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[Chapter I. pp. 5-14.]


The Pacific Railroad — open, is a great fact to America, to the world. The vast regions that it brings, for the first time, into our familiar knowledge hold a new world of nature and of wealth, and are, full of delightful surprises for the lover of Samuel Bowlesscenery, the student in science, the seeker of opportunity for power and for riches. It is the unrolling of a new map, the revelation of a new empire, the creation of a new civilization, the revolution of the world's haunts of pleasure and the world's homes of wealth. Europe long ago became only a familiar panorama, with the surprises and sentimentalisms all written in at the proper places, like the cheers and  " laughter " of a faithfully reported speech. But thanks to the toughness of day and night stage travel for a continuous three weeks; thanks to the greed for gold and the high prices of food, leaving no time for those who had gone into this wide, new land to look at its scenery, or to study its phenomena, or a at least to write about them; thanks, indeed, to the Indians, of whom all sentimental travellers have a holy horror; thanks, finally, to the rapidity with which the railroad has been built, we have here a world of nature, fresh and tempting, for the explorer. The field is too broad, also the variety of experiences to be bad too great, the forms and freaks of nature too strange and too numerous, — the whole revelation too unique and too astonishing, — to be readily catalogued and put into flexible covers for one's overcoat pocket. So the pleasure of original discovery — delicious victual for our vanity — may not unfairly be enjoyed by those who travel within the next year or two by the Pacific Railroad, and are wise enough, and have leisure enough, to deploy liberally to the right and left, at 'salient points, along its track.

Near two thirds of all the land of the United States lies beyond the Mississippi, not counting in the outlying purchase of Alaska, which will doubtless prove a very good thing when we have found out what to do with it. The  Pacific Railroad fairly bisects this vast area east and west, as the Rocky Mountains — the backbone and dividing  line of the continent — do north and south ; the two cutting it up into huge quarters, each of which would overlay all Europe this side of Russia, and flap lustily in the wind all around the edges. It will take us long to learn what there is on and in it; how long, indeed, to subjugate it to use and the ministries of civilization! But with one railroad of two thousand miles built across it in four years, and two others to follow within the present generation, our strides in its conquest are at least on equal scale with its majesty and its mysteries.

Skipping the Mississippi valley as more or less familiar country to us all, and taking up the New West on the other side of the Missouri, where the Pacific Railroad proper begins, there are four great natural divisions in the country hence to the Pacific. First the Plains, that grandest of all glacial deposits, according to Agassiz, five hundred miles wide and one thousand miles long, stretching from river to mountains, from Britain to Mexico; a magnificent earth ocean, rolling up in beautiful green billows along the shores of the continental streams and continental mountains that border it, but calming down in the vast Centre as if the Divine voice had here again uttered its " Peace, be still." The ocean does not give deeper sense of illimitable space; never such feeling of endless repose as inspires the traveller amid this unchanging  boundlessness. We used to call it The Great American Desert; it is really the great natural pasture-ground of the nation; and the Platte will yet prove, the northern Nile. The antelope, the buffalo, and wolf are already disappearing before the horse, the ox, and the sheep, and these, for so far as the waters of the Platte may be spread, — and volume and fall offer wide promise for that, — will give, way in time to fields of corn and wheat.

Buffalo, painting by N.H. Trotter
Painting of buffalo herd by N.H. Trotter.
Credited to the Smithsonian Institution, from a postcard.

Next the Mountains, — five, hundred miles width of mountains, staying the continent at its Centre, and feeding the great waters that fertilize two thirds its area, and keep the two oceans alive. The Cordilleras of South America, the Rocky Mountains of North America, are here broken up into a dozen sub-ranges, with vast elevated plains lying among and between; their crests broken down and wasted away for a pathway for the iron track across the continent. This section is full of natural wonder and beauty, of scientific variety and marvel; in its Centre, holding the divide of the continent, lies a great barren basin, without living streams, and almost without living springs, — a desert, indeed, Which the trains should always manage to pass over in the night; and beyond, the picturesque descent into Salt Lake valley, past majestic ruins of majestic mountains, under towering walls of granite, along banks of snow and beds of flowers, through narrow canyons with frowning sides, down streams whose waters lead the locomotive a losing race, and turn the train from one novelty to another, from one wonder to a greater,— altogether, perhaps, the most interesting and exciting portion of the whole continental ride.

Now a third stretch of five hundred miles through Utah and Nevada, whose united territory takes in little more than the vast interior basin, which, more properly than any other region in our extended territory, merits the name of the American Desert. The Colorado and its tributaries drain much of its eastern and all its south-eastern portions; and some of the shorter branches of the Snake or Columbia cross its northern border; but, with these exceptions, all the waters within its six hundred by three hundred miles' area rise and flow and waste within itself. They contribute nothing to the common stock of the ocean. Salt Lake is its chief sheet of water, —fifty by one hundred miles in extent,—and is bountifully fed from the western slopes of the Rocky Mountain ranges, but has no visible outlet. The Humboldt River, lying east and west along its upper line, and marking the track of the railroad for some three hundred miles, though fed from various ranges of mountains, that cut the basin every dozen or twenty miles north and south, yet finally weakens and wastes itself in a huge sink within a hundred miles of the California line. So with the fresh streams that pour down on the western border from the Sierra Nevadas, and those of feebler flow from the winter snows of the interior mountain-ranges, all, so soon as they reach the valleys, begin to be rapidly absorbed by the dry air and the drier elements of the soil, and, sooner or later, absolutely die away. Yet, where and while they do exist, there are strips of fertile land that yield most abundantly of grass and grain and vegetables; and where, as in the Salt Lake valley on the east, and in the Carson on the west, the mountain streams can be divided and spread about in  fertilizing ditches, agriculture wins its greatest triumphs.

As a whole, this is a barren and uninteresting country for the general traveller; sodas and salts and sulphurs taint the waters and the soils; the dust, wherever roused, is as searching and poisonous as it is delicate and impalpable ; the rare grass is not green, but a sickly yellow or, a faint gray ; trees and shrubs huddle like starved and frightened sheep into little nooks among the hills, stunted and peevish in growth and character, with no birthright there, and often none visible within the horizon's stretch of ten to twenty miles; no flower dreams of life in such uncongeniality; wastes of volcanic rocks lie along and around rivers that might otherwise be tempted to bless the country they pass through; beds of furious torrents slash the hillsides. and mar the valleys; while fields of alkali look in the distance like fresh and refreshing banks of snow, and taunt approach with the suffocating reality. Some of the valleys seem indeed to realize the character of the fabled Death's Valley of southern Nevada, within which no vegetable life ever creeps, out of which no human life ever goes; and yet, within this grand area of distance and desert, two States have risen and are prosperous,—one planted by the fanaticism of a religion, and the other by the fanaticism for gold and silver. To these are we indebted for our path across the continent; while the traveller finds refreshment for his finer senses in the subtle beauty of the air, and the palpitating roundness of the hills that, with the winds for architect, present such forms, unbroken by rock or trees, as are a constant exhilaration to the eye.

The final division of the journey begins with the eastern foot-hills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and carries us over these, through twice welcome forests, of unaccustomed height and variety; by broad lakes of rare purity and beauty; along rocky precipices, unsealed until the engineer for the railroad planted his level on the walls, and the China-' man followed with, his subduing pick; down by fathomless gorges; through long delaying foot-hills, waste with the miner's ruthless touch, or green with the vineyards that promise to heal the wounds of nature; out by the muddy Sacramento and its broad alluvials, golden brown with the summer's decay, over long stretches of the tule marshes; under the shadows of Mount Diablo; finally, across the wide inland bay to the sand-hills that the Pacific has thrown up as a barrier to her own restless ambition, and over which San Francisco roughly but rapidly creeps into her position as the second great city of America.

This is but a two hundred miles' ride, and should be made from sun to sun, for it takes the traveller through already fabled lands in our history, and introduces him to that region of wonderful wealth, of contradictory and comprehensive nature, of strange scientific revelations of fascinations unequalled, of repulsions undisputed, — California, the seat of a new empire, the promised creator of a new, race.  And here, the traveller's experiences have but just, began; his curiosity is brought only to its edge. Let us go back and look around, and see where he should linger, on what it should feed itself.

[Chapter V. pp. 55-64.]


There is no end to the anomalies of nature in this great interior American basin, of which the Salt lake Valley is alike the threshold, the gem, and a sub-specimen. But the study of them is now accompanied with so many drawbacks that the pleasure-traveller will, after leaving Salt Lake City, seek to put the whole region between him and the Sierras as speedily as possible. Ascending and passing out of the Valley, the road skirts the northern shore of the lake, crossing Bear River, its chief tributary, and going through the Promontory Mountains that come down from the north into the lake. Here the two companies building the. railroad, from east and west, joined their tracks, though the point of actual connection is at Ogden, in the valley below; from here the stage lines start, northeast and northwest, to Montana and Idaho; and from here, too, the Union or Eastern Pacific company intends to stretch a branch road up to and along the Snake branch of the Columbia River, through Idaho, and down the Columbia to the sea, thus making for itself a distinct connection with the Pacific Ocean. The distance is six hundred and fifty miles, but for half of it steamboats can run on the rivers, so that the first construction, to insure steam communication, is comparatively not large, and will hardly require more money than the profits of the company in building the main line.

Stretching out from Salt Lake through high broad valleys or plains, barren and forbidding, the road seeks the Humboldt Valley, and follows that river for two hundred and thirty miles. This is the old emigrant route across the continent, cheerless and dreary enough, indeed, but far more tolerable than the old stage-road, which led us south of Salt Lake, and crossed Nevada at about its centre. The river is sluggish and muddy, and fertilizes but a narrow strip of land in its path; it lies along a trough between high volcanic table-lands on the north, and the ranges of mountains that every fifteen or twenty miles lead off south through Nevada, and out of whose snows it gathers its feeble waters. Where the road enters, the valley wide and watery meadows spread out a sickly oasis, and where it leaves it the same phenomenon is repeated; for the rest, there is little to divert the traveller, nothing to inspire him but the dry, clear air, and the rounded outlines of the bare hills. Elko, where the main tributary of the Humboldt comes out of the snow-capped East Humboldt mountains, which are ten thousand to twelve thousand feet high, and the backbone of the great basin, is the point of departure for the new silver-mines of White Pine, the latest sensation of the sensation-loving Pacific coast. They lie one hundred and forty miles south of the railroad, in Southeastern Nevada, and if they hold out as they have begun, with a pretty sure promise of five millions the first year, they will force the first southern cross railroad to the Colorado, and checkmate Mormonism in the south.

A little farther out we touch a bit of emigrant sentiment in Maggie Creek from the north, so named for a pretty little Scotch girl, pet of one of the early columns of the army of civilization crossing this way years ago. Here is Carlin, a town of hopes, as marking a point of departure from the West for Idaho. Near here, too, if the locomotive breaks down, the traveller may refresh himself by, climbing a little knob, a few rods from the road, and find that nature has improved an old crater— by turning it into a mammoth hot sulphur bath-tub. At Argenta he will be invited to a stage ride of ninety miles up the Reese River valley to Austin ; but if he has ever invested in any of its mines, he will decline with a shudder, and set his face resolutely west. The glory of Austin is a trifle dimmed now; but it has had its five or six thousand inhabitants, and was the successor of " Washoe," and the forerunner of White Pine,—in the series of mining movements that have made Nevada, and— even threaten to perpetuate her existence as a State against every other Divine gift and grace.

If we are bent on novelty, eighteen miles farther west we shall switch off our car for half a day, and borrow horses and gallop away south, among the barren hills and more barren valleys, into the Whirlwind Valley, where sulphurous waters beat, and bubble beneath the surface, Eke numerous struggling hidden pumps or steam-engines, and occasionally burst out in columns of burning water and clouds of hot steam. Great, still pools invite to a bath, yet mayhap would overtake the bather with a scalding, crystallizing explosion, and leave him a monumental statue of his temerity, and a new wonder of Nature in the Great Basin. Frequently she revenges herself here for her stint in all the ordinary natural graces by these deposits of seething chemicals, that seem to be faint breathings of dying volcanoes, or the early efforts of new ones.

Passing between the Trinity Mountains on the north and the West Humboldt on the south, and through a mining district of great hopes, large prospecting, and small returns, the road now leaves the Humboldt River, which sneaks off among the hills to die in the sands, and, crossing the Truckee Desert, forty miles of the dreariest country it has yet passed, — arid, alkalish, and Arabic, the only life, lizards and jackass rabbits, the only landscape feature, dry, brown, and bare mountains, the only hope, the end, — the track brings us within the waters and the winds of the California mountains.

Along the Truckee to Reno, we should there take a day to see Virginia City and Gold Hill, fourteen miles away on a branch road. The great Comstock lode lies under these two towns; they are built along the mountain-side,  upon the crust of the great silver-mine of America, with open depths beneath of from five hundred to one thousand feet, and more miles of streets below than above; and they are the theatre of the most systematic and extensive if not the most successful mining operations in this country. The mines in this lode have yielded over eighty millions in gold and silver since 1860, reaching sixteen millions, or their highest year's return, in 1867, but falling off one half in 1868, and giving signs now of being nearly worked out. It is in the hope of their renewal, at least of a more profitable working, that Congress is besought to give millions for a tunnel from far down the valley in under the mountain to the lode at a point below its present excavations. But with any real faith in the future possibilities of the mine, the money for the work can be raised in California and Nevada easier than it can be bored and bought through Congress. The question at issue is one of life' or death to these towns ; but they are well worth even the hurried traveller's visit, as well for their historical relations to silver-mining, to the settlement and organization of Nevada, and to the Pacific Railroad, as for offering the best opportunity for observing the processes of quartz mining and milling, and not a little, indeed, for the uniqueness of their location and the surrounding natural objects of interest.

The " Steamboat Springs " in the neighborhood repeat the phenomena of Whirlwind Valley. Carson, the capital, lies pleasantly in an adjoining valley nearer the great mountains; but the mountains themselves now invite us more strongly, and we are soon moving swiftly among their gurgling waters and soughing pines, — rarer water and grander forest than we have seen before, — with towering walls of rock and distant snow-fields, that are full of Alpine memories. The snow-sheds over the track shut out the best of the mountain scenery, and we must stop near the summit of Donner Lake, a beautiful sheet of water, already a favorite summer resort for California, and type of a series of grand lakes along the upper Sierras, that add a rare charm to their many other scenic attractions. A day or two here will make us familiar with the numerous beauties of this mountain range, the grand forests, the castellated rocks, the wedded summer and winter, the dry, pure air, the mosses, the flowers and mountain fruits, and refresh us for the descent into the hot suns and the brown valleys of California's summer.

The railroad passage over these mountains is the greatest triumph of engineering skill and labor on the whole line. The track going west ascends twenty-five hundred feet in fifty miles, and descends six thousand feet in seventy-five miles. There are over a mile of tunnels on the route, and a million of dollars were spent in blasting-powder alone for the construction. Majestic, frowning peaks hang over us, deep, almost fathomless gorges lie beneath us, as we follow out and around the long ridges in the descent into California; and amid scenes more bold and impressive than any we have yet passed through, we pass out into the lower valleys, and reach California's capital, Sacramento.

Three lines invite us thence to San Francisco: the river-boats; a short-cut railroad to Vallejo at the head of the bay, with a twenty-mile ferriage; or the Pacific Railroad's proper prolongation around through Stockton to Oakland, the rural suburb and school-house of San Francisco, lying opposite, and an hour's steamboat ride away, on the bay. By and by rails will circuit the bay, and we may go into the heart of San Francisco without " breaking bulk " or touching water. Sacramento, Stockton, and Oakland are all worth a passing glance. They are inland rural cities, like Cleveland and Columbus in Ohio, or Hartford, Springfield, and Worcester in New England, pleasantly located by the water, brisk with local trade and developing manufactures, mature in social and religious elements, rich in many beautiful homes; they rank next to San Francisco among the towns of California, Sacramento and Stockton stand respectively at the heads of the  Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, which form, north and south, the great interior basin and agricultural region of the State, and whose waters uniting pour westward and circle San Francisco with her wealth of bay.

View this entire book on-line:
Bowles, Samuel.  The Pacific railroad--open. How to go: what to see. Guide for travel to and through western America. 1869.
Bowles, Samuel.  The Pacific railroad--open. How to go: what to see. Guide for travel to and through western America. 1869.
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