today's road, built in the 

1950s and opened in 1960. It was constructed in part, 

because of the shortcomings that the previous road’s 

closures in the winter of 1949 highlighted.  It traverses down 

from Sardine Summit on a straight shot to Dry Lake and 

offers a much shorter and smoother route to Cache Valley 

than its two predecessors, exiting the canyon into Wellsville. 


 By the early 21st Century, this highway had been widened 

from two lanes to four.

Now, having established the three variations in the roads 

through the area, the examination can now return to the 

original query of the name origin of Sardine Canyon and its 

three possible beginnings.

      In  the fall of 1856 the first settlers on the way to Cache Valley stopped near a spring 1.5 miles east of what is now known as Dry Lake today. It is here that one of the legends claim these pioneers ate a sardine can lunch here and hence the name of the greater area more than 150 years later.
    Furthermore, some variations of this legend claim that these settlers left the sardine can or cans by the trail near Sardine Spring and so later travelers spotted them and the name was born. (13)

However, did cans of sardines exist in 1856? Could they 

have traveled west?

“I think it’s possible,” the webmaster of, out of California, stated of cans of sardines existing in Utah in 1856.  “I can’t think of why a settler would not have wanted to bring a case of sardines with them if they were traveling by horse and wagon. Canned sardines keep very well.”

Furthermore, it was indicated that while tin cans were 

around in 1856, sardines were not canned in the USA until 

after that year. So, they would have had to have come from 

Europe and would thus be much more rare, than a few 

decades later. (14)

(Also, “what if” the pioneers had eaten a different sort of 

lunch in the area? How does "Tuna Canyon,"  or "Steak 

Canyon" sound?)

Still, the railroad didn’t reach Utah until 14 years later in 

1869. And so, all of the Mormon pioneers prior to the iron 

horse had to walk, horse and wagon or handcart some 1,300 

miles to Salt Lake City.
                   There are 4 lanes on today's modern "Sardine Canyon" highway.

 Thus, if a pioneer possessed one more cans or sardines 

and brought them along, would they have kept them 

unopened and uneaten for all 1,300 miles and even weeks 

or months after before a future 80-plus mile trek from Salt 

Lake to the Cache Valley? That seems unlikely.

 They might have saved them in reserve, or as a delicacy for 

as long as possible, but logic argues not that long,

 In fact, it seems that after several hard winters during the 

Mormon pioneers’ early years, all the canned sardines would 

be gone
2.     Did the first pioneer settlers headed for Cache County believe one of the canyons in the area between Brigham City and Logan was particularly tight or narrow and hence the sardine name?

Certainly today’s U.S. 89/91 highway alignment offers no 

unusually narrow sections. In fact, that’s the main reason 

why many have pondered where the sardine name came 

from, given the lack of geological support.

 However, while the original Sardine Canyon is narrower 

than today’s version, it does not appear ‘sardine’ narrow.

An approximate 1910 photograph of the original Sardine 

Canyon is contained in the on-line archives of Utah State 

University. This picture shows how the stream dominates the 

canyon at the time, though the canyon itself is not 

particularly narrow, lacking steep walls. (15)

3.     Did the presence of tiny, sardine-like fish spotted in a stream along the original Sardine Canyon inspire the canyon’s name?

Several professors of aquatic ecology at Utah State 

University lended support to this claim.

“I have heard anecdotally that they (Cache Valley’s first 

settlers) saw whitefish (“Prosopium williamsoni”), which 

could resemble a sardine to the general public, ,and which 

were likely abundant in these areas (and still are in the 

Logan River),”

Phaedra Budy, professor and Aqautic Research Ecologist in 

the Department of Ecology Center, Watershed Sciences, at 

Utah State University, stated.

Charles P. Hawkins, another professor in that Department at 

USU, agrees, especially if the water source is perennial, so 

that it can support naturally occurring fish. (16)

The first pioneers might have passed by as many as three 

different springs in Sardine Canyon – Sardine Spring (which 

was the source of year-round water and spawned a stream.

-- “The Pothole Spring” further east; and Hall Spring, a little 

further north.

--  In addition, South Grove Spring is located about 1,200 

feet north of Sardine Spring and feeds into Sardine Canyon. 


However, water presumably would have been much sparser 

in September – late summer – when those first settlers 

passed through, than the rest of the year.

 Also, since at least 1960, there has been a manmade ditch 

draining Sardine Spring, with some underground piping. The 

original Sardine Canyon was homesteaded by James and 

Margaret Bradshaw in the late 1800s. They had a camp with 

milk cows and made butter near Sardine Spring.

 The land there is now owned by The Church of Jesus Christ 

of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and is part of the Wellsville 

Stake welfare farm grazing area. (18)

So, overall, legend No. 3 – sardine-like fish being spotted in 

the area – is the most likely possibility of the three.

Also, it should be noted that only one other officially named 

“Sardine Canyon” exists in the United States.(19)  Strangely, 

it is also in northern Utah, located as a side canyon on the 

south side of Ogden Canyon, just southeast of today’s 

Alaskan Inn (formerly the site of the Hermitage).(20)

 This other Sardine Canyon is extremely narrow and since its 

beginning is elevated several dozen feet above the canyon’s 

paved highway, it is likely often not noticed by travelers.

        At 55 mph (or more) today, motorists probably rarely ponder the Sardine moniker.

Since no other sardine canyon name exists in the U.S., 

could these two canyons be connected somehow? After all, 

what are the odds that both would end up in Utah and be 

only some 30 miles apart?

John W. Van Cott, who authored “Utah Place Names,” cross 

referenced the name origin of Sardine Peak to Sardine 

Canyon in Cache County, (21) 

Why he did this is unknown. (Van Cott died in 2006.) 

Sardine Park (elevation 7,485 feet) connects to the other 

Sardine Canyon in Weber County, There are also two other 

sardine-nicknamed places in that Weber County area, Just 

north of Snow Basin Resort –“Little Sardine Peak” (elevation 

5,970) if often referenced.

The nearby Ogden River may have also contained tiny, 

sardine size fish in it and hence a possibility for that other 

sardine canyon name.

 Also, “Sardine Hill” (elevation 5,461) is nearby. (22) Today, 

this Weber County “sardine” area has its own high 

popularity, with a popular mountain biking loop through the 


-Photos by Lynn Arave. "Fish" drawing courtesy of Utah State University.


(1)   John W. Van Cott, Utah Place Names (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990), 331.
(2)    Brittny Goodsell Jones, “Sardine Canyon: The name’s a bit fishy,” Logan Daily Herald, Oct. 12, 2008.
       (3) U.S. Geological Survey, “Mount Pisgah, Utah” quadrangle map, revised 1996.
     (4) Lynn Arave, “What if Cache Valley Settlers had eaten a difference lunch?” Deseret News, March 29, 1993, C1.
      (5) Logan Leader Newspaper, Sept, 24, 1880.
      (6) Brittny Goodsell Jones, “Sardine Canyon: The name’s a bit fishy,”
       (7) “A Studebaker goes …,” Box Elder Newspaper, June 3, 1915.
       (8) Arave, “What if Cache Valley Settlers had eaten a different lunch?”
       (9) “New Highway is complete,” Box Elder Newspaper, Sept, 9, 1924, p. 1.
      (10) “Road to be Free of Snow,” Box Elder Newspaper, Oct. 14, 1924, p. 1.

      (11) Kristen Rogers, “Some Snow!! The Unforgettable Winter of 1948-49,” Utah State History,
      (12) Arave, “What if Cache Valley Settlers had eaten a different lunch?”
      (13)  Lynn Arave, “Sardine Canyon has fishy history -- 3 times over,” Deseret News, Sept. 5, 1991, C1.
      (14) E-mail correspondence fromf on Feb. 12, 2011.
      (15) “View in Sardine Canyon, Utah, about 1910,” Utah State University on-line library,
     (16) E-mail correspondence with Utah State University’s Department of Ecology Center, Watershed Sciences, Oct. 6-7, 2011.
     (17) U.S. Geological Survey, “Mount Pisgah, Utah.
     (18) Arave, “Something Fishy about those Sardine Canyons,” Deseret News, Nov. 29, 1983, C1.

     (19) Brainy

     (20) U.S. Geological Survey, “Ogden, Utah” quadrangle map
     (21) John W. Van Cott, Utah Place Names, 332.
     (22) U.S. Geological Survey, “Snow Basin, Utah” quadrangle map,

 (From "Treasures of Pioneer History” book by Kate Carter, Daughters of Utah Pioneers):

 "The Sardine road took off eastward from the Summit over the present road to Paradise. At a short distance on this road, the Sardine road took off to the north and wound around the basin rim to a cold spring of water at the bottom of the hollow. This spring became a favorite camping place for all those who used this road to and from Cache Valley by way of Brigham City. The road followed the little valley to the north and then eastward into Cache valley where Wellsville (Maughan's Fort) was located in September 1856. Later on, water from the spring was used to irrigate the crops in the little valley and was a water hole for the livestock which grazed in this area. Robert Baxter, an old freighter from Wellsville and later Hyrum, who hauled freight between Corinne and Montana and between Cache Valley and Brigham City and Corinne during the early seventies, states in his diary that the heavy loads were hauled over the pass west of Petersboro into the Great Salt Lake Valley since Sardine Canyon was too steep in places. Mr. Baxter is the authority for the statement that the Sardine road was named Sardine because the spring was the resting place for the travelers and freighters. In those days canned salmon and sardines were the main canned foods. Sardine and salmon cans were always scattered around this camping place. There was not much regard for sanitation so the name Sardine has stuck to the Sardine Canyon to the present day." 

-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: