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The Wonders of the Yosemite Valley, and of California by Samuel Kneeland (1872)

Omaha to Salt Lake.

North Dome, Washington Column, Royal Arches

North Dome—Wash’n Column—Royal Arches.
From Merced River.

Page 39.

On the east of the Rocky Mountains most of the great river systems descend very gradually, and pour their waters through the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico, viz.: the Red, Arkansas, Rio Grande, Platte, and Missouri; while the Columbia and the Colorado flow into the Pacific Ocean; the former water lands of great luxuriance, and thickly populated; the latter flow through a sterile region, hardly fit for the abode of man, yet with very grand scenery.

The profile of the Pacific Railroad, from Omaha to Sacramento, 1,775 miles, has four principal summits. 1. At Sherman, where the Rocky Mountains (or Black Hills, so called) are crossed, 550 miles from Omaha, 8,235 feet above the level of the sea, the highest point in the world crossed by a railroad. 2. Aspen Summit, 385 miles from Sherman, or 935 from Omaha, 7,463 feet high; also in the Rocky Mountains, and the dividing ridge or continental rocky back-bone. 3. In the Humboldt range, near Pequop, 310 miles from Aspen, or 1,245 from Omaha, 6,076 feet high. 4. In the Sierra Nevada, at Donner Lake Pass, 425 miles from the Humboldt Summit, 1,670 from Omaha, or 105 from Sacramento, 7,062 feet high; thence there is a descent of 7,000 feet in 100 miles to Sacramento, very steep, and to the inexperienced traveller seemingly dangerous. The road from Cheyenne, 520 miles from Omaha, for 500 miles on a stretch, to the Wahsatch Range in Utah, is more than 6,000 feet above the level of the sea; from this to the Sierra crossing the average height is 5,000 feet, and nowhere less than 4,000; whence it would be naturally supposed that the road would be liable to become blocked by snow; this, however, is not the case, as the snow-sheds are a protection in the most exposed regions of the Sierra Nevada.

The muddy Missouri River is crossed from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Omaha, Nebraska, and here the Union Pacific Railroad begins, 968 feet above the level of the sea, in the great valley drained by this river and its tributaries. The ascent is so gentle that you do not perceive it, and yet when you have reached Cheyenne, you are 6,000 feet above the sea, ascending from 7 to 10 feet per mile. For 290 miles the road is along the main stream of the Platte river; along its banks are many fine farms and clumps of trees, and the sides of the track are variegated with beautiful flowers, among which are roses, larkspurs, and a fine white thistle. This was once a hunting-ground of the Indians for bison and antelope; the former is now rarely seen, but now and then an antelope will scamper away from the track, turning, when at a safe distance, to scrutinize the rushing train which disturbed him. This was also a portion of the road dangerous from Indians, as here they were accustomed to cross the plains, naturally hating the whites for expelling themselves and the game from their favorite haunts. Every station was once, of necessity, a fort; the frequent camps of mounted riflemen, and their presence as armed sentinels at the stations, showed that it was not yet considered safe to leave the road at the mercy of the hostile tribes.

The Platte River, though navigable, as the saying is, for nothing larger than a shingle, on account of its shallowness, sand-bars, and ever-shifting channel, drains an area of nearly 300,000 square miles; larger than all New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. It is, however, nature’s highway for a railroad, and probably but for it, this Pacific Railroad might never have been built. The old emigrant road was along this river, and it can now be traced by the telegraph poles, skulls and bones of cattle, and now and then a grave, bearing testimony to the toil, privation, and death of the gold-seekers.

Columbus, 91 miles from Omaha, is, according to George Francis Train, the geographical centre of the United States, and, when he becomes President, will be a candidate for the government buildings. Grand Island, in Platte River, is about 80 miles long, and 4 wide; it is fertile, and well-wooded, and belongs to the United States. From 150 to 350 miles from Omaha you are within the range of the buffalo, but will probably see none, not even a track; this region is also infested by Indians, as shown by the fort-like and guarded stations; the cabins are low, covered with mud and turf, to render harmless the blazing arrows of the savages, and with loop-holes for defence. Here and there a sullen-looking fellow, indifferently armed, scowls at the passing or stopping train, but we saw no bands.

About 290 miles from Omaha you come to the north and south forks of the Platte River, and the railroad takes a westerly course between them. Soon Alkali is reached, in the alkali belt which extends for seventy or eighty miles westward; the soil and water are strongly impregnated with alkaline salts, the carbonates of the alkalies being so abundant that the earth may be used for raising bread. Here farms cease, and the country is of use only for grazing. Julesburg, 377 miles, was noted as a thieving, gambling place, as the terminus of the advancing road always was; shanties and tents were built in a night, and disappeared as if by magic, leaving nothing behind but a bad reputation, ruined chimneys, old boots, tin cans, and soiled cards. These harpy communities, when too bad, were occasionally exterminated by “Vigilance Committees.” At Lodgepole, about 400 miles, the elevation is nearly 4,000 feet, and from this you perceive that you are ascending. About thirty-five miles beyond this is Prairie Dog City, so named because, for several hundred acres on both sides of the track, the earth is raised into little hillocks by these burrowing squirrel-like animals. Each occupant of a burrow sits erect on his hillock, scampering into his hole in the most ludicrous manner at the approach of danger; they are obliged to endure in their villages the presence of the burrowing owl, which lives in burrows deserted by, or forcibly taken from, the rodent by the lazy owl; they do not live together in the same hole, as far as I could observe or ascertain. This is to be the great pasture-land of the Continent, and was evidently once the bottom of a great lake or inland sea; the region extends for 700 miles north and south, on the east of the Rocky Mountains, and for 200 miles east and west, besides the innumerable valleys in the mountain ranges; there is an abundant supply of water in the valleys, and the nutritious grasses, nine to twelve inches high, are always green near the roots, however parched and cured at the top; cattle require no housing, and need only be prevented from straying; in winter the snow is so dry that it rolls off their backs, and does not chill them like our wet, clinging snows. Now that the railroad is here to bring the products to the Eastern markets, it is safe to say, that in a few years the untold wealth to be derived from raising cattle and sheep will bring to this region a large and vigorous population from the overcrowded Atlantic States.

At Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, 510 miles, you are nearly 6,000 feet high; here the engines are doubled, and in thirty-three miles you ascend about 2,300 feet, or seventy feet in a mile. This place, where in 1867 there was only one house, has now several thousand inhabitants, and has the elements of a permanent increase, and will not fade away like most of the other railroad creations. It has its newspapers, schools, churches, manufactories, and extensive system of inland transportation, especially in connection with the rapidly-increasing mining interests of Colorado on the south. About fifteen miles from Cheyenne the grade becomes very steep, and you have fine views of the “Black Hills,” the most eastern ranges of the Rocky Mountains. The scenery now becomes wild and rugged, and the masses of reddish felspathic rock are piled up in grand confusion. On arriving at the summit, at Sherman, named from the tallest general in our army, you are 8,235 feet above the sea, the highest point crossed by any railroad. The summit is bare, and the surrounding desolation grand and awful; the rocks and the road-bed are of a reddish color, which gives an unearthly aspect to the scenery. The air, after you get a few inspirations, is singularly exhilarating. This is 550 miles distant from Omaha, and affords a good view of Pike’s and Long’s Peaks, and other localities famous in the history of gold-seeking. The many cuts and snow fences show the physical and elemental difficulties which were encountered here.

Three miles from Sherman you come to Dale Creek, which is bridged by a framework structure 650 feet long, and 126 feet above the stream; the wooden trestles are laced strongly together, and present, at a distance, a very light and gracefild structure. When you get upon it you shudder as you look down and see the stream a mere thread below, and feel the bridge quivering under the weight of the train to such a degree that water is thrown from barrels, placed there for putting out accidental fires; it is a relief to get upon terra firma, when every one draws a fill breath, which is instinctively impossible during the transit. I fear that a terrible accident will some day occur here, as a fancied security from past immunity is apt to beget carelessness, and the bridge itself does not seem to me sufficiently strong for its peculiarly dangerous locality.

For more than twenty miles from Sherman the descent is so great that no steam is required, and the brakes are constantly applied; this distance brings us to Laramie Plain, the grade of which, however, is constantly changing. You pass numerous ridges of reddish sandstone, worn by the elements into the most fantastic shapes, as castles, forts, churches, chimneys, pyramids, etc., looking like a city changed to stone by the enchanter’s wand; the general name of “buttes” is given to these, with a prefix according to the color or shape, as red, black, church buttes, etc.; some of these singular formations are 1,000 feet high, and in the distance are very interesting objects to the observant traveller.

The Laramie Plain has a fine grazing belt, sixty miles long by twenty wide, one of the finest stock-raising, regions in the world, the alkaline quality of the soil and water making the growth of very nutritious grasses most luxuriant; this was once a grazing place for the buffalo, now rarely seen. When there is too much alkali, of course the soil is barren, and the water unfit for animals and man. This plain is 7,000 feet above the sea, and is much broken by the ranges of the Black Hills, which enclose, often, extensive and fine tablelands or “parks,” sheltered from the wind, abundantly watered, with excellent timber and grass, and much mineral wealth, which will one day be a source of great prosperity. The distant peaks are here and there crested with snow, but you see no glaciers and eternal snows, as in the Alps, coming down into the valleys; at the base is generally nothing but a barren, treeless plain, plentifully stocked with the pale aromatic wild sage, and the home of the wild rabbit and antelope. It affords a good example of hundreds of miles of country which apparently can never be brought under cultivation, nor become fit for the residence of civilized man.

At Carbon, 656 miles, there is good supply of tertiary coal, the shaft being close to the track, the yield being 200 tons a day; the force which uplifted this table land broke up these coal-bearing strata, fortunately placing them so that they are easily workable, and exceedingly valuable where wood is so scarce.

At Creston, 740 miles, 7,000 feet high, is the dividing line of the continent, where streams flow easterly to the Gulf of Mexico, and westerly to the Pacific. Sage brush and alkali give the aspect of desolation to this central point of the grandest of our mountain ranges. Westward for thirty miles, the country is a barren alkaline desert, with a reddish tint, from salts of iron.

Green River Station, 846 miles, is so named from the river, which flows into the Colorado; the water has a greenish hue, from the minute particles of the decomposed green slaty rocks which it washes; it is a large, rapid stream, with good water, plentifully stocked with trout. This region was evidently once the bed of a large lake, or very wide river, and affords a great many moss agates. Here you pass into Utah Territory.

Aspen, 940 miles, 7,463 feet high, the second highest point on the Union Pacific Railroad, is so named from the tree of that name, which grows on the sides of the mountains, spurs of the Uintah Range. It will be noticed that there is an interval of about 100 miles between the stations here mentioned, which will indicate to the reader what a dreary and uninteresting region this is as a whole, with here and there a place worthy of mention.

From Aspen the track descends through the cut made by the Weber River through the Wahsatch Range, into Salt Lake Valley. At Wahsatch, 968 miles, after at good breakfast (and it may be here stated, once for all, that the meals all along the route are excellent, at moderate price, and with plenty of time to eat), you plunge into the famous Echo Cañon, flanked by the most magnificent scenery. Here comes in a merry conductor, full of proverbs and wise sayings, ready to do battle in words, (and for aught I know with fists,) for all sound morality; he has a fair voice, and as he enters the car, preliminary to taking the tickets, treats the passengers to a snatch of some song, sacred or profane, which puts every body into good-humor, contrasting favorably with the boorishness so frequently met with in conductors who ride behind horse-flesh in our large cities. He invites you to go to the rear or observation car, open above and on the sides, affording an unobstructed view on all sides. The cars soon pass into a tunnel, 770 feet long, approached by a long, and rather shaky trestle-work; here the jolly conductor (not a Mormon, as you at first suppose) cautions young people, and especially any who may be on their bridal tours, to be sure that they select the right person before they proceed to any little caresses suggested by the long, dark tunnel; according to his account, many ludicrous and provoking mistakes have sometimes been revealed when the sudden darting, of the train into the daylight has shown the various attitudes of the passengers; from failure to recognize the points of the compass in the light, moustaches have been found under the wrong bonnets, and arms around the wrong waists.

No words can describe the wild and grand scenery of the Echo Cañon, at this pass narrowed to a mere chasm, between cliffs of reddish sandstone from 500 to 2,000 feet high, almost overhanging the road, and carved by the elements into the most fantastic forms, whose names and resemblances are pointed out by the communicative conductor. Excellent photographs for stereoscopic use have rendered these scenes familiar to many, and, though giving but little idea of the real grandeur, serve well to fix in the memory of those who have seen them the momentary glimpses so rapidly taken from the rushing car. The whistle of the locomotive starts a thousand echoes from the rocky sides, chiefly on the right, the left sloping away to grassy meadows. Here are seen the “Mormon Fortifications,” 1,000 feet high, with the massive rocks still in place destined to have been rolled upon the United States troops sent in 1857 to attack this people; they were, however, never used. Echo Creek winds among the rocks, and is crossed thirty times in twenty-five miles. Occasionally is seen a small Mormon settlement, of long one-storied houses, surrounded by richly-cultivated fields; but the houses and fences are in bad repair, with slouchy, bearded men hanging about, and the women sad-eyed, homely, and poorly dressed—the tyranny of their creed impressing itself even on their external appearance.

Soon after leaving Echo City, you come to the “thousand mile tree,” a vigorous evergreen, spared to mark the thousandth mile from Omaha—2,650 miles from good old Boston. Then comes Weber Cañon, cut by the river of that name, more beautiful, if possible, than Echo Cañon, though only three miles long (Echo being eight); it is rendered more pleasing by the river which rushes by the side of the track, now a torrent, then a cascade, then a whirlpool, and then boiling rapids, according to the obstructions of its rocky bed and sides. In this, as in Echo Cañon, every second brings into view some new wonder or beauty. We can mention only two, both named from his Satanic Majesty, who seems to claim most that is sublime and awful, in the scenery west of the Rocky Mountains. The first is the “Devil’s Slide,” two vertical ridges of granite, on the left of the track, extending several hundred feet in height; the earth between the ridges, which are several yards apart, is covered with grass and flowers, rendering by contrast the gray rocky barriers very distinct. Passing this and Weber Station you come to the second, the “Devil’s Gate,” a narrow gorge through which the Weber River rushes, crossed by a bridge about fifty feet above the raging, stream. You have no opportunity for fright or pleasure, as you are whirled along by the iron horse, which has no eye for scenery, and regards only time and space.

After passing through these fine cañons in the Wahsatch Range, you are in the Great Salt Lake Valley, though still, at Uintah Station, 4,550 feet above the sea. Eight miles more and you are in Ogden, the terminus of the Union Pacific, 1,032 miles from Omaha. This is a strictly Mormon town; the houses are widely scattered, but with fine gardens and orchards. Near the depot is the usual assortment of shanties, tents, and saloons. On the platform you will probably see Indians of the Shoshone tribe, in costumes partly civilized and partly savage; as a military hat with feather, pants, and coat, with dirty blanket, moccasins, and daubed with paint—with the unmistakable odor of the red man, indicating, to more senses than the eye, that frequent ablution is not one of his virtues.

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