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Up and Down California in 1860-1864;
The Journal of William H. Brewer:
Book 4, Chapter 4

Mono Pass and Bloody Canyon—Peculiarities of Mono Lake—Visit to the Islands—Aurora—Life in a Mining Camp—Walker’s River—Sonora Pass—The Stanislaus—Sonora—Murphy’s—Political Observations.

Lake Mono.
July 11, 1863.

July 6 Hoffmann and I visited a peak about four miles north of camp, to complete our bearing for this region. It is a naked granite ridge, about 10,500 feet high, and like all the rest commands a sublime view.1 We found mosquitoes on the very summit, and on a table-land at about nine thousand feet, in an open forest, they swarmed in myriads. On this table we found a pretty lake, of very clear water, about a mile long—a most picturesque sheet of water. These little lakes abound here in the higher Sierra.

July 7 we were astir early, packed up, and crossed the Mono Pass, and descended to the plain near Mono Lake. It has now been just two weeks since we have been lower than 8,600 feet, having had a decidedly “high time.” For two weeks we have slept in the open air, entirely without shelter, at altitudes sometimes a thousand feet higher than the Great St. Bernard in Switzerland, the nights clear, and freezing every night; now we descend to a valley, a lower region, but still higher than the highest of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

After crossing the pass, the way leads down Bloody Canyon—a terrible trail. You would all pronounce it utterly inaccessible to horses, yet pack trains come down, but the bones of several horses or mules and the stench of another told that all had not passed safely. The trail comes down three thousand feet in less than four miles, over rocks and loose stones, in narrow canyons and along by precipices. It was a bold man who first took a horse up there. The horses were so cut by sharp rocks that they named it “Bloody Canyon,” and it has held the name—and it is appropriate—part of the way the rocks in the trail are literally sprinkled with blood from the animals. We descended safely, and camped in the high grass and weeds by a stream a short distance south of Lake Mono. This camp had none of the picturesque beauty of our mountain camps, and a pack of coyotes barked and howled around us all night.

July 8 Hoffmann and I visited a chain of extinct volcanoes which stretches south of Lake Mono. They are remarkable hills, a series of truncated cones, which rise about 9,700 feet above the sea. Rock peeps out in places, but most of the surface is of dry, loose, volcanic ashes, lying as steep as the material will allow. The rocks of these volcanoes are a gray lava, pumice stone so light that it will float on water, obsidian or volcanic glass, and similar volcanic products. It was a laborious climb to get to the summit. We sank to the ankles or deeper at every step, and slid back most of each step. But it was easy enough getting down—one slope that took three hours to ascend we came down leisurely in forty-five minutes. The scene from the top is desolate enough—barren volcanic mountains standing in a desert cannot form a cheering picture. Lake Mono, that American “Dead Sea,” lies at the foot. Between these hills and our camp lie about six miles of desert, which is very tedious to ride over—dry sand, with pebbles of pumice, supporting a growth of crabbed, dry sagebrushes, whose yellow-gray foliage does not enliven the scene.

July 9 we came on about ten miles north over the plain and camped at the northwest corner of Lake Mono. This is the most remarkable lake I have ever seen. It lies in a basin at the height of 6,800 feet above the sea. Like the Dead Sea, it is without an outlet. The streams running into it all evaporate from the surface, so of course it is very salt—not common salt. There are hot springs in it, which feed it with peculiar mineral salts. It is said that it contains borax, also boracic acid, in addition to the materials generally found in saline lakes. I have bottled water for analysis and hope to know some time. The waters are clear and very heavy—they have a nauseous taste. When still, it looks like oil, it is so thick, and it is not easily disturbed. Although nearly twenty miles long it is often so smooth that the opposite mountains are mirrored in it as in a glass. The water feels slippery to the touch and will wash grease from the hands, even when cold, more readily than common hot water and soap. I washed some woolens in it, and it was easier and quicker than in any “suds” I ever saw. It washed our silk handkerchiefs, giving them a luster as if new. It spots cloths of some colors most effectually.

No fish or reptile lives in it, yet it swarms with millions of worms, which develop into flies. These rest on the surface and cover everything on the immediate shore. The number and quantity of these worms and flies is absolutely incredible. They drift up in heaps along the shore—hundreds of bushels could be collected. They only grow at certain seasons of the year. The Indians come far and near to gather them. The worms are dried in the sun, the shell rubbed off, when a yellowish kernel remains, like a small yellow grain of rice. This is oily, very nutritious, and not unpleasant to the taste, and under the name of koo-chah-bee forms a very important article of food. The Indians gave me some; it does not taste bad, and if one were ignorant of its origin, it would make fine soup. Gulls, ducks, snipe, frogs, and Indians fatten on it.

Camp 127, on the Stanislaus River.
Monday, July 20.

On July 10, luckily, a man was going to the islands in the lake and invited us to go with him. Myriads of ducks and sea gulls live here in the summer and breed on the islands. Hens’ eggs are worth from $1.00 to $1.50 per dozen in Aurora, thirty miles distant, so an old mountaineer conceived the idea of gathering these gulls’ eggs for market. He dug out a neat canoe from a tree, and in the spring hired two Indians to help him collect the eggs. He drives a good business for two months in the spring.

This man wanted to go to the island to see about some things he had left there last spring. The day was nearly still—thunderclouds hung over the mountains, and occasionally there was a light breeze. At 3 P.M. we started; we had but little wind, and that in fitful puffs, so we did not arrive until nearly dark. There is fresh water in only one spot, on the larger island, in a little swamp and patch of tule a few rods in extent; here we camped and slept on the soft grass. There were two slight showers in the night, and some thunder, quite a novelty to us, for one very rarely hears thunder west of the Sierra.

July 11 we were up at dawn, a clear, calm morning. Clouds of gulls screamed around us. An early breakfast, then a tour of examination. These islands are entirely volcanic, and in one place the action can hardly be said to have ceased, for there are hundreds of hot springs over a surface of many acres. Steam and hot gases issue from fissures in the rocks, and one can hear the boiling and gurgling far beneath. Some of the springs are very copious, discharging large quantities of hot water with a very peculiar odor. Some boil up in the lake, near the shore, so large that the lake is warmed for many rods—no wonder that the waters hold such strange mineral ingredients. The rock is all lava, pumice, and cinders. At the northeast corner of the island are two old craters with water in them. The smaller, or north island, has no fresh water—it looks scathed and withered by fire. One volcanic cone, three hundred or four hundred feet high, looked more recent than any other I have seen in the state.

We sailed back to camp, stopping on the north shore, where some Indians (Pah-Utes) were gathering koochahbee. Along this shore many curious rocks stand up from the water, of lime tufa, made by springs in former times. They are of very fantastic shapes, often worn by the water into the form of huge mushrooms, ten to twenty feet high. I took a bath in the lake; one swims very easily in the heavy water, but it feels slipery on the skin and smarts in the eyes.2

The afternoon was showery and there was much thunder, and we made our preparations for an uncomfortable night. Soon after sunset the clouds came over the whole heavens, night set in intensely black and dark, the wind rose from the southeast, and the thunder roared incessantly. Soon the big drops began to fall; we took the hint and went to bed. The rain set in in earnest. The lake roared with the wind, which, with the thunder and rain and our lonely place and no shelter, made the situation peculiar. But luckily the rain was not so heavy as we anticipated—it did not wet our blankets through, yet I cannot say that it was a pleasant or comfortable night. At every movement of the body the water would run in from one’s face, under the clothes, and feel so cold—one’s hair and beard saturated—yet it was stifling to sleep with head covered. The tall grass and weeds around my bed nodded in the wind and slatted big drops of water over me. It rained at intervals all night, but in the morning cleared up after a fashion. It still looked bad, and we resolved to push on to Aurora, thirty miles, where we would find shelter.

We were soon on our way, most of the journey over a sandy desert on the north side of the lake. Mono Lake was at no very early period much higher and larger than at present. It has been gradually lessening and shrinking, leaving its old shores like terraces stretching around the present water, and great sandy desert plains covered with sagebushes, once its bed. We measured terraces 680 feet above the present lake.3 About ten miles before reaching Aurora we struck into the hills north, the town being about fifteen miles due north of the east end of the lake, near what is called “Walker’s Diggings” on your maps.

You doubtless have heard of the mining district of Esmeralda. Well, Aurora is the head of this—is a city, in fact, and the second in importance on the east side of the mountains. It has grown up entirely within two years, numbers now probably five thousand inhabitants, and is like California in ’49. The town lies in a valley—canyon rather—and the first view is picturesque. The hills around are barren as a desert, with scattered scrubby pines and more scrubby cedars here and there—no grass, no anything to attract man, except the precious metals. With so large a population there are not accommodations for a fourth of the people. Thousands of “prospectors” come there poor as rats and expect to grow immensely rich in a few months—but, alas! most of them will either die here or leave still poorer. They live in such quarters as such a region will enable them to get up—hundreds of huts made of stones or dug in the earth with a canvas roof—such are the houses of the outskirts. The center of the town, however, is better—whole streets of wooden buildings, erected in the most cheap and expeditious manner, a few of brick. There are men at work, but far more are idle, for it is Sunday. We put our horses in stables at $1.25 per day each for hay alone. There is no hotel, but there are many lodging houses—we take “beds” at one and eat at a restaurant. I would much rather sleep out in my blankets if a clean spot could be found, although it is showery weather.

We got letters but, much to our disgust and disappointment, no money, and we have not enough for actual wants. We also got late and brilliant news from the armies. In the mountains we heard of the invasion of Pennsylvania. Here we heard that Lee’s army is whipped, that Vicksburg is ours, and that gold is falling.

Aurora of a Sunday night—how shall I describe it? It is so

Cathedral Peak, from Tuolumne Meadows
From a sketch by J. D. Whitney
The Summit of Mount Lyell
From a sketch by Charles F. Hoffmann
unlike anything East that I can compare it with nothing you have ever seen. One sees a hundred men to one woman or child. Saloons—saloons—saloons—liquor—everywhere. And here the men are—where else can they be? At home in their cheerless, lonesome hovels or huts? No, in the saloons, where lights are bright, amid the hum of many voices and the excitement of gambling. Here men come to make money—make it quick—not by slow, honest industry, but by quick strokes—no matter how, so long as the law doesn’t call it robbery. Here, where twenty quartz mills are stamping the rock and kneading its powder into bullion—here, where one never sees a bank bill, nor “rag money,” but where hard silver and shining gold are the currency—where men are congregated and living uncomfortably, where there are no home ties or social checks, no churches, no religions—here one sees gambling and vice in all its horrible realities.

Here are tables, with gold and silver piled upon them by hundreds (or even thousands), with men (or women) behind, who deal faro, or monte, or vingt-et-un, or rouge-et-noir, or who turn roulette—in short, any way in which they may win and you may lose. Here, too, are women—for nowhere else does one see prostitutes as he sees them in a new mining town. All combine to excite and ruin. No wonder that one sees sad faces and haggard countenances and wretched looks, that we are so often told that “many are dying off”—surely, no wonder!

July 13 we visited one of the mines and were kindly shown through it and the mill. We looked a little around the region and got supplies to the limit of our means. But our want of money was the great drawback—we could not get all we wanted for the return trip. My pants were used up. I got a pair of cheap overalls, which I had to sew over entirely two days after, as they ripped the whole length of the legs.

Immense sums of money have been spent here in this region, an immense number of claims have been taken up, nearly twenty quartz mills have been erected, costing perhaps over a million; but whether the mines will ever pay is to me a question. I hear that five thousand claims have been recorded, and I question if ten have as yet paid the money expended on them; in fact, only a very small part of this immense number have ever been worked at all, only taken to speculate on. One or two mines may pay, the majority never will.

Where Aurora is, is as yet not known. We think it in California, but there is a dispute whether it be not over the line and in Nevada Territory. Most of the inhabitants wish it there, so that Uncle Sam will pay their bills of government, but like true American citizens, who will not be deprived of their rights, they vote in both places, in California and in Nevada, and their votes have thus far been accepted in both. Politicians may well exclaim, “Bully for Aurora!”4

Tuesday, July 14, we left Aurora, “dead broke.” We had much calculation over our funds, to see if we had enough to get our breakfast before starting, found that we had, and two dollars over, with which we start for a trip of 130 miles through the mountains. We had not traveled two miles before we met a tollgate, which took $1.25 of our store.

We came on twenty-eight miles, mostly over a very barren country with no feed, until we struck the meadows on one of the forks of Walker’s River—a pretty little basin, lying some 6,500 feet above the sea. Here we camped, and a relief it seemed to sleep in the open air. At Aurora, at our lodgings, one room was small, but it had twelve sleepers, in bunks, like berths on shipboard—here no such crowding.

July 15 we came on fifteen to twenty miles, over a rough, desolate country, of volcanic hills, with some pretty, grassy valleys in places, on the forks of Walker’s River. We camped by a little lake, at the altitude of over seven thousand feet. During the day we passed a very large and copious hot spring; the water is boiling, and a stream large enough for a small mill runs away.5 We spent one day here, going on a peak south of camp.

July 17 we came on up the pass and camped at a little grassy flat, near the summit of Sonora Pass, at the altitude of 9,450 feet—surely a high camp. The night was very clear, and it froze very hard. I slept very cold, which led to a severe rheumatic attack the next day.

July 18 Hoffmann and I climbed a peak, perhaps over twelve thousand feet. The views are not so grand here as on the other trail, yet are fine. We had hundreds of peaks in sight with snow on them. The view was very wide, extending even across the plain—the coast ranges could be dimly traced, although 150 to 180 miles distant. A severe rheumatism came on and I was glad to get back to camp. Another cold night followed, but I slept warmer. Water boils at about 192° or 193°. John complains that the beans must be very dry—it takes from eight to ten hours to cook them—he can’t understand the low boiling point, nor understand the barometer sinking so low.

We had intended to observe Sunday, as we did not the last one, but both my companions wanted to come down to a warmer level and my rheumatism advised the same thing, so we came over the summit and on about twenty miles. The summit is about 10,300 feet; there is snow in banks for some distance, then we sink into a canyon on one of the upper branches of the Stanislaus River and follow down that. We leave the volcanic region and get into one of granite. The canyon rises in steep hills on both sides, two or three thousand feet above the river. We camped at an altitude of about six thousand feet, where it is warm and pleasant. Today, although Monday, we are having our “Sunday,” and are spending the day in washing our clothes, writing, etc.

Sunday Morning, July 26.

It is very early, no yet five o’clock in the morning, but I will write, for it is cool; soon it will be hot enough. We are back again among the haunts of civilization, and, with the open windows, I find it impossible to sleep with the many noises, the crowing of numerous roosters through the village, the barking of dogs, the lowing of cows—in fact, the many noises of dawn in this little village are in such contrast with the still solitudes we have had for the last six weeks, where one ever sleeps on the alert for the slightest sound, that all combine to prevent sleep. The effect is heightened by the fact that it is very hot—we are in a house instead of the free open air, and in a sultry, effeminate bed instead of the cool, vigorous earth. It is but just sunrise, and I have been awake for an hour and a half.

July 21 we climbed the ridge south of the canyon of the Stanislaus to get a look over the country—up a steep hill, perhaps three thousand feet above camp. The tops of all the hills here are capped with lava, with granite under, as if a rough granite country with rounded hills and long valleys had had beds of lava poured over it. Such, indeed, was the case. It covered the summits and streamed down the valleys, sometimes nearly a hundred miles, forming those remarkable features called “table mountains” that I have so often written about before.

Well, in the higher Sierra, along our line of travel, all our highest points were capped with lava, often worn into strange and fantastic forms—rounded hills of granite, capped by rugged masses of lava, sometimes looking like old castles with their towers and buttresses and walls, sometimes like old churches with their pinnacles, all on a gigantic scale, and then again shooting up in curious forms that defy description. We climbed on such a lava point, and had a wide view in all directions. We had a rather hard day’s work.

July 22 we raised camp and came on near thirty miles. We left the valley, climbed a high hill, and then struck across a barren country—fine trees, but nothing else—no grass. We had some fine views and passed some camps of men at work on the road. A road is now in course of construction near the line of this trail—a great work—men are now at work on the heaviest part. Our measurements were looked for with great interest.

We descended the long western slope by following down ridges, a part of the time on table mountains or ancient streams of lava, a part of the time in valleys—at last we camped where there was water, but scarcely anything for the animals to eat. We did not have a pleasant camp, and getting into a hotter climate, I did not feel well. John complained, and Hoffmann looked and felt as if on the eve of a severe sickness.

July 23 we came on to Sonora, which we reached a little after noon. At about a dozen miles back from that place we began to reach the signs of an approaching civilization, and at last we struck a mining district. Immediately, all became life—it seemed like jumping from the wilderness solitudes to a thickly settled region. It grew hotter, the roads grew dustier—my head ached as if it would burst. It was over 100° F. when we struck Sonora. Our room, called the coolest in the house, showed a temperature of 103° F. in its coolest place. How it roasted us! Four days ago we were sleeping in the open air, with scanty blankets, where the soft mud at night would be frozen in the morning hard enough to bear our horses. Now, after so few days, in the dry dust, with this intense heat—it is most too much for flesh and blood, and no wonder that sweat streams from every pore.

At Sonora I got some money, and July 24 we came on here. I reŽmployed John for another trip. We passed through Columbia and the mining region I have before described. The heat was most intense, but here, at Murphy’s, we have a most excellent hotel.

Saturday, July 25, I kept quiet all day, wrote up notes, observed barometer, got horses shod, etc. Professor Whitney is at the Big Trees and came down to see me; we discussed work and formed plans. We will get ready tomorrow (Monday) and the next day start on a new trip across the Sierra. I have lost over thirty pounds since I left the city, but feel in excellent health; the rheumatism induced by the cold and exposure is entirely gone here in this hot place.

Professor Whitney on his return had a sad greeting—three dear friends dead—one, a very dear sister, in San Francisco, Mrs. Putnam, recently died, leaving six children, the eldest not fifteen, the youngest an infant of a few weeks—it is a most sad dispensation.

I have long refrained from writing any politics, and will not say much now, but a few words on affairs here may be of interest. This state is as loyal as any eastern one. She must be so. Secession would be a yeat greater folly than with the southern states. With an immense territory, with a population of less than a million—one-half of which is in a district embracing only one-tenth of the state, the remainder scattered over a territory of over 160,000 square miles, with over 600 miles of seacoast—she would be as an infant; a tenth-rate power could annoy her and crush her resources. Yet, there are many Secessionists—enough to fill the minds of loyal citizens with just cause for anxiety. These may be divided into three classes: the first, small yet formidable, of desperadoes, who have nothing but their worthless lives to lose, and might gain something by robbery in case of an outbreak; second, a class of southern descent, whose sympathies are with the South, who do not wish to see civil war, yet who would glory in the fall of the Republic.

The third, and last, is the largest, and comprises a considerable party, mostly the Breckenridge part of the Democratic party, who at present control and really represent the Democratic party in this state. These call themselves Union men, but deny that the government has any power to put down rebellion constitutionally, that in fact the United States was always a “confederacy,” but never a nation. Some of these are active Secessionists, but most are only talking men, who wield some power. Judge Terry, who killed Broderick, you remember, and is now at Richmond, is an example of this class, and many other men who once held office. Were they in power now it is not probable that they would commence active hostility against the Union, but they would throw every means in their power against the general government. Some of their papers openly rejoice over southern victories or northern defeats, and all of them put the worst possible light on all northern matters, such as praising the bravery of the southern generals and men, and implying the cowardice of the northern ones.

But the Union element is vastly in the majority, unconditionally loyal. This state has had so many southern scoundrels in office that the people are afraid of them.


1. Ragged Peak (10,858 feet).

2. Mark Twain, in Roughing It, describes the effect of Mono Lake water on a flea-bitten dog.

3. See Israel C. Russell, “Quarternary History of Mono Valley, California,” 8th Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey, for 1886-87.

4. “September 16, ‘63, Aurora was found to be upwards of three miles inside the State (or Territory) of Nevada, instead of in California, as previously supposed” (Joseph Wasson, Bodie and Esmeralda [San Francisco, 1878], p. 49). For a lively description of this region see J. Ross Browne, Adventures in the Apache Country, with Notes on the Silver Regions of Nevada (New York, 1869); also articles by J. Ross Browne in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (August and September, 1865). There is a bibliography of the Mono Lake and Aurora region in the California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 2 (June, 1928).

5. Fales Hot Springs.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management