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Ask Gen. Palmer: Trip across desert is muddy, rough

By: Dave Philipps, The Gazette
January 13, 2014 Updated: January 13, 2014 at 5:14 pm
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Good morning, citizens of Colorado Springs. I have been recounting some of my adventures as a young man this winter, especially the year I spent riding horseback in 1897 from Kansas to California through the wild deserts of the Southwest, surveying for a new railroad route. We reached San Francisco in February, then headed over the snowy Sierra Madre by sleigh. I thought the mountains were a rough trip, but the deserts of Nevada were much worse.

When we got out of the snows, we switched to a crude conveyance called a mudwagon, which is a bit like a stagecoach but with canvas sides.

With this we crossed the most horrendous country. The alkali flats were thick mud or shallow pools with ice over them that was too thin to bear weight but thick enough to cut the horses. The ruts were terrible; all night we would be jostled awake. Twenty times at least we got stuck in the mud and had to get out and push or wade chest deep into the water, then wait in clothes stiffened by the cold. At one point, we encountered another wagon stuck up to its axles. On stopping to help the driver, we discovered his wagon was laden with heavy bars of silver.

Mining is the primary business of this country, with boom towns quickly thrown up where a few months before there was only desert. Halfway across the desert, we reached one such settlement named Austin, where silver was discovered a few years before, reportedly by a Pony Express horse who kicked a rock over, revealing rich ore.

These mining towns are a conundrum. They are rough and dirty as any place you have ever seen. Yet at the same time, any luxury that money can buy can be had. My dear friend and traveling companion William Bell and I, after days in the mud, dined in a French restaurant where we had fresh oysters from San Francisco and salmon trout from the Humbolt River. We drank Perrier-Jouet of the finest quality, and Bell enjoyed a number of clarets that were not to be despised.

Now, as I understand it, that city no longer exists. It was my experiences with places like this, which had the excesses of civilization, but none of the nurturing cultural institutions, that inspired me to establish Colorado Springs - a place with the freedom and health of the West but the culture of my dear home Philadelphia.

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

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