W. Fraser (William Fraser) Rae.

Westward by rail : a journey to San Francisco and back and a visit to the Mormons online

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The Platte river is the first object of interest which
breaks the monotony of the plains. Along the
south bank of this river runs the old emigrant
road for many miles. The train of white-covered
waggons, called ( Prairie Schooners,' drawn by teams
of oxen, might in former days be seen stretching
as far as the eye could reach. At long intervals
the sight of one or two of these waggons recalls
the bygone times, when a trip across the plains took
as many months as it now takes days, and was
seldom accomplished without the loss of several
- cattle, and of a few human lives. The magnitude
of the trade carried on over the plains may be


understood from the fact that nearly 7,000 men
regularly earned their living as teamsters. Glad
though the drivers of these teams were to keep near
the Platte River as long as possible, they were by
no means pleased with the river itself. Its channel
is continually shifting, and its bed is treacherous
sand. Looked at, the river seems one of those
noble streams destined by nature to bear heavily-
laden vessels on its bosom. In breadth it averages
three-quarters of a mile. The water is turbid, and
its depth seldom exceeds six inches. But while it
has these drawbacks, it is nevertheless the silent
agent of innumerable blessings to this section of the
country. The valley through which it flows is
fertilised by its waters. Luxuriant vegetation and
clumps of trees attest the course of the stream.
Without this river the valley would be a waste ;
with the river the valley only awaits the hand of
man to be transformed into a garden.

The first real sensation is obtained at Jackson,
a small station an hundred miles west of Omaha.
Here many of the passengers see genuine Indians
for the first time that is, men who live by hunting,
and who glory in getting scalps. They are Paw-
nees. We are told that they are friendly Indians,
being supporters of the United States Government.
They may be friendly at heart, but they are blood-


thirsty in appearance. They probably consider
themselves civilised, for each carries a revolver in
a belt strapped round his waist. That they are
staunch adherents to old traditions is proved by an
inspection of their encampment. Outside the tents
are poles stuck into the ground. From the tops of
these poles, wisps of hair nutter in the breeze. The
seeker after knowledge naturally asks the meaning
of these things. His belief in the friendliness of
the Pawnees is not strengthened when he is in-
formed that the wisps of hair are trophies of victory
which have been cut from the heads of vanquished
foes. The Indians, whose advance in civilisation is
manifested by the addition of the revolver to the
scalping-knife, are not persons for whom it is pos-
sible to entertain great admiration. Their ac-
quaintance is more to be avoided than courted.
Seen at a distance they are picturesque additions to
the landscape ; when met by the defenceless tra-
veller they prove to be brutal monsters. The chief
testimony given in favour of the Pawnees is that
they are better than the Sioux, and that they are
always ready to demonstrate their loyalty to the
Union by murdering the Sioux without mercy.
How to deal with the Indians is one of the most
complex among the problems with which the Go-
vernment of the United States has to deal. The



desire is to treat them with perfect fairness, and to
strain many points in their favour. But the con-
duct of the Indians themselves is the frequent bar
to a uniform adherence to a policy of gentleness.
The stories of Indian outrages, which are told by
the settlers on the plains, excite indignation and
inspire revenge in the breasts of the most humane.
It is true, on the other hand, that the settlers have
been guilty of many barbarities. They maintain,
however, that if they slaughter Indians it is always
in self-defence, or in retaliation for some intolerable
and unpardonable outrage. The Indians, they say,
not content with slaying white men in cold blood,
must needs torture their victims with every refine-
ment of savage brutality. Were it a mere question
of shooting the men with whom they came into
contact, or against whom they had a grudge, the
white men would have less complaints to make.
It is the practice of torture, rather than the com-
mission of murder, which displeases and provokes
them. Certainly, if but one half of the stories be
true, the hatred borne by the white men against
the Indians is not without excuse. It would be
well, however, before coming to a decision, to learn
the Indian version of the case.

At Grand Island station the train stops, and the
passengers are allowed half an hour for supper.


On leaving this place the traveller is told that if of
a religious turn of mind he may bid good-bye to
schools and churches, and keep ' his eye peeled ' for
buffalo. The next two hundred miles run through
the tract crossed by the buffalo herds on their mi-
grations from South to North. However, the ex-
pectation of getting a sight of these denizens of the
plains is one which is more frequently excited than
gratified. Since the opening of the railway the
buffaloes have shunned this district. They may
return to it again, as it is not uncommon for them
to leave a particular spot and then revisit it after
the lapse of two or three years. Still, the days
of buffalo-hunting are numbered. As the country
becomes settled, the bunch grass, which is the
favourite food of the buffalo, gives place to the corn
plant. Already the newspapers of these districts
are protesting against the wholesale slaughter of
buffaloes by sportsmen. When the time arrives
for preserving wild animals, the moment of their
extinction is not distant. To the passengers by
this train the presence or absence of buffalo herds
pattered little, seeing that the favourite feeding-
grounds of these animals were passed during the
night. The event of the succeeding morning was
halting at Cheyenne city for breakfast. This is
one of the towns which sprang up during the con-
G 2


struction of the railway. In July, 1867, there was
but one house here. At present there are 3,000
inhabitants in Cheyenne. The population has been
as large as 6,000. It was what is here styled a
6 rough place,' that is to say a miniature hell upon
earth. Thieves and gamblers, murderers and pro-
stitutes, were numbered among its ' prominent citi-
zens.' But the day of its orgies is passed away ;
the scum of the population has moved off to other
pastures, and the streets of Cheyenne are as quiet
as the streets of other Western cities in which law
has conquered license. The breakfast supplied at
the railway-station deserves a word of praise. It
was a plain but wholesome meal, and it had the
charm of novelty in the shape of antelope steaks.
The flesh of the antelope is most palatable, the
flavour being something between the flavour of
venison and beef. The animal is a hardy one, and
it might easily be acclimatised in England.

The scenery from this point onwards is tame and
tininteresting. In every direction the limitless
plains extend to the horizon. Here and there a
tuft of wild flowers relieves the monotony of the
grass flats. A herd of antelopes bounding along is
a sight most welcome to the fatigued eye, while the
rare spectacle of two Rocky Mountain sheep, with
wild aspect and long twisted horns, excites specula-


tion as to how they had wandered so far from their
native haunts. Dead oxen by the wayside bear
witness to the passage of an emigrant train, and to
losses sustained by its members. At Hazard, a
station beyond Cheyenne, is a little mountain tarn.
A few miles farther on, small patches of white in
the crevices of the rocks cause the statement to be
made that the country of alkali dust has been
reached at last. This, however, is contradicted.
The patches in question prove to be traces of snow.
It is true that the sun shines brightly overhead,
and that the winter has not yet begun. Neverthe-
less, the intense coldness of the air excites general
remark. The explanation is simple. We are
nearing the highest point of the line. Since leav-
ing Omaha the ascent has been gradual, but con-
tinuous. We have ascended nearly 8,000 feet
above the sea level, and the height gained is amidst
the peaks of the Rocky Mountains on which snow
always rests, and where not a day throughout the
year passes without the fall of a larger or smalld
quantity of snow. The purity of the air is extreme,
Objects many miles distant seem as if they were
but as many feet removed from the spectator.
With difficulty do the lungs become fully inflated,
so great is the rarity of the air. As mile after mile
is traversed the ground is more steep. Cuttings


through the rocks have been made to reduce the
incline. The strain on the engine becomes greater;
the speed of the train is diminished, until the ascent
is finally made, and the train halts at Sherman,
a railway station of which the elevation exceeds
that of any in the world, it being situated 8,235
feet above the level of the sea.




SHERMAN STATION, the highest point on the
Pacific Railway, is in the Territory of Wyoming,
the youngest among the Territories of the United
States. It was named after the Valley in Penn-
sylvania which is known in history as the scene of
a horrible massacre and which lives in poetry as
the abode of Campbell's e Gertrude.' Wyoming
Territory has already attracted the attention of the
world on account of the social and political reforms
of which it has been the theatre. Here the enfran-
chisement of women has not only been conceded, but
the logical results have been accepted. Women have
been empanelled as jurors, and even entrusted with
the discharge of judicial functions.

Some writers strongly advise the traveller to
make a halt at Sherman station. The inducements
held out to him are mountain scenery, invigorating
air, fishing, and hunting. A sojourn among the
peaks of the Rocky Mountains has the attraction of


novelty to recommend it. Life there must be, in
every sense of the word, a new sensation. But
some sensations are undesirable notwithstanding
their undoubted freshness. That splendid trout
swarm in the streams near Sherman admits of no
dispute. Yet the disciple of Isaac Walton should
not be tempted to indulge rashly in his harmless
and charming sport. It is delightful to hook large
fish ; but it is less agreeable to be pierced through
by arrows. Now, the latter contingency is among
the probabilities which must be taken into conside-
ration. A few weeks prior to my journey, one of
the conductors of the train by which I travelled
learned, by practical experience, that fishing amid
the Rocky Mountains has palpable and painful
drawbacks. Having taken a few days' holiday, he
went forth, fishing-rod in hand, to amuse himself.
While whipping the stream in the innocence of his
heart, he was startled to find himself made the
target for arrows shot by wild Indians. He sought
safety in flight, and recovered from his wounds
to the surprise as much as to the gratification
of his friends. His story did not render me de-
sirous of sharing his fate. The trout-fisher might
employ his leisure to greater advantage elsewhere
than in the Territory of Wyoming. The sportsman
runs fewer risks and would fare much better. If


he sallied forth to shoot antelopes, elk, or deer, he
might return unpierced by arrows and laden with
game. The Indians are bold and forward enough
in presence of a man carrying a fishing-rod, but
they keep at a very respectful distance from him
who is armed with a repeating rifle. The accom-
modation at Sherman is not luxurious. It is a place
consisting of a few buildings erected for the use of
the railway officials.

The scenery around Sherman is bleak and wild.
Several famous peaks are said to be perceptible in
the far distance. I have read a statement to the
effect that Long's Peak, one of the principal
mountains of Colorado, 75 miles to the South-
west, and Pike's Peak, 165 miles to the South are
6 both plainly visible.' To the North, Elk Moun-
tain is ' another noted landmark,' about 100 miles
distant. It is possible that these mountain tops
may have been discerned in a vision by the com-
pilers of guide books. To the eye of the ordinary
and unimaginative traveller they are invisible.
What he does see to the left of the line looking
westward is the snow-capped range of the Wahsatch
mountains. On the right are rough and irregular
elevations dotted over with dark pines. These are
the Black Hills of Wyoming. A huge mass of red
rock stands forth here and there on the solitary


plains. Most welcome to eyes wearied with the
savage grandeur of the scene, are the patches of
purple and yellow wild flowers which flourish amidst
the short brown grass. It is with a feeling of relief
that Sherman station is left behind. The train
descends by its own weight the rapid incline which
leads to the Laramie Plains. Three miles west-
ward of Sherman the line crosses Dale Creek on
one of those wooden bridges which appear so un-
substantial, yet are said to be so strong. It is
650 feet long and 126 feet high. The trestle work
of which it consists resembles the scaffolding erected
for the purpose of painting the outside of a London
house. An enthusiastic writer terms this bridge
< the grandest feature of the road,' and commends it
for its ' light, airy, and graceful appearance.' The
contractors are said to boast of having erected it in
the short space of thirty days. It is not stated how
many days the bridge will bear the strain almost
hourly put upon it. More than one passenger who
would rather lose a fine sight than risk a broken
neck breathes more freely, and gives audible ex-
pression to his satisfaction, once the cars have
passed in safety over this remarkable wooden struc-
ture. Downwards speeds the train, at a pace which
makes one shudder at the consequences of an acci-
dent. In twenty miles the descent of a thousand


feet is accomplished. No steam power is employed.
On the contrary, the brakes are tightly screwed
down alike on the locomotive and the cars. At
Laramie City a halt of thirty minutes is made, and
a good meal is provided for the hungry passengers.
We are now in the midst of the Laramie plains,
reputed to be the finest grazing land in this part of
the Continent. Here thousands of buffaloes used
to feed and wax fat. With the exception of Texas,
no place can be found where cattle may be fattened
at a less cost. As we proceed onwards the plains
widen on either side, and the mountain ranges re-
cede into the distance. We are again on the rolling
prairie, but not such a prairie as is to be found in
the States of Illinois and Iowa. The sage-brush
plant begins to show itself. This constitutes the sole
vegetation of the arid and desolate tract which is
known by the name of the Great American Desert.
The only thing alleged in favour of the sage-brush
is that, when used as a medicine, it is a specific for
ague. If the malady were as common as the plant
is plentiful hardly a human being would escape a
seizure. Millions of acres are covered with sage-
brush. On the right of the line is a small sheet of
water, to which the name of Como Lake has been
given. In nothing but the name does it recall the
famous Italian Lake, yet the prospect is a pleasing


relief to the monotony of the surrounding waste.
Carbon station is one very important in reality,
though apparently insignificant. Here the com-
pany's workmen made a discovery which has helped
to fill the company's coffers. During the construc-
tion of the line a seam of coal was cut through.
This was literally a godsend. It had been feared
that all the fuel used along the line would have to
be transported from .the remote East. In this
locality wood is very scarce, and the carriage of
coal would have been costly. However, the dis-
covery of a coal-field at Carbon settled the fuel
question at once and for ever. The quality of the
coal is first-class, and the quantity is practically un-
limited. Two hundred tons a day are extracted
with ease. Not only is the coal burned in the loco-
motives, but it is also supplied to the stations along
the line, being sent as far eastwards as Omaha. Nor
is this the only coalfield which has been discovered
and worked at a profit. In other parts of the Terri-
tory large fields of coal have been proved to exist,
while iron ore of the richest kind abounds in the
vicinity of the coal. Thus the Black Hills whicli
have been regarded as yielding nothing but dark
pine and have been more notable heretofore for
their picturesqueness than their mineral treasures,
may hereafter become the centre of an industry in


coal and iron as important as any upon this Con-
tinent. From this point the line passes through
elevated land on either side, till a wild gorge is
entered a few miles to the east of Fort Steele. The
mountains which stretch away from the mouth of
the gorge seem designed to guard its entrance.
They have the look of battlements carefully wrought
and prepared to withstand a siege. The beholder
naturally expects to see sentinels keeping watch on
the top, and cannon protruding over the sides. It
is difficult to believe that these escarpments have
been cut by no mortal hand, but are due to the
action of the warring elements on the friable red
rock. At Fort Steele there is a garrison of four
companies. All around is barrenness and desola-
tion. Nothing but sage-brush covers the ground.
The pools of water are bitter with alkali. Great
enthusiasm or a high sense of duty can alone render
life here other than a perpetual burden. At Raw-
lings Springs a stoppage is made for supper, and a
few miles farther on the backbone of the Continent
is reached and crossed. This point is 191 miles
west of Sherman, and 1,034 miles distant from Sacra-
mento. The height above the level of the sea is
more than 1,000 feet less than at Sherman, yet the
configuration of the country is such as to constitute
this the watershed, whence the stream which runs


East falls into the Atlantic, and the stream which
runs West falls into the Pacific.

At an early hour the following morning the
passengers are roused to take breakfast at Wahsatch.
This place has a bad reputation. I was told that
( out of twenty-four graves here, but one held the
remains of a person who had died a natural death,
and that was a prostitute who had poisoned herself.'
I give the statement in the words of my informant.
It was evidently his opinion that suicide was per-
fectly natural under the circumstances ; and possibly
he was right. The line is now in Utah Territory ;
the land we now see is the land of the Mormons,
and the people are Saints in name. Moreover, this
part is the most striking and picturesque of any on
the Union Pacific Railway, for the line runs along
Echo and Weber Canyons,* passing by the Devil's
Slide, passing through the Devil's Gate. It was in

* As the word ' Canyon ' will occur several times, I may now
explain its meaning and defend the form of spelling which I have
adopted. The word which is a Spanish one, and as such is spelled
Canon, signifies a ravine. Here it is always used to denote those
sudden depressions in the ground, the sides of which descend sheer
down to the depth of from two to six thousand feet, which are com-
mon in Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. Some persons
write the word in its Spanish form ; others spell it ' Kanyon,' while
the most general method of spelling it is Canyon. I have thought
it best to spell the word in the way which renders its correct pro-
nunciation easy, and to conform, at the same time, to the practice of
the majority.


Echo Canyon that the Mormons determined to make
a stand against the army commanded by General
Johnson, which President Buchanan sent to subdue
them in 1857. They fortified the pass on the
system which barbarous tribes adopt to withstand
the passage of regular troops through mountainous
countries. At the height of a thousand feet above
the bed of the Canyon, huge rocks were heaped
up in readiness to be hurled down upon the soldiers
toiling along below. But the experiment was not
tried. General Johnson negotiated instead of
fighting, assented to the Mormon demands instead
of insisting upon the acceptance by them of the
terms he was sent to enforce. This was the be-
ginning of the temporising policy which, since then,
has characterised the dealings of the United States
Government with the Mormons.

While passing through these Canyons the pas-
sengers are eagerly watching the points of interest
which abound. The platform of an American
railroad car is well adapted for the sight-seer.
Although passengers are forbidden to stand on the
platform, yet the rule is one to which the excep-
tions are numerous enough for the convenience of
all who choose to run a little risk. Adequately
to depict the spectacle is hardly possible. It is
pre-eminently a grand one. It recalls the magni-


ficent sight to be witnessed between Botzen and
Verona when the railway passes near to the gi-
gantic piles of rock which have been fitly entitled
The Gateways of the Alps. Beneath our feet the
Weber river rushes along in turbulent might. At
one moment the line skirts the margin of deep,
dark pools. At another a bend removes the river
into the distance, and then the attention is fixed
on some huge chasm in the rugged mountain side.
Where the pass narrows stands a solitary pine
bearing the name of the 1,000 mile tree. It was
so named because it was the first tree of any size
which the constructors of the railway met with
while they were carrying the line westward from
Omaha. High up on the distant mountain slopes
are beautiful tufts of a red shrub, and in the clefts
of the rocks are a few stunted trees, but with
these exceptions the whole scene is wild and barren.
Not far from the tree just mentioned is the Devil's
Slide. This resembles the wooden structures, down
which the trees cut on mountain heights are shot
to the river below, only this slide is fashioned by
Nature's hand out of solid rock. Swiftly does
the train speed along the Canyon, until emerging
from the narrow space between the sundered rocks
which is called the Devil's Gate, the Great Salt
Lake is discerned in the distance, and the view of


a luxuriant valley is in pleasing contrast to the
frowning rock and foaming river. The train stops
at Uintah. Here Mormon lads sells peaches and
Mormon women tempt the ladies in the train to
purchase gloves which they have tastefully em-




THE Pacific Railway runs through Utah Territory
and skirts the northern end of the Great Salt
Lake. From the nearest railway station to the
City of the Saints the distance is about forty miles.
A branch line, called the Utah Central Railroad,
has now brought Salt Lake City into communica-
tion by rail with the principal American cities of
the East and West. When I made the journey,
the visitor to the capital of Mormondom had to
leave the Union Pacific at Uintah station, and to
take a seat in one of the stage coaches of Wells,
Fargo, & Co. The coach which meets the train is
what is styled a ' Concord Coach.' It has seats
for nine persons inside and for at least five on the
roof. The inside seat for three is placed crosswise
between the two doors. Those who occupy it are
not only cramped, but are exposed to disagreeable
pressure from the knees of the passengers behind,
as well as to inconvenience from the feet and legs
of those facing them. To suffer this during


hours, the time occupied by the journey, is bad
enough, yet this is not the worst. The road itself
is unique of its kind. To rival it would be diffi-
cult; to surpass it impossible. In badness it is
pre-eminent. Execrable is the strongest epithet
in the language for a road having no redeeming
points. This word, however, serves but feebly and

Online LibraryW. Fraser (William Fraser) RaeWestward by rail : a journey to San Francisco and back and a visit to the Mormons → online text (page 7 of 27)