“Over every mountain there is a path though it may not be seen from the valley.”
Editor’s note: This is another installment in a multi-part series on exploring the Pony Express Trail through Tooele County. Last week’s article entailed Dugway Station.
Heading west, past the Topaz Well on the Pony Express Trail, the road runs straight into the bulk of the Thomas and Dugway ranges. The road bends around a corner that is unseen from the valley and passes up and over the mountains. This is the famous “Dugway” for which the range was named.
In 1858, Capt. James H. Simpson arrived at this pass, which he called “Short-cut Pass,” because by passing through the range at this point, instead of going around it, the traveler saved nearly 25 miles.
When Simpson arrived here in October 1858, it was cold and windy. As a light snow began to fall, he decided to return to Camp Floyd and wait until the next season to venture beyond the pass. The land west was unknown to Simpson, temperatures were dangerously cold, and food and water were scarce in the area.
Simpson and his party returned on May 5, 1859 and by that time, Chorpenning’s men had built a road through the pass, which Simpson describes, “Through this pass Chorpenning and Company, the mail contractors, have built a road but it is so crooked and steep as scarcely to permit our wagons to get up it.”
As described in last week’s article, in the covered wagon days, many pioneer trains had to construct their own roads as they went along. This was an arduous task to say the least. To save on labor on really steep slopes that had to be traversed, pioneers would dig a trench in the mountain and anchor the wheels of the wagon on the uphill side in trench or “Dugway.”
This anchoring hopefully prevented the wagons from tumbling down to the bottom of a ravine, destroying the wagon and scattering its contents. Simpson, being an Army Corps of Engineers Officer and the Garrison Engineer at Camp Floyd, was understandably un-impressed with the Dugway at Short Cut Pass, which is now known as Dugway Pass, and as a side note, is where Dugway Proving Ground derives its name.
Simpson described the pass further: “At the foot of the pass we find a couple of men of the party living in a tent. They are employed in improving the road through the pass and digging for water. At the well near this tent they got down 10 feet when they came to hard rock.”
Seems like the Pony Express Trail men at Dugway Station were not the only ones who failed to find water near the Dugway Range. The best description of a Pony Express era struggle over the pass is given by Sir Richard Burton in his book “City of the Saints.”
Burton had arrived at Dugway Station via the Overland Stage in the early evening of Sept. 29, 1860. Burton stated, “After roughly supping up, we set out with a fine round moon high in the skies, to ascend the “Dugway Pass” by a rough dusty road winding around the shoulder of a hill through which a fimura had burst its way through. Arriving on the summit we sat down while our mules returned to help the baggage wagons and amused ourselves with the strange aspect of the scene. To the north or before us, and far below, lay a broad stretch white as snow, the salterus desert west of the Great Salt Lake. It wore a grisly aspect in the silvery light of the moon.”
If you have never been out in the West Desert at night during a full moon, you should put it on your bucket list. The desert is so silent and still it is almost as if you are within the canvas of a painting. Some might say the experience is even a bit creepy, but I think it is peaceful and beautiful.
Burton continued: “Behind us was the brown plain, sparsely dotted with shadows and dewless in the evening as in the morning. As the party ascended the summit with much noisy shouting, they formed a picturesque group — the well-bred horses wandering to graze, the white tilted wagons with their panting mules, and the men in felt capotes in huge leather leggings. In honor of our good star which had preserved every hoof from accident we ‘liqoured up’ on that summit and then began the descent.”
I love to read old texts and tie others experiences from years past to geographic points on the ground. It is interesting to go to places like Dugway Pass and sit there and contemplate the scene Burton described.
I did just that one evening when I decided to camp at Dugway Pass. Now I must say, Dugway Pass is not the best place you could choose to camp; it is rocky and there is no good place to pitch a tent. I parked my car just off the road, and due to the rocky nature of the ground, decided to sleep under the stars.
It was very dark that night. All the stars were visible from horizon to horizon against the black, and seemed so low they could touch the ground. The air was completely still, more so than on any previous experience of mine, and the desert was silent. I decided to conduct an experiment, so I put a candle on a flat rock and lit it. Those who attempt to light campfires know how problematic it can be to keep a match lit, but the candle sat there and burned, flame straight up.
I walked over to the edge of the road where I could look east down the pass and sat on the rim of the slope, possibly in the same spot Burton did 157 years ago. I imagined what it would have looked to watch a group of creaking, leaning wagons labor up the pass, fearing a deathly tumble every foot of elevation gained, whips snapping and mules screaming.
Then east towards the Old River Bed, I noticed a lone pair of headlights that appeared out of the black and then after a few minutes disappeared and I was alone again. I didn’t have the most comfortable night on those rocks at my campsite, because I had the strange sensation someone or something was creeping up on me in the dark.
Dugway Pass is an interesting place today. You can gaze east from there all the way to the Simpson Mountains, with the Pyramid of Table Mountain in the foreground across the 20-mile flat of Dugway Valley. To the south is a low, round hill called “Bittner Knoll,” which is an interesting destination in its own right. Its summit is littered with black, lichen-covered boulders, and from its top, which resembles a large camel hump, you have a fine view down onto Dugway Station site 1 mile to the east.
I wonder if the American Indians didn’t utilize its summit as an observation point so they could spy on activities at the station.
From the bottom of Dugway Pass looking west up to the summit, notice the dirt fills, rock stabilization and path of the “old” road, the route and quality of which no doubt has been re worked several times.
How to get there: Follow state Route 36 south of Tooele approximately 30 miles and look for the Pony Express National Historic Trail turn-off about a mile past the Meadow Creek or “Faust’s Station” Pony Express Monument. Turn right and follow the Pony Express Trail west for approximately 49 miles and you will arrive at Sir Richard Burton’s vantage point on Dugway Pass. This is a remote, long stretch of rocky, dusty road with no services available. Make sure you have a good spare tire, plenty of gas, food and especially water. At the top of the pass the trail bends sharply right around a blind curve. Slow down and be careful, but also imagine what the Pony Express Trail Rider must have felt rounding that same curve or popping up over the summit not knowing if an Indian ambush was waiting on the other side.
Maps: USGS 1:24,000 Quad “Dugway Pass”
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.