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Desolate portion of trail features ancient river bed, ‘desert fairies’   PDF  Print  E-mail 
Written by Jaromy Jessop  
Thursday, 29 December 2005

PONY EXPRESS TRAIL EXPLORATION

Simpson Springs to Dugway Station

Knowledge is like money

To have any value, it must circulate

And in circulating it can increase in quantity

And hopefully in value

Louis L'amour

The view of the road west from Simpson Springs is quite intimidating if you are seeing it for the first time. The bumpy, dusty, trail heads straight west until it is lost in the Dugway Range many miles distant. About 2.5 miles west of Simpson Springs a road heads south off of the main trail. This is the Indian Springs Canyon/Death Canyon road. Both of these intriguing places in the Simpson Range deserve further exploration.

Continuing west, Table Mountain looms ever larger and just before you get to the base of this volcanic looking sentinel of the desert, the road takes a hard left and descends very un-expectedly into the Old River Bed, which up to this point has been completely hidden from view.

The Old River Bed was a subject of much fascination back in the days of the Pony Express and early surveys. It had reached nearly legendary status in geologic circles and Captain Simpson, as well as members of the Clarence King survey, were very excited at the prospect of seeing it.

The Old River Bed is a mile wide channel, cut over 100 feet deep into the desert plain. It's ancient course runs from the vicinity of Fumarole Butte in the Sevier Desert and cuts a gorge between the Simpson Mountains on the east and the Keg Mountains on the west, and then empties out on to the Great Salt Lake Desert where it disappears.

Why the heck is there a watercourse large enough to hold the Missouri river at its confluence with the Mississippi out here in the middle of the salt desert? Some geologists believe that when Lake Bonneville began to evaporate, most of the water in the area around Delta and Sevier Lake drained north to the lower elevations of the salt desert. This draining action is thought to have cut the Old River Bed channel.

The Old River Bed was a particularly bad place for an express/stage station. As you stand at the station marker, imagine some bandits or Indians out on the desert waiting to ambush the stage as it emerged from the riverbed or descended into it. An approaching express rider or stage couldn't see the station until it was too late to react because it was hidden from the plain. It was a great place for a hold up & and more than one occurred here. The most famous one was when $40,000 in gold bullion was taken from the stagecoach at Riverbed. Porter Rockwell eventually took care of that bandit and it is quite a tale. Harold Schindler's book Porter Rockwell Man of God, Son of Thunder recounts the event quite nicely. A well was dug near the station and some brackish water, probably barely fit to drink, was hauled in barrels to Dugway station.

Flash floods ravage the river bed from time to time and as a result there is no sign of the station remaining. Fike and Headley in their research of the Pony Express trail made mention that it was hard for the Pony Express company to keep men at the station because they thought it was haunted by "Desert Fairies." Evidence of archaic human occupation of the riverbed dates back many thousands of years. Perhaps it was their apparitions that were seen by the station men in the pale moonlight. It is also entirely possible that they drank too much whiskey with nothing better to do out in the desert as they were waiting for the next stage or pony rider.

As you emerge from the Old River Bed you will pass 5,677-foot Table Mountain on the south side of the road. Notice the terracing work of ancient Lake Bonneville on the slopes of the mountain. It is called Table Mountain because of the flat table-like terrace that rings the summit cone all the way around at the 5,200-foot elevation. Looking west again, the road now crosses an abysmal 10-mile stretch of hideousness where there isn't even any mature sagebrush. Along this monotonous stretch of road you can see mysterious Granite Mountain off to the north. The Indians believed this mountain to be sacred and cursed at the same time back in the day. To the south are the seldom-visited domed summits of Keg Mountain and the strange rock outcrops of the Slow Elk Hills.

When Mark Twain crossed this desert in the early 1860s he was very excited at first and felt he was on a great adventure & about to embark on a crossing of the Great American Desert. Not an obscure desert but in his words "a very celebrated one, the metropolis itself, as you may say." Twain soon changed his tune however writing, "The poetry was all in the anticipation & there is none in the reality."

That is how Mark Twain felt as the sun rose at Dugway Station many years ago in the time of the Pony Express and Overland Stage. 45 miles from the beginning of the desert and 23 miles from the end of it as he described the location of Dugway Station. There was no well here, least ways, not a well with any water in it, and that is the most interesting thing about Dugway Station & the failed well. Richard Burton states that when he stopped at the station in 1860, there were three men working on a well and they had dug down to a depth of 120 feet without reaching any water!

Howard Ransom Egan described the well in detail upon visiting the site in 1862. He stated that it was 113 feet deep and he was lowered all the way to the bottom where he carved his name in the side of the wall. Egan stated that the workmen complained that the deeper they dug the well, the hotter it got down there. He also said that the poor workmen used an auger to dig 40 feet deeper with no water still. He stated that "Then the job of trying more to find water there was given up and it made a nice place to dump the stable cleanings"

There were three men stationed at Dugway and a change of horses for the stage. Water was hauled in by barrels from Riverbed or Simpson's station. The station men had a hard life and they complained to Burton that the Indians knew of a spring, not far from the station in the Dugway Mountains but would not tell the whites where it was. I imagine the Indians were amused, watching the men trying to find water in this god forsaken place. These "draughty souls" as Burton called them were constantly out of whiskey and tobacco and I am sure that this fact did not serve to boost their spirits.

If you visit Dugway Station today, you can see rubble caved into several depressions where the wells must have been & just a short distance from the marker. The marker is the only thing rising out of the plain for miles around and since it was constructed in 1939, it has been a favorite roost for the raptors of the desert and is covered quite completely with their droppings. The marker and surrounding desolation is probably hands down, the most bleak and lonely site along the Pony Express trail.

To find the marker, as you approach the Dugway Range from the Old River Bed, watch for a 20-foot tank and watering trough on the south side of the road. This is the Topaz Well. A road leaves the express trail and heads south from here to Topaz Mountain and eventually Delta. Turn left here and follow this road south for approximately 1.6 miles to where an old two track dirt road heads west. Take this road and follow it for .8 miles as it rambles across two minor drainages and you will end up at the bleak location of the site of Dugway Station. Dome shaped 5,091 foot Bittner Knoll rises out of the plain about a mile to the west from the station and if you want an interesting aerial view of the plain, climb the knoll and look back across the desert to Table Mountain and then down on the marker at Dugway Station. It is quite a panorama. The gray rhyolite of the Thomas Range and the rugged crags of the Dugway Range to the north set an imposing backdrop. As you survey the scene, ask yourself if 35 dollars a month would have been enough to work out in a place like this.

Jaromy D. Jessop grew up in West Valley City where he attended Kearns High School and earned the Eagle Scout award while exploring the Utah Desert. A graduate of the University of Utah, B.S. in geography, U.S. Army Reserve Captain Jessop lives with his family in Dugway where he is employed by Jacobs Sverdrup at Michael Army Airfield.

Last Updated ( Thursday, 29 December 2005 )

 
   
     

 
 

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