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Ask Gen. Palmer: After 2,500 miles, party time

December 29, 2013 Updated: January 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm
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Good day, readers. As you may recall, I've been regaling you over the past several weeks with some tales of a trip I took as a young man in 1867, surveying a railroad route through the southwest from Kansas to California. I left off just south the Great Canyon of the Colorado, where my men and I had narrowly escaped furnishing our scalps for a night's entertainment of the Apaches.

From there we pushed on to California, passing through pristine valleys of grama grass and mountains of timber.

As a man of progress, I looked at every landscape for the role it would play in civilization. In those grass-filled valleys, I saw the growing breadstuffs. Along the river bottoms, I saw land that could be irrigated for wine and fruits. We rode west to the broad valley of the Rio Colorado in the Mohave Desert, where the climate is so tropical that snow is unknown. Here I saw the potential for cotton, tobacco, hemp, even sugar. At Fort Mohave, on the river, the Indians brought us fresh melons for Christmas!

What mineral wealth was in the granite mountains we passed, we knew not, but explorers told stories of Indians with gold and silver bullets!

We crossed the Rio Colorado at Needles and entered California, which to us meant civilization: square meals, arm chairs, boot blacking, all the luxuries. Instead we found hundreds of miles of desert. It was only in January after our survey crew crossed Tehachapi Pass and entered the Tulare Valley that we started to encounter farms.

Here we were hit with California's endless winter rains. The ground was muck and the rivers were so swollen that our survey crew struggled to move forward. I rode ahead with a few men, as I was eager to tour the gold diggings that have made California so famous. I finally arrived in San Francisco in February 1868, almost a year after I set out, having covered more 2,500 miles.

My friend Dr. William Bell, already there several weeks, wrote of our arrival at the Occidental Hotel. "In came five of the shabbiest-looking fellows I ever saw," he said. "Their coats were torn, their caps washed into shapeless mushrooms of felt, their faces tanned and bearded, and their figures covered with mud . What congratulations we had! How we startled the Frisco dandies who were languidly perusing the morning papers."

The festivities, the convivialities, the cocktails and the punches that followed! But we were celebrating too early, for we still had to make a return crossing in winter.

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As told by staff writer Dave Philipps in Gen. Palmer's voice.

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