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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


Salt Lake City, Utah, July 11, 1859.

Fort Bridger, whence my last was sent, may be regarded as the terminus in this direction of the Great American Desert. Not that the intervening country is fertile or productive, for it is neither; but at Bridger its character visibly changes. The hills we here approach are thinly covered with a straggling growth of low, scraggy cedar; the sage-bush continues even into this valley, but it is no longer universal and almost alone; grass is more frequent and far more abundant; Black’s Fork, which, a few miles below, runs whitish with the clay-wash of the desert, is here a clear, sparkling mountain torrent, divided into half a dozen streams by the flat, pebbly islets on which the little village—or rather post—is located; while, twelve miles up its course, an improvement of 500 acres, begun some years since by the Mormons, has this season been put under cultivation, with flattering, prospects. Oats, barley, potatoes, peas, etc., are the crops sought; and the enterprising growers have contracts for the supply of Fort Bridger at prices which will insure them a liberal return in case they realize even a moderate yield. This may seem a small matter; but I doubt that there are, in all, 500 acres more under cultivation in the 250,000 square miles or more lying between the forks of the Platte on the east, the Salt Lake Basin on the west, the settlements of New-Mexico on the south, and the Yellow Stone on the north. Yet in this radius are included several military posts at which every bushel of grain consumed costs an average of $5, while potatoes and other edible roots would command nearly as good prices, could they be bad. There are herdsmen at intervals throughout all this region who have each their hundreds of heads of cattle, but who hardly know the taste of a potato or turnip, who have never planted nor sowed an acre, and never contemplated the possibility of growing an apple or cherry, though they expect to live and die in this region. I trust, therefore, that the Fort Bridger enterprise will succeed, and that it will incite to like experiments in the vicinity of each wilderness post. The present enormous cost of our military service in this immense desert may thus be slightly compensated by proving the great desert not absolutely worthless, and creating a basis of civilization for its rude, nomadic, lawless, but hardy, bold, and energetic pioneers.

From Fort Bridger (named after an Indian trader who first settled here; then settled as an outpost and relief-station by the Mormons when they began to people this valley, but abandoned by them on the approach, late in ’57, of the army, by which it has since been held) the Salt Lake trail rises over a high, broad ridge, then descends a very steep, rocky, difficult hill to Big Muddy, a branch of Black’s Fork, where—12 miles from Bridger—is the Mail Company’s station, at which we had expected to spend the night. But the next drive is 60 miles, and our new conductor wisely decided to cut a piece off of it that evening, as the road at the other end was hazardous in a dark night. So we moved on a little after sundown, rising over another broad ridge, and, after narrowly escaping an upset in a gully dug in the trail by that day’s violent shower, camped 15 miles on, a little after 11 p. m. The sky was densely clouded; the moon nearly down; it was raining a little and blowing more, as we lay down to rest, most of us under the sullen sky. An hour or more thereafter, our mules (which were simply tied in pairs by long ropes and thus turned out to graze) were somehow disturbed, and our stage-men challenged and stood ready to repel the supposed depredator. He proved, however, to be a friend, traveling on mule-back from Bridger to this place, who had wandered off the trail in the deep darkness, and perhaps been carried among our animals by the fondness of his own for congenial society; so all was soon right, and the new comer unsaddled, pulled off his blankets, and was soon couched among us. At daylight we were all astir, and drove down to Bear River, only three or four miles distant, for breakfast.

We halted before crossing, beside what is here called a grocery, the only other structure on that side of the river being a blacksmith’s shop (consisting, I believe, of a bellows and anvil under the open sky), to which some part of our rigging was sent for repair, while we prepared and ate breakfast. There were two or three men sleeping in wet blankets on the grass, who rose and made a fire on our appearance. The grocery was irregularly constructed of boxes which had once contained goods, but, having fulfilled that end, were thus made useful afresh. I suppose it was six feet high, and five by eight in diameter, though no two of its sides were of the same height. An old tent-cloth for covering completed the edifice, from which we obtained sardines, canned lobster, and prepared coffee which was said to contain sugar and cream, but which was voted by our drinkers a swindling humbug. I believe these articles exhausted the capabilities of the concern; but, as we had bread, we needed no more. Some of our party thought otherwise, however; they called for whisky or some kindred beverage, and were indignantly disgusted at its non-production. They had become inured to groceries containing clothing that could by possibility be eaten; but a grocery devoid of some kind of “rot,” as the fiery beverage was currently designated, was to them a novel and most distasteful experience. However, a man was at once dispatched across the creek to a similar establishment, but more happily furnished, whence he soon returned with the indispensable fluid (price $3 for a flask containing perhaps a pint and a half of some diabolic alcoholic concoction, wherein the small modicum of genuine whisky had taken to itself seven other devils worse than the first), and our breakfast was finished to general satisfaction.

A word here on the liquor traffic throughout this region. A mercantile firm in this city, in order to close out promptly its extra stock of liquors, offers to sell whisky at the extraordinarily low price of $3 50 per gallon. I believe the common price from Laramie westward to the Sierra Nevada is $8 per gallon; but it is usually sold to consumers by the bottle, holding less than a quart, for which the charge is $2 up to $3 50, but seldom below $2 50. And such liquor! True, I have not tasted it; but the smell I could not escape; and I am sure a more wholesome potable might be compounded of spirits of turpentine, aqua fortis, and steeped tobacco. Its look alone would condemn it—soapy, ropy, turbid, it is within bounds to say that every pint of it contains as much deadly poison as a gallon of pure whisky. And yet fully half the earnings of the working men (not including the Mormons, of whom I have yet seen little) of this whole region are fooled away on this abominable witch-broth and its foster-brother tobacco, for which they pay $1 to 2 50 per pound! The log-tavern-keeper at Weber, of whom our mail-boys bought their next supply of “rot,” apologetically observed, “There a’n’t nothing bad about this whisky; the only fault is, it isn’t good.” I back that last assertion with my whole heart.

Fording Bear River—here a swift, rocky-bottomed creek, now perhaps forty yards wide, but hardly three feet deep—we rose gradually through a grassy valley, partially inclosed by high, perpendicular stone Buttes, especially on the right. The stone (evidently once clay) outposts of one of the Buttes are known as “The Needles.” We thence descended a long, steep hill into the valley of “Lost Creek,”—why “lost,” I could not divine, as the creek is plainly there—a fair trout-brook, running through a grassy meadow, between high hills, over which we made our way into the head of “Echo Cañon,” down which we jogged some twenty miles to Weber River.

This cañon reminded me afresh that evil and good are strongly interwoven in our early lot. Throughout the desolate region which stretches from the Sweetwater nearly or quite to Bridger, we had in the main the best natural road I ever traveled—dusty, indeed, and, in places, abrupt and rough, but equal in the average to the carefully-made and annually-repaired roads of New England. But in this fairly-grassed ravine, hemmed in by steep, picturesque bluffs, with springs issuing from their bases, and gradually gathering into a trout-brook as we neared the Weber, we found the “going decidedly bad,” and realized that in the dark it could not but be dangerous. For the brook, with its welcome fringe of yellow, choke-cherry, service-berry, and other shrubs, continually zigzagged from side to side of the cañon, compelling us to descend and ascend its precipitous banks, and cross its sometimes miry bed, often with a smart chance of breaking an axle, or upsetting

We stopped to feed and dine at the site of “General Well’s Camp” during the Mormon War of 1857-8, and passed, ten miles below, the fortifications constructed under his orders in that famous campaign. They seem childish affairs, more suited to the genius of Chinese than of civilized warfare. I cannot believe that they would have stopped the Federal troops, if even tolerably led, for more than an hour.

We reached our next station on the Weber, a little after 5, p. m., and did not leave till after an early breakfast next (yesterday) morning. The Weber is, perhaps, a little larger than the Bear, and runs through a deep, narrow, rugged valley, with no cultivation so far as we saw it. Two “groceries,” a blacksmith’s-shop, and the mail-station, are all the habitations we passed in following down it some four or five miles to the shaky pole bridge, on which we crossed, though it is usually ford able. We soon after struck off up a rather steep, grassy water-course which we followed to its head, and thence took over a “divide” to the head of another such, on which our road wound down to “East Cañon Creek,” a fair, rapid trout-brook, running through a deep, narrow ravine, up which we twisted, crossing and recrossing the swift stream, until we left it, greatly diminished in volume, after tracking it through a mile or so of low, swampy timber, and frequent mud-holes, and turned up a little runnel that came feebly brawling down the side of a mountain. The trail ran for a considerable distance exactly in the bed of this petty brooklet—said bed consisting wholly of round, water-worn granite bowlders, of all sizes, from that of a pigeon’s egg up to that of a potash-kettle; when the ravine widened a little, and the trail wound from side to side of the water-course as chances for a foothold were proffered by one or the other. The bottom of this ravine was poorly timbered with quaking-asp, and balsam-fir, with some service-berry, choke-cherry, mountain currant, and other bushes; the whole ascent is four miles, not very steep, except for the last half-mile; but the trail is so bad, that it is a good two hours’ work to reach the summit. But, that summit gained, we stand in a broad, open, level space on the top of the Wahsatch range, with the Uintah and Bear Mountains on either hand, forming a perfect chaos of wild, barren peaks, some of them snowy, between which we have a glance at a part of the Salt Lake Valley, some thirty miles distant, though the city, much nearer, is hidden by intervening heights, and the lake is likewise concealed further to the right. The descent toward the valley is steeper and shorter than the ascent from the side of Bear River—the first half-mile so fearfully steep, that I judge few passengers ever rode down it, though carriage-wheels are uniformly chained here. But, though the southern face of these mountains is covered by a far more luxuriant shrubbery than the northern, among which oaks and maples soon make their appearance for the first time in many a weary hundred miles. None of these seem ever to grow into trees; in fact, I saw none over six feet high. Some quaking-asps, from ten to twenty-five feet high, the largest hardly more than six inches through, cover patches of these precipitous mountain-sides, down which, and over the low intervening mountain, they are toil-somely dragged fifteen or twenty miles to serve as fuel in this city, where even such poor trash sells for fifteen to twenty dollars per cord. The scarcity and wretchedness of the timber—(I have not seen the raw material for a decent ax-helve growing in all my last thousand miles of travel)—are the great discouragement and drawback with regard to all this region. The parched sandy clay, or clayey sand of the plains disappeared many miles back; there has been rich, black soil, at least in the valleys, ever since we crossed Weber River; but the timber is still scarce, small, and poor, in the ravines, while ninety-nine hundredths of the surface of the mountains is utterly bare of it. In the absence of coal, how can a region so unblest ever be thickly settled, and profitably cultivated?

The descent of the mountain on this side is but two miles in length, with the mail conmpany’s station at the bottom. Here (thirteen miles from the city, twenty-seven from Bear River) we had expected to stop for the night; but our new conductor, seeing that there were still two or three hours of good daylight, resolved to come on. So, with fresh teams, we soon crossed the “little mountain “—steep, but hardly a mile in ascent, and but half a mile in immediate descent—and ran rapidly down some ten miles through the narrow ravine known as “Emigration Cañon,” where the road, though much traversed by Mormons as well as emigrants and merchant-trains, is utterly abominable; and, passing over but two or three miles of intervening plain, were in this city just as twilight was deepening into night.

Salt Lake City wears a pleasant aspect to the emigrant or traveler, weary, dusty, and browned with a thousand miles of jolting, fording, camping, through the scorched and naked American Desert. It is located mainly on the bench of hard gravel that slopes southward from the foot of the mountains toward the lake valley; the houses—generally small and of one story—are all built of adobe (sun-hardened brick), and have a neat and quiet look; while the uniform breadth of the streets (eight rods) and the “magnificent distances” usually preserved by the buildings (each block containing ten acres, divided into eight lots, giving a quarter of an acre for buildings and an acre for garden, fruit, etc., to each householder), make up an ensemble seldom equaled. Then the rills of bright, sparkling, leaping water which, diverted from the streams issuing from several adjacent mountain canñons, flow through each street and are conducted at will into every garden, diffuse an air of freshness and coolness which none can fail to enjoy, but which only a traveler in summer across the Plains can fully appreciate. On a single business street, the post-office, principal stores, etc., are set pretty near each other, though not so close as in other cities; everywhere else, I believe, the original plan of the city has been wisely and happily preserved. Southward from the city, the soil is softer and richer, and there are farms of (I judge) ten to forty or sixty acres; but I am told that the lowest portion of the valley, nearly on a level with the lake, is so impregnated with salt, soda, etc., as to yield but a grudging return for the husbandman’s labor. I believe, however, that even this region is available as a stock-range—thousands on thousands of cattle, mainly owned in the city, being pastured here in winter as well as summer, and said to do well in all seasons. For, though snow is never absent from the mountain-chains which shut in this valley, it seldom lies long in the valley itself.

The pass over the Wahsatch is, if I mistake not, eight thousand three hundred feet above the sea-level; this valley about four thousand nine hundred. The atmosphere is so pure that the mountains across the valley to the south seem but ten or fifteen miles off; they are really from twenty to thirty. The lake is some twenty miles westward; but we see only the rugged mountain known as “Antelope Island” which rises in its center, and seems to bound the valley in that direction. Both the lake and valley wind away to the north-west for a distance of some ninety miles—the lake receiving the waters of Weber and Bear Rivers behind the mountains in that direction. And then there are other valleys like this, nested among the mountains south and west to the very base of the Sierra Nevada. So there will be room enough here for all this strange people for many years.

But of the Mormons and Mormonism, I propose to speak only after studying them; to which end I remain here several days longer.

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