CHAPTER VIII. A DESERT WHICH IS NOT ALL DESERT—FROM DOS PALMS TO PRESCOTT...


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A DESERT WHICH IS NOT ALL DESERT—FROM DOS PALMS TO PRESCOTT—SENSATIONS ON THE DESERT—A SOUTHERN MOON—SAND-STORMS—A CITY OF THE DESERT—BREATHING AIR—SILVER THREADS AND GOLDEN NUGGETS.

THE term ‘‘desert’’ is a misnomer, we are compelled to believe, even in this early stage of the Territory's history. As widely significant as this word may be applied, we seem to be drawing too liberally upon its application.

With the name ‘‘desert’’ has always been associated visions of the most weird nature.

Right here, the article headed ‘‘A defence of the desert’’ which appeared in the Yuma Sentinel of April 6th, 1878, and which so graphically describes, and so thoroughly comprehends the leading features of the deserts (so called) of both Arizona and California, we give below:


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It has become a custom to look upon the desert, lying between the Colorado River and the Coast Mountains of California, as upon an abomination of desolation—utterly without value, void of beauty, and incapable of supporting any kind of life. This impression was heightened in the mind of the former traveler to Arizona, by the birds-eye view of the desert afforded him from the mountains at its western edge; the clear atmosphere increases the range of vision; altitude and distance absorb detail and blend color, till the desert appears a silent, lifeless monotone of russet gray. He braced himself up to repel the awe with which this view invariably inspired him; traditions of the Sahara, of caravans dying of thirst or buried by sand-storms, and a sense of danger, closed his mind to all appreciations of the desert's peculiar beauties, or observation of its value to man. He hailed with glad relief the green willows of the Colorado, and on his return to civilization, added his testimony to other travelers' tales about the horrors of the desert. The modern traveler crosses it by rail, he strikes it after dark, turns into a sleeping car, gets an early breakfast at Yuma—and he too adds to the stories of the desert perils. Men have died on this


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desert, of thirst and heat; but so do they die in New York State of hunger and cold. The man without water dies as surely in a sand-drift, as he without food does in drifts of snow. The latter make a blinding, leafless, lifeless, monotonous desert of white, by far more fatal to man than is San Diego's desert of sand, with its varying tints and invigorating air.

The perfect health of station-keepers, railroad men and other inhabitants of the desert, amply proves its climatic suitability to man's residence. To carry mails and passengers, it became necessary to dig wells at proper intervals along the stage road; palatable water was found at depths varying from twenty to sixty feet. The railroad company has bored artesian wells and was rewarded by a copious flow of water.

Agriculture has been tried, notably at Toros; fine crops of grain, vegetables, fruits and alfalfa have repaid the application of water and labor to the soil of the desert. There are stretches of shifting sand-dunes apparently as worthless and extensive, as were those around San Francisco; these may never be reclaimed—nor will those to the northwest of Guadalupe, in Santa Barbara County. There are great plains, called ‘‘playas,’’ of a deep, unctuous, black soil, as heavy and


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rich as the adobe lands around Stockton. Every one who has traversed them after the rain, will recollect the masses of mud that clung to his wheels. Where irrigation is not possible, the date-palm, the paper-fibre-yucca and other desert-loving plants will reward man's enterprise. Growing of dates here is yet an untried experiment, whose success is predicated upon results obtained on the deserts of Asia and Africa. The manufacture of paper-stock from yucca is an established industry, employing many men and considerable machinery. Over sixteen hundred square miles of this area lie below the level of the Colorado River, and can be irrigated from its waters. Most of its soil is alluvial and enriched with shells and other products of the sea that once stormed above it. These shells are seen in the greatest profusion by the most superficial observer; the scientist has classified them in great variety.

Just as not all of the desert is a waste of sand, so is not all of it fit for agriculture. Rocks and mountains here assert themselves in about the same proportion that they do in other countries. But these are far from valueless; this fact is being daily demonstrated as men begin to realize that the desert offers something


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worth looking for. Quartz-mills and smelting furnaces have already been erected on the desert mines of Ivanpah, Resting Springs and elsewhere on its western edge. Silver, lead and copper occur there in ores rich enough to excite the wonder of miners. Asbestos of remarkably long fibre is found near the San Gorgonio Pass. Gold occurs on its eastern edge in quantities great enough to have caused the celebrated Colorado River excitement of 1861; and mines of it are still worked at Chimney Peak and Carga Muchacho. Lead, silver and copper also occur as abundantly on this side, as on the western side of the desert. These facts give credibility to reports of rich discoveries in mid-desert, made by prospectors too poor to develop mines at a distance from natural waters. Immense deposits of pure salt have been discovered by railroad surveyors and other explorers. The railroad company is now endeavoring to build up a trade in supplying salt to the Arizona silver-mills. The northern arm of this desert furnishes beds of borax so large that the markets of the world are glutted with it; so large that their produce reduced the price from fifty cents per pound to eight and twelve in a few years. Borax occurs in quantity in the


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vicinity of Seven Wells and other points nearer Yuma, whence beautiful crystals of it have been obtained. Gypsum is a common product of the desert, widely diffused; flakes of selenite are found in nearly all the canons coming in from the West, while great masses of this lovely mineral are found at many points. Pumice-stone of excellent quality is found on the railroad and in many other places; thousands of tons of it lie piled in masses; the engineers are now using it for polishing their locomotives. Sulphur is found in banks rivaling those of northern California in size and purity. All Yuma remembers the beautiful specimens of it that Dan Connor used to bring in. The southern arm of the desert, running down into Sonora, has beds of soda from which vessels were loaded, on their return trips from Guaymas to Europe; similar beds are found in other portions of it. Thermal springs, sulphur and chalybeate, occur in many parts, as do those of warm, bubbling, medicated mud; the Indians well know their healing properties in all forms of rheumatism, and of skin and venereal diseases. Potter's clay is abundant enough; while decomposition of feldspathic rocks has given the desert beds of kaolin, extensive enough to rival those of Dresden or


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Sevres. But we must have recounted enough of the desert's resources, to satisfy the average reader that it is far from being utterly valueless.

The desert has features of beauty—God has made nothing without them. At daylight, refraction lifts and distorts the horizon in changing and pleasing forms; later it delights the fancy with mirages of scenery more beautiful than this world has ever realized; twilight bathes all in cheerful tints that distance blends to a soft purple, never to be forgotten. Distant mountains cut the pure air with sharp outlines that add much to the scenic effect. The sun rises on a cloudless sky in a flood of rosy light; it sinks in golden glory. Every rain brings forth galleta and other grasses to show that the desert is not an absolute barren; spring adorns it with flowers of delicate beauty and of remarkable fragrance. Our ‘‘azucena’’ is only the original, uncultivated tuberose, and many more of these desert flowers will yet be developed into choice exotics for eastern hot-houses. The lover of nature will be pleased with the variety and novelty of desert Flora; the utilitarian will be surprised to learn their many uses.

The desert is not a solitude; life abounds in it;


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beast, birds, reptiles and insects occur in quantity surprising to one who knows the scarcity of surface water. Rabbits, hares and coyotes seem to be the largest animals, but chipmonks, gophers and moles appear to be most abundant; the ground is honey-comed with their homes. All of them are found as far as twenty, or more miles from any known water. In other parts of California, the presence of quails indicates proximity of water; this is not so on the desert, where large flocks are found very far from water. The buzzing of honey-gathering flies or bees, lulls to sleep him who reposes under the palo-verde or ironwood. Mocking-birds and other songsters enliven the vicinity of water, and ruby-throated humming-birds suck its flowers. Most of these desert denizens are of nocturnal habits; the hot sun drives them to shade by day. Ravens and crows seem to live on lizards, which in turn live on flies and ants that are abroad only by daylight. But on moonlight nights the others turn out in vast numbers. Reptiles are numerous, but we have never heard of any one being hurt by them. A tortoise is common here, which grows among rocks and sand to a weight of twenty-five pounds, and is eaten by some Indians.


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The winter climate of the desert is good; the thermometer rarely falls to 40° and rarely reaches 80°. The air is pure and dry as that of high mountains, while its low elevation (in some parts below sea-level) makes it less rarified—it has more oxygen to the same bulk, and no gasping is caused to the invalid with half a lung. In summer the heat is high, but dry and not oppressive; rapid evaporation keeps the skin cool. Perspiration is constant; this benefits invalids in whom unimpeded functions of the skin may relieve diseases of kidneys or lungs.

A man who has lived out on the desert is always glad to go back, if he can be assured of comfort and company. Its charms are indescribable, but most men succumb to them as soon as they get off their guard against imaginary dangers.

I shall never forget my experience on going over a portion of this very desert described, of Mojave in Arizona, on my way from Dos Palms in California, to Prescott the capital of Arizona. It was a matter of three days' and three nights' ride. I remember with what visions I took my seat beside the driver on top the overland stage coach. I think in the few minutes that elapsed between my taking my seat and the shout


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of tile driver ‘‘all aboard,’’ all the agonizing tales of starvation and thirst, of sun-stroke, and suffocation from sand storms, of desolation and suffering that had ever come to me from the Sahara, filled my brain with an anxiety of the deepest interest. It was midnight of a bright, moonlight night, and as the stage rolled off, the pleasing jolt I thought, knocked all unpleasant anticipations out of me. The rarity of the atmosphere, which is proverbial with these deserts of our South, brought the distant mountains many miles away, so near that one would fancy he could reach them in an hour; while those hundreds of miles away, could be seen distinctly with the naked eye. The lurid glare of the southern Moon added something to this charming feature. I commenced counting the stars and comparing the different outlines of the mountains, while the turbulent grating of the wheels in the sand began to be a music to the already ecstatic condition of my nerves. Occasionally the low whining howl of the coyote would relieve the quiet, and a breeze would gently play with the sand, which was a pleasant substitute in sound for the gentle ‘‘whispers through the trees.’’ Although a ‘‘caravan over the dreary desert,’’ my time had been so interestingly


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spent that I was amazed when the silver grey, streaking the outline of the mountains behind us, betokened the approach of the morning; and subsequently, when at 10 o'clock we reached the station for breakfast, the whole thing had began to savor strongly of a picnic to me—located as the station was, between several lone mountain peaks, grown right up out of the level sandy mesa, and sternly lifting themselves to hundreds of feet in height. These lone peaks and mounts which everywhere throw themselves up out of the plains of the southwest, are a feature of leading interest to the traveler. Like brilliant croppings of a sterile mind they redeem their grosser surroundings, and by their pleasing contrasts, the whole is leavened and the glory of the Maker is verified in the very thing we dubbed as useless; and the ‘‘good in all things,’’ again proved.

The name of the station was Canyon Springs. It was a good initiation to travel. I cannot do better justice to the imagination of man than to simply give him figures and allow him to draw his own conclusions. The population of the place consisted of three; dogs—one, donkeys—one, men—one. The man he fed us. The dog he barked for us, and the donkey he


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looked at us. The thermometer stood 120° Fahr. For breakfast we had ham, potatoes, coffee without milk or sugar, and bread without butter. Price one dollar. This is a desert hotel; and it was better than those often encountered—worse than some few. Seated on a plank board laid across two home-made ‘‘horses,’’ with a table composed of the same elements, we broke our fast, relished it, and did not begrudge the man his dollar. Milk and butter are very scarce on the deserts—in many eases not to be had at all. We had come fifteen miles since our departure from Dos Palms at two in the morning. Our appetites were good; and the refreshment received from the meal, the reader will not be able to comprehend nor appreciate except he has not only ridden across the plains in a stage coach, but actually done so in Southern California or Arizona. The translucent atmosphere and the mineral properties of the climate which, on this occasion seemed to excel any ever previously experienced by me, are characteristic only of this or like locations. The alkalies, mixed with the pungent odors which the wild shrubs and flowers sent out, acted alike as powerful invigorators and narcotics. I have ridden over some of these desert—so called—locations


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when each inhalation seemed to give a special vigor. It would seem that you were breathing a substance rather than air. There is nothing sluggish in it; but a clear, buoyant, pungent element of vigor and strength.

Refreshed, and full of the California vim, the traveler looks at the surrounding mountains and craves to pull them down and extract the precious lucre contained within their folds. He sees in his mind's eye, the shining nugget or the brilliant threads of silver, and listens to a fellow traveler narrate the golden stories of his success in prospecting, or of some thrilling incident of mountain life with the Indians, or hair breadth escape, or of his misfortune; while the coach wheels right here are plodding through six or eight inches of heavy sand, and causing a noise resembling very much a steamboat blowing off its steam.

It was on this very trip that I had the wonderful fairy-like story of the great ‘‘Stonewall Jackson’’ silver mine told to me. And it continued to seem like a tale of golden fleece until under subsequent and very thrilling circumstances, I actually came in contact with the original discoverer and owner of it, Captain Chas. McMillen, after whom one of the richest


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mining districts in the world is named. This is the McMillen Mining District of Arizona. Of both these districts and a detailed history of its discovery by the great prospector McMillen, an account will be given in a separate chapter.

On the following morning, October 7th, 1877, we reached and crossed the Colorado at early morn, amid a halo of a semi-tropical sun. It was my first introduction to Arizona. The occasion will never be forgotton by me, and to me Arizona to-day has a peculiar charm. First impressions are the strongest they say.

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