NHT Auto Tour Guides

Nevada

brochure NHT Auto Tour Guides - Nevada

The National Historic Trail route across Nevada. Published by the National Park Service (NPS).

National Trails Intermountain Region National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Across Nevada California National Historic Trail Pony Express National Historic Trail By the time they reached the Humboldt Sink, or Forty-mile Desert, many emigrant pioneers had little food, exhausted livestock, and broken wagons. [Cover photo] Forty-mile Desert NATIONAL HISTORIC TRAILS AUTO TOUR ROUTE INTERPRETIVE GUIDE Across Nevada on the Humboldt Route and The Central Route of the Pony Express Prepared by National Park Service National Trails Intermountain Region www.nps.gov/cali www.nps.gov/oreg www.nps.gov/poex www.nps.gov/mopi NATIONAL PARK SERVICE U. S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR April 2012 Table of Contents ‘MOST CORDIALLY I HATE YOU’: THE HUMBOLDT RIVER •••••••••••••••••••• 2 THE GREAT BASIN •••••••••••••••••••• 4 SEEKING MARY’S RIVER •••••••••••••••••••• 5 APPROACHING THE HUMBOLDT • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 11 PRELUDE TO MURDER • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 15 THE HUMBOLDT EXPERIENCE • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 18 WEST TO STONY POINT • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 21 THE POLITICS OF HUNGER • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 24 A FLASH OF THE BLADE • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 27 ‘HEARTILY TIRED OF THE JOURNEY’ • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 29 THE HUMBOLDT SINK • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 33 THE Forty-mile DESERT; or, HOW TO KILL AN OX • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 35 INTO THE SIERRA NEVADA • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 42 THE PONY BOYS • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 44 CHANGE IN THE GREAT BASIN • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 51 Sites & Points of Interest: Setting Out • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 53 Navigating the California Trail Across Nevada • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 54 Tips for Trailing Across Nevada • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 56 AUTO TOUR SEGMENT A: WEST WENDOVER AND JACKPOT, NEVADA, TO CALIFORNIA (California Trail) • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 58 AUTO TOUR SEGMENT B: BLACK ROCK DESERT, RYE PATCH RESERVOIR TO GERLACH, NEVADA (Applegate and Nobles Trails) • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 77 AUTO TOUR SEGMENT C: WEST WENDOVER, NEVADA TO CALIFORNIA BORDER (Pony Express Trail and Carson and Walker River-Sonora Routes of the California Trail) FOR MORE INFORMATION: • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 86 • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • 102 Introduction M any of the pioneer trails and other historic routes that are important in our nation’s past have been designated by Congress as national historic trails. While most of those old wagon roads and routes are not open to motorized traffic, visitors can drive along modern highways that either retrace the original route or closely parallel it. Those modern roads are designated as Auto Tour Routes. They are marked with “National Historic Trails” highway signs to help today’s travelers follow the routes used by the pioneers who helped to open the American West. This interpretive publication guides visitors along the Auto Tour Routes for the California and Pony Express national historic trails as they cross the state of Nevada from east to west. Site-by-site driving directions are included, and an overview map is located inside the back cover. To make the tour more meaningful, this guide also provides a historical overview of the two trails, shares the thoughts and experiences of emigrants who trekked to California, and discusses how the westward expansion impacted native peoples of what is now Nevada. Individual Auto Tour Route interpretive guides such as this one are in preparation for each state that the Oregon, California, Mormon Pioneer, and Pony Express trails pass through. In addition, individual National Park Service brochures for the four national historic trails are available at many trail-related venues and can be requested from the National Trails Intermountain Region Salt Lake City Branch Office at ntsl_interpretation@nps.gov. Each brochure includes a color map of the entire trail and provides an overview of information about each of the trails. Additional information can also can be found on individual trail websites. For links see page 102. Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada ‘MOST CORDIALLY I HATE YOU’: THE HUMBOLDT RIVER T he four great rivers that led covered wagon pioneers into the far West each had a personality all its own. There was the gritty prairie Platte, cantankerous but dependable; the brooding, basalt-shrouded Snake, menacing as a stranger with a hostile stare; and the broad-shouldered Columbia, the Big River of the West, confident and athletic, striding purposefully toward the Pacific Ocean. But the Humboldt. The Humboldt was sullen and spiteful, a mocking mean joker that lured emigrants deep into the desert, swindled them of all they possessed, and left them abandoned at last on a dead lake floor of silt and salt. Along its twisting course across today’s Nevada, the foul Humboldt River drove many California-bound travelers to despair and at least two to bitter poetry. Meanest and muddiest, filthiest Stream, most cordially I hate you —Dr. Horace Belknap, 1850 Farewell to thee! Thou Stinking turbid stream Amid whose waters frogs and Serpents gleam Thou putred mass of filth farewell forever For here again I’ll tempt my fortunes never —Adison Crain, 1852 The Humboldt was, as Western historian Dale Morgan wrote, “the most necessary river of America, and the most hated.” Hated for its deep, reedy sloughs, which trapped and drowned thirstcrazed livestock. Hated for the stinking broth of mud and decay that dawdled down its meandering channels. Hated for the buzzing, biting insects and raucous coyotes that mobbed its banks. Hated for its willow thickets that concealed expert archers with poison-tipped arrows. 2 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada Yet necessary, because the Humboldt River ambled in a curving diagonal from northeastern Nevada toward the gold fields of northern California. Necessary because it was a long, reliable (if repulsive) drink of water across some 300 miles of desert. Necessary because it enabled thousands of Americans to go west and help build a nation stretching from coast to coast. Necessary, too, for the survival and independence of the native peoples who lived, hunted, and harvested along its length. The Humboldt and its marshes, meadows, and lake were beautiful, not baleful, to the Shoshones and Paiutes. These waters provided them drink, a bounty of waterfowl, fish, and food plants to feed their families, and willows to make baskets and dwellings. For gold seekers and emigrating settlers, the Humboldt River was a necessary evil. For the native people of the Great Basin, it was lifegiver and home. Oxbows along the Humboldt River. 3 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada THE GREAT BASIN M ountain men who probed the country between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada recognized the region to be a vast, bowl-like depression—a basin. Within that Great Basin rise hundreds of north/south-trending mountain ranges separated by broad valleys of sagebrush, greasewood, and saltbush. “A barren country,” observed the mountain men, “a Country of Starvation.” Explorers had more bad news for pioneers seeking a wagon route to California: the legendary Buenaventura River was just that—a legend. Early mapmakers had conjectured that the unknown interior would be drained by a great river, the “Buenaventura,” flowing west out of the Rocky Mountains and emptying into San Francisco Bay. But in fact the streams of the Great Basin are landlocked. Not one has an outlet to the sea. Instead, they all drain to the basin floor and pool into lakes and marshes or gradually dwindle and finally expire in mudflats known as sinks. Then too, most of the Basin’s streams run north or south, parallel to the mountain ranges and not in the direction emigrants wished to go. The only river to thread its way west among the ramparts of Nevada is the maligned Humboldt, also known to 19th-century trappers and emigrants as the Unknown, the Swampy, the Barren, Paul’s, and Ogden’s River. It was best known as Mary’s River until 1845, when explorer John C. Frémont renamed it after the distinguished German geographer Alexander von Humboldt. Whatever its name, this watercourse is not the lusty Buenaventura of mapmakers’ imaginations, for it is basinbound and dies a desert death miles short of the Sierra Nevada. Humboldt River Valley, by Daniel Jenks, ca. 1859. Courtesy Library of Congress. 4 But it is wet and it is westerly, and so in 1841 the first California-bound overland emigrants followed the Humboldt River across the Great Basin. Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada SEEKING MARY’S RIVER B arely beyond the Great Salt Lake Desert, about two-thirds of the way from Missouri to California, the emigrants of the BidwellBartleson Party found themselves undeniably, agonizingly, belly deep in trouble. These 32 men, one woman, and a child were lost in the desert near today’s Utah/Nevada border. It was mid-September 1841. Their provisions were gone, their draft animals failing, their summer spinning alarmingly toward autumn, and some 500 miles yet lay between them and their destination. As the first coveredwagon pioneers to strike out overland for California, they had no wagon trail to follow and no useful map of the route. Mountain man Thomas Fitzpatrick had guided them safely from the “Emigrant Party On The Road To Missouri River to Soda Springs California” Courtesy Library of Congress. in present-day Idaho, but he was not going on to California. The emigrants would have to continue west on their own, and best of luck to them, for few white men had yet explored the country between the Great Salt Lake and the Sierra Nevada. Fitzpatrick and the trappers from nearby Fort Hall could offer only hearsay about the region. They knew nothing of any Buenaventura River, which the emigrants had hoped to float from the Great Salt Lake to California. The mountaineers had heard of Mary’s River, and they offered some vague and ominous advice on how to find its headwaters: first go south, then turn west, and turning in the wrong place would mean extreme peril and likely death in the wilderness. 5 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada One month and 200 miles after bidding farewell to Fitzpatrick at Soda Springs, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party was in desperate straits. Ben and Nancy Kelsey, parents of a baby daughter, left their two wagons on the desert near present-day Lucin, Utah, on September 12 because their oxen were too weak to pull. They continued on with pack mules, driving their cattle along as beef-on-the-hoof. Four days later, near today’s I-80 at Oasis, Nevada, the other emigrants prepared to abandon their wagons, as well. As the men crafted packsaddles for their mules, horses, and oxen, a joyful old Indian man, likely Goshute, walked into camp and told by gestures that he had dreamt of their coming. Charmed, the emigrants made him gifts of items they could not pack, and Nicholas Dawson later recounted that the men “helped” the laughing stranger to put on unfamiliar articles of clothing “hind-part fore [and] upside down until they could get no more on.” Taking no offense in the horseplay, the elderly man accepted each precious gift with a broad smile and a lengthy prayer of thanks. It was a happy meeting of mutual goodwill that, sadly, would not set the tone for intercultural relations in the years to come. We signed to our aged host that the wagons and everything abandoned were his, all his, and left him circumscribing the heavens—the happiest, richest, most religious man I ever saw. —Nicholas “Cheyenne” Dawson, 1841 Now the emigrants urgently needed to make their way to the mysterious Mary’s River and over the Sierra to California. The first task at hand was to load necessities onto the livestock. John Bidwell claimed that none of the men had so much as witnessed a horse being packed (experienced packers know that balancing and securing an awkward bundle onto the back of an animal is harder than it looks). Cinching a pack to an ox is especially difficult because, John Bidwell became one of unlike horses and mules, oxen lack wellCalifornia’s leading citizens. Courtesy Utah State Historical Society. defined withers, the high, bony prominence between the shoulder blades that keeps a 6 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada saddle from slipping to one side. Predictably, the men’s first efforts resulted in a bucking, bawling, braying brawl. It was but a few minutes before the packs began to turn; horses became scared, mules kicked, oxen jumped and bellowed, and articles were scattered in all directions. —John Bidwell, 1841 Dawson noted grimly: “There was one thing we had no trouble to pack—our provisions.” That is because they had none. The party had finished off the last of their supplies before reaching the Great Salt Lake several weeks earlier. Since game was scarce in this country, the emigrants had begun butchering their weakest oxen. Now about 20 cattle remained. When those were gone, they would have to eat the mules and horses. As the group resumed their westward march, those emigrants who packed their belongings on the backs of plodding oxen fell to the rear of the caravan while those with horses and mules rode miles ahead, too fast for the cattle to keep up. This inequity soon would fuel resentments and eventually split the party, but for now they all focused on moving west, deeper into the Great Basin, toward the elusive Mary’s River. Range after range of mountains forced the migrating band to stairstep anxiously south, west, and south again, until the emigrants found themselves in a dry camp at the foot of the Ruby Mountains in today’s eastern Nevada. They gazed worriedly into the wasteland. Trappers from Fort Hall had warned of a dangerous desert to the south. Could Pioneer wagon road through the dry uplands between the Humboldt Range and the Ruby Mountains. 7 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada this be it? Had they gone too far? In desperation, the party turned abruptly west, pushed over the Rubys at Harrison Pass, and then followed a creek northward to regain their course. On September 24, eight days after abandoning their wagons in the desert, the emigrants struck a larger stream. Although they did not know it, this was the south fork of Mary’s River, of the soon-to-be Humboldt. A week later the party emerged from the mouth of a twisting canyon about eight miles west of present-day Elko, where their stream emptied into a west-flowing channel. It was, at last, their necessary river and the future route of the California Trail. Day by day the river led the travelers deeper into the barrens. Grass and game were in short supply. The worn-out oxen, those walking commissaries, were growing too weak to carry their packs and too skinny to make a good meal. It was early October, the Sierra lay ahead, the emigrants were hungry, and Mary’s River itself appeared to be drying up. The Humboldt River drains into the desert south of Lovelock, Nevada. 8 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada The country on both sides appeared a desert. The river seemed to be dwindling instead of receiving big tributaries to swell its flood and guide us onto the plains of California and on to the Pacific, where our suffering and troubles would end, and where we could eat, eat, eat—and something that had some fat in it. —Nicholas “Cheyenne” Dawson, 1841 Those of the party who rode horses and mules grew increasingly frustrated with the doddering ox-drovers. They wanted, needed, to move quickly and reach California before starvation or winter put an end to them, but the famished, lumbering oxen had only two speeds: slow and stop. Neither love nor loyalty bound the band together; it was a simple matter of economics. The ox-drovers owned the food. Their oxen were the food. In desperation, eight men of the party, led by wagon master John Bartleson himself, commandeered the lion’s share of a fresh-butchered ox, mounted up, and made tracks for the mountains, leaving their comrades standing aghast in the desert dust. The 26 emigrants left behind gathered up their remaining cattle and plodded onward. Helpful Paiute Indian guides piloted the group on down Mary’s River, through the marshy Big Meadows at today’s Lovelock, and past the Humboldt Sink, where the stream surrenders at last to the sun. The travelers next made passage across the brutal Forty-mile Desert and then turned south toward the west fork of the Walker River. On October 15, ten days after splitting up with Bartleson’s riders, the ox-party made camp at the foot of the Sierra in the vicinity of present-day Wellington, Nevada. Their Paiute guides, unable or unwilling to lead them into the Sierra, slipped into the night, leaving the emigrants to determine their own fate. Several of the emigrant men were preparing to scale nearby heights, hoping to spot a likely passage through the mountains, when Captain Bartleson rode up and sheepishly asked for beef. His outriders had not found a way through the Sierra Nevada and had been living for days on pine nuts bartered from local Indians. Meat was given. Three oxen remained. The next morning the reunited company began climbing into the mountains, not knowing what lay ahead. On October 18th the 9 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada emigrants—down to their last two oxen and carrying most of their remaining belongings on their own backs—stood deep among the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Despite the odds against them, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party had reached California. They had yet to reach safety. A frightful prospect opened before us—naked mountains whose summits still retained the snows perhaps of a thousand years. —John Bidwell, 1841 Ahead lay the steepest, most dangerous terrain of the trip. The Bidwell-Bartleson Party would spend two desperate weeks picking a way down the rugged west slope of the Sierra before staggering, halfstarved, into bountiful San Joaquin Valley. “Summit of the Sierras,” by Thomas Moran. Courtesy Library of Congress 10 These emigrants had packed a third of the way to California, arriving on horseback and on foot. Over the next few years, other pioneers would muscle their desiccated, rattling wagons all the way down Mary’s River and over Truckee Pass into California’s Central Valley. A complete wagon trail stretched from Missouri to California by 1844, three years after the first wagon party set off for California. Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada APPROACHING THE HUMBOLDT T he Bidwell-Bartleson Party’s meandering route from Soda Springs to the Humboldt River was not one that later emigrants cared to follow. Two other approaches to the river soon developed. Most California-bound traffic approached the Humboldt River using a wagon trail blazed in 1843 by mountain man Joseph Rutherford Walker. Walker’s route went directly southwest from Fort Hall, Idaho, to the City of Rocks, near today’s Idaho/Utah border. Later cutoffs across Idaho and up from Salt Lake City merged with Walker’s trail near City of Rocks. Wagon traffic passed among the fantastic granite monoliths of the “silent city” of stone, then crested Granite Pass at the rim of the Great Basin. There, travelers paused to take in an expansive view of the landscape ahead. A prospect bounded only by the power of vision, now burst upon the sight … a vast amphitheater, of mountains, rising in successive chains behind each other, the most distant, overlooking the whole, and appearing like the faint glimpse of a cloud, with pointed summits stretching along the horizon. —Franklin Langworthy at Granite Pass, 1850 City of Rocks National Reserve. 11 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada Still, California called. Emigrants locked their wagon wheels with chains, took a deep breath, and plunged over the divide into the Great Basin. The surviving wagons skidded to a halt at Goose Creek, two miles and some 2,000 vertical feet below the pass. Sometimes the descent destroyed not only wagons but also bonds of companionship and love that were already frayed from the friction of the journey. Although breakups happened all along the trail, they became routine as wagon parties struggled across the Great Basin. Sutton and his wife drove two yoke of oxen. They quarreled, cut the wagon box in two and made two carts. Each took one yoke of oxen and had a divorce right there without judge or jury, or even a lawyer. —George J. Kellog at the descent to Goose Creek, 1849 From there, the main California Trail enters the northeastern corner of Nevada, crosses wind-lashed Thousand Springs Valley, and continues down rugged Bishop Creek Canyon. Walker’s original route meets the Humboldt River west of Wells, Nevada. A popular alternate, developed in 1845, bypasses Bishop Creek and goes directly to Humboldt Wells. Humboldt Wells, at today’s town of Wells, was a milestone on the emigrant road to California and is widely regarded as the headwaters of the Humboldt River. The “wells” were bell-shaped springs, about six feet in diameter at the mouth and widening toward the bottom. Most were 10 to 20 feet deep, although one curious traveler plumbed a well with 120 feet of rope and chain and claimed that he never struck bottom. These waterholes, now altered by agricultural activities, once dimpled the valley floor. Humboldt Wells was a pleasant spot where emigrants (and generations of Western Shoshones) liked to camp. Sometimes a thirsty ox would slip headfirst into a well and drown like a bug in a jug. Welcome, pilgrims, to the Humboldt River. From Wells the trail continues along the north side of the river, south of modern-day I-80, past present-day Elko to Carlin Canyon. Approaching the canyon, wagons crossed to the south side of the 12 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada Humboldt and joined incoming traffic from the Hastings Cutoff. The Hastings Cutoff, established in 1846, was the second approach to the Humboldt River corridor. The cutoff splits away from the main trail at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, weaves through the Wasatch Mountains, and crosses the throat of Utah south of the Great Salt Lake. West of Nevada’s Ruby Mountains it merges with the old Bidwell-Bartleson pack trail to the Humboldt River. The Hastings Cutoff avoided the main trail’s northerly sweep toward Fort Hall and after 1847 had the added advantage of passing through Salt Lake City, where travelers could buy provisions. This “shortcut” across the Great Salt Lake Desert, though, proved to be more harrowing than Walker’s wagon trail to the Humboldt, and in the end it saved no time. After the initial rush to California in 184950, the Hastings Cutoff was abandoned. The bulk of the California emigration followed Walker’s trail from City of Rocks. Whichever approach they took, by the time emigrants reached the Humboldt River their oxen, horses, and mules were revealing their architecture. Spines protruded like weary ridgelines. Bony hips jutted over hollowed flanks, and ribs pushed up hard beneath dust-dulled hides. After months of drawing heavy wagons along the trail, the beasts were raw-boned and bone-tired. Those faithful draft animals, Map of the various emigrant wagon routes to California: 1840s to 1850s. 13 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada the engines of the emigration, would suffer more and perish in greater numbers in the Great Basin than anywhere else on their overland journey west. Here, on the Humboldt, famine sits enthroned, and waves his scepter over a dominion expressly made for him. —Horace Greeley, from his 1859 trip west by mail wagon and coach Our cattle are so poor it takes two to make a shadow. —William Swain on the Humboldt River, 1849 14 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada PRELUDE TO MURDER L ife on the trail just wore a man down. It was all too much for much too long: months of hardship, pain, labor, and loss; of worry, drudgery, fear, and exhaustion. And there was the forced intimacy with traveling companions who grew more contrary and contemptible with each miserable mile, no escaping them day or night, their opinions, their voices, at last even their mere presence, rubbing, abrading, grinding away like an Arkansas whetstone until a fellow’s temper was honed blade-sharp. The Bidwell-Bartleson Party felt it in 1841. So did the ill-fated DonnerReed Party in 1846. Some among that company of 87 souls blamed James Frazier Reed for their troubles. Back at South Pass in western Wyoming, Reed had argued for leaving the proven trail to California to follow instead a newly blazed shortcut around the Great Salt Lake. This, the Hastings Cutoff, was supposed to be much faster than the established trail through City of Rocks; but once on the route the party, guided by Reed, spent weeks grubbing passage through the Wasatch Mountains of present-day Utah. Next the travelers found themselves facing 80 miles of salt flats west of the Great Salt Lake. Reed lost all but two of his cattle during that dry crossing. He abandoned two wagons in the desert and then pressed the other emigrants to lend him a second yoke of oxen to help draw his family’s remaining large vehicle. All of that aside, Reed simply grated on people. He was a Valley of the Humboldt River at Lassens Meadows. Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. 15 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada well-off businessman who spent his money in conspicuous ways, riding a flashy mare, bringing a comfortable camper-style wagon along on the trail, and hiring others to tend his livestock, drive his wagons, and cook his family’s meals. Reed was smart and capable, a devoted husband and father who volunteered for the party’s most difficult jobs. He also was opinionated, proud, and strongwilled to the point of arrogance. He had grit and he had a temper. James Frazier Reed was a whetstone, but he was a blade, too. Now here they all were, following Lansford W. Hastings’s cussed cutoff on a muddy, six-day detour James Frazier Reed, Donner-Reed around the Ruby Mountains. In Wagon Party. Courtesy Utah State fact, these emigrants were on the Historical Society. old track of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party along the alignment of today’s Nevada Highway 788, but the Donner-Reed wagons could not follow the Bidwell pack train over the Ruby Mountains. Instead, they continued south and crossed the range at a lower spot, now called Overland Pass, south of the Ruby Lake wetlands. Worry gnawed the emigrants. It was late September and several times already they had encountered snow. Their oxen were nearly played out and they had yet even to reach the Humboldt River. Worst of all, the emigrants realized they did not have food enough to last them to their destination. Two of the company’s men were riding ahead to California for provisions, but when would they return? Or would they return at all? Once west of the Rubys, the party followed the combined Hastings Cutoff/Bidwell-Bartleson trail north along Huntington Creek (approximated by today’s Nevada Highway 228 and White Pine County Road 1) and on to the South Fork of the Humboldt River. 16 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada The river’s canyon is a twisting, narrow gorge that James Reed called “a perfect Snake trail.” After dark on September 26, the DonnerReed Party emerged from the eight-mile canyon west of today’s Elko. The wagons swung west and in five miles more intercepted the main California Trail on the Humboldt River. To their immense relief, the emigrants were finished with the Hastings Cutoff. The most recent emigrant wagons had passed here nearly three weeks earlier. The Donner-Reed Party was the last of the year, bringing up the very tail of the 1846 emigration. And now members of the party began to form factions, coagulating into clots of self-interest that pulsed westerly along the artery of the Humboldt River. Hastings Cutoff turns southwest through Ruby Valley. 17 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada THE HUMBOLDT EXPERIENCE M ost emigrants reached the Humboldt River in late August or September, after several hot, dry months had reduced its flow. Expecting a big river like those they knew in the East, travelers found instead a channel 30 to 40 feet wide and about three feet deep. Their surprise turned to contempt as they followed the stream west, for its quick, clear flow gradually turned lazy and foul. Along much of its length, the Humboldt ambled blood warm, turbid and soapy with alkali, down meandering channels. Instead of shady cottonwoods, its banks were plumed with willow thickets; and aside from a few large meadows that were overgrazed during the heaviest emigration seasons, there was little grass for the draft animals. Where grass did grow along the river, it often was too salted with alkali for livestock. [The] Humboldt is not good for man nor beast…and there is not timber enough in three hundred miles of its desolate valley to make a snuff-box, or sufficient vegetation along its banks to shade a rabbit, while its waters contain the alkali to make soap for a nation. —Reuben Cole Shaw, 1849 The Humboldt twists along countless looping turns or meanders called oxbows, so named for their resemblance to the wooden, U-shaped pieces that secure a heavy yoke onto the necks of oxen. Although the river spans about 300 land-miles, a twig drifting downstream along its myriad meanders between Humboldt Wells and the Humboldt Sink would easily travel twice that distance. The few emigrants who experimented with floating the tortuous stream soon gave up, finding that they quickly fell miles behind the wagons on the trail. This is the crookedest stream that I ever saw. I believe it runs a thousand miles in the distance of three hundred. It sometimes runs 2 or 3 miles and gets not over 30 rods [about 500 feet] from where it started. —Alonzo Delano, 1849 18 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada The Humboldt River slowly meanders west toward the Sierra Nevada through the Lassens Meadows area. The river constantly creates new oxbows and cuts off old ones. An abandoned meander that holds standing water is an oxbow lake, but emigrants called these stagnant, curved river remnants “sloughs.” Through the centuries the shifting stream has filled its valley edge to edge with overlapping sloughs, forming a complex of marshy moats between dry ground and the active river channel. Careful emigrants did not allow their livestock to approach the treacherous river bottoms to drink and graze, but carried water and grass to the animals instead. Many an untended ox or mule mired and drowned while trying to reach a hard-earned swallow of soapy water. Decaying carcasses polluted the sloughs, but people drank from them anyway. Picking a way to the active river channel to reach “fresh” alkaline water was nearly impossible. For about ten days the only water we had was obtained from the pools by which we would camp. These pools were stagnant and their edges invariably lined with dead cattle that had died while trying to get a drink. Selecting a carcass that was solid enough to 19 Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide Nevada hold us up, we would walk into the pool on it, taking a blanket with us, which we would wash around and get as full of water as it would hold, then carry it ashore, [where] two men, one holding each end, would twist the filthy water out into a pan, which in turn would be emptied into our canteens. —Gilbert L. Cole, 1852 Few emigrants recognized their own part in degrading the Humboldt River valley. John C. Frémont, who explored there in autumn 1845, wrote that it was “beautifully covered

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