Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Wild horses and Wells

Friday September 16th  After an initial rodeo display which failed to unseat Mike, Mo settled down to the job in hand and we had an uneventful 16 mile ride along the Pony Express road to Simpson's Springs while Mike regaled me with stories about Orrin Porter Rockwell.  Rockwell was a legendary Mormon gunslinger and 'Destroying Angel' who among other things acted as bodyguard to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and had a ranch just south of here.  En route we passed the unmarked site of Government Creek telegraph relay station, where there may also have been a Pony Express station.. 
 Mike beside the Pony Express monument at Simpson's Springs in front of a reconstruction of the original station building, though the actual site is thought to be about 300ft further west.
 Simpson's Springs was named by Captain Simpson who recced the Overland mail route between Salt Lake City and California in 1858.  George Chorpenning subsequently established stage stations  every twenty miles, some of which later served the Pony Express.  The significance of Simpson's Springs lies in the fact that it was the last reliable water source on this route between here and Fish Springs, fifty miles to the east.  This explains the presence of a solid stone building which served as a home station for the Pony Express.

The presence of water and grazing (albeit sparse) here has attracted a large number of wild mustangs. Although I had ridden past the Green Mountain reserve in Wyoming, I was now actually riding through the mustang territory which makes up large areas of Nevada...
Fifty years ago the numbers of wild mustangs and burros were in decline, and in 1971 the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) introduced a bill to protect and manage wild horses.  See the 2014 BLM documentary describing the history and implementation of this bill.  However protection resulted in a mushrooming of mustang numbers to the extent that it has threatened not only rangeland ecologies in HMAs (Herd Management Areas) but the welfare of the animals themselves.  The BLM have tried to control the crisis with measures such as vaccinating horses with anti fertility drugs, and  removing many to holding areas for training and adoption.  However the BLM documentary above does not really highlight the scale of the problem.
According to film maker and BLM advisor Ben Masters, there are currently 75,000 wild horses and burros on land that can only support 27,000. Additionally the BLM spends two-thirds of its budget on caring for the 45,000 horses in holding areas, of which only a tiny percentage are adopted.  Ben was the driving force behind the film Unbranded which documented how he and three cowboy friends broke in and rode mustangs across country from Mexico to Canada.  He aimed to raise the profile of the plight of mustangs and encourage adoption, but in practice it has done little to reduce the huge numbers of horses in holding areas, and the controversial alternative of euthanasia has had to be considered.

There is a mustang herd of around one hundred and fifty horses in the Simpson's Springs area. A distant view of part of the herd grazing on the plain below the campground...
Saturday September 17th and once again it was just my old faithful Lady and me setting out on the trail through an increasingly desert landscape. Difficult to hear the audio on the video below, but the site of Riverbed Pony Express station is just below the peak ahead which is called Table Mountain.  Table Mountain is so called because of the flat terrace which surrounds the summit.  Amazingly the whole of the lowland area here was underwater and formed part of ancient Lake Bonneville, and it was waves from the lake which formed the terrace. As the camera pans round, Dugway Proving Grounds which the US military use for chemical and biological testing are off to the right.
The monument at the site of Riverbed Pony Express station....
The surprisingly wide riverbed to the east of the station and after which it is named is thought to have been formed when Lake Bonneville was drying up and the water from Sevier Lake drained down to the lower levels of the slat desert, cutting out the now dry river bed in the process.   Howard Egan reported that a Pony Express rider narrowly escaped being swept away by a flash flood when he was crossing the riverbed.
There were substantial log buildings here, and a  brackish well which was also used to supply Dugway station, but nothing now remains.  Several station keepers reported being haunted by 'Desert fairies' but we neither saw nor heard anything out of the ordinary!

Seventeen miles from Simpson's Springs we came to the abandoned Dugway Topaz Well where we camped for the night in the middle of nowhere.  Dugway Proving Grounds are to the north behind the water tower and the Dugway Range is to the left of the rig....

Sunday September 18th Lucy is an enthusiastic member of Back Country Horsemen of America and a keen proponent of their Leave No Trace programme which aims to minimise the impact of recreation on public lands.  So here she is clearing up after Lady, having taken down the corral which you can see neatly stacked on the side of the trailer.  The droppings will be scattered over the surrounding desert scrub.
I made my way to the site of Dugway Pony Express station which lies about a mile and a half to the south and a little way off the road, "about the forlornest spot I ever saw" according to Horace Greeley in 1860.
 
Water had to be brought in by cask, as there was little success with wells dug here, and even one dug to a depth of 170ft failed to find water.  But the failed wells ended up serving more novel uses.  William Egan noted "it made a nice place to dump the stable cleaning" and according to another story, Porter Rockwell used one to dump the body of a stage coach driver who had been found dead nearby with an arrow fired into him, presumably by Indians. But there were no threats on the horizon when Lady and I reached the Pony Express monument...
The station here was a dugout - "a hole four foot deep, roofed over with split cedar logs and provided with a rude adobe chimney"(Burton). But all that now remains is the hollow.

Following Pony Express trail markers on up to Dugway Pass...
Dugway Pass was previously called 'Shortcut Pass' but Simpson wrote "Through this pass Chorpenning & Co. the mail contractors, have made a road, but it is so crooked and steep as to scarcely permit our wagons to get up".  The photo below of the final stretch up to the pass shows the the line of old stage coach road below and the cuttings formed by the modern vehicle road above....
Unlike Burton, who announced that he 'liquored up' at the top of the pass, we stuck to water  .....
The pass forms the boundary between the Thomas Range to the south and the Dugway Range to the north. The name originates from the practice of digging a serpentine trench or dugway for the uphill wagon wheels to keep them level and prevent the wagons from tipping as they negotiated the grades over the pass. Incredible that the world famous Proving Grounds got their name from a small trench on the side of a hill!

Nearing the site of Black Rock Pony Express station...
..off to the right is the Dugway Range which we have just crossed, ahead is the Dugway military Proving Grounds, and to the left are the Black Rock Hills.

In days gone by, without detailed maps and Satellite Navigation, local landmarks would have played an important role in guiding travellers across open and unfamiliar territory, and it was particularly evident in the west that many stations were sited near significant features.  The Pony Express Trail often clearly takes a direct route to a gap in the hills or a prominent hill feature.  Although nothing much is known about Black Rock Pony Express station (also known as Butte or Desert station) it is obvious it acquired its name from the distinctive outlying rock at the end of the Black Rock Hills promontory......
This view of our camp was taken in late evening facing north across the road with Granite Peak in the background.   In the foreground is the Pony Express monument, the concrete base of which made a convenient place to perform my evening ablutions.  No-one to scare away even if it hadn't been dark!

1 comment:

  1. The video which you have shared *Riding the Pony Express Trail to Dugway Pass 1 and 2* are really nice. I am not the big fan of horse riding but you are doing it so good.

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