Monday, November 1, 2021

The Land That Swallows Trains: Part IV

[Herein begins Part IV of The Land that Swallows Trains.  You should read Part One (, Part Two ( and Part Three ( before beginning this section, which presupposes knowledge of names, places and actions described in those earlier parts.]

The survey team was deep in snow, deep in a forest of Ponderosa pine.  Despite the deep white snow covering the ground and the huge trees, the air was without humidity, as dry as the Sonoran Desert two hundred miles to the south, snow deep like desert sand.  Dry skin grew as wrinkled as dry lake beds.  The snow absorbed all sound, deep into the soundless night.  Another teamster grew delirious with the pox and wandered out of camp, holding his bedroll above his head like a parasol.

A horse bolted at the site of a coyote, causing other horses and mules to stampede through the trees.  Whipple described the aftermath:

Four of our Mexican men trustworthy & brave spurred on their jaded animals in pursuit until they overtook the frightened horses that led the mulada.  Mexicans upon such occasions I prefer to men of any other nation.  They appreciate the importance of success.

Lieutenant Whipple was advised by his guide Leroux that the party should turn north, away from the volcano field and the pine forest, and follow a narrow valley that eventually led to a route around the mountains to the west, rugged and impenetrable mountains that Whipple proposed to cross.  Whipples' report states:

Leroux says that we can neither proceed west nor southwest, on account of successive mountains and canyons.  He desires us to follow the route by which he led Capt. Sitgreaves' party two years ago, or to go even farther to the north.  There, he says, we may keep upon the dividing ridge until we reach the mountains that border the Colorado upon the west, pass thence, and enter the valley.  

But Whipple was determined to hew close to the 35th Parallel as required by his orders, so he set out with a small team to look for passage, thinking (mistakenly) that he was close to the Colorado River, which the full survey party could follow through the wilderness.

He returned having discovered no river and no passage west.  He did stumble upon numerous small caves that he named Cosnino, the term used by Leroux for the Havasupai Tribe, a small band living northwest of the pine forest.  Another name for the Havasaupai was Coconino, like Cosnino a corruption of the Moqui name for this tribe.

Today, Cosnino Road runs slightly east of San Francisco Peak, while Coconino National Forest encompasses both the Ponderosa pine and juniper-pinon forest through which the Whipple party traveled.

Here is the path followed by the Whipple party as they transitioned from the juniper-pinon forest to Ponderosa pine -- called "Darling" by the railroad.

Darling, Arizona.

Cosnino Road, Arizona.


On Christmas Eve, the party celebrated with home-made egg-nog, an impromptu “drama” featuring the four wise men and the baby Jesus, plus an improvised duet featuring two of the most inebriated “saying what they pleased of the company present,” as Whipple put it.  At least for the moment, the party ceased dwelling on the road ahead, a road that for all they knew might not exist.

A supply train headed by Lieutenant Tidball (called “Fiztball” by Möllhausen) had arrived a few days earlier to restock the survey team.  Sherburne’s diary notes:  “I would not have it thought we were destitute of all the luxuries of life” and lists the menu for the Christmas meal:  “Leg of roast mutton, Beef a la mode, Bass, Wild Duck and Roast Squirrel.”  He does admit that the food was “not of the best quality.”

Once the Christmas meal and the egg-nog were consumed, the survey team again was forced to deal with the reality of 15 inches of snow, temperatures well below freezing and a landscape monopolized by volcanoes and Ponderosa pines.  Two men (Stanley and Kennerly) attempted to climb one of the volcanoes, but the deepening snow forced them to stop about halfway to the summit.  With the aid of a hand-held telescope, they could see over 100 miles (in those places where mountains did not block the view).  The problem was, mountains blocked most of the view, ridge upon ridge, snow-covered, deep snow.  How, they wondered, could a railroad be constructed through such territory?  An even more pertinent question:  How could the survey team possible navigate such terrain?

Near present day Flagstaff, Arizona.  The Whipple party likely spent Christmas Eve here.

Pushers toward Flagstaff.

Whipple was determined to proceed west, despite Leroux's continued pleas, and proceed west he did – into what became the worst portion of the journey, during which the survey team was eventually condensed to three wagons.  As food ran low, the men were placed on half-rations.  Those not stricken by the pox came down with a variety of upper respiratory infections, likely both bacterial and viral.  Sherburne became extremely ill but soldiered westward.  Möllhausen and Whipple make no mention in their journals of personal illness, but one suspects that both were not immune to the vicissitudes of life in sub-zero temperatures.

When the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad was later constructed, it roughly followed the path of Lieutenant Whipple westward down the face of the volcano field’s escarpment as far as what later became the small division point of Seligman, before turning north through the Aubrey Valley and following the route favored by Leroux.  But Whipple would not turn north.

The survey team continued through the pine forest to present day Williams, Arizona, at the base of Bill Williams Mountain, named in honor of the man who had led previous parties through this wilderness.  Williams was one of the few survivors of John Fremont’s disastrous fourth expedition which on October 21, 1848, left Kansas to find a winter crossing to California in hopes of convincing Congress to support a rail line from St. Louis to San Francisco along the thirty-eighth-parallel. The snow, ice and cold proved insurmountable.  Ten men died of starvation and/or hypothermia.

The heavy snow limited progress to a few miles each day, but the survey party had passed the Arizona Divide slightly west of current Flagstaff and was now traveling downgrade.  In early January, they temporarily passed out of the snow and into a wide valley filled with wildlife and birds.  This was, however, only a brief snowless interlude.  The next day snow began falling, and for many days following the temperature in the bitter mountains they crossed did not rise above freezing. 

Two Santa Fe freights meet at the Arizona Divide.


Beneath Bill Williams Mountain, an eastbound manifest climbs the grade to the Arizona Divide.

Bill Williams Mountain at dusk.

The Grand Canyon lay about 50 miles to the north, but no one knew it.  Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the Army Corps of Engineers was the first English speaker to discover the canyon in 1857-58, over three years after the Whipple expedition, which continued west in search of the Colorado River that had carved the majestic canyon of which they were ignorant.

West of Williams, the land drops almost 2000 feet in 15 miles, one of the longest and steepest sustained grades in North America.  Interstate 40 follows the route today, and driving it west is like riding a roller coaster that travels only downhill.  The road is notoriously difficult for trucks, and more than one has lost control and plummeted like a stone into the forest.  

The original Atlantic and Pacific line was constructed down this escarpment through Johnson Canyon and Johnson Tunnel, one of the most rugged construction projects of the 19th century. When the line was subsequently double-tracked by the Santa Fe, the second track was built well to the north through a series of horseshoe curves.  Even so, the two lines proved to be operating nightmares for the Santa Fe, and in the 1950’s, the railroad constructed the Crookton Cut-off, ironically enough along the route suggested by Leroux.  The tracks through Johnson Canyon were removed when the Crookton Cut-off was opened (the second line remained in operation to provide connection to Phoenix on the Peavine) but the abandoned roadbed is still plainly visible in the 21st century, as the image below demonstrates.

The Whipple team traveled south of Johnson Canyon.  Below is a map showing their path through western Arizona, plus the route of Interstate 40 for comparison.

The map below shows the current BNSF lines west of Williams.  The line with all the horseshoe curves follows the roller-coaster down the 2000 feet escarpment, the second route constructed by the Santa Fe, now serving Phoenix.  The original and now abandoned Johnson Canyon line (not shown) ran south of it.  The line at the top of the map is the Crookton Cut-off.  The line running north along the top right is the original Santa Fe route to the Grand Canyon, now operated by the independent railroad of the same name.


Beneath Bill Williams Mountain on the Crookton Cut-off.

Eagle's Nest on the Crookton Cut-off

Doublea on the Crookton Cut-off

Crookton, Arizona

Seligman, Arizona

As the survey team pressed westward, they entered truly unknown territory, uninhabited, desolate, cold, forbidding.  Möllhausen described it as a "primeval wilderness" of "deathlike stillness."  They had left behind the pine forest and were now navigating among gnarled cedars and oaks scattered through the snow as though tossed randomly among fantastic red boulders.  Water for the mules and horses was absent.  So too was wildlife.  Mountains surrounded them; snow continued.  Instinctively, Whipple must have known that he had wandered far from any known trail.  Thus, his journal states:  "Many are the dark forebodings in camp."

They were about to ascend what Whipple later named Aztec Pass, about 50 miles northwest of present-day Prescott, Arizona, 30 miles south of the route favored by Leroux and later followed by the railroad.  The area is so remote that today (November 2021) there is no highway or rail line anywhere near, just a couple of dirt roads leading nowhere.  If you don't believe this, search for Aztec Pass on Google Earth.

Here is how Möllhausen described the ascent:

We undertook the march up the Aztec Pass, with the whole Expedition, and at first all went smoothly enough, but very soon all hands had to be summoned to clear away obstacles with pickaxes, axes, and spades.  Very slow work it was, and when within about half a mile of the watershed, we were compelled to stop from utter exhaustion.

Several years ago, your author was driving north from Phoenix to Flagstaff, detouring off the main road from time-to-time to explore BNSF's Peavine Line which, in portions of northern Arizona, crosses territory as remote as the moon.  On a lark, foolishly, I decided to search for Aztec Pass.  There were no signs along the road.  In fact, there was really no road.  Just a dirt trail up a very steep slope.  If this was Aztec Pass, I could easily see why the Whipple party had stopped the ascent from exhaustion.  I could also see why no railroad had ever been constructed through this route.

As I drove farther into the wilderness, I felt the "deathlike stillness" and "dark forebodings."  It is a strange sensation, similar to when one awakes in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar motel room, thinking one is still in one's own house.  For a moment, sometimes longer, you don't know where you are.  You feel adrift, unmoored.  This must be what suddenly losing vision feels like.  I stopped my Jeep, turned off the engine, climbed outside and listened to the silence.  The only sound was the occasional metallic pinging as the muffler cooled.  Surrounded by mountains and scrub vegetation, I looked at the transparent sky.  It was fall, no snow.  I guess that was a plus.  If the Jeep had not started again, I'm not sure what I would have done.

It started.  I turned around and headed back to Arizona 89.  All I can tell you is that Lieutenant Whipple chose the most difficult route imaginable westward through Arizona.


The survey party found the going much easier on the western slope of Aztec Pass.  Whipple estimated the grade at 50 to 60 feet per mile.  Soon they were out of the snow.  They descended into a broad valley filled with golden yellow grass, where they camped for the evening, only to be awakened by three separate mule stampedes.  Whipple claimed that all animals were recaptured, but that seems unlikely given the ruggedness and isolation of the terrain.  Sherburne was slightly more realistic:  "I believe nearly all have been brought back." [Emphasis added.] 

Following the valley southwest the next morning, they came to the base of a range they named Aquarius.  Small streams flowed from the mountains, canyons unfolding from the granite like an opened accordion.  That afternoon, it began to rain.  That night the rain turned to snow. 

The storm drove wolves near the camp, howling through the darkness, preventing sleep.  The weather was so bad that no one left his tent.

Sherburne felt that they were eight to ten days from the Colorado River, though no one in the survey party had the slightest idea where the river might actually be found.  He noted that the provisions would give out in about 15 days; thus, "we have no time to waste."  They were out of coffee.  The teamsters were living on "corn coffee."  

"We shall have to try it," Sherburne wrote.

They were quite lost. Whipple was looking for what he thought was the Bill Williams River, which he believed would flow southeast to northwest, into the Colorado River, but all the streams from the mountains through the valley flowed southwest.  He was actually looking for what today is called Truxton Wash, over 100 miles to the north, which flows out of Crozier Canyon, the route that LeRoux had wanted to take, the route later followed by the railroad.  Not knowing what else to do, Whipple wrote:  "We propose tomorrow to renew our explorations." 


The railroad ultimately did not follow Whipple west into the heart of Arizona's mountains.  So what route did it follow, a route previously known, or like the Hebrews in the desert, did it find its way by God's grace through the heart of mystery to the Promised Land (which California could still be called in the 19th century)?  And since Moses did not live to see Canaan, was a similar fate in store for Whipple?

Some maps of the day incorrectly showed a possible water route from New Mexico to the Gulf of California via the Zuni, Little Colorado, and Colorado Rivers. In September 1851, Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves, along with topographers, naturalists, artists and an escort of 30 infantrymen left the Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico by pack train with instructions to explore and map the rivers and evaluate their navigability.  (Lieutenant Whipple had been following Sitgreaves' map across northern Arizona and had become lost in part because the map was inaccurate.)  The Sitgreaves party followed the Zuni and Little Colorado to near present day Winslow, Arizona, where the same Antoine Leroux who guided Whipple advised them to leave the Little Colorado because it flowed in a deep canyon and emptied into the great canyon (Grand Canyon) of the Colorado River.

So the survey party turned due west toward the San Francisco Volcano Field and Bill Williams Mountain.  Unlike Whipple, Sitgreaves continued listening to Leroux and then turned northwest through the Aubrey Valley, following the edge of a rugged limestone escarpment, eventually crossing to Yampai Canyon, Peach Springs and Truxton Wash, which led southwest to Crozier Canyon, Kingman Canyon and the Sacramento Valley, all followed by the railroad.  The following map shows the Sitgreaves' route that bypassed the mountains to the south that brought so much grief to the Whipple party.

Sitgreaves traversed at least three canyons.  One is named on the map -- Yampai Canyon -- number 26.  The other two are not named: 27 (Crozier Canyon) and 28 (Truxton Canyon).  Truxton Wash flows out of Crozer and Truxton Canyons, the water course that Whipple vainly searched for 100 miles to the south. 

Northeast of present day Kingman, Sitgreaves again followed Leroux's advice and climbed Union Pass to a summit that overlooked the valley of the Colorado River.  Like Whipple, Sitgreaves maintained a journey of his expedition, and he wrote the following of the crossing at Union Pass:

The approach to the mountains, before alluded to, was by a gradual ascent, so that when we arrived at their base, there did not remain much to be overcome.  The pass was nevertheless exceedingly rough, and bordered by overhanging crags, which it was deemed prudent to occupy before advancing with the atajo.  [Sitgreaves uses "atajo" to mean a drove of mules/horses rather than the common Spanish word for "shortcut."]  We passed through, however, unmolested, and were at length cheered by the view of the Colorado, winding far below through a broad valley, its course for many miles being apparent from the large trees upon its banks.” 

The Sitgreaves Party then followed the Colorado River south all the way to Yuma, Arizona, on the border with Mexico.

The railroad did not follow Sitgreaves, instead heading southwest to present day Kingman, Arizona, then through Kingman Canyon to the broad Sacramento Valley, bracketed on the east by the Hualapai Mountains and on the west by the Black Mountains.  The latter are creased near their southern end by the Sacramento Wash, which the Atlantic and Pacific followed to its original crossing of the Rio Colorado.

A westbound Z in the Aubrey Valley.  This is the route followed by Sitgreaves, the route that Whipple ignored in favor of an almost impossibly rugged climb through the mountains and canyons of west-central Arizona.

Westbound manifest emerging from Yampai Canyon.

The Truxton Flyover -- just east of the entrance to Crozier Canyon.

Crozier Canyon

Truxton Canyon

Valentine, Arizona -- deep in Truxton Canyon.

North of Kingman, Arizona.

Kingman Canyon

Sacramento Valley

Sacramento Valley

Sacramento Wash


After the Whipple party crossed Aztec Pass, a small group went ahead to scout the unknown territory.  The main party was like a truck on a dark mountain highway without headlights, inching slowly forward while scouts ahead attempted to protect them from running off a cliff.  No one had the faintest idea where they were going, but turning around was not an option, because -- well, none of the journals discusses turning around.  My opinion is that Whipple, having ignored Leroux's advice to follow the northern trail, felt that he must press forward or lose face. 

On January 28, they started early in the morning, not having heard from the scouting party and, as Sherburne noted, "without any knowledge of the country ahead."  After traveling about 4 miles, they reached a canyon they could not cross, turned back and spent the night in the camp from the previous evening.  The only saving grace to the wasted day was that the temperature had warmed abruptly, as it will often do in central Arizona in winter, to 68 degrees farenheight by afternoon.

The next morning the scouting party still had not returned when two Native American spies were captured close to camp.  Two others were spotted on a distant ridge, probably lookouts for a potential attack -- at least so thought Sherburne.  The captives were given food and blankets and made to sit on the ground by the camp fire.   Möllhausen described them:

They were a young and an older man, somewhat below the middle size, but powerfully made; with large heads, projecting cheekbones and foreheads, very thick noses, swelled lips, and little slits of eyes with which they looked about as fierce and cunning as wolves.

 That evening near sundown the younger man attempted escape, running madly from the camp, bounding like one of the pronghorn antelopes that populated the wilderness.  Two soldiers prepared to chase, but Sherburne gave the order to cease.  

A chain and padlock were placed around the other's ankles, the chain attached to a stout metal spike driven deeply into the ground.  The remaining captive shouted into the growing darkness.  No answer returned except the distant howling of a wolf.  

Sherburne had bet (and lost) a bottle of wine that neither captive would escape.  He bet another bottle (and won back the original bottle) that the remaining captive would not escape. 


The next morning two riders from the scouting party arrived in camp to announce that the scouts were three days' ahead in the mountains and had made friends with a large group of Indians whom Sherburne called "Yampires," the name Leroux gave to the Yavapais.  However, the territory through which the Whipple party was traveling was home to the Hualapai; the Yavapai lived significantly to the south.  Some have speculated that the Native Americans with the scouting party were Yavapai on a trading mission.  Your author does not know enough to have an informed opinion.

Lieutenant Whipple was ahead with the scouting party; Sherburne was in charge of the main group.  When he learned of the meeting with the "Yampires," he set free the single Native American captive, who ran from camp as though his life were at stake, and for all he knew, it was.  

The survey team then moved westward through territory described by Sherburne as "very rough and rocky with very bad hills."  One wagon's axle broke close to the wheel, making repair impossible, so the team abandoned it.  They climbed a hill over 400 feet tall where snow had melted into a quagmire.  Wagons sunk to the hubs and were slowly pulled out, one by one, by ten or more mules.  The survey team were still like a truck on a dark highway, but one tire had now gone flat; others were losing air.

When they finally caught up to the scouting party, they discovered that the "large group of Indians" were two in number.

The party had now traveled about 150 miles from Sierra de San Francisco, yet they could still see its snow-covered peak as clearly as their own hands.  That changed when they descended Cactus Pass, about 20 miles southeast of present day Kingman, Arizona, roughly following the route of current Interstate 40 to the north of Haulapai Peak.  If you have driven this highway east of Kingman, you have seen it ruggedness and complete unsuitability for a railroad.  (East and westbound lanes divide and follow the most circuitous routes imaginable up and down an almost vertical escarpment.)  The descent took an entire day, as slow and precarious as climbing down a tall ladder in the rain.  Möllhausen wrote that the fall of the ground was 700 feet in the first mile and 1711 feet in 25 miles.  Whipple stated that the party descended 1600 feet in eight miles with "some five or six hundred being almost precipitous."  To maneuver down the steepest portion, the wagons were unloaded, with wheels locked, and lowered by ropes.  Amazingly, nothing broke.  

Now in a broad valley, the Whipple party faced two options.  They could continue west, cross a moderate incline of perhaps ten miles, then descend into another valley where Kingman, Arizona, was subsequently located by the railroad.  Or they could turn south and follow the valley of the Big Sandy River, which they mistakenly thought was the Bill Williams River, and which they believed (correctly) would eventually lead to the Rio Colorado.  (Not the Big Sandy but the Bill Williams flowed into the Colorado.  The Big Sandy flowed into the Bill Williams.  So the Big Sandy would lead them where they wanted to go, but through a route that would kill most of the mules, horses and wagons.)    

What they did not know was that passage west to Kingman would then lead through a short canyon to the vast Sacramento Valley, a perfect route south for mules, horses, wagons, railroads and eventually interstate highways, so instead they pointed the big truck south into what turned out to be almost the death of expedition.

For the first few miles, the river valley was two to three miles wide; the river flowed smoothly.  Then, befitting the Mojave Desert they were entering, the water disappeared into the sand.  A mile or so later, the water reappeared, gushing out of the ground like a fresh spring, then in another mile it disappeared again.  They continued through the sand, wagons sinking a foot or more.  There was no grass for the animals; several collapsed and were euthanized.   

On February 6 the party discovered its first Saguaro cactus (Cerreus gianteus) on a bank overlooking the dry river bed.  None of them had seen one before; all were mesmerized.  Möllhausen wrote:

This day we saw, for the first time, the giant cactus (Cereus giganteus), specimens of which stood at first rather widely apart like straight pillars ranged along the side of the valley, but afterwards, more closely together, and in a different form -- namely, that of gigantic candelabras of six-and-thirty feet high, which had taken root among stones and in cleft of the rocks, and rose in solitary state at various points.  

 As the survey party continued along the river, water periodically appeared and then disappeared into the sand.  The canyon walls grew taller and slowly approached each other like closing doors.  Not until the canyon cliffs were within about 40 yards of each other did the survey party see an outlet.  To navigate through, men, wagons, horses and mules were forced into about three feet of water.  One wagon floundered in the sand, its mules sunk down almost to their heads.  The men dug out the mules and finally pulled the wagon free.  Because the first wagon compressed the muck, the remainder made it through, though requiring maximum effort from men and mules, and the survey party camped on a shelf of dry ground.  Whipple summed up everyone's feelings:  "Weary, disgusted and tired to despair." 

From this moment forward, the tires on the big truck began to go flat all at once.  Food was running low; everyone was placed on half-rations.  More mules gave out.  Another wagon was abandoned.  Sherburne estimated that, even on half-rations, there was enough food for only about seven days.  According to Möllhausen:

Not a day went by without our having to shoot, or leave behind some of them [cattle and mules]; and one wagon after another was abandoned, and its load distributed, as well as might be, on the sore backs of our poor beasts.

The survey party stopped on dry ground and unloaded everything not considered essential -- such as mess tables, extra clothing, books and boxes.  Four more wagons were abandoned.  Additional mules were euthanized.  Whipple believed that the "sudden failure" of the mules occurred because the evening look-outs had been sequestering the animals in a closed location each night -- for protection from marauding Native Americans.  This may have saved the mules from capture, but it prevented them from grazing.  They were, literally, starving to death. 

Sometime around February 16, the survey party reached the Bill Williams River and turned west, hoping that the Colorado would soon be found.  Only five wagons remained -- the sand still deep, the cliffs high.  The party abandoned more personal property:  tents, candles, oil, pots, pans.  Pools of  brackish water in the sand were surrounded by ducks.  Möllhausen shot 12, which slightly augmented the declining rations.   The canyon walls were jagged, barren of vegetation, almost vertical, hundreds of feet tall, almost perfectly black, almost as gloomy and downcast as the mood of the survey party.

Then it began raining.  Though they were hard in the Mojave Desert, they were also traveling through that country's very brief rainy season.  An average of 4-5 inches falls there yearly, mostly in January and February, making travel through river sand even more difficult.  Several additional trunks were abandoned.  

At sundown, the clouds dissipated, allowing stellar observations which indicated a latitude of approximately 34 degrees, significantly south of where the Sitgreaves' map showed the Bill Williams River joining the Colorado.  (The Sitgreaves map was in error.)  Whipple was "troubled at this and doubtful how to proceed."

The next morning two more wagons were abandoned, plus most of the astronomical equipment used to measure latitude.  Only three wagons now remained.  

They trudged slowly through the muck and mire of the Bill Williams River and made camp on the first piece of dry ground they had seen all day.  That night it rained again.  Good sleep was impossible due to the quacking of ducks and howling of wolves.

About noon the next day, Sherburne was startled by rifle fire in the distance, clattering and echoing off the canyon walls, volley upon volley, as if someone were shooting more ducks, hundreds.  Then shouts rang out:  "The Colorado!  Here's the Colorado!"  

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