The Golden Chain


The heat rose in dizzy waves before us as we sped along the freeway. “It must be very hot outside,” I thought as the air conditioner hissed away in our station wagon. I had heard how difficult it was for the first settlers to even enter the St. George Valley in southern Utah, let alone survive there. This was almost impossible to comprehend as we drove easily along through rocky volcanic barriers on a ribbon of asphalt.

We rapidly ascended into the Virgin River Valley, and the little community of St. George stood out against the scorching sandstone cliffs.

A barrage of bright signs beckoned us with “Enter,” “Vacancy,” “Color TV,” “Sauna,” “Pool.” When I rolled down the window, a blast of hot air reminded me that I would soon be refreshed by a swim in the blue waters of a motel pool.

Sarah Louisa Chamberlain held her skirts high as she waded into the swollen river, clutching the cup of yeast she had borrowed from a neighbor. She was a spunky little girl with dark eyes and a dogged fortitude, but momentary panic seized her as the chilly flood waters nearly swept her down. It had been raining for weeks, and the Virgin River was awash with muddy water. Across from her, but downstream, she saw part of the embankment break away, then melt quickly into the rushing waters. Grimly wading on, she clamored up the river bank to the small home she and her father had built when the new settlement was being founded. The flood and rain waters had already begun to dissolve the adobe foundation. She knew then that they must quickly move to higher ground.

Solomon Chamberlain lay ill, crippled by rheumatism. He was an old man, tired and worn from his struggle in the torrid desert. And now the endless rain! His strength was gone.

Stuffing a few possessions into a small trunk, Sarah pled with her father to get up and ready himself to leave. He begged to be left alone. Resolutely she pushed him out into the storm, dragging with her the little trunk and some loose bedding. A nearby tree seemed their only refuge. Rising waters and her reluctant father convinced her of this. By boosting and pushing she urged the ailing man up into the tree. She followed, clutching their few belongings.

Shivering with fear and cold, the young girl and her father clung to the tree’s sturdy limbs, and so sat out that January night in 1862, the year of the great storm in southern Utah.

Rescue came early the following morning, but my great-great-great-grandfather Solomon Chamberlain died a few days later. My great-great-grandmother Sarah Louisa took her meager belongings and went to work for settlers’ families. She later became the second wife of Lemuel Hardison Redd, and they had 14 children.

The heat from the hot pavement penetrated the soles of my gym shoes as we walked the few blocks from our motel to the old St. George Tabernacle.

Hewn from native red-orange sandstone, the thick rock walls showed countless small markings from the pioneer stonecutters’ hand-held instruments. Directly under the stately spire was a tablet with the inscription “Commenced 1863—Completed 1871.”

While my little sisters played under a shade tree on the Tabernacle grounds, I walked around the building for closer inspection. The doors were locked, but by shading my eyes, I could just make out through the old window panes the beautiful circular wooden staircases.

When Brigham Young looked into the faces of the St. George settlers, he knew they had been pushed almost beyond endurance. The great storm had left them discouraged. The rivers seemed impossible to harness, and dams and canals had washed out time and time again. In turn, crops had failed. Desert malaria sapped the strength from many. And then there was the intense heat, with inadequate shade or shelters to provide relief. The settlers were worn and despondent. Hope was failing. Then Brigham Young did something incredible! He requested that these same people commence building a magnificent tabernacle.

Miles Romney pored carefully over the building plans. For an architect to design a fine structure and then build it with only a small outlay of cash and a minimum of skilled labor was going to be a challenge. But the “Dixie” settlers were willing, and that gave him heart. Of course local materials must be used whenever possible. That meant red sandstone and plenty of it. The necessary lumber needed to be hauled by wagon trains from Pine Valley some distance away. Since there were no local sawmills, the trusses that would span the width of the building were to be hewn by hand with broad axes.

The graceful, free-standing circular staircases would enrich the interior, and on these he would use his own woodworking skills. He hoped to contribute to a setting where the dedicated southern Utah settlers could worship their Lord.

Under the direction of my great-great-great-grandfather Miles Romney, the St. George Tabernacle was built! It stood like a jewel in the desert.

The building project provided support for many of the struggling pioneer men and their families. They were paid, not with cash, but with eggs, butter, corn, chickens, etc., commodities that were more important to a people whose very necessities had been waning. While working on their tabernacle, they learned skills and trades that they would later use to build their desert community.

The St. George Tabernacle stands today as a monument to the courage, endurance, and faith of the committed southern Utah pioneers.

My mother pointed out some of the old buildings surrounding the tabernacle and told us that these were at one time part of the old Dixie Academy—later Dixie Junior College. The new Dixie College campus is now located clear across town.

As I peered into one of the old vacant classrooms where biology had once been taught, I could hear my young sister Terressa protesting crossly, “I’m tired and bored, and I don’t want to see any more old buildings.”

Dr. D. Elden Beck stood confidently before his biology students. In one hand he held a live rattlesnake.

He felt fortunate in having a job—a good teaching position—at a time when the effects of a devastating depression were being felt across the country. He was aware that once again the people of the small southern Utah communities were responding as they usually did during hard times, with determination and stubborn endurance.

Dixie Junior College, the pride of St. George, kept her doors open even though some students, to stay in school, paid their tuition with farm produce.

Dr. Beck was not a native of southern Utah, and neither he nor his family had been involved with the seemingly endless task of subduing the arid desert. Perhaps that was why he was able to see the country not merely as a place to overcome and endure but a place of breathtaking beauty. Like the natural coral, turquoise, and silver of a precious piece of Indian jewelry, the vermilion sands and blue sky dazzled him. A part of the world that had resisted discovery now seemed to him an endless frontier for study, an endless source of wonder.

The snake squirmed and struggled. Dr. Beck prepared to demonstrate to his students how a rattler is “milked” of its lethal venom, an act he had performed many times before. As he attempted to move the snake from one hand to the other, it suddenly lurched and slashed its fangs across his thumb. He reeled back in pain and instantly released the snake. It fell to the floor with a dull thud and lay still. The class was stunned. The rattlesnake slowly revived, and by gracefully throwing loops of its body forward, it began to move across the classroom floor. With shouts and screams, students clamored upon desks and chairs. To everyone’s amazement, it was Dr. Beck who tried to calm them. He gently captured the snake and stashed it away in the classroom snake pit. Then he firmly dismissed the students from the room. Supporting his swelling hand, he walked the two blocks from the college to the St. George Hospital only to find no rattlesnake serum was available.

Dr. McGregor eventually located serum in Cedar City, some 50 miles away, and it was agreed that someone would try to deliver it by car as soon as possible.

Hours passed, and the pain and swelling not only increased but began slowly moving up his arm closer to the elbow. Florence, Elden’s wife, kept a nervous vigil.

Late that night an old bootlegger arrived with the serum. Then Dr. McGregor faced the dilemma of how much of the serum to inject, for the vial was very large. After much concern, the doctor inserted the needle in Elden Beck’s arm and administered it all.

My grandfather, Dr. D. Elden Beck, lived!

The following year Dr. McGregor delivered, in the St. George hospital, the Beck’s baby daughter, Janet Ruth, my mother.

A morning of tennis and sight-seeing left me weary. I lay by the pool, and the perspiration trickled freely. It was then I realized I was more than just a sun-warmed visitor. I felt at home here, as if somehow I belonged. My passing feet had disturbed shadows in the sand—reminders of a life-style long since gone. And yet it was as if I had discovered a golden chain in those sands—a chain of people linked together by time and love—my family.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Mark Robison