“Wells without water are horrible revelations in the desert places”
New York Herald, Salt Lake City Correspondent sentiment in the 1860s
Cruising west across the 20 mile desert beyond the Old River Bed you will come to what passes for a major road junction out west at a miserable place called Topaz Well. There is an old water tank and long unused trough. These ruins make for a good reference point at the road junction because they are visible for miles on the flat desert floor.
If you turn left and travel south from Topaz Well, you will arrive in the vicinity of Topaz Mountain. This mountain is famous for the Topaz crystals that are found throughout the volcanic tuff, or Rhyolite, that the mountain is formed out of. Continuing Southeast from Topaz Mountain you can reach the town of Delta in about 40 or so miles.
About a mile south of the Topaz Well on the Pony Express trail, a dusty old two track heads west towards the mountains. This is the Dugway Station access road. It is actually the old route of the Pony Express which has been abandoned for the better road a mile to the north.
The modern Pony Express Trail has left the Dugway Station site behind and for good reason — Dugway Station is likely the most forlorn and miserable place in the Utah desert.
The most minimal vegetation clings on in some places out there but the terrain is mostly just alkali that when disturbed in the slightest, turns to fine alkali powder. There is an old water course near the station marker and that is likely why the early trailblazers — Howard Egan and George Chorpenning — chose this place for a station site.
For years, the occupants of Dugway Station in the employ of the Pony Express or Overland Stage, worked in vain to find water by digging a well next to the draw. They sunk their well over a hundred feet here but it was just as bone dry at the bottom as the alkali moon dust at the top.
The men who worked stations like Dugway had to be of firm mind because as John Bluth wrote in his dissertation, “Confrontation with an Arid Land,” these station men endured and unusual life which he described as such “Satisfied with loneliness, boredom, hot and cold weather, they survived on a liberal mixture of alcohol and wages…..more of the former than the latter. Only the silence of the desert matched their loneliness and as with the silence, the loneliness ended with the periodic noisy arrival and departure of the clattering mail coach.”
As you stand out in the middle of nothing at the Dugway Station marker today, you can experience this crushing silence while imagining how you would deal with dozens of hours, sometimes days on end, with no contact with the outside world of any kind and no noise whatsoever but that of the wind.
Back out on the modern Pony Express Trail, the road continues west from Topaz Well heading straight for the mountains.
These mountains are the Dugway Range and they were a formidable obstacle back in the late 1850s when Captain James H. Simpson of the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, stationed at Camp Floyd, reconnoitered this route for the feasibility of a wagon road to the Carson City area and California beyond.
The problem with this range is that its abrupt and steep nature required the traveler to waste 20 or so miles by detouring around its northern end and then head way back south to pick up the route that then detours further south to avoid the Fish Springs Slough.
Simpson found this detour unacceptable, so he searched for and found what he dubbed “Short Cut Pass” in October of 1858. Just a few weeks after this discovery, George Chorpenning had several men employed in an attempt to improve the road over the pass because he moved his entire mail carrying operation south to Simpson’s route in order to save on unnecessary miles in the crossing of the desert.
Chorpenning was an iron man of the Old West. His operation was nicknamed the “Jackass Mail” because his mode of transportation was a string of mules, upon which he strapped the mail bags. During the 1850s, he had a government contract to carry the U.S. mail west across the desert and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, California. On a few occasions, the mules gave out and were consumed by the starving men who then had to complete the delivery of the mail on foot.
According to Simpson, when he passed this way again in 1859, Chorpenning’s men were not doing a very good job on the road here because it was as steep and rocky as ever.
In fact, back in those days, when a wagon would attempt to transit this pass, the occupants would have to dig a trench or “dugway” on the uphill side where the wagon would pass and then anchor one side of the wagons wheels in the dugway so that the whole mess would not roll over on the steep grade and crash to pieces as it tumbled down the mountain.
This “dugway” made a lasting impression on those who traveled over it back in the day — so much so that Short Cut Pass was renamed “Dugway Pass” by travelers in the 1860s. The mountain range and the sprawling U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground to the north are also named after the old dugway.
At the foot of this pass before you make the steep ascent there is an interesting little knob that is separated from the Dugway Range. This landform is called Bittner Knoll.
I have not been able to find the source of its name yet but Bittner Knoll is a great little detour from the trail for a hike because it has a prominent east facing terrace that was cut by Lake Bonneville’s wave action. Upon this terrace lie some gigantic boulders that have tumbled from the rock pile above. Several of these boulders form a natural window and from this vantage point you have a sweeping view of the hideous 20 mile desert with the Dugway Station site visible in the foreground and the Table Mountain Pyramid beyond with the Simpson Range rising up behind it.
Continuing on up the pass, if you pay attention just before where the road bends to make its final, steep ascent, you can see remnants of the old road about 50-100 feet below the current road grade. The type of rock construction of some of the base of that old road leads me to believe that those may have been route improvements that the Civilian Conservation Corps undertook back in the 1930s.
Once at the pass you will have a great view back down onto the desert with the round mound of Bittner Knoll in the foreground and the mysterious Keg Mountain complex across the desert. The west descent of the pass is much more gradual as it drops you down into the basin of the Salt Desert.
There are several prominent peaks in the Dugway Range that may catch your attention. First, 6,120-foot Pyramid Peak looms large north of the road. When viewed while heading east along this stretch you will understand where it gets its name from. This mountain is a whitish grey Rhyolite plug that consists of wind and rain tortured rocks that rise abruptly from the surrounding terrain.
It is interesting to note that the summit of Pyramid Peak at this section of the trail, while impressive looking, is about 50 feet lower in elevation than the summit of Lookout Pass back in the Onaqui Range.
Notice the change in vegetation and feel of the mountains here. Scattered juniper exist but calling these scanty trees woods would be a severe stretch. It’s rocky, dusty and hot in the Dugway Range and the only place where there may be a spring or a few larger trees would be on the east face of 6,749 foot Castle Peak far to the north.
The section of trail you are now on between Simpson Springs and Fish Springs is sometimes referred to as “The Pony” by locals who live in Snake Valley or work out at the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. They refer to crossing the desert for supplies along this route as “Riding the Pony”.
The “Pony,” as they call it, is a super rough ride by any mode of transportation as it can be very rocky. You may encounter loose rocks, potholes and alkali dust pits where the road has failed all together, and loose gravel.
There is no water out here anywhere. There are no services either. You must be prepared if you venture out into this portion of the desert.
Always ensure you carry a spare tire, necessary tools, warm clothing, plenty of water, a full tank of gas and plenty of food.
Cell phones work in some areas, but in many places you are completely off the grid so be prepared. Sign in at the visitor registers at Lookout Pass and Simpson Springs. If you can avoid it, do not travel alone.
As you stand in utter silence at the Dugway Station marker or in Dugway Pass and look out upon the desert, consider the Pony Express Rider who rode 75-100 miles a day across this terrain, changing mounts in the blink of an eye at the desert stations between Meadow Creek (Faust) and Willow Springs Station seven times or so.
They rode fast across the desert and over the mountains on California Mustangs and the pounding they took along their daily rides often left them with a nosebleed. In the sweltering summer heat and dust of the Dugway Range, or the freezing drifting and blowing snow of Skull Valley in the winter, these riders carried the mail through.
In next week’s article we will discuss the Geode Beds, Black Rock, Fish Springs and beyond.