Submitted by scott on Tue, 02/28/2017 - 23:29

In the night we sailed by a most notable curiosity, and one we had been hearing a good deal about for a day or two, and were suffering to see. This was what might be called a natural ice-house. It was August, now, and sweltering weather in the daytime, yet at one of the stations the men could scape the soil on the hill-side under the lee of a range of boulders, and at a depth of six inches cut out pure blocks of ice—hard, compactly frozen, and clear as crystal! (Roughing It)South Pass City

From Orion: Saturday, Aug. 3. Breakfast at Rock Ridge Station, 24 miles from “Cold Spring,” and 871 miles from St. Joseph.   A mile further on is “South Pass City” consisting of four log cabins, one of which is the post office, and one unfinished.

To the Foot of South Pass 19th August 
With renewed spirit, despite a somewhat hard struggle with the musquetoes, we set out at the respectable hour of 5 45 AM. We had breakfasted comfortably, and an interesting country lay before us. The mules seemed to share in our gayety. Despite a long ringing, the amiable animals kicked and bit, bucked and backed, till their recalcitrances had almost deposited us in the first ford of the Sweetwater. For this, however, we were amply consoled by the greater misfortunes of our consort, the official wagon. After long luxuriating in the pick of the teams, they were to day so thoroughly badly "muled" that they were compelled to apply for our assistance. 

We forded the river twice within fifty yards, and we recognized with sensible pleasure a homely looking magpie <cite>(Pica Hudsonica)</cite>, and a rattlesnake, not inappropriatel,y considering where we were, crossed the road. Our path lay between two rocky ridges, which gradually closed inward, forming a regular kanyon, quite shutting out the view. On both sides white and micaceous granite towered to the height of 300 or 400 feet, terminating in jagged and pointed peaks, whose partial disruption covered the angle at their base. Arrived at Ford No 5, we began an ascent, and reaching the summit, halted to enjoy the fine back view of the split and crevassed mountains. 

A waterless and grassless track of fifteen to sixteen miles led us to a well known place, - the Ice Springs, - of which, somewhat unnecessarily, a marvel is made. The ground, which lies on the right of the road, is a long and swampy trough between two waves of land which permit the humidity to drain down, and the grass is discolored, suggesting the presence of alkali. After digging about two feet, ice is found in small fragments. Its presence, even in the hottest seasons, may be readily accounted for by the fact that hereabouts water will freeze in a tent during July, and by the depth to which the wintry frost extends. Upon the same principle, snow gathering in mountain ravines and hollows long outlasts the shallower deposits. A little beyond Ice Springs, on the opposite side of and about a quarter of a mile distant from the road, lie the Warm Springs: one of the many alkaline pans which lie scattered over the face of the country. From the road nothing is to be seen but a deep cunette full of percolated water. 

Beyond the Warm Springs lay a hopeless looking land, a vast slope, barren and desolate as Nature could well make it. The loose sands and the granite masses of the valley had disappeared; the surface was a thin coat of hard gravelly soil. Some mosses, a scanty yellow grass, and the dark gray artemisia, now stunted and shrunk, were sparsely scattered about. It had already begun to give way before an even hardier creation, the rabbit bush and the greasewood. The former, which seems to thrive under the wintry snow, is a favorite food with hares which abound in this region; the latter  (Olione or Atriplex canescens, the chamizo of the Mexicans) derives its name from the oleaginous matter abundant in its wood, and is always a sign of a poor and sterile soil. Avoiding a steep descent by a shorter road, called "Landers' Cutoff," we again came upon the Sweetwater, which was here somewhat broader than below, and lighted upon good grass and underbrush, willow copses, and a fair halting place. At Ford No 6 - three followed one another in rapid succession - we found the cattle of a traveling trader scattered over the pasture grounds. He proved to be an Italian driven from the low country by a band of Sioux, who had slain his Shoshonee wife, and at one time had thought of adding his scalp to his squaw's. After Ford No 8, we came upon a camping ground, usually called in guide books "River Bank and Stream." The Sweetwater is here twenty five feet wide. About three miles beyond it lay the "Foot of Ridge Station" near a willowy creek, called from its principal inhabitants the Muskrat. The ridge from which it derives its name is a band of stone that will cross the road during to morrow's ascent. Being a frontier place, it is a favorite camping ground with Indians. To day a war party of Sioux rode in, en route to provide themselves with a few Shoshonee scalps. 

We made a decided rise to day, and stood at least 6,000 feet above the level of the sea. The altitude of St Louis being in round numbers 500 feet, and reckoning the diminution of temperature at 1d F = 100 yards, we are already 19d to 20d F colder than before. The severity of the atmosphere and the rapid evaporation from the earth cause an increase of frigidity, to which the salts and nitrates upon the surface of the soil, by absorbing the hydrogen of the atmosphere, - as is shown by the dampness of the ground, and the absence of dust around the Saleratus Lakes, - greatly add. Another remark made by every traveler in these regions, is the marked influence upon the temperature caused by the presence and the absence of the sun. The day will be sultry and oppressive, and a fire will be required at night. In the morning about 11 AM, the thermometer showed 80d Fahrenheit; at 4 PM, the sky being clouded over, it fell 25d: before dawn, affected by the cold north wind from the snows about the Pass, it stood at 40d.

The lowering firmament threatened rain, of which, however, the thirsty land was disappointed. Moreover, all were agreed that snow was to be expected in another fortnight, if not sooner. Glacial storms occasionally occur in July and August, so that in some years the land may be said to have no summer. In winter the sharpness of the cold is such that it can be kept out only by clothes of the closest texture; the mountain men, like the Esquimaux, prefer to clothe themselves cap a pie in the prepared skins of animals. We were all animated with a nervous desire for travel, but there was the rub. The station master declared that he had no driver, no authority to forward two wagonsful, and no cattle; consequently, that the last comers must be last served, and wait patiently at Rocky Ridge till they could be sent on. They would find antelopes in plenty, perhaps a grizzly, and plenty of plover, crows, and delicate little ground squirrelsf by the burrowful, to "keep their hands in." We being the first comers, a title to preference rarely disputed in this law and rule abiding land, prudently held ourselves aloof. The Judiciary, however, was sorely ":exercised." Being a "professor," that is, a serious person, he could not relieve his mind by certain little <cite>moyens</cite> which naturally occurred to the rest of the party. Many and protracted were the powwows that took place on this momentous occasion. Sometimes our quondam companions - we now looked upon them as friends lost to us - would mysteriously disappear as though the earth had opened and swallowed them, and presently they would return with woe begone step and the wrinkled brow of care, simulating an ease which they were far from feeling.

The station rather added to than took from our discomfort: it was a terrible unclean hole; milk was not procurable within thirty five miles; one of the officials was suffering sorely from a stomach ache; there was no sugar, and the cooking was atrocious. With a stray title-pageless volume of some natural history of America, and another of agricultural reports - in those days, before reform came, these scientific and highly elaborate compositions, neatly printed and expensively got up at the public expense, were apparently distributed to every ranch and station in the line of road - I worked through the long and tedious afternoon. We were not sorry when the night came, but then the floor was knobby, the musquetoes seemed rather to enjoy the cold, and the banks swarmed with "chinches." The coyotes and wolves made night vocal with their choruses, and had nearly caused an accident. One of the station men arose, and having a bone to pick with the animals for having robbed his beef barrel, cocked his revolver, and was upon the point of firing, when the object aimed at started up and cried out in the nick of time that he was a federal marshal, not a wolf .

To the South Pass August 20th
We rose with the daybreak; we did not start till nearly 8 AM, the interim having been consumed by the tenants of our late consort in a vain palaver. We bade adieu to them and mounted at last, loudly pitying their miseries as they disappeared from our ken. But the driver bade us reserve our sympathy and humane expressions for a more fitting occasion, and declared - it was probably a little effort of his own imagination - that those faithless friends had spent all their spare time in persuading him to take them on and to leave us behind. I, for one, will never believe that any thing of the kind had been attempted, a man must be created with a total absence of the bowels of compassion, who would leave a woman and a young child for days together at the foot of Ridge Station. 

The road at once struck away from the Sweetwater, winding up and down rugged hills and broken hollows. From Fort Laramie the land is all a sandy and hilly desert where one can easily starve, but here it shows its worst features. During a steep descent a mule fell and was not made to regain its footing without difficulty. Signs of wolves, coyotes, and badgers were abundant, and the coqs de prairie (sage chickens) still young and toothsome at this season, were at no pains to get out of shot. After about five miles we passed by "Three Lakes," dirty little ponds north of the road, two near it and one distant, all about a quarter of a mile apart, and said by those fond of tasting strange things to have somewhat the flavor, as they certainly have the semblance, of soapsuds. Beyond this point we crossed a number of influents of the pretty Sweetwater, some dry, others full: the most interesting was Strawberry Creek: it supplies plenty of the fragrant wild fruit, and white and red willows fringe the bed as long as it retains its individuality. To the north a mass of purple nimbus obscured the mountains - on Fremont's Peak it is said always to rain or snow - and left no visible line between earth and sky. Quaking Asp Creek was bone dry. At MacAchran's Branch of the Sweetwater we found, pitched upon a sward near a willow copse, a Provencal Frenchman - by what "hasard que les sceptiques appcllent l' homme d'affaires du con Dieu," did he come here? - who begged us to stop and give him the news, especially about the Indians: we could say little that was reassuring. Another spell of rough steep ground placed us at Willow Creek, a pretty little prairillon, with verdure, water, and an abundance of the larger vegetation, upon which our eyes, long accustomed to artemisia and rabbit bush, dwelt with a compound sense of surprise and pleasure. In a well built ranch at this place of plenty were two Canadian traders, apparently settled for life; they supplied us, as we found it necessary to "liquor up," with a whisky which did not poison us, and that is about all that I can say for it. At Ford No 9, we bade adieu to the Sweetwater with that natural regret which one feels when losing sight of the only pretty face and pleasant person in the neighborhood; and we heard with a melancholy satisfaction the driver's tribute to departing worth, viz that its upper course is the "healthiest water in the world." Near this spot, since my departure, has been founded "South Pass City," one of the many mushroom growths which the presence of gold in the Rocky Mountains has caused to spring up. 

Ten miles beyond Ford No 9, hilly miles, ending in a long champaign having some of the characteristics of a rolling prairie, with scatters of white, rose, and smoky quartz, granite, hornblende, porphyry, marble like lime, sandstone and mica slate, - the two latter cropping out of the ground and forming rocky ridges - led us to the South Pass, the great Wasserscheide between the Atlantic and the Pacific; and the frontier points between the territory of Nebraska and the State of Oregon. From the mouth of the Sweetwater, about 120 miles, we have been rising so gradually, almost imperceptibly, that now we unexpectedly find ourselves upon the summit. The distance from Fort Laramie is 320 miles, from St Louis 1,580, and from the mouth of the Oregon about 1,400: it is therefore nearly midway between the Mississippi and the Pacific. The dimensions of this memorial spot are 7,490 feet above sea level, and 20 miles in breadth. The last part of the ascent is so gentle that it is difficult to distinguish the exact point where the versant lies: a stony band crossing the road on the ridge of the table land is pointed out as the place, and the position has been fixed at N lat 48d 19', and W long 108d 40'. The northern limit is the noble chain of Les Montagnes Rocheuses, which goes by the name of the Wind River; the southern is called Table Mountain, an insignificant mass of low hills .

A pass it is not: it has some of the features of Thermopylae or the Gorge of Killiecrankie; of the European St Bernard or Simplon; of the Alleghany Passes or of the Mexican Barrancas. It is not, as it sounds, a ghaut between lofty mountains, o,r as the traveler may expect, a giant gateway, opening through Cyclopean walls of beetling rocks that rise in forbidding grandeur as he passes onward to the Western continent. And yet the word "Pass" has its significancy. In that New World, where Nature has worked upon the largest scale, where every feature of scenery, river and lake, swamp and forest, prairie and mountain, dwarf their congeners in the old hemisphere, this majestic level topped bluff, the highest steppe of the continent, upon whose iron surface there is space enough for the armies of the globe to march over, is the grandest and the most appropriate of avenues. 

A water-shed is always exciting to the traveler. What shall I say of this, where, on the topmost point of American travel, you drink within a hundred yards of the waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans? - that divides the "doorways of the west wind" from the "portals of the sunrise." On the other side of yon throne of storms, within sight, did not the Sierra interpose, lie separated by a trivial space the fountain-heads that give birth to the noblest rivers of the continent, the Columbia, the Colorado, and the Yellow Stone, which is to the Missouri what the Missouri is to the Mississippi; - whence the waters trend to four opposite directions; the Wind River to the northeast; to the southeast the Sweetwater and the Platte; the various branches of the Snake River to the northeast; and to the southwest the Green River, that finds its way into the Californian Gulf. It is a suggestive spot this "divortia aquarum": it compels Memory to revive past scenes before plunging into the mysterious "Lands of the Hereafter," which lie before and beneath the feet. The Great Ferry, which steam has now bridged, the palisaded banks of the Hudson, the soft and sunny scenery of the Ohio, and the kingly course of the Upper Mississippi, the terrible beauty of Niagara, and the marvels of that chain of inland seas which winds its watery way from Ontario to Superior; the rich pasture lands of the North, the plantations of the semi tropical South, and the broad cornfields of the West: finally the vast meadow land and the gloomy desert waste of sage and saleratus, of clay and mauvaise terre of red butte and tawny rock: all pass before the mind in rapid array ere they are thrust into oblivion by the excitement of a new departure. 

 

Citations

Twain, Mark. 1872. Roughing It. American Publishing Company.
Burton, Richard. 1861. The City Of The Saints. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.

Comment

77.15 South Pass City This settlement was situated near the place where the overland route left the Sweetwater River; it was less than a year old, being “one of the many mushroom growths which the presence of gold in the Rocky Mountains . . . caused to spring up” (Burton, 199–200). (Another town of the same name, still in existence today as a historic site, was founded several miles north in 1867: see WPA, 319–20.)

 

"Chapter 12: note for 77.15," in Roughing It : an electronic text. 2016