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THEN & NOW: Simpson Springs was precious and dangerous way station for many early desert explorers Print E-mail
Written by Jaromy Jessop   

It is sometimes depressing — or possibly exciting — to see how the communities of Tooele County are growing and changing. For those of us who are sentimental for the old times when downtown Tooele used to be centered around Coronet or Liberty Park, instead of Wal-Mart, Simpson Springs is the place to visit. It has not changed considerably in the last 150 years and more than likely won’t see much change for the next 150 years either.

Simpson Springs, located 25 miles west of SR-36 on the Pony Express Trail, is much the same today as it was before the mule-drawn mail wagons or Concord Stages passed along this route in the 1850s and 1860s. Possibly the Fremont Indian cultures used this area of the desert long before any white men came to the spring. Much evidence of these cultures has been found in the vicinity of the Old River Bed several miles west.

Back in the days of the Overland Stage and Pony Express, it took well-armed, brave individuals to operate these lonely stations. Consider Porter Rockwell’s advice to Sir Richard F. Burton before he took his now famous trip across the desert in the summer of 1860. Porter advised Mr. Burton: “To carry a double-barreled gun loaded with buckshot, to keep my eyes skinned especially in canyons and ravines, to make at times a dark camp — that is to say un-hitching for supper, and then hitching up and turning a few miles off the road — ever to be ready for attack when the animals are being in-spanned and out-spanned, and never to trust to appearances in an Indian Country.”

Famed writer Horace Greeley stopped here for the night in the summer of 1859 and was not much impressed with the spring saying “I fear the hot suns of August will dry up this spring — while there is no other fit to drink for a weary distance south and west of this place.” He also talked about how the Simpson Springs station keeper lost his eight oxen and trailed them south through the desert for 100 miles without finding any water before out of self preservation, he gave up and returned to the station.

Burton also talked about the “Three names” for this spring saying the Army called it “Simpson’s Springs,” the Mormons called it “Egan’s Springs” and Gentiles called it “Lost Springs.” Whatever you called it, Simpson’s Springs was the last chance for good water and grass for nearly 100 miles across what was know as the “Great American Desert.” James H. Simpson was disappointed looking west from the spring out on the desert he was to explore describing the mountains to the west as follows “Not a tree is to be seen upon them, nor a patch of green vegetation of any kind. They are fit monuments of the desolation which reigns over the whole desert.”

In 1858, Captain James Hervey Simpson, lead by George Washington Bean, made a preliminary exploration of the desert as far as Dugway Pass and it was on this trip that he made particular note of these springs. Due to inclement weather, Simpson cut his explorations short and returned to Camp Floyd for the winter. Then in early May of 1859, Captain Simpson and his exploring party left Camp Floyd en route to Genoa, Nev., in order to find a better wagon route from Camp Floyd to that point. Simpson discovered all kinds of interesting things on this trip, and his reports of the survey were published by Congress.

It is debatable whether Captain Simpson was the first white man to visit the springs in 1858 though because they were probably already known to the likes of Chorpenning and Major Howard Egan. Egan, much like George Bean, was a man among men. His book of experiences while out on the trail called “Pioneering the West” is a gem and a rare detailed glimpse of operations out in the west desert — and some personal near-death experiences with the Indians. Egan wrote an article in the Deseret News dated March 11, 1861, about the climate at Simpson Springs: “Mr. George Dewees, the station keeper at Simpson Springs, informed me that a few days before my arrival, Wo-mo-gene, and a party of his Indians had been there and demanded the provisions belonging to the station. The house being built of stone, so they could not burn it, and being otherwise well prepared, Mr. D told them that they could not have what they demanded without fighting. They went away mad, declaring that they meant to burn all of the stations and kill all they could this summer.”

True to their word, the Indians wreaked havoc along the line all that summer.

Captain Simpson’s party that explored the area in 1859 consisted of 24 officers and soldiers, six scouts and guides (two were Ute Indians), over 20 teamsters and herders, one wagon master, one wheelwright, one blacksmith, one doctor and seven scientific personnel. The column included 12, six-mule quartermaster wagons for the transportation of supplies, two ambulances for the conveyance of instruments, and three wagons full of forage for the first several days. The topographical team and teamsters were all supplied with a Navy Revolver, and Simpson states that of course the military escort had their proper arms. Outfitted as such, the party rolled out into the desert on their explorations.

Simpson’s description of the springs bearing his name while he camped there on May 4, 1859: “The spring where we are encamped furnishes but a scant supply of water, which however, the mail company which has a station here has collected in a reservoir formed by a dam across the ravine. The accommodations of the company at present are a Sibley tent, set upon a circular stone wall. There is an abundance of grass in the vicinity and cedar on the heights, but not conveniently close.” The party stayed overnight, making some observations on the morning of May 5 and then continued on towards the Old River Bed.

Some say that Simpson’s exploration and his reports were instrumental in the Pony Express choosing this central route across the desert beginning in March of 1860. According to a study done by Fike and Hadley for the BLM on the Pony Express stations in western Utah, Chorpennings buildings were used by the Pony Express.

The Pony Express is a fascinating chapter in the history of westward expansion of the United States and Simpson Springs was right in the middle of it.

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