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Category Archives: History

Lake Point concrete arrow points back to early days of aviation

Glare from the rising sun had botched my photo efforts on the first two passes.  This would be our third and final pass.  If we were going to escape the glare we’d need to creep within the mountain’s shadow– and that meant we’d have to fly in close.  Really close.

A Western Air Express Douglas M-2 bi-plane used for Airmail in 1926 (source unknown).

The following originally appeared in the July 8, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“How’s your head?”  Brian Staheli asked as he piloted the Cessna Super Skylane in a low loop over the Great Salt Lake’s southern shore.

“All good!” I lied.

I figured my airsickness was the last thing Brian needed to worry about as he executed a highly technical maneuver.  Moreover, we both had jobs to do.  His was to safely position the aircraft over the extreme northwest tip of the mountain range; mine was to spot our target on the ground and snap a decent photo.

Glare from the rising sun had botched my efforts on the first two passes.  This would be our third and final pass.  If we were going to escape the glare we’d need to creep within the mountain’s shadow– and that meant we’d have to come in close.  Really close.

Brian made a tight turn over Lake Point and flew northward, hugging the Oquirrh flanks.  I popped my ears and steadied my camera.

“Just to let you know,” he warned, “this might feel kind of weird.”

Salt Lake City Air Mail Radio Station, March 1925 (photo courtesy FAA).

Many private aircraft owners fly for recreation.  Far fewer, I imagine, take to the skies for historical reconnaissance.  Our target that morning was a rare piece of aviation history—a 60 foot array of concrete slabs situated atop an Oquirrh bench in the Lake Point area and arranged in the shape of a double-tailed arrow.   Aside from a certain mystique, the large northeastward-pointing arrow shares another characteristic with phenomena like crop circles or the ancient Nazca lines of Peru:   it was meant to be viewed from the sky.

Brian brought this fascinating structure to my attention in 2008.  A corporate pilot and a flight instructor, he had noticed the arrow while flying around the Oquirrhs.  We did some research and identified the structure as a relic of an era less celebrated, but every bit as adventurous as the Pony Express.

The story begins in the early days of powered flight, when open-cockpit airplanes were equipped with only a compass and an altimeter, and pilots used railroad maps as navigational charts.  Seeking to speed up delivery service, U.S. Postal Department introduced the U.S. Air Mail system in 1918. This new class of delivery service had a definite cool factor, but it was wildly inefficient—mostly due to the fact that flight was restricted to daylight hours.

That changed after an experimental flight in 1921, when pilot Jack Knight completed a night flight from Chicago from North Platte, Nebraska, guided by bonfires lit along the way by Postal Department employees and helpful farmers.  Beginning in 1923, a system of tower-mounted light beacons was installed along the Transcontinental Air Mail Route, which connected New York and San Francisco via airfields that included Salt Lake City.

Airway beacons were placed at 10 mile intervals and featured rotating million candlepower lights (photo courtesy FAA).

The 51 foot tall towers were placed at 10 mile intervals and each was topped by a 1 million candlepower rotating lamp that was visible within a 40 mile radius.  Two additional color-coded course lights pointed up and down the airway and flashed a Morse code letter that identified the beacon.

To enhance daytime navigation, most beacon towers were built atop large concrete arrows, which pointed in the direction of the next beacon.  This arrow/beacon system grew exponentially when the Air Mail Act of 1925 required that Air Mail service be contracted out to various commercial airlines.

Contract Air Mail (CAM) routes were established along the Transcontinental backbone.   Salt Lake City became a major terminal field along five CAM routes, with 11 beacons housed in Tooele County.  Information on our Lake Point beacon site was scant—not even the Smithsonian Institute’s National Postal Museum could track down a construction date, though they estimate it was placed sometime between 1923 and 1925.

Sadly, all we know about the beacon is its official designation of “Airway Beacon 61A,” which it probably received during a 1934 revamp of the routes.  61A is unique in that it marked the junction of two CAM routes to Salt Lake City from San Diego and San Francisco—hence the arrow’s double tail.

The arrow is located on property owned by Rio Tinto.  Van King, a Rio Tinto asset manager, accompanied Brian and I to the site last month.  There we noted the tower’s four steel footings set at each corner of the center slab.  The tower itself had been cut away with a torch at some point, and its twisted remains lay beside the concrete array.  Traces of orange paint on both the concrete and steel provided an idea of coloration.  There were no signs of the beacon itself.

A standard airway beacon setup. When possible, beacons were powered by a small generator shack built at the arrow's tail (photo courtesy FAA).

The anatomy of Airway Beacon 61A. There is no evidence of a generator shack (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Airway Beacon 61A's arrow from the ground with the remains of its beacon tower visible just to its right (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Just how long Airway Beacon 61A serviced the routes is unknown, but most of the network’s 1,550 plus beacons had been phased out and dismantled by the early 1970’s.   Walking along the concrete “Y” shape was like stepping back in time.  And while it was satisfying to see the structure up close, the adventure wouldn’t be complete without experiencing it the way the original air mail pilots did—low and slow from the air.

I tried to picture the Cessna with primitive controls and an open cockpit as we climbed from the runway in Erda.  We explored the Great Salt Lake and the Saltair area before the sun rose high enough to illuminate the beacon site.  My head didn’t start seriously spinning until our third pass, but it was mind over body when it came to the mission at hand.

One of the last surviving airway beacons stands in the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum (photo by Clint Thomsen)

“I’m going to put you right over it,” Brian said before executing an uncoordinated flight aptly referred to as a “slip,” which rapidly dropped us to 50 feet above ground level and gave me a square-on view of 61A.  Whether I got the shot or not, it was time to pull out and touch back down in Erda.

King says Rio-Tinto is intrigued by the history of the arrow and is reviewing ways to protect its cultural value.  61A may be just a concrete slab, but it’s a slab pilots like Brian hope to fly over for decades to come.

—–

Special thanks to Rio Tinto/Kennecott and Brian Staheli.

 

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Adventure = (Air + Concrete + Steel)

Tonight’s TTB column addresses a little-known period in postal history.  I know what you’re thinking– what could possibly be more riveting than postal history?

Well, what if I told you this story about little-known period in postal history has all the elements of a grand adventure?

  • A fascinating backstory that stumped even the Smithsonian? Check.
  • The discovery of forgotten historical artifacts? Check.
  • A hike? Check.
  • An acrobatic airplane flight? Check-o-rama.

Here’s a hint:


Check tonight’s Transcript Bulletin for the story.  I’ll repost here on Monday.

 

Overdue: Shedding some light on the George Washington library book story

The copy of Vattel's The Law of Nations that was given to the New York Society Library by George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate

I’m at once amused and fascinated by the matter of George Washington’s overdue library books.  Amused because, after all, Washington sewed seeds that changed the world.  Men of his honor and caliber rarely grace the history pages.  Considering the political scandals of present, it’s fun to look back on trivialities of the past.

My fascination with this story is based less on the historical facts themselves and more on the process of connecting the jigsaw puzzle.  I hated history in high school (no offense, Mr. Madsen) because the work had been done for me.  My grade depended on memorization and regurgitation, not investigation.  I wonder how many kids who think they hate history would realize they actually love it if their teachers thought outside the textbook.

My post about Washington’s library books last week was supposed to be a simple Friday blurb about an interesting historical factoid (a great date night conversation piece!).

But the more I researched this story, the more questions arose. Not big conspiratorial questions– just curious questions about the timeline and some inconsistencies in the press reports. Some news reports had mentioned two books, others mentioned only one. Beyond this, I wished somebody had taken time to flesh the story out a little more.

I started by contacting the New York Society Library and the media office at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens to ask for help. Both parties were extremely helpful, taking time to answer my questions and send me all sorts of good information. The information presented below was culled from Washington’s diary, press kits, and my interviews with NYSL and Mount Vernon staff. So, I’d like to present you what the late Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.”

THE CONTEXT
In 1789, the U.S. government was based out of Federal Hall at Wall and Broad Streets in Lower Manhattan. Occupying the top floor of the building was the New York Society Library, which was founded in 1754. The library was a useful resource for government officials and it was frequented by the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Jay, and sometimes the president himself.

By fall of 1789, Congress was in recess and the president was preparing to tackle the touchy issue of diplomatic affairs with Britain. In fact, he’d be meeting with Chief Justice John Jay and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton about these matters on October 7. Given these circumstances, it’s no surprise that Washington would check out library material on British parliamentary dealings and international diplomacy.

Federal Hall, the shared location of the New York Society Library and the Federal government in 1789 (courtesy of the New York Society Library)

THE TIMELINE
October 5, 1789: Washington (or an aide- we don’t know) walked upstairs and checked out two books from the library: The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel and Vol. 12 of the Commons Debates. The transaction is recorded in the library’s leather-bound charging ledger. In the borrower column, the librarian simply writes “President.”

October 15, 1789: Washington leaves New York for a tour of New England. Though he keeps a detailed diary, no mention of the books is made.

November 2, 1789: The books are due, but Washington is fishing for cod off of New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Harbour. Washington notes in his diary that he and his companions only caught two fish between them. Then, in true fisherman tradition, he justifies the skunking by blaming an improper tide. The  library books are likely the last things on his mind. Though no official fine record exists, a pennies-per-day fine would begin accruing after this date.

April 1792: The 18 lb. ledger is filled and is filed away. It is later misplaced– likely during one of the library’s re-locations.

Dec. 14, 1799: George Washington dies at Mount Vernon. Most of his belongings, including books, are divided up among his family.

1934: NYSL staff rediscover the deteriorating ledger in the basement of the library’s fourth Manhattan location. The ledger’s pages crumble to the touch, so it is used only rarely for reference until the beginning of its restoration in 2007. NYSL staffer Sara Holliday suspects that the Washington transaction was noticed sometime after the ledger was found, as it had been discussed unofficially and anecdotally among library staff for years.

2007: NYSL begins restoring and digitizing the ledger.

2010: Restoration complete, NYSL staff check their inventory again. Washington’s books are still missing. The New York Daily news picks up on the Washington transaction and breaks the story. The fine estimate of $300,000, according to Holliday, was calculated by the Daily News, not the NYSL. She says fine policies changed over time, and that an exact total would be tough to determine. Anyway, it’s something the NYSL has no interest in tracking.

Upon hearing about the overdue books, staff at Mount Vernon search their own archives with no luck. Considering The Law of Nations the much more significant of the two books, they purchase an identical copy online for an undisclosed amount (I’m told the price reported by one outlet and echoed in several others is inaccurate).

May 19, 2010: In a ceremony at NYSL, Mount Vernon President James Rees and Librarian Joan Stahl present the replaced book.   Most media reports focus only on the return of The Law of Nations, making no mention of the still missing Commons Debates.

THE EVIDENCE
Holliday says restoring the ledger familiarized NYSL staff with habits of their 18th Century counterparts. Patrons from the Federal government were commonly referred to by their titles, which is why the informal “President” appears next to Washington’s checkouts in the images below.

Exhibit A: the portion of NYSL's charging ledger that shows the Washington transaction. I've highlighted the relevant rows.

Exhibit A.1: The same portion of the ledger, but I've identified the columns.

Washington is off the hook– at least for The Law of Nations.  And that’s where the media called it good and skipped out.   But the father of our country still has one overdue book out, and though history has certainly forgiven this oversight, it’s going to drive me nuts until somebody finds it.  Maybe it’s time to book a trip back east!

——-

Copyright 2010 BonnevilleMariner.com.  All images courtesy of the New York Society Library.  Special thanks to the NYSL‘s Sara Holliday and Mount Vernon‘s Melissa Wood and Joan Stahl.

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2010 in Americana, History

 

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UPDATE: George Washington’s 221-year overdue library book finally returned

UPDATE 05/26/10:  Curiosity got the better of me and  I’ve been in touch with both the New York Society Library and Mount Vernon.  I now have answers to some of the questions I raised below– plus some other interesting tidbits about the the ordeal.  Stay tuned for a new post on this late tonight or tomorrow morning.

ORIGINAL POST:  I’ve had some overdue library books before, but this takes the cake. From Reuters yesterday:

A library book borrowed by the first U.S. president, George Washington, has been returned to a New York City’s oldest library, 221 years late.

Washington checked out the book from the New York Society Library at a time when the library shared a building with the federal government in lower Manhattan.

The library said in a statement that its borrowing records, or charging ledger, showed Washington took out “The Law of Nations” by Emer de Vattel on October 5, 1789.

And evidently never returned it. Or paid the overdue fee, which if adjusted for inflation would now amount to about $300,000.

Washington’s apparent oversight wasn’t public knowledge until the New York Daily News broke the story last month. According to the report, New York Society Library workers discovered the book was still missing in the 1930′s when they found an old charging ledger in a trash pile in the building’s basement.

But all was made right last Wednesday, according to the Reuters article:

“A few days after learning of the situation, staff at Washington’s home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, offered to replace Vattel’s “Law of Nations” with another copy of the same edition,” the library said in a statement.

Oddly, the NY Daily News piece reported two books missing– “The Law of Nations and Vol. 12 of the “Commons Debates”– and implies that the $300,000 fine applied to both. Yet yesterday’s Reuters piece makes no mention of the second book.

This is what drives me nuts about journalism these days. Was it one book or two? Did anybody at Reuters or the NYDN think to check the ledger? The story was repeated in numerous tertiary reports, but none that I read even attempted to clarify this point.

The story would have been much more fascinating had Mount Vernon staff located the original book and returned it to the library.

The neat thing here isn’t so much the ceremonial return of the copy, but the reading of the ledgers after 200 years and the discovery a previously unknown factoid.

Naturally, Washington himself was unavailable for comment, leaving us only the library’s side of the story to go on. If in fact Washington failed to return the book(s), I think I’m willing to cut him some slack.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2010 in History

 

George Washington’s 221-year overdue library book finally returned

I’ve had some overdue library books before, but this takes the cake. From Reuters yesterday:

A library book borrowed by the first U.S. president, George Washington, has been returned to a New York City’s oldest library, 221 years late.

Washington checked out the book from the New York Society Library at a time when the library shared a building with the federal government in lower Manhattan.

The library said in a statement that its borrowing records, or charging ledger, showed Washington took out “The Law of Nations” by Emer de Vattel on October 5, 1789.

And evidently never returned it. Or paid the overdue fee, which if adjusted for inflation would now amount to about $300,000.

Washington’s apparent oversight wasn’t public knowledge until the New York Daily News broke the story last month. According to the report, New York Society Library workers discovered the book was still missing in the 1930′s when they found an old charging ledger in a trash pile in the building’s basement.

But all was made right last Wednesday, according to the Reuters article:

“A few days after learning of the situation, staff at Washington’s home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, offered to replace Vattel’s “Law of Nations” with another copy of the same edition,” the library said in a statement.

Oddly, the NY Daily News piece reported two books missing– “The Law of Nations and Vol. 12 of the “Commons Debates”– and implies that the $300,000 fine applied to both. Yet yesterday’s Reuters piece makes no mention of the second book.

This is what drives me nuts about journalism these days. Was it one book or two? Did anybody at Reuters or the NYDN think to check the ledger? The story was repeated in numerous tertiary reports, but none that I read even attempted to clarify this point.

The story would have been much more fascinating had Mount Vernon staff located the original book and returned it to the library.

The neat thing here isn’t so much the ceremonial return of the copy, but the reading of the ledgers after 200 years and the discovery a previously unknown factoid.

Naturally, Washington himself was unavailable for comment, leaving us only the library’s side of the story to go on. If in fact Washington failed to return the book(s), I think I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2010 in History

 

Mysterious black towers bear testament to abandoned tramway that once held life and death in the balance

Both Alan Larsen and Gray Meyer woke up that day in 1962 anticipating a routine tram ride to the air traffic control transmitters atop Coon Peak.   And about 250 yards from the summit, both heard the same horrifying bang.

The difference was that Alan Larsen saw the thick rail cable whipping toward them before it slammed the aluminum tram car.  Gray Meyer didn’t.  And before either of them could begin to process what was happening, their carriage fell from the sky.

This 1950's era photo shows the 7th and last tower in the old KSL tram line, which ran from the Flying J area in Lake Point to the transmitter cluster atop Farnsworth Peak. This photo appeared uncredited in a 1995 Deseret News article and was likely taken by the FAA.

The following originally appeared in the March 18, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Alan Larsen or Gray Meyer?  Gazing up at the snowy slopes of the Oquirrh Mountains, I’m not sure whose boots I would have rather been in on that frigid morning in 1962.  Both were young, skilled Federal Aviation Agency technicians.  Both woke up that day anticipating a routine tram ride to the air traffic control transmitters atop Coon Peak.   And about 250 yards from the summit, both heard the same horrifying bang.

The difference was that Alan Larsen saw the 2 inch thick rail cable whipping toward them before it slammed the aluminum tram car.  Gray Meyer didn’t.  And before either of them could begin to process what was happening, their carriage fell from the sky.

Six of the seven massive black towers of the old KSL tramway still stand today, oddly camouflaged against their Oquirrh backdrop.  Most visible are the tram building and towers 1 and 2, located behind the truck stops in Lake Point.  The rest take a little squinting to spot, but they’re there, rising stately and quietly in a neat line—rusting tributes to their storied past.

Though I had read a paragraph here and there about the tramway, I didn’t give it much thought until a curious reader called the Transcript Bulletin’s offices asking what they might be.  This request immediately raised two questions for me:

1) was there an interesting story behind these towers, and 2) are at least a few of them hikeable?  The answer to both questions, it turns out, is a resounding “yes!”

The tramway dates back to the early 1950’s shortly after KSL-TV installed a transmitter atop the 9,066 foot Coon Peak (renamed Farnsworth Peak in 1969.  The M*A*S*H style bubble helicopters of the day couldn’t operate safely at that altitude, so technicians had to hike or ski to and from the summit every week.  Various solutions were considered before KSL purchased the tramway from a mining company in Ketchum, Idaho.

The “Coon Peak Express” consisted of seven towers positioned strategically on slopes and ridges between terminal buildings at Lake Point and on the summit.  Its three-mile route climbed about 4,700 feet up ridiculously steep slopes and across deep canyons, taking an unprecedented 30 degree turn from the sixth tower to the top.  The 5,000 foot stretch between towers 4 and 5 over Big Canyon constituted the longest unsupported span in the world, besting the Glen Canyon Bridge by 1,000 feet.

The tram carried its first passengers in 1957 and operated almost continuously for 27 years.  Many passengers found the 45 minute gondola trip to the summit at least a little unnerving.  One new technician quit his job halfway up his first ride (his supervisor made him finish his shift).  On some stretches the tram rode 1,000 feet above the ground.  It’s small, square carriage was often tossed about by powerful cross winds.

Tower 1 with tower 2 in the distance (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Journals document a number of incidents with the tram—iced cables, a broken wheel shaft, failed gears.  Given weather conditions, the intense slopes and the later realization that a 30 degree turn on a tram line is an engineering no-no, the fact that so few incidents occurred with such regular use is amazing.

Even with the outstanding safety record, you might say something like what happened to Alan Larsen and Gray Meyer on November 19, 1962 was inevitable.

The trouble began after the carriage passed through tower 6 when a poorly-welded counterweight broke away, causing the carriage to plummet.  The flailing cable snagged inside the terminal building, seriously injuring operator Cloyde Anderton.  After a sickening series of yo-yo’s, Larsen and Meyer were suspend 50 feet above the forest floor.

“I hit the floor [of the car] and I see this pine tree in the window.  It would come up and it would go down.  Up, then down again,” recalled Meyer when I reached him at his Salt Lake City home, over 47 years after the incident.

When it came to a stop, the carriage was only partially attached to the rail cable.  The two technicians hung there, frozen, for three hours until technician Vic Moulton arrived on snowshoe to throw them a rope.

“There wasn’t a hell of a lot said between us,” Meyer said of the wait.  “It was cold and we were shivering.  I thought we were going to shake that thing off and it was going to come down.”

Larsen and Meyer escaped without major injury.  Anderton suffered broken ribs and cracked vertebrae.  Even at age 90, he says those injuries still give him trouble.  It’s no surprise that, with over 400 tram trips under his belt, he wasn’t sad to see the tram retired in 1984.

Increased regulations and escalating expenses had made the tram less practical.  Newer helicopters could fly higher and were much less expensive than maintaining the rickety tram.  They cut its cables in 1985.

“It’s like the covered wagon,” Anderton told me.  “It was great for when it was needed, but then we got cars.”

The old KSL tramway may have gone the way of the covered wagon, but interested hikers can visit the towers.  At least the first three towers sit on BLM land.  I visited towers 1 and 2 last weekend.  Standing beneath them after hearing those stories was an awesome experience.  Walking from tower to tower I spotted the tram’s pull cable partially buried in the dirt.  Tower 3 stood high on a ridge above a large scree field at 5,600 feet, with tower s 4 and 5 visible in the distance.  Tower 6 was behind a ridge.  Tower 7 was dismantled in the 80’s.

Above them all stood the ever-present beacon cluster blinking perpetually in the afternoon haze.  I imagined that final ascent to the top.  It must have been one heck of a ride.

Remains of the tram's pull cable lie partially buried between towers 1 and 2 (photo by Clint Thomsen)

TRIP TIPS

To visit the lower towers, follow Droubay Road north until it becomes a rough dirt road and curves into Foothill Drive.  Turn east at a livestock gate 1.5 miles from the pavement’s end and follow it, taking all left forks, for 2.2 more miles to a horse gate.  This road traverses private property, so do not leave it.  Only non-motorized traffic is allowed on the BLM land beyond the gate.  The tram building is heavily fenced, but towers 1 and 2 are a short 1.4 mile hike away.  Please explore responsibly.

 

My “Cold Case” moment: Lake Point’s black tower mystery

I’m a reluctant fan of CBS’s drama, “Cold Case.”  Reluctant because while the show’s concept is awesome and its production unmatched, I can’t get over how everybody involved in every 50 year old case happens to still be alive and conveniently living in the Philidelphia metro area.  It also bugs me that the show’s lead character looks like a ghost.

Copyright CBS

If you’ve seen the show, you know the drill:  Somebody bites the dust in days gone by.  For whatever reason, the case goes cold for X number of years until Casper the Friendly Ghost and crew chance upon it.  They start interviewing friends, family, witnesses– all of whom, of course, still live just down the block.

Events are pieced back together, stories recounted.  And in the end, Casper gets her man.  The show ends with a lot of feel-good reconciliations set to emotive pop songs, with a lot of slow-mo edits for dramatic flare.

Well, queue the Sarah McLachlan tunes because I’ve just had my first “Cold Case” moment.

You see, these newspaper columns require a massive amount of research each week.  I wish it were as simple riding a new trail and posting a travelogue.  Maybe someday I’ll be able to crank out stories in just a couple hours like the pros, but I’m still new to the writing scene.

The research process is often frustrating because information is scant or the one person I need to contact happens to be out of town until the day after my deadline, or multiple sources from normally reputable outlets contradict each other (source A says the peak’s elevation is 9,045 ft. and source B says it’s 9,077.  Joe Reader won’t care but Joe Climber will, so ADD-riddled Joe Outdoors Writer can’t sleep until he gets to the bottom of it).  It’s maddening.

Last weekend’s case could have followed that trend, but it didn’t, and man was that refreshing!  The case wasn’t “cold,” per se, but the way it played out would have made Jerry Bruckheimer proud.  Here’s the story in a nutshell:

A few weeks ago a reader calls the Tooele Transcript Bulletin’s editor with a burning question:  Those black towers behind the truck stop that lead up the flanks of the Oquirrh Mountains– what are they?

Now you tell me, dear reader– who wouldn’t want to know that?

I start with Google News, which leads me quickly to my first witness, who after 47 years conveniently still lives down the block!  And he’s home when I call.  And he’s amiable, his memory is sharp as ever.  His story happens to be documented in type.  He happens to have it right there on the bookshelf, and he faxes it over promptly (a digital copy was preferred, it being 2010 and all, but I wasn’t complaining).  I’m beginning to find the puzzle’s edges.

His stuff leads me to my next witness, who has sadly passed away, but who kept a detailed journal that is made fully available to me that very day.  The puzzle is coming together nicely.  Boom, final witness.

Conveniently, he still lives down the block and is home when I call.  He’s 90 years old, but he recounts the story like it happened yesterday.  His testimony is the final piece in the puzzle.

Case closed.  Get me the box and the black Sharpie marker.

I know this euphoria will be short-lived, but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

 

More photos from Camp Floyd

Here are some more pics from our recent trip to Camp Floyd and the Stagecoach Inn.  If you missed the write-up on that trip, check it out here.

A view of the commissary from the creaky balcony of the Stagecoach Inn (Clint Thomsen)

CSI: Camp Floyd - This is a shot of two aligning bullet holes in the guest room area of the Stagecoach Inn. A guest in the back room was cleaning his shotgun when it accidentally discharged, sending shot through his wall, across the hall, and through the wall of the front room-- much to the surprise of its guest, who had just laid down to sleep. (Clint Thomsen)

The old Fairfield District School, built in 1898 (Clint Thomsen)

The bell tower (Clint Thomsen)

Boo, West, and Coulter stand in front of the Commissary in this 1860's newsprint photo-- pay no attention to the Hot Wheels hoody or the vehicle headlight at the left edge of the photo. (Clint Thomsen)

 

Ghosts of the Utah War still roam charming Camp Floyd

The “Utah War” never saw an organized battle.  In fact, Johnston’s Army became an economic salvation for the very people it had intended to suppress.  400 buildings were constructed near the small community of Fairfield, igniting what was perhaps the biggest single boom in Utah history.  Fairfield transformed from quaint farm town to bustling Wild West hub almost overnight.

The old Stagecoach Inn at Camp Floyd (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Five Mile Pass was unusually quiet last weekend.  The cold afternoon saw only two ATV trailers at staging points along highway.  Snow deposited by recent storms still coated the north faces of hills, setting the natural and man-made contours in sharp relief.   At the southernmost tip of the Oquirrhs, ATV-cut paths looped up and down steep slopes.  Other roads hugged knolls before winding away into canyons.

I spent many a winter’s night camping in these hills as a youth.  Care free and often bored, my friends and I would wander the arbitrary network of dirt roads, just to see what adventure might be waiting for us around the next bend.  We’d stash trinket caches in the nooks and crannies of the higher ridges, then gaze down at Rush Valley below, never realizing the likelihood that at least a few of these trails were  blazed some 150 years before by the exploratory—and often bored—soldiers based at nearby Camp Floyd.

Though the storied base made significant contributions to Tooele County’s mining history and economy, I had never visited before.  Heavy fog had doomed a west desert camping trip last Friday, and Saturday morning presented the perfect opportunity to finally check the place out.

Camp Floyd’s story is filled with irony.  Today, its visible remains are scant.  Only a small cemetery and one original structure, the camp commissary, are left to represent what once was the largest military installation in the United States.

The garrison was established in 1858 by General Albert Sydney Johnston, who had been dispatched to Utah by President James Buchanan to “subdue the rebellious Mormons.”  Johnston’s detachment consisted of 3,500 troops and civilian support staff—nearly one third of the entire U.S. Army.  They spent several months of what would be later called “The Utah War” camped on the shores of Rush Lake before moving near Fairfield to build the post.

Recently unearthed artifacts at Camp Floyd (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Historians suggest that while the U.S. government was genuinely concerned about rumors of an imminent Mormon rebellion, the reasons for sending such a large contingency to Utah were primarily political.  With tensions rising between northern and southern states over the issues of states’ rights and slavery, the newly inaugurated Buchanan hoped that a united effort to restore order to far west Utah would help defuse the conflict back home.  Polygamy, after all, was a practice scorned on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Secretary of War John B. Floyd, the post’s namesake and a known Southern sympathizer, may have had his own agenda.   The costs of establishing and maintaining such a remote base were significant, and rumor had it that the operation was an attempt by Floyd to drain the Federal treasury.

The “war” itself never saw an organized battle and was resolved through negotiation.  But whatever the motives behind the conflict, Johnston’s Army became an economic salvation for the very people it had intended to suppress.  400 buildings were constructed near the small community of Fairfield.  The new and substantial demand for goods and services ignited what was perhaps the biggest single boom in Utah history.  Fairfield transformed from quaint farm town to bustling Wild West hub almost overnight.  Its population skyrocketed from dozens to 7,000—nearly half the population of Salt Lake City at the time.

Camp Floyd’s troops led a mostly idyllic life.  Soldiers were relegated to transport protection, mapping, and surveying.  Some later took up prospecting in the nearby mountains, establishing the Camp Floyd Mining District and creating the mining camp of Ophir.

In 1861, the army sent in part to divert attention from North-South hostilities was recalled to participate in them.  The camp was abandoned, its buildings dismantled.  Fairfield became a de facto ghost town.  Nearly $4 million worth of supplies were sold to locals for $100,000, and the entire detachment moved east to fight on both sides of the Civil War.  In another ironic, though tangential twist, the first two generals to fight each other at Gettysburg had been comrades at Camp Floyd.

Today, the site is maintained as a State Park by the Utah Department of Natural Resources with the commissary building housing the small museum and an administrative office.  Also protected are the charming Stagecoach Inn and the one-room Fairfield District School.  Both are preserved in excellent condition and merit their own separate articles.

My sons and I arrived at the commissary building early in the afternoon and met park manager Mark Trotter, who was dressed in a Camp Floyd-era uniform for an event at the schoolhouse.  A meager fee gave us unlimited access to all three buildings.  We started with the museum, which features an exhibit of artifacts unearthed by a recent Brigham Young University archaeological dig.  Relics showcased include dishes, silverware, pipes, bottles, and other small items.

The two-story Stagecoach Inn sits across the street from the museum.  Built by the Carson family the same year as Camp Floyd, it was the first Overland Stage service stop south of Salt Lake City.  It was also a Pony Express stop beginning in 1860.  The restored inn is especially impressive considering the decreasing number of intact structures at ghost towns and other historic sites, and the fact that the likes of General Johnston and Porter Rockwell were frequent guests.

See that chair? Look close-- it's also a toilet. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

We stopped to tour the schoolhouse where costumed park staff members were teaching young girls about 19th century life.  “Are those people real?” 6 year old Weston asked, keeping a safe distance from the crowd.  “Cause shouldn’t they be dead by now?  I mean, 150 years…”

The question brought a smile to one staff member’s face, though she didn’t answer it.  She showed the boys to the belfry and allowed them each to ring the bell.  Then it was time to head back toward Five Mile Pass—we had some old dirt roads to wander.

TRIP TIPS

Camp Floyd/Stagecoach Inn State Park is an excellent and accessible winter outing.  It’s located 33 miles southeast of Tooele along SR-73.  A small fee is required for access to the museum and other buildings.  For more information, call 801-768-8932.

 

Ghosts in the desert? Past and paranormal meet in Old River Bed

The Old River Bed haunted?  Not likely.  But what were those strange rumbling sounds that seemed to echo through the prehistoric corridor?  Why were the hairs on my neck suddenly rising?  And who was behind the wheel of that truck that was slowly rolling through the brush toward me?

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The Pony Express Trail snakes up the eastern lip of the Old River Bed (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the October 29, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

They said the Old River Bed was haunted.  They said that’s why stagecoach passengers were uneasy about stopping at the station there—especially overnight—and why Riverbed Station could never keep a manager for more than a few months at a time.  They were adamant.

I was skeptical.  Is the place mildly eerie?  Of course.  You’d be hard pressed to find a remote desert spot that isn’t.  But haunted?  No way.  “They” were delusional.  And I had driven 70 miles at dusk on the weekend before Halloween to prove it.  The mind has a tendency, when stifled by darkness, to tap imagination to fill the visual voids.  This must have been the case at the Old River Bed.  Yes, that was it.

Still, I couldn’t help but notice how unnervingly lonesome it was out there in the dark, with no cell phone reception, far from my car, at the bottom of a massive ancient river bed.  Haunted?  Not likely.  But what were those strange rumbling sounds that seemed to echo through the prehistoric corridor?  Why were the hairs on my neck suddenly rising?  And who was behind the wheel of that truck that was slowly rolling through the brush toward me?

Dropping abruptly below the desert plain eight miles west of Simpson Springs in southern Tooele County, the Old River Bed is a naturally vulnerable place.  It’s a naturally strange place, too: a clear-cut channel as broad as the Mississippi at its greatest width, in the middle of this dry no-man’s-land.  The ancient watercourse owes its existence to Lake Bonneville.

As Bonneville shrank, water in the Sevier Basin drained northward via a low channel into the Great Salt Lake Desert, carving a mile-wide, 100 foot deep gorge as it went.  This river flowed for roughly 3,000 years.  Evidence of early human activity has been discovered in its delta.

The Central Overland trail crossed the river bed in the 1850’s and served as a major transportation artery until 1869.  The famed but short-lived Pony Express used the road from 1860 to 1861.  Riverbed Station was almost certainly built in 1862—too late to serve the Pony Express.

Drivers and riders hated the Old River Bed because although it’s wide and deep, it’s completely hidden from view until you’re right on its lip.  Bandits or hostile Indians could easily ambush a rider as he popped into or out of the channel.

The constant fear of ambush aside, there was always the chance of flash flooding.  Major Howard Egan recorded one nail-biting event in his diary about a Pony Express rider who heard a heavy rushing sound upon entering the channel.  Realizing something was horribly wrong, the rider “put spurs to the pony” and narrowly escaped a fifteen foot wall of water that surged through the river bed and washed out the road.

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This concrete post marks the old Riverbed stagecoach station site. Note that while the words "Pony Express" are etched into the concrete, Riverbed Station never served the Pony Express-- it wasn't built until 1962 (photo by Clint Thomsen).

One rightly questions the rationale of building a stagecoach station in the dead center of the Old River Bed.   Perhaps it eased the fear of ambush or made ground water more accessible.  The station is gone now; flash floods eventually washed its ruins away.  All that’s left are a concrete post marking the station site and a few scattered rocks that may have been part of a foundation.  A Civilian Conservation Corps monument stands nearby.

Station keepers could deal with the natural and human threats.  It was the paranormal that kept them awake at night.  They– the managers, stock tenders, the stage drivers and their passengers– swore the place was haunted, specifically by “desert fairies.”

Former station operators claimed the fairies were the ghosts of two young girls who fell from a wagon in the area and died.  No records of the deaths have ever been found.  There are no individual accounts, no well-documented haunting.  University of Utah professor David Jabusch spent the night there while researching the site in the early 1990′s.  Of the desert fairies he wrote, “During our overnight sojourn, while mapping the site, we were not visited.”

Yet the story still lives on in journals and lore.  And though I’m a skeptic, there’s something about being in the Old River Bed at night.  Is it haunted? It’s hard to say.  As I walked along the river bed I wondered about those deep rumbling sounds.  I was convincing myself they were thunder or aircraft from Dugway, when the pair of dim headlights on the road that I had been carefully watching paused beside my car.

Then they turned and started out toward me.  I knew they weren’t there for the monument.  The old Chevy passed it and pulled off the double track toward me.  A chill went up my spine.  What could I do but introduce myself?

Two men sat in the truck.  They reminded me of a hermit version of illusionist duo Penn and Teller.  The thin driver remained silent, letting his larger passenger do the talking.  “We saw your car, then we saw your light out there,” said Penn.  “We wondered what was up.”

It turns out the two live in the area—Penn in an old trailer and Teller on a nearby ranch.  Sometimes they drive around helping people change flat tires (the Old River Bed is a notorious flat-maker).  “You’re tires looked fine,” Penn assured me.

“I’m Clint, and I’m hunting ghosts,” I declared, a bit surprised at my own whimsy.  “Do you believe this place is haunted?”

“Of course it’s haunted,” Penn said.  “When I first moved out here I was scared to death.  I thought maybe monsters would come up on me at night and tear me apart.”

We chatted for a while before they turned and left me alone again in the Old River Bed.  I was relieved that my new friends weren’t madmen, but my enthusiasm about this place had given way to discordant unease.   I glanced once more down the blackened corridor, just to give the desert fairies one last chance to show.  Then I was more than ready to leave.

They said the Old River Bed is haunted.  Who am I to argue?

 
 
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