“Nothing endures but change.”
West of the community of Rush Valley (Clover), a road winds up to and over a pass in the Stansbury Mountains. The road tops out at about 6,500 above sea level, and passes juniper and rocky outcrops on its way to Dugway Proving Ground and the Great Salt Lake Desert.
Ever since white man first arrived here, there has been conflict over what the pass should be called. That conflict continues to this day. Maj. John Fulton Reynolds was serving with Lt. Col. Steptoe’s command in Rush Valley in 1855, when he made a reconnaissance of the pass we now know as Johnson’s Pass.
Capt. James H. Simpson later wrote in his 1858 exploration report that he named the pass in honor of Maj. Reynolds. All serious students of the Civil War, and Gettysburg in particular, will recognize the name J.F. Reynolds. He was the commander of III Corps of the Army of the Potomac during that battle. Unfortunately for him, he was killed in action, shot off his horse only moments after arriving on the battlefield. It’s interesting to ponder that he explored our desert in 1855.
Shortly after this exploration, another party crossed the pass in the late spring of 1855. This party consisted of Orrin Porter Rockwell, George Washington Bean, George Boyd, and one other man. They were sent by Steptoe to see if they could find a good route south of the Great Salt Lake Desert to California.
After going through the pass, the men passed several notable landmarks in the desert, including White Rock, Granite Mountain — and had a heck of a time on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Bean stated that there was about 2 inches of water on the plain and the wind blew hard and they were all covered with salt water. This encrusted their clothes as they struggled through the mud. By the time they reached Redden Springs on the other side of the desert, they were convinced the route was unsatisfactory and Steptoe instead chose a northern one around the top of the Great Salt Lake.
Johnson’s Pass finally took its name sometime after 1858. It’s funny how places in the desert had several different names because the gentiles (the Army and non-Mormons) didn’t want to use Mormon names in many cases. Similarly, the Mormons didn’t want to honor an Army officer by putting his name on the pass.
The pass was eventually named after one of Clover’s first settlers. Luke S. Johnson came to the area in 1856 and eventually founded the town of Clover and “Shambip County,” which was the first name for Tooele County. If memory serves me correctly, Shambip is a Native American word for “Clover.” If you go to the town of Rush Valley now, you will still find a street there named “Shambip.”
Johnson’s Pass has a colorful history. Almost everyone who drives state Route 199 between Rush Valley and Dugway has stopped at Clover Spring Campground at least once. What many people aren’t aware of is the area’s rich history; the absence of an interpretive marker doesn’t help.
In late fall of 1858, Simpson and his exploring party camped here at the beginning of their first reconnaissance of the desert. In 1862, Col. Patrick E. Connor and his elements of the 2nd California Cavalry, also camped here during maneuvers and actually invited some local settlers to dinner.
Probably the most interesting thing that happened at the springs was the Clover Creek Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Company DG-2517 was stationed there from about 1935-1939. There were about six large barracks buildings, a small store, and dining building.
The structures all stood within the confines of the current Bureau of Land Management Campground. The boys in the corps did a lot of work on roads in Rush Valley, cleared out springs, constructed irrigation ditches, built trails, put up telephone poles and wire, and improved the Pony Express Trail road out west.
Another interesting note is that around 1918, the Lincoln Highway’s “Goodyear Cut-off” made its way onto the desert via Johnson’s Pass. Prior to the highway coming through the “Desert Gap” as the pass was sometimes called, the Lincoln Highway traveled around the Stansbury Mountains to the north at Timpie, which was 50 miles out of the direct line of travel.
In the book “The Lincoln Highway – Utah” by Gregory Franzwa and Jesse G. Petersen, the authors describe how Lincoln Highway promoter Carl G. Fisher funded the project to build the road over Johnson’s Pass, which was greatly unimproved at that time.
The goal of Fisher, and Frank Seiberling, who was president of the Lincoln Highway Association in 1915, was to provide a thoroughfare for commercial and military transportation across the United States. A June 2, 1918 article in the old Salt Lake Herald newspaper, stated that “The completion of the road over the pass would open up the backbone route of an American Highway Transportation System and achieve results of vast National importance.”
Fisher and Seiberling were so committed to the cause that they each donated $25,000 of their own money to the state roads commission to get the job done. The state of Utah then provided convict labor and the end result was a fine highway with culverts, rip rap, and a crushed rock gravel surface.
In return for financing the project, the state promised to rename the pass in honor of Carl Fisher, which would have changed the name to “Fisher’s Pass.” At present there is a monument to Fisher on the summit of the pass along with an example of a Lincoln Highway road marker. Most people, however, still refer to the road over the mountains as “Johnson’s Pass.”
One last note about the Lincoln Highway and the pass: In 1919, a young lieutenant crossed it with his military truck convoy — the first to ever prove the concept of coast to coast. That lieutenant’s name was Dwight David Eisenhower. He stayed overnight at Orr’s Ranch after passing through Johnson’s Pass and having a horrible time in the sand dunes west of Willow Springs.
Eisenhower went on to serve two terms as President of the United States, during which in 1956 he signed the Federal Aid Highway Act. This resulted in the greatest public works project in the history of the world: the construction of the Interstate Highway System. The Lincoln Highway and Eisenhower are just another interesting wrinkle in Tooele County’s history.
There are interesting rock formations on the west side of the pass. This area is known as Devil’s Gate Narrows. Capt. Simpson was not impressed with Johnson’s Pass because you could barely squeeze a wagon through the narrows of the blue limestone rock formations. Heavy blasting eventually widened the route into what you see today.
At the pass, look south to the heavily forested slopes of Stookey and Clover peaks in the Onaqui Range. Onaqui is incidentally a Native American word that means “Salt Mountain” or “Pine Tree Mountain” depending on which source you go with and who you talk to. This scene is especially beautiful in early summer when there are a few lingering snow cornices and everything is green.
Beware of the time of day you choose to visit Johnson’s Pass. The “Dugway 500” takes place every weekday morning and night (Monday-Thursday) as hundreds of cars speed over the pass toward Dugway. Some of these folks could probably be seasoned, professional NASCAR drivers. Sharing the road with them can be a trying experience.
To get to Johnson’s Pass, head south on SR-36 out of Tooele City and proceed for about 15 miles and turn right onto SR-199 in Rush Valley. Continue west on SR-199 for about 8 miles to the summit.