Sunday, February 20, 2022

Union Pacific: Palisade Canyon


If you grow up where rainfall is plentiful, if you live where there is enough humidity to keep your lips from pealing and your eyes from itching, if it never occurs to you that you might not have enough water to take a shower, then the Basin and Range Province in northeastern Nevada, should you visit, will seem like an out-of-focus picture,  or an out-of-tune piano.  You will look at the wide sky,  the mile after mile of sage, the endless ridges standing like fences, and you will feel disoriented, as though trying to find the door in a dark room.  This cannot really be a place, you will think.  This can only be the product of an imagination bereft of moorings, floating endlessly in the abyss.

And you will be correct. 

The Basin and Range Province is like nothing you have ever seen before, or ever will see again; a gigantic washboard on a grand almost unimaginable scale.  One sculpted depression (basin) leads to an equally sculpted ridge (range), towering thousands of feet, followed by another depression, then another ridge, and on and on and on – a cycle that seems to the weary earthbound traveler endless, like an Irish folk tune repeating itself over and over until swallowed by monotony or death, which in the case of Irish folk music may be the same thing.

The first transcontinental railroad plowed eastward through the middle of this geography, the Central Pacific, racing against time and finances to lay as much track as possible before meeting the Union Pacific building west.  If one wonders why the Union Pacific traversed twice as much ground, one need only look at a topographical map of the Sierra Nevada and the Basin and Range of northern Nevada to recognize the obstacles to be overcome by the exploited Chinese laborers who, to this day, are not given just due for uniting North America.  This, of course, led to the slaughter of the bison and Native Americans, but the Chinese were not responsible for that.

We are talking about a territory that even by the standards of the isolated American West is remote and desolate, virtually uninhabited.  One can drive Nevada 225 south out of Idaho and not see a living soul for a hundred miles.  You will pass through the valley of the Owyhee River, winding and turning mile and after mile through a narrow canyon, past Mountain City, not really a place at all, just a few derelict buildings lining the deserted highway, past the village of Owyhee, which contains the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes Food Distribution Center, a Mormon Church and a tiny consolidated school, a village that gives new meaning to “forlorn,” past Wildhorse Dam, a small, concave, concrete wall wedged between narrow cliffs that impounds Wild Horse Reservoir, an isolated lake in the middle of a desert, surrounded by a few mobile homes and mile after mile of sage.  Eventually, if you persevere, you will reach Elko, Nevada, and the tracks of America’s first transcontinental railroad.

This aerial image  shows the Basin and Range Country of northeastern Nevada.  The ranges are the dark areas trending north-south.  The basins are the cream-colored areas between.  The light color is the result of ancient lakes now dried to alkaline residue that resists all plant life.  The far right of the image shows the western edge of the Great Salt Flats of Utah, once filled with water stretching eastward to Salt Lake City.

The black line is the original Overland Route, which found passage through this rugged geography by following Palisade Canyon along the Humboldt River, with headwaters slightly east of Wells.  The river is over 300 miles long, is contained entirely within Nevada and drains into the Humboldt Sink southwest of Lovelock -- one of the few major rivers in North America that does not drain to the sea.  In his letter to the Senate of 1846, John Frémont described the river:  "It is a very peculiar stream, and has many characteristics of an Asiatic river — the Jordan, for example, though twice as long — rising in mountains and losing itself in a lake of its own, after a long and solitary course."  As the above image shows, the Humboldt is the only level passage across northeastern Nevada.  Any other route would cross ridge after ridge after ridge, all thousands of feet high.  Interstate 80, constructed in the 20th century, also follows the river through this country.

The Western Pacific, constructed early in the 20th century, crossed the middle of the Great Salt Flats.  (The Overland Route had crossed the northern edge.)  Upon entering Nevada, the railroad (shown in red above) stared the Basin and Range Country squarely in the face, so the tracks turned due north, running sideways up one ridge to Arnold Loop, then turning back to the south before heading east across Silver Zone Pass, then running southwest across the Goshute Valley and entering the Pequops Mountains tunnel, then northwest across more alkaline flats to intersect with the Overland Route at Wells.  From there to Winnemuca, the Western Pacific followed the Overland Route down the valley of the Humboldt River before diverging again toward northern California and the Feather River Canyon.

When the Overland Route was operated by Southern Pacific and the Western Pacific was an independent railroad, the two lines shared traffic on the paired tracks.  Today, both roads are operated by Union Pacific. 

Arnold Loop, Nevada.  Behind the train is the next basin.  Behind the basin is the next range.  This pattern is repeated over and over across northeast Nevada.

Southwest of Elko, between the south end of the Tuscarorar Mountains and the north end of the Shoshone Range, the river and the tracks plunge deep into Palisade Canyon, carved through ancient basalt and andesite, the residue of multiple volcanic eruptions that occurred over a time period dwarfing, indeed obliterating, the minuscule years that homo sapiens has walked the earth.  

The first American to report on the Humboldt River and Palisade Canyon was John Frémont, whose life seems too incredible to be true, like a character out of Mark Twain.  Frémont was a noted and notorious explorer of the 19th century, the son of Charles Frémon a French-Canadian school teacher, and Anne Whiting, the youngest daughter of a Virginia planter.  At 17, she married 62-years-old John Pryor, who hired Frémon as her tutor.  Tutor and pupil eventually ran away together when Pryor discovered their affair, settling in Norfolk, where John Frémont was born.

After the death of Charles Frémon,  Anne moved her family to Charleston, South Carolina.  John W. Mitchell, attorney and family friend, provided for Frémont's education at Charleston College, where Frémont was expelled in 1831.

From this time forward, Frémont was like a pinball bouncing from one high score to another.  He became friends with prominent South Carolina politician Joel Poinsett and obtained an appointment as a second lieutenant in the United States Topographical Corps, where he participated in surveying a route for the Charleston, Louisville and Cincinnati railroad.  When Poinsett became Secretary of War, he arranged for Frémont to assist French scientist Joseph Nicollet in exploring the lands between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

At the eastern edge of Palisade Canyon, an eastbound grainer rolls on the old Western Pacific line towards the small yard in Elko.  The old Southern Pacific line is about a half mile behind the photographer.

A very late westbound Amtrak No. 5, running on the original Overland Route, is preparing to enter Nevada's Palisade Canyon.  The old Western Pacific line is in the foreground.  The Humboldt River flows between the tracks.

The pinball kept bouncing.  Frémont's work with Nicollet led him to Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs.  At Benton's Washington home, Frémont met Benton's 16-year-old daughter Jessie and quickly fell for her.  Benton opposed the romance, so in 1841, Frémont and Jessie eloped.  Eventually Frémont's political skills, or simply blind luck, perhaps both, if they are not the same thing, carried the day.  Benton not only accepted the marriage, he became Frémont's patron -- a neat trick in anyone's book.

Benton pursued with religious fervor the political cause known as Manifest Destiny, the idea that North America from Atlantic to Pacific should belong to the United States, and successfully shepherded appropriations through Congress for national surveys of the Oregon Trail, the Oregon Country, the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Congress authorized three expeditions, with Frémont as leader.

His first expedition explored the Wind River in Wyoming, where Frémont climbed a mountain over 13,000 feet high, named it after himself, planted an American flag and claimed the ground for the United States.  Upon his return to Washington, he and his wife wrote a Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains (1843), printed in newspapers across the country, making them celebrities.

The second expedition scouted the Oregon Trail and the Columbia River, stopping along the way to explore the north side of the Great Salt Lake.  Traveling west along the Columbia, the scouting party mapped Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood, reaching the Dalles on November 5.  

Frémont and his party then headed south to explore the Sierra Nevada, becoming the first Americans to look upon Lake Tahoe.  Continuing south through what we now call the Central Valley of California, they ascended Tehachapi Pass.  It is unknown if they thought a railroad could be constructed through such rugged terrain.  They followed the Mormon Trail to Las Vegas, then on to Utah, then west into the Great Basin, where Frémont discovered that the land between Salt Lake City and Reno was endorheic, meaning that no water in that area drained to the sea.

In August 1844, Frémont arrived in St. Louis, ending a journey that lasted over one year.  He and Jessie returned to Washington and wrote a second report.  The Senate printed 10,000 copies, distributed to support westward expansion.   

Westbound local.

DPU on westbound manifest.

In 1845, the third Frémont expedition embarked from Saint Louis, intending to find the headwaters of the Arkansas River.  The party eventually reached the Great Salt Lake, then the Humboldt River.  Frémont filed a report to the Senate in 1846, published later in a book available nationwide, which stated:

This river possesses qualities which, in the progress of events, may give it both value and fame. It lies on the line of travel to California and Oregon, and is the best route now known through the Great Basin. . . . It furnishes a level unobstructed way for nearly three hundred miles, and a continuous supply of the indispensable articles of water, wood, and grass. Its head is towards the Great Salt Lake, and consequently towards the Mormon settlement, which must become a point in the line of emigration to California and the lower Columbia. Its termination is within fifty miles of the base of the Sierra Nevada, and opposite the Salmon Trout River pass [now called the Truckee River and Donner Pass] — a pass only seven thousand two hundred feet above the level of the sea, and less than half that above the level of the Basin, and leading into the valley of the Sacramento, some forty miles north of Nueva Helvetia [John Sutter's trading colony located at present day Sacramento]. These properties give to this river prospective value in future communications with the Pacific Ocean.

In this passage,  Frémont describes the exact route chosen by the Central Pacific.

Westbound in Palisade Canyon.

Eastbound in Palisade Canyon.

Those unfamiliar with the West often assume it to be one large desert punctuated by mountains, like a patch of weeds pock-marked with mole hills.  This misses incredible diversity.  Each mountain ridge receives ample rainfall and supports its own eco-system of pinon, juniper, pine, bear, beaver, deer and other assorted creatures, while the deserts below are as varied as ice cream flavors.  For example, southern Arizona is part of the Sonoran Desert, which contains many endemic plants and animals, such as the saguaro and organ pipe cacti, and is clearly distinct from the Great Basin (which includes northeastern Nevada).  The Sonoran provides subtropical warmth in winter.  By contrast, Elko, Nevada, the eastern terminus of the paired trackage, sits over 5,000 feet above sea level, even though located in one of the parallel basins serrating the state.  Its winters are brutally cold, inhospitable to saguaro and organ pipes.  The only cacti your author has seen in this area are prickly pear, and these are almost dwarf-like, low to the ground to avoid the harsh winds of December and January.  Elko receives about 10 inches of rain per year, just enough to support some semi-arid grasses.  Cattle ranching is common in these parts, usually in bottom land close to water, though even there it takes several acres to support a single cow.

Cattle grazing in the valley of the Humboldt River (located between the two tracks).

Near its headwaters, the Humboldt River is shallow, clear-running, cold -- perfect for trout.  As the river circumnavigates across the Great Basin, however, it picks up silt and heat, becoming distinctly muddy in its lower sections, today home only to some warm water species that state authorities began stocking in the mid-twentieth century.  In Palisade Canyon, close to the source, though, the water is clear enough to see the bottom of the channel, at least when your author has visited.

The two railroads hug opposite banks like opposing armies.  Because the Overland Route came first, it chose the easier passage, preferring wide shelves of dry ground wherever possible.  The Western Pacific was left with one headache after another as it twisted and turned along narrow ledges, drilling tunnels where the Overland Route was "high and dry."  In one location deep in the canyon, the Western Pacific actually crossed above the Southern Pacific tracks on a steel girder bridge that led to a narrow basalt ledge blasted from a sheer canyon wall.   

In the depths of the canyon, far from Interstate 80 and any other trace of civilization, the only sound is wind through grass and the faint rumble of the occasional approaching train.  Traffic is not heavy here, which seems anomalous since this was the first road across the continent, but the Overland Route faces multiple mountain grades and twisting canyons, while most high-speed, high-priority trains cross the BNSF Transcon along the 35th parallel, a relatively direct route from Chicago to Los Angeles on significantly milder gradients.  One will see intermodals here, but the rails are also home to manifests, grain, oil and coal.  Amtrak runs daily trains 5 and 6, but if they are on time, which they often are not, they come through in the dark.


Mid-train on an eastbound manifest loaded with wood products, a common commodity on this railroad.  Virtually all trains have distributed power either in the middle or on the rear, or both.  Some trains are incredibly long, approaching two miles, and travel very sedately along the river.

Westbound stacks on the Overland Route are crossing under the old Western Pacific line.

The eastern mouth of the canyon is framed by gently sloping hills and a valley of grass and sage nourished by the river -- maybe fifteen feet wide at this location in summer and a few feet deep.  The water is cold, even on hot days.  The stones in the river's bed are smooth and polished, as smooth and polished as marbles, as though water has washed over them for a very long time.  

One imagines the engineers and construction workers on the Western Pacific, building around and over and under the Overland Route, watching trains roar past each day as the new road continued slowly west to the Feather River Canyon, wondering if their efforts made any sense -- building a railroad in the immense shadow of the original transcontinental mainline, and not just in the shadow, in some cases on top of it, in others underneath.

I suppose, honestly, that they did not care, as long as they were paid.  In my own legal work, I spend much time drafting contractual language dry as dust, boring as a sermon.  I wonder if anyone will ever read it, if anyone will ever understand it.  Does anyone even care?  In the long run, I suppose I do not, as long as I am paid. 

Westbound manifest entering Palisade Canyon.


Westbound stacks doing same.

Eastbound autos exiting canyon.

Eastbound empty coal doing same.

Nevada statehood arrived October 31, 1864, when officials telegraphed the new constitution to Washington nine days before the November 8 presidential election -- the largest ever transmission by telegraph, providing three electoral votes for Abraham Lincoln's reelection.  One of two states added to the Union during the Civil War (the other was West Virginia), Nevada quickly acquired the nickname "The Battle Born State."

Prior to the European invasion, the area was occupied by the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe.  The first Europeans were Spanish, naming the place Nevada ("snow"), likely because the Spaniards saw the mountains on the border of California.  If you have ever been there in winter, you understand why.

The region was part of the Spanish Empire until Mexican independence in 1821, becoming American territory with the Mexican-American War of 1848, incorporated as part of Utah Territory in 1850.  The discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859, beneath Mount Davidson near Virginia City, generated a population boom leading to the creation of a separate Nevada Territory.

Boom towns sprang up like whack-a-moles, creating both fantastic wealth and fantastic poverty, with poverty leading about fifty-to-one.  Virginia City's population exploded from 2,345 in 1860 to 7,048 in 1870 and 10,917 in 1880. 

But booms fade.  By 1890, Virginia City's population dropped to 6,433. By 1900, it had settled back to about 2,500.  Today the town is a small tourist attraction, kind of like a wild west amusement park, and gives little hint of the fortune extracted from the ground.  From 1860 to 1880, according to the United States Geological Survey, 6,971,641 tons, 640 pounds were taken from the ground and milled.  Peak production occurred in 1877, with the mines producing over $14,000,000 of gold and $21,000,000 of silver (about $300,000,000 and $500,000,00 today, February 2020).

By 1930, Nevada's population had declined by  75%.  Those remaining decided to take drastic action -- drastic at least for the time (early 20th century) and place (United States of America).  Imagine a convent's selling liquor or an Oklahoman's praising Texas.  In 1931 the state legalized gambling.  Good rail lines and highways (from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and from Reno to San Francisco) transformed the state from desert and destitution to glitz and glamour.

Although the state's western regions have long held the allure for Californians intent on losing money, the last fifty years or so have seen a remarkable birth along the eastern border with Utah.  From about 1970 on, either Latter Day Saints lost their scruples or else non-Mormons invaded Salt Lake City.  Perhaps both.  In any event, if you stand along Interstate 80 in the Great Salt Flats on a Friday evening at sundown, westbound traffic forms a broad white line of headlights as far as the curvature of the earth allows sight.  Wendover, Nevada, on the Utah border, one of the most desolate places on earth, where training took place for the crews who dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, has without fanfare or notice or even publicity grown into a mini-Las Vegas.  Casinos have sprouted like wild flowers.  On Sunday evening, the traffic flood reverses back to Salt Lake City, a movement as regular as the tides. 

Mid-train on westbound stacks.

Eastbound merchandise freight on the original Western Pacific line.

Eastbound merchandise freight reverse-running on the original Overland Route.  At this location, the bridges of the two railroads are side-by-side.

After exploring the Great Basin as part of his third expedition, Frémont crossed the Sierra Nevada to New Helvetia where he stayed for some time with John Sutter.  He and his party then traveled to Monterrey, where Frémont engaged and enraged Mexican officials who correctly feared that the American wanted California for his own.  (At this time, California was still part of Mexico.)  Frémont was eventually ordered to leave, and his party traveled north, slaughtering Native Americans along the way.  The worst massacre was at the Sacramento River, where Frémont's crew ambushed natives without resistance.  Casualty estimates vary from 120 to over 700.  Kit Carson, a member of the party, called it "perfect butchery."

Frémont's slaughters were in keeping with his belief, and the belief of his patron Benton, that the American West, and most specifically California, should be occupied solely by Americans.  He saw himself fostering Manifest Destiny.

He continued fostering as he traveled into Oregon Territory, killing Native Americans on sight.  The Natives responded with a raid that killed three of Frémont's men.  Frémont then replied with the Klamath Lake Massacre, killing the inhabitants of a small village and burning it to the ground.

This view of a westbound manifest in the valley makes the country look almost verdant.  Away from the river, however, the land is dry and brown as shown on the hillside.

Westbound local that runs daily from Elko.

High priority stacks.  Above the rear of the train is one of the abandoned buildings in the ghost town of Palisade.

After the Mexican-American War, Frémont parlayed his political connections into an appointment as Military Governor of California.  He was subsequently ordered to relinquish his post but delayed compliance in hopes that the order might be remanded.  For once, the pinball missed the digit-counters.  Brigadier General Stephen Kearney had Frémont arrested and court-martialed.  Frémont was tried, acquitted of mutiny, convicted of disobedience toward a superior officer and sentenced to a dishonorable discharge.  Almost immediately, President James Polk commuted the sentence, without granting a full pardon for the conviction, allowing Frémont (by now a popular national figure) to return to active duty -- a favor to Senator Benton.  Protesting the lack of a complete pardon,  Frémont resigned his Commission and settled in the new American Eden -- California.

Hoping to restore his reputation, Frémont planned to organize another expedition to scout a potential rail route along the 38th parallel from St. Louis to San Francisco.  When his father-in-law was unable to secure government financing, Frémont raised the money privately.  

Upon reaching an outpost in eastern Colorado, where the ground was already covered by a foot of snow, Frémont was told not to continue into the mountains.  Since his goal was to demonstrate that a railroad along the 38th parallel could be operated throughout the year, he ignored the advice and proceeded to Pueblo, planning to follow the Arkansas River into the heart of the Rockies.

Had he held course, he might have succeeded, for that was the route later followed by the Rio Grande across Tennessee Pass.  However, for reasons never clearly explained, the party turned south toward the Sangre de Christo Mountains.  Unable to find a pass suitable for a railroad, Frémont crossed the very top of the peaks (over 12,000 feet) in a blizzard.  By the time the party reached Taos, ten men were dead.

Eastbound on the Western Pacific.

One of the most interesting sites along the Humboldt River is the ghost town of Palisade.  Originally named Palisades, the town was created by the Central Pacific in 1870 and rivaled Elko and Carlin as departure points for men and equipment heading south to the silver mines at Eureka.  In 1875, a railroad was constructed to connect the Overland Route to those mines -- the Eureka and Palisade. 

The new railroad ran eighty-five miles south and carried silver to the Central Pacific and the wider world. Lumber was shipped back to Eureka to provide trusses for the mines.  The Eureka and Palisade operated four locomotives, fifty-eight freight cars, three passenger coaches, a turntable, engine house, boiler room, blacksmith shop and machine shop. In 1877, the railroad transported over thirty-one million tons of ore.

The silver boom ended in 1885.  Passenger service was cut to thrice-weekly.  In 1893, the railroad posted its first deficit, in 1900 it went into receivership and in 1902 was reorganized under the same name.  Three years later saw the beginning of another boom.  Silver shipments started again in 1906.  By 1909, the railroad was carrying about 200 tons each day.  

In 1910, the Humboldt flooded, destroying 11 miles of track, inundating the roundhouse and shop buildings and creating a temporary lake running 30 miles south along Pine Creek.  Both SP and WP halted services until the water receded.

The E&P did not reopen until 1912.  The costs of reconstruction forced the railroad to increase rates, which decreased the mines' profits, which led to fewer shipments, which led to higher rates -- the infamous "death spiral."  Operations struggled forward like a wounded horse on the desert, but the end was inevitable.  The line was abandoned September 21, 1938.

Westbound lumber on the Overland Route.  Western Pacific line is crossing the Humboldt.  Photographer is looking south down the valley of Pine Creek, the route followed by the Eureka and Palisade.

Eastbound manifest in Palisade Canyon.

The town of Palisade today (February 2022) consists of a few dilapidated and deserted buildings, all in the process of falling to the ground, a small cemetery, the foundation of an old Masonic Lodge with the cornerstone still standing, several large cottonwood trees that your author believes once provided shade for a small school and one house with a wide deck, the entire structure set back into a hillside, that may or may not have been occupied the last time your author drove through.  There was an antenna of some sort on the roof, indicating some link to modernity, but no vehicles were parked nearby.  Down the hill and across the river sits a working ranch surrounded by irrigated fields upon which cattle graze and stare lazily at passing trains.  Along the water, birds, jack rabbits, snakes and other small creatures congregate and don't seem any more perturbed by the railroad than the cows.

Westbound stacks deep in Palisade Canyon.

More westbound stacks  exiting the tunnel and crossing the Humboldt where the Overland Route was realigned in 1900 around the town of Palisade.  The Western Pacific followed this route a few years later.

Eastbound at Palisade, Nevada.

After the completion of the Eureka and Palisade, the town quickly expanded.  By 1880, Palisade was home to several hotels and saloons, two churches and a school.  Population was about 600.  In 1915, the town still had about 240 residents.  By 1920, population had dropped to less than 150.  When the E&P ceased operations, Palisade's demise was sealed, though a post office was maintained until 1961.  When that closed, so did the town.

Walking through a ghost town produces emotions not commonly felt, much like decorating graves on Memorial Day.  One thinks of people once alive, now gone.  One imagines one's own demise.  One may even picture one's own funeral, a uniquely human talent.  The idea that a town can die like a person raises a thought:  if a town can die, why not a state?  A country?  A planet?  This line of thinking, totally consistent with the Laws of Thermodynamics, can lead either to hopelessness or liberation, depending upon one's point of view.  Whatever the viewpoint, the result is the same.  Like passengers on the Eureka and Palisade, like Frémont's journey across the Sangre de Christo, we're all headed to the end of the line.  

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  1. Thank you! Excellent commentary and images! I rode through there on the back porch of a grainer…

  2. And thanks for showing the route, so that I know where I went~