Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Land That Swallows Trains: Part 5


The Mojave Desert

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

The Colorado was the largest river crossed by the survey team since the Arkansas.  This was long before the United States dammed the Colorado, reducing its flow to a tiny desert trickle as it nears the Gulf of California.  In the 19th century, the Colorado River was big, bold, overwhelming, an inland sea slicing through the harshest of North American deserts – a desert that in a “wet” year might see five inches of rain, and all of that in about 60 days during the winter, a desert where summer afternoon temperatures routinely climb above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and the nights never drop out of the nineties.  Through New Mexico and Arizona, the Whipple team had forded rivers in water never more than a foot deep, at most.  But not here.  Here any attempt to drive the wagons directly into the current, many feet deep in the center, would have purchased disaster, as surely as sarcasm purchases more sarcasm, especially to a party reduced to three wagons, plus men and mules haggard and tired beyond endurance.

So on February 21, 1854, the party camped beside the river in a field with good grazing for the mules, while Whipple, Leroux and Sevadra went north along the east side of the channel to scout a location for crossing.  The three returned in the evening, fleeing the perpetual sunset, to announce that the territory ahead would not allow wagons to pass, so the two large wagons were abandoned, leaving only what Sherburne called the “cartella” – a two-wheeled cart – to carry the surveying instruments, clothing and remaining food.

Fleeing the perpetual sunset.

Leroux brought back to camp two Mojaves, a tribe living on the east bank of the river.  According to Sherburne:  "They were entirely destitute of clothing, excepting the breech clout [sic].”  Then two more appeared, having been sent by their chief to meet the survey team, who had apparently been watched by the tribe for some time.  “They were fine fellows,” Sherburne said, “the finest yet seen.” 

Whipple said:  “They walked along, their muscular and well-proportioned limbs, without covering, showed to great advantage.  They were tall and erect, with a step as light as a deer’s.  Their faces were painted black, with a red streak along the nose.”

They brought beans which the survey team purchased and said that others would soon bring pumpkins, corn and wheat for trade.  Sherburne remarked calmly, though certainly with great relief, “We will in all probability obtain sufficient provisions to last us through.”

The survey team was preparing to cross the worst of the Mojave Desert.

The next morning the team proceeded north and soon reached the rocks and canyons that precluded wagon passage.  They unhooked the mules from the cartella and lowered it with ropes into a steep declivity, then hauled it up the other side with the same ropes.  Soon thereafter they were met by about 80 Mojave, bringing the food grown in the fertile, river-bottom soil, which provided sustenance in the same manner as the Nile sustains Egypt, a lifeline through terrain otherwise uninhabitable.  

Although the desert was once part of the Spanish Empire, the natives did not understand Spanish.  They brought with them two letters of recommendation in English, announcing their friendly intentions, and led the Whipple party along the best route, avoiding the worst of the rocks and canyons.  The team camped that night along the river near a native settlement.

Whipple and his men had been on the trail for almost a year; all were unshaven, beards hanging in some cases to breasts, hair covering ears, unwashed, dusty, dirty, filthy.  They looked and smelled like what they were – men who had crossed most of the western United States with wagons and mules, through the searing summer heat and humidity of what would become Oklahoma, through the biting winter cold of what would become northern Arizona.  They now stood on the banks of one of the most majestic rivers in 19th century America, and they had no idea how to cross.

The mules looked as bad as the men, wasted to nothing, skeletons covered by tarpaulin.  In the 21st century, mules are as archaic as can openers and pay phones, but in those long-ago days, distant travel without the animals was impossible.  Mules are as loyal as dogs, never questioning, never doubting.  They will go and go until they drop, and when dropping they look as perplexed as a man who has forgotten the combination to his luggage.  Mules are also patient.  As William Faulkner put it, “A mule will labor ten years willingly and patiently for the privilege of kicking you once.”  Amidst all the friendly natives, many mules gave out and were left to fend for themselves along the desert watercourse.

The desert that lay ahead.

More natives continued to approach the camp, almost 500 according to Whipple’s estimate, bringing food, bows, quivers, jewelry and various trinkets, all to trade for the survey team’s blankets, clothing and tools, in what must have been one of the largest bazaars anyone in camp had ever seen.  Some of the team members may have been unnerved by the spectacle, and why not?  This was the middle of the 19th century – a period when Native Americans and the U.S. Army had not necessarily been best of friends.  The survey team was outnumbered about twenty-five to one.  Who would not be unnerved?  But Whipple was appreciative:  “An attack by Indians would have proved disastrous to the expedition.  But instead of impeding our operations, they have rendered good service, giving valuable information and faithful guidance.” 

Möllhausen was highly complementary of the natives and believed that they could become productive and prosperous members of any new American society, especially given their ability to grow crops so abundantly in the middle of such a harsh desert.  (No crops are grown today.  One sees mostly retirement villas on the Arizona side of the Colorado River and derelict structures on the California side.).  But Möllhausen was not optimistic:

Unfortunately, however, the experience of past centuries, as well as of the present, has shown that the insolence and injustice of the whites . . . will soon stifle any germ of confidence that may be springing up, and transform friendliness into bitter hostility.  The native, who seeing himself trampled upon, revolts against the dominion of the white race, is then at once treated like a noxious animal, and the bloody strife never ends till the last free inhabitant of the wilderness has fallen.

With the help of the friendly Mojave, the survey team advanced the next day to the location most advantageous for crossing, a point slightly south of present-day Needles, California, slightly north of Topock, California, where the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad would several years later construct multiple rickety wooden bridges (each destroyed in turn by floods) ultimately replaced by the Santa Fe in the 20th century with a steel girder bridge still standing.  There followed the most memorable day of the expedition.

The east side of the Colorado River where the survey team abandoned the remaining two large wagons.

The river here was bifurcated by a large island, about 1200 feet wide, with 300 feet of water on each side.  To make the crossing, the survey team employed an inflatable raft carried since the beginning of the journey.  Your author believes it was inflated with crude bellows, a process that must have required much time and effort.

Several trips across the current were required.  Each time the raft was pulled to the island by a rope.  The cartella went first – no problem.  The second and third transports, mostly with clothing and surveying equipment, also went smoothly.  Whipple and team were beginning to think that conquering the river would be as easy as walking across the street.  The fourth trip contained food for the remainder of the journey.  Halfway to the island, the raft turned upside down.  The food, as Sherburne put it, “went under.”

The remaining mules swam across.  Several sheep had also made the journey.  Sheep will not swim, at least not willingly, so each was helped through the current by one of the men.  

The survey team now prepared to cross from the island to present-day California, which then, as today, was suspicious of anyone coming east from Oklahoma.  The first four loads all turned over, submerging equipment, clothing and several men, one of whom almost drowned.  All journals went into the water, including the three (Sherburne’s, Whipple’s and Möllhausen’s) forming the basis of this narrative.  The Mojave rescued some items, including all journals.  Sherburne had assumed his was lost and was “quite agreeably surprised” to find it waiting for him on the far bank.  Three sheep drowned.  All the mules made it across, but two later died of exhaustion.  Whipple gave the three dead sheep and three more live ones to the Mojave in return for their aid, advising them not to eat the live ones but instead to begin breeding.  No one thereafter knew if the advice was heeded.

Crossing the Colorado River.

On the west side of the Colorado.  The rock formations in the background gave the name to Needles, California.

The route of the Whipple party north along the river.

The survey team spent their first day in California “drying out.”  The entire camp was laid wide with books, papers and clothing on the sand and rocks.  Much trading ensued as the team replenished food supplies – mules for corn, clothing for beans.  Lieutenant Tidball produced two bottles of brandy that evening in honor of the arrival in California.

The next day the survey team began the long march across the worst of the desert, traveling first north along the west bank of the river, crossing again into present-day Arizona, then turning west toward the Providence Mountains, so named by Whipple because the team could find water there in fresh springs.  Two Mojave guides went with them.  The other natives drifted quickly away.

The Whipple party climbed slowly out of the broad valley of the Colorado to a long ridgeline that stood above it like a balcony.  Looking back, the men saw a plume of black smoke rising from their previous camp.  Soon thereafter, a second plume rose, then a third, and so on back to the eastern horizon – silent signals from settlement to settlement that the survey team had departed the river.  The view was the most magnificent in a journey filled with magnificent views.  The valley was several miles wide, with dark mountains towering in the east (later named the Black Mountains), equally ferocious peaks to the west, and the river, wide and graceful, flowing calmly between tree-lined banks giving way to desert sand almost white. 

The wide valley of the Colorado River.

They travelled along a trail that had seen much traffic over the centuries and made over 20 miles by nightfall, climbing over 1,700 feet from the river valley, barely 400 feet above sea level.  (Today the route is called the “Mojave Trail” and is a magnet for off-roaders and others seeking solitude.) 

From river to mountains, the route today (2021) is rugged but easily passible in a Jeep or four-wheel drive truck, unless the desert has received recent rain, in which case the soil can turn to a deep gumbo that snares boots, tires and small animals.  In the 19th century, the trail was likely similar to today’s.  Actually, the trail may have been in better condition, because it was not subject to multi-ton vehicles powered by growling internal-combustion engines.  

At midday they left two mules behind.  Sherburne stated, “Mules are left every day broken down for want of grass and water.”  One has the impression that the survey team’s route could have been traced simply by following carcasses.

The following map shows the route of the Whipple party from Needles to Barstow and the route subsequently selected by the railroad:

The survey team travelled west, while the railroad was constructed east from Barstow.  Originally built by the Southern Pacific to ward off the competing Atlantic and Pacific, the line eventually changed owners as part of a settlement between the companies, like two bears in the mountains fighting over salmon. 

Whipple was no doubt influenced by his guides, whom he trusted to lead his team through the harshest territory in North American – along a route where at least some water could be found, but a route quite unsuitable for railroad construction.  The irony is obvious.  Whipple did not listen to his guide Leroux in Arizona and chose a route through mountains that no railroad would ever cross.  In California, Whipple listened to his guides, and the result was exactly the same.      

The railroad avoided the mountains, although climbing three hills requiring helpers, following a route surveyed by General William J. Palmer, founder of Colorado Springs, who worked for the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division, a company not connected to the Union Pacific that was building track from Omaha westward.  The U.P.Ry.E.D. was so-named by promoters to mislead investors into thinking it was somehow connected with the well-publicized Union Pacific Railroad.  The U.P.Ry.E.D. did construct a line across Kansas and Colorado to Denver but did not build anything in New Mexico, Arizona or in southern California along the route surveyed by Palmer.  Before the company reached Denver, it changed its name to the Kansas Pacific Railroad.  (Palmer’s route across the California desert was also later mostly followed by fabled U.S. Route 66, though the highway avoided the heart of the heart of the desert northeast of Cadiz, choosing to climb the edge of mountains on a grade that would have brought motive power of the 19th century to its knees.  The old road is still open in the 21st century.  If you drive it, you will see rocks piled along the right-of-way, sometimes spelling the names of travelers and/or their homes.)

Eastbound stacks rolling downgrade to Needles, California.  The Providence Mountains rise in the background, the mountains crossed by the Whipple survey party because they (the mountains) contained spring water at several locations, whereas the valley floor followed by the railroad was bone dry.

BNSF stacks meet on Goff's Hill, one of the three major grades encountered on the line between Barstow and Needles.  The grade here is westbound.

On the advice of his guides, Whipple divided his party into three groups so that the small desert mountain springs could refill after each use.  Most of the men went with the first group.  Whipple led the second.  The third party consisted of herders with the remaining mules and sheep.

After passing the last spring, the survey team regrouped and began the trek downgrade.  They traveled slowly, weather alternating between pleasant and cold.  One day the wind would blow from the south; the sun would warm the backs of men and animals alike.  The next the wind would shift to the north, blowing sand like shotgun pellets, and the men would cover themselves with whatever clothing remained after the mishaps that lost so much in the river.  The mules trudged gamely forward, through warmth and cold, calm and gale, night and day.

Eastbound stacks climbing Bolo Hill, the second major ascent on the railroad.  The grade is in both directions, and the roadbed for the old "Y" for steam helpers is still visible in the desert.  If you look closely, you can see five eastbounds lined up across the Mojave at sunset.  

Westbound stacks on Ash Hill, the third major Mojave gradient, where westbound trains generally take the circuitous track rather than the straight line up the hill (shown in the foreground).

On March 8, the survey party crossed the southern end of a dry playa that Whipple named Soda Lake due to its white salt covering.  Playas are common throughout the Mojave Desert.  During wetter times (millions of years ago), they were full.  In the 21st century, they routinely are dry, though often containing a few inches during the winter.  But even in the worst of summer, water lies just below the surface, which can snare men and animals in a terrible paste.

Whipple soon realized that he was standing at the location where the Mojave River disappears into the desert.  Like the Humbolt in Nevada, the Mojave begins in mountains and flows downhill until reaching the bottom of an elongated grade --  in the Mojave’s case, the ramp of an open trap door created by the grinding of the North American and Pacific Plates along the San Andreas Fault, which has raised the San Bernardino Mountains that today overlook Los Angeles.  The river literally empties itself into the ground.  

One of the many dry lake beds in the Mojave.    

A fully salinated playa, similar to Soda Lake.  Salinization is caused by minerals that dissolve in the water and then are exposed when the lake evaporates.  

The survey team was now about twenty miles north of current Ludlow, California, a station on the soon to be constructed railroad.  From this point forward, they followed the Mormon Road along the river toward Cajon Pass, a route originated at San Bernardino, California, founded in 1851 by Mormons, that crossed the Mojave River at present-day Oro Grande, turned north and northwest onto the Old Spanish Trail, then branched off to Salt Lake City upon reaching Utah – the route later followed by the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. 

Ludlow, California.

That evening, one man stayed behind with three struggling mules, intending to bring them into camp before sunrise.  The morning came, however, and neither man nor mules had arrived, so a search party of four rode out to investigate.  Several hours later a column of black smoke rose in the desert, interpreted by the survey team in camp as a distress signal.  There was little doubt that the man who had stayed with the mules was dead and that the search party was now in trouble, perhaps surrounded, some wounded, others killed.

Sherburne had remained in camp and was most agitated, wanting to ride out to help the others, yet restrained by those at his side who feared imminent attack.  After discussion, the men decided to wait, following the axiom that if you’re not sure what to do, don’t do anything – errors of commission being worse than those of omission.  So they waited.  And waited.

Late afternoon the search party returned.  They had found one of the mules with an arrow through the heart.  The attackers had apparently only recently killed the animal and had hurriedly departed upon appearance of the search party.  The missing man had not been found, nor the other mules.  The search party had started the large fire in vain hopes of driving the attackers from tall grass in a creek bottom.

The next morning another group set out to find the man they all knew had been murdered, taking a shovel to bury him, finding the tracks of men and mules which they followed toward a small hill, where they discovered the bones of a second mule.  The flesh had been removed jaggedly by some person or persons in a great hurry. 

Upon cresting the hill, the search party found a recently vacated camp.  Coals in the fire were still red, several pieces of mule flesh were still roasting and the natives had left behind bows, arrows, quivers, baskets and cooking utensils.  Though the camp sat above a wide valley over which the search party could see for miles, fleeing Indians could not be found.

Near the fire were the pants and boots of the murdered man, saturated with blood, pants containing numerous arrow holes, indicating that he had been shot repeatedly in the back.  The body was gone.  The search party heaped the bows, arrows, quivers – everything – into a pile and burned it all.

And that was the end of it.  They did not have enough food to pursue.  Sherburne had only a few meals left of bread and beans.  The Mojave guides, who were no longer needed since the survey team could follow the Mormon Trail southwest through Cajon Pass, made clear that the attackers were Pahutahs, vicious and wild.  To show his gratitude, Whipple gave the departing guides blankets and old clothes, plus two mules.  The guides politely refused the mules, afraid that the Pahutahs would attack them.

But that was not quite the end of it.  The fire started the previous day, which the original search party had thought extinguished, flared again, rising from the grave, spreading slowly, intently, out of the creek bottom onto the open desert, consuming the creosote bushes surrounding the camp like vultures.  The survey team spread out, fighting the fire with remaining blankets, stamping out each burning bush one by one.  Since creosote bushes are spaced widely in the desert, so that they do not invade each other’s search for water, and since the coarse desert sands and rocks admit virtually no grass, the conflagration was not like the fire the team had seen in Oklahoma, a gigantic blaze rising like a flowing curtain in the sky, racing across the dry prairie grass.  The fire in the desert was more like row upon row of lighted candles.  One bush would ignite and burn, sparks spewing, lighting another bush, and on and on.

Sherburne wrote:  “With the united exertions of all in camp it was an hour & a half before we could consider the Camp as safe.  Had it not been for a creek & sand bank on each side we would not have been able to stop it. . . . It was a beautiful sight as the flames and clouds of smoke rolled up towards the sky.”  

Creosote bushes are spaced widely in the desert, like rows of candles waiting to be lit.

Now on the Mormon Road, the survey team moved smoothly beside the Mojave River -- the easiest part of the long journey, an actual road, the first they had seen since leaving Fort Smith.  Near present-day Barstow, where they joined the route of the soon-to-be-constructed railroad, they met two Mormons walking up from San Bernardino, who informed them of the Crimean War!     

Along the river were willows, the first trees they had seen since leaving the Colorado.  The channel was about 30 feet wide, dry in many spots where water ran below ground.  Hills on either side were brown, dotted with creosote bushes, rising to larger hills, then larger ones.  In front rose the San Bernardino Mountains, partly tree-covered, partly barren granite.  Had the survey team not known in advance of Cajon Pass, they surely would have thought they were required to climb another mountain range before reaching the blue Pacific.

In the valley of the Mojave River.  The San Bernardino Mountains tower in the background.

The trail was littered with felled trees, extinguished camp fires, animal bones, broken wagon parts.  They met a wagon coming up from San Bernardino, bringing food and drink, which they purchased at some considerable expense, the law of supply and demand being the same in the 19th century as today.  They passed a human skull, gnawed smooth by animals, its eyeless sockets as dark and forbidding as the barrels of a shotgun.  Möllhausen wondered if it had belonged to a laborer, wealthy traveler or family father.  Everything tells a story, if we will only listen.  But he could hear nothing, because his companions were talking loudly among themselves, thrilled by the ocean’s proximity.  He threw the skull into the trees “where it might decay undisturbed and fall to dust.”

Soon the surveyors left the river and began to ascend Cajon Pass.  The westbound climb is mild through present-day Victorville and Hesperia, with no grade exceeding about 0.5 percent.  The desert still surrounded them, however; deep sand tested the patience and remaining endurance of both men and animals.  Mountains still rose above them in unbroken solemnity, and some wondered how much higher they would be required to climb.  And then, all at once, as though a door had been opened, they reached the summit.

Cajon Pass summit, as fog rolls up from the valley.

Spread below was a landscape like none they had seen before, twisted and misshapen, hills rising and falling in multiple directions, as though the terrain were bread dough kneaded repeatedly and then  forgotten on some kitchen shelf – perhaps the most tortured landscape in the world, the product of centuries of grinding and slipping, earthquake upon earthquake, between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.  The men did not realize it, but they were looking into the bowels of the San Andreas fault.  

This is what the survey team saw from the summit.

The rear of this train is crossing the San Andreas Fault at Blue Cut.

The slope into this valley was severe; Whipple estimated about 45 degrees.  The Mormon Road turned north at the summit and descended slowly around the sides of what amounted to a great bowl for several miles before reaching a deep ravine – called Blue Cut today – directly on top of the great fault.  Whipple believed that a railroad could surmount the pass only through a long and expensive tunnel.  But no tunnel was ever constructed.  The original line crossed the summit on a ruling eastbound grade of three percent, closely following the Mormon Road.  Later tracks lessened the grade, but even today Cajon Pass proves a substantial obstacle to eastbound traffic.

Tracks follow the old Mormon Road around the great bowl.

The road forked at the bottom, one leading to San Bernardino, the other to Los Angeles and then south to San Pedro and the Pacific.  The expedition took the route to Los Angeles, which today is followed by Amtrak passenger trains.  Here they found the first Europeans since leaving Albuquerque -- Spanish farmers and ranchers.  The journey was effectively complete.

Lieutenant Whipple ultimately returned to Washington, where he was promoted to Captain and assigned to Detroit, serving with the Topographical Engineers until the outbreak of war.  He was with the force defending the capital and there met Abraham Lincoln, who befriended him and his family.  He died of wounds received at Chancellorsville, then a brigadier general.

Möllhausen made one more expedition through the American West, joining Lieutenant J.C. Ives’ exploration of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon in 1857-58.  After that, Möllhausen never again visited the United States.

In 1864, Sherburne transferred to the 11th New York Regiment of Cavalry, though he did not apparently see action.  He returned to the Army in 1868 and was posted to the assistant adjutant-general’s office in San Francisco.  He mustered out in 1870 and died in 1880.   

Möllhausen’s journal can be found online at 

Sherburne’s diary is available in hard cover from the Stanford University Press, edited by Mary McDougall Gordon.  The present author has relied heavily on this volume in preparing these articles.

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