Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

June 14, 2022
Desert Odyssey: The Mountains and the The Desert – Part 7

“He dreamed of Ghosts and the Moon and Stars”

Neil Gaiman

Heading west from Fish Springs on the Pony Express National Historic Trail, the road bends to the north and climbs the bench of the Fish Springs Range to arrive in short order at another tall Pony Express Station monument that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in 1939-1940. 

While this monument commemorates the fact that there was a Pony Express Station at Fish Springs, it does not mark the spot where the station actually was. It does however provide an outstanding vantage point where you can look down on Fish Springs, the greenery of the marsh, and the old Thomas Ranch site, which consists of some large old cottonwoods set in tall grass around a flowing spring. 

Experts believe that the Pony Express Station was located about 100 meters west of the Thomas Ranch site. 

From up on the bench near the CCC marker, I once observed a giant full white moon rise above the Thomas Range to the east after a hot summer day. It was a haunting sight as that celestial object took control over the desert reflecting its pale light across the pools of Fish Springs and casting dark shadows from the monument and the cottonwoods down by the springs. 

As I have mentioned before this is a ghost desert. In many corners of this desert there are tales of mystery, calamity, murder and despair.

In fact, just a few hundred yards from the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, a burial was found eroding out of a low dune which consisted of a skeleton in a crude burial pit along with some biface obsidian points. Due to the degraded nature of the remains, it was impossible for carbon dating to tell the Bureau of Land Management researchers how old this burial was. 

After I learned of this burial which is referred to in the Archaeological Bulletin as “Fish Springs Man,” it made me wonder how many other ghostly dunes there are out in the desert? 

It’s something I wondered about that night out in the moonlight near the station marker. 

Continuing north from the Fish Springs Station marker the road will dip down to the level of the valley and as it does so, off to your right tucked under a tiny knoll, is a deep blue pool ringed by tall grass and cattails. This spring is called “Dead Man Spring” on the USGS topographic maps. Back in 1854, George Washington Bean, Porter Rockwell and several others were sent out west across the desert as scouts by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Jennings Steptoe in order to determine if it was possible for Steptoe and his command to cross the desert directly to California from Government Reservation on Rush Lake in Rush Valley. 

This reconnaissance ended in failure as the tiny expedition only made it as far as Redden Springs on the far side of the Salt Desert west of Granite Mountain after getting blasted by a wicked storm out in the middle of the playa. 

On their return trip, they passed by the northern end of the Fish Springs Range. When they approached these springs they were shocked to find mummified corpses standing upright in the springs about a foot and a half below the surface of the clear water. 

Turns out it was a custom of the local Indians to sometimes bury their dead in the springs by weighing their feet down with rocks so it would appear that they were standing up. 

From Dead Man Spring you can look out across the desert to the northwest and admire how Granite Mountain seems to drift, island-like on the bottom of the long gone sea that was once Lake Bonneville. 

Continuing North on the road you will pass by a larger and deeper pool called North Springs where you can sometimes observe some of the birds that visit Fish Springs. 

The road will then abruptly round the Northern Point of the Fish Springs Range and as it does  off to your left you will notice a cave entrance half way up the low mountain here that is closed off with rebar type fencing. A short, crude trail leads up to this cave from a two track spur off of the main road and there is an interpretive sign at the cave opening that states you are at “Hot Springs Cave.” 

This cave was listed on the National Register of Historic Places back in 1981 due to the fact that there is evidence within it of 11,000 years of human occupation. The sign states that the first human occupation of Fish Springs Marsh can be traced to the gradual evaporation of Pleistocene Lake Bonneville which resulted in the formation of the Fish Springs Marsh. Clues found within the cave have convinced archaeologists that the inhabitants of the cave were hunting and gathering the wild animals and plants of the marsh. 

From the cave mouth you can look north across the vast Salt Desert all the way to Pilot Peak. It is interesting to consider that back when this cave was occupied, you would have been looking across a shallow remnant sea, maybe only as deep as the current Great Salt Lake. Looking at it now makes you wonder how different the shoreline must have been and what kinds of ice age creatures roamed this area. As you contemplate, be wary of all the spiders that like to suspend themselves from the rocks and in between the salt bush and sage brush along the way up the trail to the cave.  

Back down on the Pony Express Route the road continues west around the north end of the range and as it does, you will notice interesting rock spires, points and other deformities that are strange during the daytime but even more so at night under the full moon. 

I stopped here one winter to stare at the rock formations here in the middle of the night and it was completely silent and there was a total absence of any wind. Imagine the express rider whose horse’s hooves would have shattered the silence as they charged on past places like this and then upon their passing. The suffocating silence of nothing would return, erasing any memory of the Pony Riders passing. 

As I sit here and write, I wonder what kind of evening it is out there in the desert tonight and imagine the numberless stars in that dark sky. 

Continuing on, the road will bend to the south and as it does it seems as though you are skirting the shore of the long gone ancient lake. This is the point where the magnificent, towering Deep Creek Range, the highest peaks along the entire route, come into and fill the view across the wide open expanse of Snake Valley. 

The road will continue south for about 2 miles at which point you will notice some old mine dumps on the hills to your left. You will also see some interesting old tunnels whose black entrances stare blankly out onto the desert. The hills behind the low mound that these tunnels burrow under are littered with the remains of the old Fish Springs mining camp that was occupied and operated in this area from the late 1890s to the mid 1920s. 

Millions of dollars of silver and lead ore were mined out of the range here and transported by horse drawn wagons all the way across the desert to the nearest rail head. A tiny, but super rough, little settlement known simply as Fish Springs grew up here. 

Fish Springs was a typical boomtown with dozens of miners working numerous different claims such as the Galena, Utah, Emma, Vulcan, Early Harvest and Wilson mines. 

The story of this camp, the characters who lived here, some for decades, and the ones who died, sometimes violently, and never left who lie in its tiny cemetery will be told in a different article. 

Just beyond this area the Pony Express Trail turns due west and heads straight for the Pleasant Valley Road Junction where Boyd’s Station was located back in the time of the Pony Express. As you get farther from the Fish Springs Range, and it shrinks in your rear view, consider all the echoes of the past and ghosts who haunt the desert in and around the Fish Springs Range. 

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