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40 Mile Desert Route Nevada

Wagon crossing reenatcment           photo curtesy of Genny Edge
There is an obscure memorial about a quarter mile off Highway 95, some fifteen miles north of Fallon, Nevada. Only a well-trained eye can decipher it through a sea of sage and rocks. It looks like nothing more than an odd shaped outcropping, or the remains of something long forgotten. After traversing the short dirt road to it, however, one finds a large stone monument, complete with an engraving identifying it as a tribute to the countless thousands of emigrants who passed through this place of hardship. This portion of the emigrant trail is called the Carson Route. It meanders through the heart of the Forty-Mile Desert, which saw heavy traffic from 1848 until 1869, when the nearby Union Pacific railroad was constructed.
This seemingly clean strip of desert was once the horrific scene of abandoned wagons and dead livestock. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) came this way by overland stage in 1862 and described the scene in his book, “Roughing it”:

“forty memorable miles of bottomless sand, into which the coach wheels sunk from six inches to a foot. We worked our passage most of the way across. That is to say, we got out and walked. It was a dreary pull and a long and thirsty one, for we had no water. From one extremity of this desert to the other, the road was white with the bones of oxen and horses. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that we could have walked the forty miles and set our feet on a bone at every step! The desert was one prodigious graveyard. And the log chains, wagon tires, and rotting wrecks of vehicles were almost as thick as the bones.”

These wagon remains from the 40 mile desert are now housed in the Churhill County Mueum2222

These wagon remains from the 40 mile desert, are now housed in the Churchill County Museum

  Beginning at the Humboldt Sink (near present day Lovelock), the Forty-Mile Desert was the last chance for drinkable water until crossing the forty miles to the Carson River at Ragtown. The trip had already been an arduous one to this point. After following the Humboldt River for several weeks across the breadth of Nevada at the hottest time of the year, the wagons were in need of repair, the people weary, and the oxen and other livestock pulling the Conestoga’s were exhausted from hundreds of miles of hard roads and questionable, often murky, water. They would enter the Forty-Mile Desert at a most challenging time.
The Forty-Mile Desert had to be crossed in August in order for the wagons and livestock to be prepared for the haul over the mountains into California before October, when the first snows might hinder the passes. The fate of the Donner Party was well known to the people thereafter traveling west. The Donner Party provided a ghastly example of what could happen when untested roads and supposed shortcuts were used. Bickering and infighting ensued and the Forty-Mile Desert was not crossed until September. Despite the dangerous crossing of the Sierras, not to mention the many other frustrations and challenges along the journey to the fabled goldfields of California, the Forty-Mile Desert was beyond doubt, the deadliest and most dreaded leg of the trip. According to the Nevada State Park System and the Churchill County Museum Committee, a survey conducted in 1850 highlighted that, 1,061 mules dead, 5,000 horses dead, 3,750 cattle dead, and 953 emigrant graves. This survey, made only two years into the deadly crossings, make it hard to imagine how many other emigrants may have perished in the twenty years that followed.

Remnants from the desert

Remnants from the desert

They often traveled at night at a painstaking trek of half a mile per hour, or even less. Sometimes a wagon would only total a few miles per day or night as the emaciated oxen weakened. The men, women, and children would normally walk alongside in order to lessen the burden on the livestock. If they were lucky, they would carry on like this all the way to Ragtown, with their wagons and belongings and most of their livestock. If they were unlucky, the oxen would collapse and die in the desert and the emigrants would carry what they could, abandoning all else, in hopes of reaching Ragtown alive. Besides the countless emigrants still beneath the sand and sage of the Forty-Mile Desert, there was as well an ever growing cemetery at Ragtown.
In this unforgiving climate, relief did come on occasion during the mid 1850’s, but at a price. Asa Kenyon, station master and proprietor of Ragtown, sunk a well about fifteen miles north of his station along the trail. He sold water at a dollar per gallon, an excessive price for the time but very cheap for the saving of life. This would help get the families to Ragtown alive, where he could sell them goods from his trading post.
The actual trail they negotiated is still there, but now marred in parts as an ATV trail. However, on many sojourns to this historic place, I have rarely seen another soul. It is a desolate and haunting trek up and down the path of those emigrants who are heroes for their great sacrifice to get across this waterless stretch of desolate tract. They served as a sacrifice to the promise of a better life.
One time while driving the trail, perhaps fifteen miles from the Ragtown site, a curious site on a barren flat caught my attention. It seemed to be simply a scattering of red and brown rocks. Something intrigued me about it, kindling my curiosity. I walked over to it and upon closer inspection; these rust colored stones were no stones at all! Picking up pieces one by one I discovered to my astonishment that these were decaying bits of iron. They were parts of wagon wheels and other iron components to a wagon, not one piece larger than a child’s collar bone. I figured the wheel hubs to be not far beneath the surface, but chose not to dig.
A mere generation ago there was still plenty to be found. I have conversed with several “old-timers” of this area who possess Forty-Mile relics. Among them, a near complete wheel and the deteriorated remains of a wagon tongue. I know a man who found a piece of old iron out there and forged it into a very impressive looking knife. I was told that in 1911 work crews came through and burned what was left of the wagons and salvaged the larger iron remains to haul off to Hazen, to be sent by rail car for melt down and reuse elsewhere. I am certain that if one were to explore portions of the Forty-Mile Desert today by tedious excavation, many physical remnants of those long ago hardships would be found. I would like to think that the rusted remains, as well as the many bones, are in their final resting place.

Reenactments happen periodically  photo S.W. Elliott

Reenactments happen periodically photo S.W. Elliott

The trials and tribulations of the Forty-Mile Desert have not been lost to history. In fact, wagons still cross the desert. There is an annual reenactment that happens each September. Although they travel on rubber wheels and much lighter wagons hauled by mules and horses and are followed by a support team, they are a tribute to their overwhelmed for-bearers. I once found another wagon train in the Forty-Mile Desert. This one had the iron wheels and shortened, but sturdy replicas of the old Conestoga wagons. The women and girls were dressed in prairie dresses and bonnets and the men and boys in slouch hats and suspenders. Modern advances such as ice coolers and cell phones make the going a little less dangerous, but these good people have done an inspiring job at keeping the past alive.
Despite the reenactments and tangible aspects from the emigrants’ plight, I tend to think the most treasured remains are the words from the emigrants themselves. Every few miles on the Forty-Mile trail are markers made of chunks of Union Pacific rail. Most of these markers bear a few words from a passage of an emigrant’s diary, often depicting the curiosity of the local terrain. The words that sum it up the best for me are the lines engraved on the old stone monument mentioned at the beginning of this article. The words were written on August 5th 1850 by E.S. Engalls:

“Imagine to yourself a vast plain of sand and clay…the stinted sage, the salt lakes, cheating the thirsty traveler into the belief that water is near. Yes. Water it is, but poison to the living thing that stops to drink. Burning wagons render still more hideous the solemn march; dead horses line the road, and living ones may be constantly seen lapping and rolling the empty water casks (which have been cast away) for a drop of water to quench their burning thirst, or standing with drooping heads, waiting for death to relieve them of their tortures, or lying on the sand half buried, unable to rise, yet still trying. The sand hills are reached; then comes a scene of confusion and dismay. Animal after animal drops down. Wagon after wagon is stopped, the strongest animals are taken out of the harness; the most important effects are taken out of the wagon and placed on their backs and all hurry away, leaving behind wagons, property, and animals, that, too weak to travel, lie and broil in the sun… The owners hurry on with but one object in view, that of reaching the Carson River before the boiling sun shall reduce them to the same condition…The desert! You must see it and feel it in an August day, when legions have crossed it before you, to realize it in all its horrors. But heaven save you from that experience.”

This article was courtesy of Scott Willam Elliot