A Lethal Barrier to Exploration

For much of the nation’s history, the Great Basin Desert formed a terrible barrier to explorers and settlers, especially after the discovery of gold in California in 1848 spurred the California gold rush. Legendary explorer Jedediah Smith made the first recorded crossing of the basin in 1824, although he left no documentation of his route or the things he saw. John C. Fremont mapped a chunk of the eastern desert in 1846, but didn’t try to cross its flat, waterless expanse. It was the desperation of the gold seekers in 1848 that prompted the first official government survey of the basin in 1867–68.

The Great Basin’s Carson Sink and the Humboldt Sink posed the most dangerous obstacles to the crossing of the continent for settlers and gold rushers. Both required the slow-moving wagon trains to cover 40 miles (64 km) or more between water holes, often in conditions that slowed travel to a crawl. The Carson Sink is a 5,000-square-mile (13,000-sq-km) stretch of the Nevada desert in the pitiless rain shadow of the Sierra Madre. Its six inches of rain a year come in cloudbursts that gouge out channels in the dry landscape, since few plants exist to slow erosion. When it does rain, the water pools in the low points and dissolves the salts left by vanished Ice Age lakes, creating a saline sludge that could poison livestock and even kill migrating waterbirds that stopped to rest.

Mark Twain noted the trail was “white with the bones of oxen and horses. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that we could have walked the 40 miles and set our feet on a bone on every step.” Bennett Clark crossed the Carson Sink and left a vivid account. “We found water in holes . . . dug by those before us. It was cool but most horrible to taste—a mixture of alkali and sulfur and no doubt all coming from the sink. Taking the general aspect of this desert into view, and the fact that there is an absence of every thing desirable and an abundance of every thing pernicious here coupled with what we saw, we cannot conceive a hill more full of horrors. It realizes all that such a mind as Dante’s could imagine.”