April 5, 1876: The Arsenal Hill Explosion

by Jeffrey Tucker, Church History Library
8 June 2021

Jeffrey Tucker shares background on the Church History Library’s collections related to Arsenal Hill, a prominent landmark in Salt Lake City, and the disaster that occurred there.

On the north end of Salt Lake City is Capitol Hill, the eponymous home of the Utah State Capitol.1 That hasn’t always been the hill’s name; when pioneers first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they dubbed it Prospect Hill,2 and later, with the construction of an arsenal atop the hill, it was renamed (aptly, if unimaginatively) Arsenal Hill.The name remained even after the arsenal burned down in 1870,4 perhaps because four additional storage magazines—large sheds for explosives, the precursor to modern-day ammunition bunkers—had been built on the northeast side of the hill near City Creek Canyon. In a way, the entire hill had become an arsenal.

City leaders chose the magazines’ location to create a buffer zone between the magazines and downtown Salt Lake City. It was an understandable choice, given that the bunkers held a combined 45 tons of explosive materials. While it seemed like a good idea in theory, the bunkers’ elevated location would ultimately have disastrous consequences when, at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 5, 1876, they exploded.5

The four magazines detonated one by one over a 47-second span, shaking the ground and showering Salt Lake City in what was later estimated to be 500 tons of rocky debris. Terrified horses galloped wild in the streets, overturning carriages and wagons. People running errands dropped to their knees and prayed with total strangers, thinking it was the end of the world. Even after all the rock had fallen, smoke, dirt, and charred sagebrush filled the air.

Countless windows throughout the city were shattered; the Salt Lake Tabernacle alone lost nearly 1,000 individual panes. The coming weekend was general conference, and workers immediately sprang to work covering the gaping holes with cloth to keep out an early spring chill. (General conference continued on schedule, though Brigham Young would catch a bad cold from the draft and sit out several conference sessions.)

As serious a problem as Salt Lake’s broken windows were—and it was a problem, overwhelming local glaziers and causing an inflationary scramble for any available building materials to seal up homes against the weather—it paled in comparison to the blast’s other catastrophic effects. Due to the magazines’ high position on Arsenal Hill, the explosion hurled debris farther and more forcefully than expected, similar to a military airburst munition. For example, a young boy playing near the hill was tragically killed by a flying rock, but so was a pregnant woman standing fully three-quarters of a mile away. At Shingleton’s Saloon, located over a mile from the blast, two terrified men watched a 115-pound boulder slam through the roof and ground floor before burying itself 20 inches deep in the basement foundation. A 50-pound rock crashed through the roof of Feramorz Little’s mansion and penetrated three floors below before stopping.Two large rocks broke through the walls of Heber P. Kimball’s house, with one landing in an unoccupied bed and another smashing the table where Kimball and his family had just finished eating.7

Accompanying the airborne debris was an enormous shock wave—hence the shattered windows—that was felt up to 20 miles from the explosion.8 Near the explosion’s source, the results were disastrous. The Empire Mill, a flour mill in City Creek Canyon owned by Brigham Young, was lifted completely off its foundation before slamming back to earth and partially collapsing on a worker loading a wagon; glass shards from the mill’s windows were found embedded an inch deep in surrounding trees. Several boys playing at the Deseret Baseball Grounds a quarter mile from Arsenal Hill were instantly knocked unconscious, dropping limp where they stood. Jennie Harrison, the wife of prominent architect E. L. T. Harrison, was sitting at home in Salt Lake City’s East Bench neighborhood with her baby when the shock wave hit; it blew her out of her chair and covered her and her baby in broken glass, causing multiple lacerations.

These are, of course, only a few examples of the damage done to life and property. Surveying the aftermath of the explosion, a Civil War veteran living in Salt Lake City remarked that “Fredericksburg [Virginia] after being bombarded for a month did not show so much sign of wreck as Salt Lake did.”9

Immediately, residents of Salt Lake City demanded to know the explosion’s cause. A search party sent up Arsenal Hill found the remains of two teenage boys, Frank Hill and Charles Richardson, who had been grazing cattle near the magazines. Richardson had brought along his gun, either to shoot at the hill’s resident wild chickens or at the bunker doors, which were popular targets for potshots. (Prior to the explosion, a DuPont employee responsible for one of the magazines had found its iron-plated doors pockmarked with bullets; he tried warning city officials about the shooters’ reckless behavior, but to no avail.) As best as anyone could tell, burning wadding from the gunshots had ignited loose gunpowder scattered on the ground around the bunkers, causing a massive chain reaction.

The Arsenal Hill explosion was reported internationally. At a time when gunpowder magazines were common, many cities had to reconsider their safety measures for explosives storage. In Salt Lake City, it was announced that the magazines would be rebuilt farther north, close to an area known as Warm Springs, to distance them even more from downtown. Residents near the new site hastily filed a petition to stop the magazines’ construction; one can imagine their terror, after living through the disaster, at discovering that new magazines would stand in their backyard. However, their suit was unsuccessful, and the bunkers were built. Fortunately, an accident of Arsenal Hill’s magnitude never happened again.

Church History Library Collections about Arsenal Hill

Due to its prominent position overlooking Salt Lake City, Arsenal Hill was a popular destination for photographers throughout the 1800s. The Church History Library has dozens of archival photographs facing both toward and away from Arsenal Hill, which often provide good views of Church landmarks such as the Salt Lake Temple. We hold documents related to Arsenal Hill as well. Here are some representative collections:

Specifications to build an arsenal, 1853 March 16 (CR 1234 1)

A list of needed construction materials created by Truman Angell, who by this time had become the official architect of the Church.

Subscription list, 1853 (CR 1234 1)

In 1853 the territorial legislature approved $3,000 to build the arsenal. However, it wasn’t enough to cover all construction costs. Acting as trustee, Brigham Young enlisted the help of Salt Lake City citizens, who pledged money to finish the project. This is a list of those pledges and the people who made them.

R. W. Wolcott’s papers with Brigham Young, Trustee, 1854–1856 (CR 1234 1)

An “article of agreement” listing contracts for work to be done on the arsenal, such as carpentry and plastering walls.

Salt Lake City from top of Tabernacle, 9 (PH 8004)

This photo, taken by an intrepid photographer who climbed to the apex of the Salt Lake Tabernacle’s roof, clearly shows the arsenal as it looked before it burned down. Behind the arsenal, the old city wall is visible. (1867)

Salt Lake City, from Arsenal, looking southeast (PH 1768)

This stereogram, designed to be viewed with a stereoscope to create a 3-D image, provides a view of the Lion House, Beehive House, and Salt Lake Theater. (Circa 1870)

Salt Lake City, southwest from Arsenal Hill (PH 1767)

Another stereoscopic image, this time facing southwest from Arsenal Hill. The Salt Lake Tabernacle and the Endowment House appear behind a group of children. (Circa 1870)

View of Salt Lake City from Arsenal Hill (PH 3411)

A photograph looking south from Arsenal Hill down Main Street, showing the Tithing Office and Heber C. Kimball’s house. (Circa 1872)

Salt Lake City photographs [#9] (PH 9228)

A south-facing photo from higher up on Arsenal Hill; this one shows the foundation of the Salt Lake Temple under construction. (Circa 1870–1875)

East side Salt Lake City (PH 5422)

Taken a few years after the Arsenal Hill explosion, this photo is a panoramic shot of Brigham Young’s homes and farms located east of Arsenal Hill. (Circa 1880)

Central part Salt Lake City, looking south (PH 4348)

This photo shows the Salt Lake Temple beginning to rise from the valley floor. The Salt Lake Tabernacle and the spire of the Assembly Hall also appear. (1881)

Salt Lake City from Arsenal Hill looking south (PH 500)

In this photo, the Salt Lake Temple exterior nears completion. Notice, too, how the rest of Salt Lake City has similarly grown up. (1889)

Hiram B. Clawson letter to Wilford Woodruff (MS 1352)

As previously noted, the arsenal’s construction was funded—at least in part—by members of the community. Here, Hiram Clawson asks Wilford Woodruff to make good on a pledge of $150 that he had made (and which he had not yet delivered). For perspective, $150 when this letter was written would be worth approximately $2,860 in 2021. (1868)

Joseph F. Smith Papers: 1875 September 1–1875 November 3, 1876 April 5 (MS 1325)

Joseph F. Smith wrote a summary of the Arsenal Hill explosion in his personal journal, linked here. He gives a surprisingly detailed account of that fateful day, including what kinds of explosives were housed in the magazine. Regarding his own losses due to the accident, he writes: “Several of my windows were broken or smash[ed] to pieces, three doors were blown from their fastenings, the others luckily being open were saved. The plaster was knocked down from the ceiling of one room and some of the walls were cracked. The damage being comparatively trifling.” (1876)

Top image: The Salt Lake City arsenal, as seen from Main Street looking north in 1868 (PH 2286).