“You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world.”
Editor’s note: This is another installment in a multi-part series on exploring the Pony Express Trail through Tooele County.
As you continue on the Pony Express Trail, the view west of Simpson Springs, if you’re seeing it for the first time, is intimidating, yet awe inspiring.
The bumpy and dusty trail heads straight west until it’s lost in the Dugway Range many miles distant. About 2.5 miles west of Simpson Springs, a road heads south of the main trail. This is the Indian Springs Canyon/Death Canyon road. Both of these intriguing places in the Simpson Range deserve further exploration.
Continuing west, Table Mountain pyramid looms ahead and just before you get to the base of this volcanic looking, sentinel in the desert, the road takes a hard left and descends un-expectedly into Old River Bed, which until then has been hidden from view.
The Old River Bed was a subject of much fascination back in the days of the Pony Express, Overland Stage and early surveys. It had reached nearly legendary status in geologic circles and Capt. James H. Simpson, as well as members of the Clarence King survey, were excited at the prospect of seeing it.
Simpson described the place during his 1858 reconnaissance as follows: “At the foot of the mountain we are skirting about 8 miles from our last camp (Simpson Springs), I noticed a great deal of bunch grass. At this place the bottom of the valley is broken, and there is quite a low vale or arroyo, where if anywhere, water might possibly be got by digging. Indeed the indications are that there has been water here recently and the green grass in places show that it might probably be got not too far below the surface.”
Riverbed station was reportedly constructed in the fall of 1861 for the Overland Stage line. Ben Holladay, who has been nick-named the “Overland Napoleon,” operated the Overland Stage across the West Desert from 1861 until about 1866 when he sold his interests to the Wells Fargo company.
Riding the Overland Stage was rough. If you bought a ticket in Salt Lake City, you were in for a ridiculous, almost non-stop adventure to California. The following account by a Mr. Gould was published in the “Alta California” newspaper on Nov. 20, 1868: “There were 7 passengers in the coach and with a spanking team and live driver we rattled away. Arrived at Rush Valley at 0600 and had breakfast, got last water at riverbed station and headed over Dugway pass; dragging slowly along through flour like dust to Fish Springs. Arrived cramped and jaded at 8 p.m.. Had dinner, continued on, reached Deep Creek by 4:30 a.m. and had breakfast.”
What a miserable ride it must have been to cross the desert back in those days after the novelty of the adventure wore off.
Back to Old River Bed, in the vicinity of the Pony Express Station marker, the bed is a mile-wide channel, cut over 100-feet deep into the desert plain. Its ancient course runs from the vicinity of Fumarole Butte in the Sevier Desert and cuts a gorge between the Simpson Mountains on the east and the Keg Mountains on the west. It empties onto the Great Salt Lake Desert where it disappears.
Why is there a watercourse large enough to hold the Missouri River out here in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert? Some geologists believe that when Lake Bonneville began to recede, most of the water in the area around Delta and Sevier Lake drained north to the lower elevations of the salt desert. This draining action is thought to have cut the Old River Bed channel.
The Old River Bed was a particularly bad place for an Overland Stage station. As you stand at the station marker, imagine bandits or Indians on the desert waiting to ambush the stage as it emerged from the riverbed or descended into it. An approaching Pony Express rider or stage couldn’t see the bottom of the bed or out onto the desert until it was too late to react because it was hidden from the plain. This made the riverbed a great place for a hold up — and more than one occurred here.
The most famous one was when $40,000 in gold bullion was taken from the stagecoach at riverbed. Porter Rockwell was called in to investigate and eventually took care of the bandit. Harold Schindler’s book “Porter Rockwell — Man of God, Son of Thunder” recounts how Porter tracked the man to the backside of the Sheeprock Mountains in the vicinity of Erickson Pass.
Flash floods ravage the river bed from time to time, and as a result, there is no sign of the station remaining. To get an idea of the magnitude of desert floods, consider the following tale by Richard Erastus Egan, son of Maj. Howard Egan, while on a trip along the Pony Express Trail to deliver beef cattle to Ruby Valley:
“When we arrived at Simpson Springs the Pony Rider told us that we could not cross the river bed (seven miles west) until the road was repaired, as there had been a big flood that had torn the whole bottom out road and all. The rider on the previous trip going west, as he started down the bank heard a very heavy sound like a very heavy wind among trees. He stopped to listen; the sound was coming from the east and increasing rapidly. He put spurs to the pony and just as he made the opposite side of the bed, he could see a wall of water, brush and other debris 12-15 feet high, spread from bank to bank rolling down the river bed at race horse speed. If he had been the distance back across the bed when he heard the flood, he could not have escaped with his life.”
In 1860 Sir Richard Burton crossed the desert and kept a travel log in his book “City of the Saints.” Burton also mentioned large amounts of water in the river course stating “At times it runs 3 feet of water. The hills around are white capped through winter but snow seldom lies more than a week in the bottom.”
If you visit the Riverbed station location today and walk around the dusty, sandy area where the Civilian Conservation Corps marker is, it will be extremely difficult to imagine even a drop of water anywhere near this place. Massive Table Mountain to the south looms over the whole area as you stand at the marker. That little summit is well worth a deviation for those who like scrambling and bagging mountain summits.
Fike and Headley in their research of Pony Express Trail stations in Utah, made mention that it was hard for the Pony Express Trail Company to keep men at the station because they thought it was haunted by “Desert Fairies.”
Evidence of Archaic human occupation of the riverbed dates back many thousands of years. Perhaps it was their apparitions that were seen by the station men in the pale moonlight. It is also entirely possible that they drank too much whiskey with nothing better to do out in the desert as they were waiting for the next stage.
To make things even more creepy, think about how silent it is out there along the bottom of that dead river in the shadow of Table Mountain. Mark Twain in his book “Roughing It” published in 1862, described the silence he noted while out in the West Desert: “There is not a sound, not a sigh, not a whisper, not a buzz or a whir of wings or distant pipe of bird — not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air.”
The Old Riverbed is a fascinating place to visit. To get there, follow state Route 36 south of Tooele for 30 miles to the Pony Express Trail a few miles north of Vernon. Turn right onto the Pony Express Trail and proceed for 25 miles west to Simpson Springs and another 8 miles to Old Riverbed station.
Bring your imagination along because there is no evidence of the station other than a CCC marker. Take lots of extra water because there is no water in the Old Riverbed.
Maps: USGS 1:24000 Quads – “Simpson Springs,” “Coyote Springs” and “Table Mountain.”
BLM Salt Lake Field Office: 801-977-4300.
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.