Before heading west over Lookout Pass on the Pony Express Trail, I want to mention an establishment in Vernon that may later be helpful as you’re out in the West Desert. That place is Sondra’s Silver Sage Cafe.
It is the only spot along the stretch of the trail from Camp Floyd to Deep Creek that has supplies. I always make the short detour south a few miles from the Faust Pony Express Trail marker to get that last bottle of water, candy bar or bag of chips. The cafe also has a hot grill.
Keep in mind Simpson Springs and points beyond are the wrong place to wish you had more water or food. Check ahead by calling 435-839-3450 for hours.
From the Silver Sage Cafe, you can easily get back on track. When you leave the Silver Sage, turn right onto state Route 36 and then right again on Castagno Road and head down the hill to Main Street. Turn left on Main and then follow it south to Sharp Road. Turn right on Sharp road and follow this well-maintained gravel road west to the foot of the mountains where it will bend to the north and tie back in with the Pony Express Trail just before it ascends Lookout Pass.
As you drive along this road, notice the great views of the Sheeprock Mountains to the south and massive Red Pine Mountain in front of you. Notice how in places the Sheeprock and Onaqui mountains have suffered range fires that have reduced the hills to a barren state, covered only by white juniper skeletons.
The interface between the deep green junipers and the skeleton forest is abrupt in some places.
Lookout Pass was initially called “General Johnston’s Pass” in honor of Sydney Albert Johnston, who was the Commanding General of Camp Floyd in 1860. The pass was named by Capt. James Hervey Simpson, who was largely responsible for the selection of the route the Pony Express would eventually follow through the West Desert.
Capt. Simpson was the chief engineer who accompanied Johnston’s Army during its march across the plains to Utah and for the duration of their stay at Camp Floyd.
One of my favorite stories from the Utah War is how a party of Mormon Guerrilla fighters descended on Simpson’s supply wagons on the Oregon Trail in Wyoming. The teamsters of the 76-wagon Army supply train were terrified of the Danites due to the stories they had heard around campfires on the prairies. They surrendered, begging Smith for mercy.
When Capt. Simpson learned that Lot Smith intended to burn the train in the winter time on the Wyoming plains, Simpson cried out to him “For God’s sake, don’t burn the trains!” and Smith replied “It is for God’s sake that I will burn them.” It was a very cold winter in the coals at Fort Bridger that year.
It is often stated that other men, most notably George Chorpenning and Howard Egan, should get the credit for opening this trail. While Chorpenning moved his stations down to the route after Simpson’s expedition, and Egan carved the route right out of the barren wilderness, Simpson made the in-depth reconnaissance of the trail.
Most importantly, he produced a detailed map and got his report published in 1859. Simpson’s “Report of Explorations across the Great Basin Territory of Utah for a direct Wagon-Route from Camp Floyd to Genoa in Carson Valley” will be referenced often as we move across the West Desert.
Simpson graduated West Point in 1832 and shortly thereafter served in the bloody 2nd Seminole War in Florida. Simpson went on to become a member of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers.
He distinguished himself by overseeing dozens of complex projects that helped pave the way for settlement and commerce in a growing nation. He supervised harbor construction at Lake Erie, conducted surveys of the Great Lakes in Ohio and Michigan, oversaw construction of roads in Minnesota and completed a coastal survey of Florida.
In 1849, Simpson mapped a wagon route from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Santa Fe, New Mexico and then participated in the Navajo expedition where he is credited with discovering and mapping Chaco Canyon and Canyon De Chelly. We should use the term “discovered” carefully because the Native Americans who lived in the four corners area for millennia certainly knew those ruins existed.
In the fall of 1858, Capt. Simpson was ordered by Gen. Johnston to explore the West Desert and try to find a new wagon route to Carson Valley. Simpson’s 1858 expedition camped at Clover Spring and then crossed the mountains at a place he named “Reynold’s Pass” after Maj. John Fulton Reynolds, who first explored the pass in 1854 while in Utah as part of Col. Steptoe’s Command.
Several years later, Maj. General Reynolds was shot off his horse on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg while re-enforcing his old Camp Floyd buddy John Buford’s Corps. The name, however, did not last as this pass is known as “Johnson’s Pass” today and is the principal route to Dugway Proving Ground.
After leaving Reynold’s Pass (Johnson’s) and entering Skull Valley, Simpson stated that the group followed an old wagon track across the sand and sage. He stated that this track was made in 1855 when Deputy Marshall Wall and a posse chased the notorious bandit Carlos Murphy out onto the West Desert. Simpson’s guide was a Mormon scout named George Washington Bean.
In Bean’s journal, he stated that Simpson had a great disdain for the LDS church and President Brigham Young in particular. Bean stated that Simpson often spoke hard words against Young and one day Bean became fed up. He told Simpson that if he didn’t stop insulting the prophet, he would leave him and his whole crew on the desert to fend for themselves. After some considering, Simpson agreed to be civil and Bean continued as escort.
It was on this trip that Simpson discovered the springs in Tooele County that now bear his name. However, these springs were already well known by Egan. Because of the lateness of the season, Simpson explored only as far as Short Cut Pass (known now as Dugway Pass).
Simpson and the others stood in Dugway Pass in late October as a light snow fell and determined it would be best to wait until spring to complete the expedition. Greatly disappointed, Simpson returned to Camp Floyd and began working on preparations for the completion of the reconnaissance, which was authorized for the next year.
In next week’s article, we will take a look at Simpson’s Expedition of 1859 and one of his first campsites west of Camp Floyd: Lookout Pass. In the meantime, for those of you who are intrigued by Simpson, a local historian, Jesse G. Petersen, wrote a book on Simpson and his explorations in our desert entitled “A route for the Overland Stage – James H. Simpson’s 1859 Trail across the Great Basin.” I highly recommend it.
MAPS: Onaqui Mountains South; Lookout Pass; Vernon; Faust-USGS 1:24,000 quads
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He and his family live in Stansbury Park.