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Horses to Horsepower
Utah's Pony Express Trail
By Tony Huegel

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“Here he comes!

“Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain that it moves. … In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling — sweeping toward us nearer and nearer growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined — nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear — another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go swinging away like a belated fragment of a storm.”
Mark Twain, in Roughing It

 

Generational Journey

Speck. That was the word I’d been searching for as our capable yet comfortable SUV seemed to shrink amid the impressive expanse of the Great Basin in Utah.

Three generations of us — my father, my son and I — were traveling the 133-mile Pony Express National Back Country Byway, which typically requires only two-wheel drive and high clearance rather than four-wheel drive. The maintained dirt-and-gravel route follows the 19th-century Pony Express and Overland Stage trail, one of America's most historic cross-country routes.

As we drove deeper into the sweeping landscape of taupe mountains, pale alkali basins, sagebrush and tumbleweed, the world seemed to grow bigger, and we smaller.

Mile after mile, I’d rummaged through my vocabulary for a word to described how this makes one feel. Finally, near the ruins of a Pony Express station, I read a sign that quoted Twain’s description of his stagecoach trip across Nevada Territory in the 1860s, and found the word I was looking for.

It makes one feel like a speck.

Our modern-day journey began on a blustery March morning at Camp Floyd Stagecoach Inn State Park and Museum, on State Highway 73 at Fairfield, southwest of Salt Lake City. I had thought about camping along the way, but the wind and forecast for snow doused that idea.

Instead, I decided to make the easy trip in a single day, and reserved a room for that night at a motel in Wendover, on Interstate 80 on the Utah-Nevada border north of where our adventure would end.

Still, as we pulled out of the park, which is the eastern terminus of the remote byway, I took comfort in knowing that the cargo area was stocked with gear to handle the most likely misadventures.

'Young, skinny and wiry'

From 1858 to 1861, Camp Floyd was the largest military installation in the country. The wood-frame inn that served the Overland Stage dominates the site today.

When we arrived, the inn was closed for the off-season. Having the park to ourselves, we were better able to imagine the commotion of soldiers, horses, stagecoaches and, of course, Pony Express riders’ quick passage through.

By the mid-19th century, the American acquisition of California, gold rushes there and in Colorado, silver strikes in Nevada and the migration of pioneers to Oregon, California and Utah made a reliable east-west communication link essential. Discord between the northern and southern states was growing, and westerners pressed for speedier and more reliable mail service. Entrepreneurs vied to meet the demand.

The Pony Express, run by the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, was an 18-month attempt to prove the superiority of the central overland route for mail transport between East and West.

With ads offering $25 a week, it attempted to recruit “young, skinny, wiry fellows … expert riders willing to risk death daily,” no older than 18, to carry mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in 10 days or less. Orphans were preferred.

Each rider covered more than 100 miles a day, wearing bright red shirts and blue pants. Each was equipped with a revolver, two loaded cylinders, a Bowie knife, a rifle and a Bible. Their steeds, mostly former California mustangs, carried 12 to 15 pounds of mail.

Launched at St. Joseph on April 3, 1860, the riders’ punishing and dangerous year-round journey across the vast plains, scorching deserts and snowy mountains quickly became the stuff of American lore. At its peak, it would have about 80 riders, more than 400 horses and approximately 150 stations spaced 10 to 15 miles apart.

Postage was high, at $5 an ounce in gold (though special lightweight “Pony Express paper” made it possible to send a letter for about $2.50). Still, “the Pony,” as it was called, is credited with providing a vital communication link that helped keep California in the Union during the Civil War.

Technology was on a roll, however. In October 1861, when the switch was thrown on the newly completed transcontinental telegraph, the Pony Express’ brief chapter in American history came to an end.

Trail West

From Camp Floyd, we followed Highway 73 west toward Five-Mile Pass, a low rise to the southwest. We veered onto a small road that took us past the site of the Rush Valley Pony Express Station, and then, 11 miles later, to the site of Faust Station, along today’s State Highway 36. Beyond Faust, we turned onto the county-maintained dirt-and-gravel road to Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge.

As dust swirled across the flats, I shifted the transfer case from 2WD into full-time 4WD for greater traction, stability and peace of mind, and the historic road ascended steadily toward desert hills bearded with pinyon pines and junipers.

Atop Lookout Pass, near one of the masonry pillars that mark Pony Express station sites (Lookout Station, in this case), we stopped briefly at a small enclosure, Aunt Libby’s Dog Cemetery.

From 1866 to 1900, Libby Rockwell and her husband, Horace, operated the Overland Stage station on Lookout Pass. Libby never had children, and she filled the void with cherished hounds. When they died, she buried them here, beside two adults and a child who perished on the trail.

Descending from the pass, I could feel the high-desert wind buffeting the SUV despite its mass. The long thread of our lonely little road disappeared into wind-blown dust.

Soon we arrived at Simpson Springs, where a roadside replica of a Pony Express station reminded us of an era when backcountry travel wasn’t so easy.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has a campground here, amid the remnants of a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps camp. This is where I had thought we would camp, but with the wind strong and the weather grim, I looked forward to a motel instead.

From Simpson Springs, the old road traverses Dugway Valley, one of those broad, sparsely vegetated expanses that define the Great Basin, so named because water has no outlet to the sea.

A couple of years before, I’d found the road here choked by tumbleweed, and had to nudge my way through. This time the road was clear. Yet blowing dust made it impossible to see far. I kept the headlights on as we approached a second mountain gap, Dugway Pass.

Daunting Land

The vista east from Dugway Pass, across the seemingly lunar valley below, conveys how daunting this land must have appeared in bygone times.

Looking back toward Simpson Springs, it wasn’t hard to imagine how anxious bone-weary travelers of old must have been for the end of their arduous crossing. Anyone who has driven I-80 gets just a taste of it, even at today’s speeds.

The Great Salt Lake Desert, not far to the north, was a major obstacle to westward migration in the 19th century. Most emigrants followed the Oregon Trail's California cutoff, north of the lake for which the desert is named. While that route offered water and feed for livestock, it didn’t meet the need for a year-round route between east and west.

In 1855, explorer and scout Howard Egan took the same general route that we were following, along the southern edge of the pale salt desert, from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, making the trip in 10 days. The route was poor in feed, isolated, muddy at times, dusty and hot in summer, cold in winter and subject to Indian attacks. But it did follow a series of springs.

Early 'autoisists'

Egan’s trail became known as the central overland route, the general course that was eventually followed by the Overland Stage, the Pony Express and the transcontinental telegraph. When auto touring as a form of adventure debuted early in the 20th century, early-day “autoists” came this way as well on what became the first transcontinental “highway,” the Lincoln Highway.

The 3,389-mile Lincoln Highway, a mix of maintained roads, two-track trails and mud bogs, carried adventurous drivers between New York City’s Times Square and San Francisco’s Lincoln Park from 1914 to 1923, the year before my father was born.

Descending from the mountains, we encountered a man and a boy riding on horseback from Lookout Pass to Wendover. At first, I envied their connection with the era of the horse. But dark clouds were gathering to the north, and I was glad to have an SUV's comfort, convenience and security instead.

It wasn’t long before we reached the entrance to Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, where a red, white and blue “L” painted on a fencepost told us we’d joined the route of the old Lincoln Highway.

Fish Springs’ 18,000 acres of desert wetland is vital habitat for migrating birds. It also must have been a welcomed oasis for explorer Jedediah Smith, who stopped here in 1827, as well as Pony Express riders, passengers and horses of the Overland Stage, and for those who traveled the Lincoln Highway.

Lured to its lush environs ourselves, we parked and ate sandwiches at a small picnic area beneath tall trees just yards from where the Pony Express and stage station once stood.

The sky was growing surly, so we skipped a tour of the refuge’s dike-top roads. We drove instead through a gap in the nearby Fish Springs Range, and soon came upon the roadside remains of Boyd Station, a.k.a. Butte or Desert Station, where I found the quote from Roughing It.

Primitive Conditions

Bid Boyd was the station operator at this desolate site, where he lived into the early years of the 20th century. His hard life with the Pony Express, shared with a spare rider and blacksmith, centered around caring for the horses. The monotony was broken only by the arrival and immediate departure of two riders daily.

Conditions were primitive for station keepers in such remote locales, with bunks built into the rock walls and furniture consisting of boxes and benches. Station operators received $50 to $75 per month; other hands earned $25 to $50.

From there, we plowed through a stretch of soft, dusty alkali, and eventually arrived at the hamlet of Callao, a handful of ranch buildings and homes where Willow Springs station served the Pony Express near the base of the Deep Creek Range, which rises to more than 12,000 feet.

Risks and Rebellion

From Callao we turned north, toward Overland Canyon. At the mouth of the canyon, on a strategic knoll overlooking the road, the shell of a roofless fortification recalled the perils that station keepers and travelers faced out here.

In 1863, Native Americans whose ancestors had occupied these parts long before whites arrived attacked an Overland Stage station farther up the canyon. They killed the agent and four soldiers, and burned the buildings. A new station was built on this knoll, and today one can still peer through its rifle ports.

We drove up the canyon, and arrived at a fork in the road. To the left, or west, lay Ibapah, the end of today’s Pony Express Byway. We went to the right instead to take in the quasi-ghost town of Gold Hill, an on-again, off-again mining hub founded in 1892.

Not a soul was stirred by our visit. With 60 miles to go to West Wendover, Nevada, which shares the border with Wendover, Utah, we followed a small road through rolling hills.

Not far from Gold Hill we found our way blocked by a flock of sheep. As the last of the wooly beasts passed by, I saw the herder riding off on his horse. We waved, and I found myself hoping that the glimpse of the past that our three generations had shared this day would be preserved for the generations to come.

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All content © 2011 Tony Huegel. Permission to reproduce is denied without written consent.
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