Thursday, March 19, 2015

1920: When Brigham City was threatened by a ‘Devil’ and saved by a miracle

                                             The historic Brigham City Tabernacle.

“Brigham City threatened by flood from reservoir which may give way at any moment” was a May 10, 1920 headline in the Standard-Examiner.
However, this long story didn’t say exactly where this dam was, or even what its name was. That’s when it can be very helpful to often rely on more than one source of information.
A personal history account on, written by the dam’s builder, A.K. Chatfield, revealed that the reservoir’s name was the “Devils Gate Dam” at Devil’s Gate Valley in the mountains south of Mantua (not to be confused with Weber Canyon’s separate Devil’s Gate). This history also corrects the Standard’s misspelling of Chatfield’s name, from “Chadfield,” though some of its year dates cited are obviously incorrect.
The history refers to the winter of 1918 as when the “catastrophe” happened, although it has to be the winter of 1919-1920 based on both the Standard article and weather records.

                The area just southwest of Devil's Gate, Box Elder County.         Photo by Liz Hazen

Back to the flood tale details: Heavy spring storms had caved in a 300-foot long tunnel that was used to operate the gates of the 20-foot-deep dam. (A scarcity of metal piping during World War I had meant such pipes were not available when the dam was created.)
Due to storms and snowmelt, the dam’s water level had raised three feet in 24 hours and was now within three inches from the top of the 90-foot-high earthen dam, built on 90 acres a few years earlier at a cost of about $65,000. The dam drained into Box Elder Creek and was just below a portion of today’s dirt road to Willard Basin.
An army of 50 men were working at the dam to try and release some of the water along an old roadway. But, their efforts had little effect.
“Should the water break loose from the dam the residents of North Brigham City would be in danger of being completely washed out …” the Standard story stated.

                    The rugged road to Willard Basin, south of Devil's Gate.

According to Chatfield’s history, he “ultimately attested and expressed a petition to the Almighty to provide any and all means necessary to avoid the impending catastrophe.”
Soon after, the water level was dropping quickly for no apparent reason. Later, Chatfield heard a bathtub-like draining sound and it was soon discovered that all the water –1,600-acre feet – had drained underground in automobile size holes.
Chatfield maintained that none of the reservoir’s water was ever found above the surface and that this was simply a divine miracle of intervention.
In a May 10, 1922 article in the Box Elder News, Chatfield referred to the dam as unfinished. He tried to calm public fears refilling the dam would create, but apparently it was never refilled or finished.
Additional source:
In other historical notes:
-“Will the City be submerged?” was a March 24, 1899 headline in the Standard.
Fears in Weber County were running high that spring that a rapid snowmelt from the heavy winter would flood fields particularly in Marriott, Slaterville and Plain City and also impede travel, as had previously happened in 1866.
History didn’t quite repeat itself and there wasn’t as much flooding in 1899, as in 1866. Still, 1899 was the worst recorded winter in the 19th Century for the Top of Utah.
-“A cemetery on the bench land” was a July 26, 1917 headline in the Standard. This editorial advocated that Ogden City should establish a new cemetery on the “bench land to the north of Ogden Canyon.” It stated that the gravel made for perfect drainage. Of course, this never happened.

(-Originally published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner by Lynn Arave on-line and in print on March 19-20, 2015.) 

-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:  

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