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Clarence King's Fortieth Parallel Survey

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol. 24, 1056, Nos. 1-4



IN THE years 1867 through 1879 four geographical and geological surveys of the American West were conducted under the auspices of various branches of the United States Government. Commonly known as the Great Surveys, they are best known individually by the names of their leaders—the Hayden, King, Powell, and Wheeler surveys.

The first, and apparently least known of these surveys, was the King Survey, officially known as the United States Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel. Its leader was the sauve and cosmopolitan Clarence King, close friend of Henry Adams; a man whom, it may be recalled, Adams had considered an outstanding success in 1871, but a failure in 1893. Whatever the extent of his later failure, there can be no doubt that King's United States Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel was a really great achievement. This project originated with King, was led by him for twelve years, and was brought to a successful completion through his efforts. In any history of American civilization, this survey deserves more comment than a casual sentence in the text or a footnote at the bottom of the page. King's Fortieth Parallel Survey materially improved the reputation of American science abroad, and set an example of accuracy and scholarship at home at a time when such an example was sorely needed. That such a survey should have taken place in an otherwise corrupt and barren era in our national life (1867-79) is also of some significance. Finally, as a personal achievement, the Fortieth Parallel Survey ranks as a project that only a man of unusual vision, talent, and tenacity could have completed.

The story of this scientific endeavor begins on top of one of the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada, east of the Yosemite Valley, in the year 1866. King and his close friend, James Terry Gardner, had been working for the California Geological Survey under the direction of Josiah Dwight Whitney—King since 1863, Gardner since 1864. While thus employed the two young men, both graduates of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, had mastered many of the problems of frontier surveying and geologic work. Now, in the summer of 1866, King had just received word of the death of his stepfather. This left the young geologist—he was only twenty-four—confronted with the problem of supporting his mother and her three young children. His salary on the California Survey was insufficient to meet such obligations. What could he do?

From their perch in the high Sierra, Gardner and King could look far out upon the Great Basin. Save for Virginia City, Austin, and a few other nondescript mining camps, a few miners and a few begging Indians, the dried-up wastes of Nevada stretched onward toward and beyond the horizon—a vast unknown, barely scarred by the white man's trails. Soon, however, the transcontinental railroad would be pushing across the great desert barrier, joining the East and West. But who knew what lay along the line of the railroad, geologically? Who knew of the flora and fauna along the route, of the potentialities for investment and settlement? It was as a result of these questions that King and Gardner from their perches on the "high peaks of the Sierra . . . worked out the general outlines of the Fortieth Parallel Survey work." They envisaged a survey across the entire West, from the crest of the Sierra Nevada to the western slope of the Rockies, which would remove the geologic and natural history mysteries from the region of the main line of the transcontinental railroad.

Armed with this grandiose project King headed eastward, appearing in the winter of 1867 in Washington, D. C. He found a city full of ex-soldiers seeking appointments, of get-rich-quick schemers and influence peddlers; but if the twenty-five-year-old geologist from the high Sierra was aware of the barriers that stood before his goal, he certainly did not let them deter him. He had obtained letters of recommendation from influential people, and he used the letters and made the rounds. His remarkable personality and grandiose, but apparently practical plan, combined to bring him success. King got his survey, with himself as geologist in charge, subject only to the administrative supervision of the Engineer Department of the U. S. Army under the command of General A. A. Humphreys.

The object of the exploration [the orders ran] is to examine and describe the geological structure, geographical condition and natural resources of a belt of country extending from the 120th meridian eastward to the 105th meridian, along the 40th parallel of latitude with sufficient expansion north and south to include the lines of the "Central" and "Union Pacific" railroads, and as much more as may be consistent with accuracy and a proper progress, which would be not less than five degrees of longitude yearly. The exploration will be commenced at the 120th meridian where it will connect with the geological survey of California, and should, if s practicable, be completed in two years.....

The orders further described the duties of the survey. It was to examine—

all rock formations, mountain ranges, detrital plains, coal deposits, soils, minerals, ores, saline and alkaline deposits . . . collect . . . material for a topographical map of the regions traversed, . . . conduct . . . barometric and thermometric observations [and] make collections in botany and zoology with the view to a memoir on these subjects, illustrating the occurrence and distribution of plants and animals.

King set to work at once. He planned to leave for San Francisco by way of Panama by May 1, 1867. As early as April 3, he had written to all the assistants he hoped to employ, and James Terry Gardner, first topographical assistant, had already accepted. Next to join the staff in the position of first geological assistant was James D. Hague, who had been educated at Harvard and in the German Universities of Gottingen and at Freiburg, and was associated with the Institute of Technology at Boston when King offered him the job. "He has been a wide traveler, a superintendent of extensive mining operations, and is considered by Dana and other eminent men as very able," King wrote General Humphreys.

For second geologic assistant, King chose James' brother, Arnold Hague, who had been a fellow student of King's at Yale, and subsequently had studied abroad. A Swiss named H. Custer, who had previously served on the Northwest Boundary Commision and was highly recommended by General G. K. Warren, was chosen as second topographical assistant, and a third topographical assistant, F. A. Clark, also joined the party. For his photographer King made the wise choice of Timothy H. O'Sullivan, a former student of die Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady. As botanical collectors, King chose a W. W. Bailey and, without pay, Sereno Watson, the latter of whom became a famed botanist; and as zoologist, he chose the seventeen-year-old Robert Ridgeway, who was thus beginning a notable career as an ornithologist. Samuel Franklin Emmons also joined the expedition as a geologist without pay. The professional personnel consisted in all of at least three geological and three topographical assistants, a botanist or two, a zoologist and a photographer; possibly there were one or two others. About half of the personnel left New York on May 1, but King, who was ill, did not leave with the remainder of the expedition until the eleventh.

Early in June, King and those who accompanied him arrived in San Francisco where they were joined by the rest of the party. By river steamer they progressed to Sacramento where they set about accumulating their camp equipment. The president and directors of the Central Pacific Railroad called on the party and prevailed upon King to let B. R. Crocker, who fitted out trains for the railroad exploration and construction parties, to help outfit the Fortieth Parallel Survey. King purchased horses, mules, and wagons, and, after two hundred miles in the saddle, he judged that Crocker had outfitted him fairly, reasonably, and well. The wagons, however, were expensive and not so good as their eastern counterparts.

On July 3, 1867, the U. S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel started over the high Sierra. The party consisted of eleven mounted men, two freight wagons, and one thorough-brace wagon. It took them eleven days to cross into western Nevada via the Donnor Pass, at the summit of which the snow was still eight feet deep. In spite of the hardships resulting from an unusually severe winter, the expedition reached the lower edge of the Great Meadows of the Truckee "near the entrance of the canon which the river has cut across the Virginia Range of Mountains," by the fourteenth of July. Camp number ten was some thirty miles east of Pyramid Lake and about the same distance from Carson City, and there—at camp number ten—active operations began. On the seventeenth of the month twenty mounted cavalrymen joined the group, and, being "decidedly above the average of regulars," were found useful to the expedition in many ways.

In general the survey was conducted by means of several small parties "working-up" a given large area, meeting at a prearranged rendezvous within twenty-four or thirty-six hours of each other, although they may have been separated for several weeks. The topographers and the geologists often helped each other, and a general esprit de corps, a recognition of what was to be done and the need for harmony in accomplishing it, appears to have permeated the King Survey from start to finish.

If the survey worked with a harmony of personalities, the unpredictable that can foul up the best laid plans of such an expedition had a heyday of it in 1867. The winter, spring, and summer of that year were abnormally wet in the Great Basin, and the greater portion of King's personnel fell dangerously ill with malaria. By early September, conditions had become so bad that King moved his camp from Wright's Canyon to Unionville, Nevada, "in order," he informed Humphreys, "to place sick men, who at this time numbered about three-fourths of our whole party, under shelter, for the barometer had indicated the approach of a great storm." King later told Humphreys that "at one time we had out of fifty but three available men."

Yet there was a schedule to be maintained, and King (who for once was not stricken) and topographer Clark and one soldier, plus "Son," Chief of the Humboldt Paiutes, headed for the mountain range west of Reese River.

On the 22nd [King narrated] we climbed "Job's Peak" reaching the summit as a thunder cloud drifted toward the mountain top. After adjusting my theodolite, I set the cross hair on the initial signal, and as I was about to observe angles, a sudden electrical flash came (apparently) through the instrument, striking my right arm and side. I was staggered and my brain nerves severely shocked. The theodolite was thrown and badly injured. Mr. Clark and I hastened back to our camp in Salt Valley. In the course of a week the effects of the stroke wore off. I was able to work all the time, although distressed at times by the stoppage of circulation in the right side . . . .

Nevertheless King and Clark kept up their work, and within three weeks had completed the Silver Hill and East Humboldt Range. Moreover, as soon as other members recovered, they were sent back into the Sinks of the Carson, Humboldt, and Quinn rivers, from which they had been driven by miasma. When Custer, one of the topographers, suffered a relapse, Gardner stepped in to continue his work. "By tremendous effort," as King described it, the survey "completed the proposed areas for the year by remaining in the field until the middle of December, the last parties coming into . . . winter quarters at Virginia City through two feet of snow on the day before Christmas."

Thus ended the first season of the work of the Fortieth Parallel Survey. What had King accomplished? The survey had covered a block of country from the boundary of California (120°W) as far east as the second Humboldt Range (about 117°30') with the southern boundary being latitude 39°30' N. and the northern boundary latitude 41 °N. "This," King emphasized, "is in every way the most difficult and dangerous country to campaign in I know of on the Continent." In spite of the hardships the entire block had been covered with a series of triangles and, for accuracy, the angles had been observed at least eight times. For signals, monuments of rocks had been built on the summits of many stations. Average error was two seconds to the angle. Then, within the primary points, secondary points had been located with an eight-inch theodolite, and between the interior points the topography had been "well fitted in" by gradienters. In the realm of geology a collection of two thousand specimens, illustrating every rock formation in the section surveyed, had been gathered. About three hundred barometrical stations had been observed and over two thousand observations made in the department of meteorology. "The party," King concluded, "are all well and united by a healthy esprit de corps."

The winter of 1867-68 was spent in quarters at Virginia City and at Carson, thirteen miles away. The personnel was kept busy, the topographers plotting their field notes and the geologists beginning a "detailed study of the great silver region of the Washoe." O'Sullivan, the photographer, took flash pictures underground in the Comstock Mine.

In the middle of April, 1868, the survey took to the field again. The professional personnel was the same, save that S. F. Emmons and Sereno Watson were put on the payroll, they having previously served gratis. The survey was divided into three divisions which would separate, meet and separate again throughout the season. Places with such names as New Pass, Shoshone Mountains, Reese River, Toyabe Range, Carico Lake, Fort Ruby, White River Mining District, the Overland Road, Redding Springs, Salt Lake Desert, Don Don Pass, Antelope Pass, and Clear Valley were explored and surveyed. "I am pushing forward as rapidly as possible," King declared. "We are in the saddle generally by six a.m. and work till sunset." By mid- October, 1868, the season's endeavors were ended and the Great Salt Lake had been reached, despite hardships brought on by the dazzling brightness of the desert sun and the shortage of water. One so-called "desert coal field" had been demolished as a figment of someone's imagination, and the survey had demonstrated that the so-called Goose Creek Coal Region was also a "humbug." The season over, camp men were discharged and equipment stored at Camp Douglas near Salt Lake City. After eighteen months the men were leaving the west for the civilized east. On October 20, 1868, King was in Washington, D. C. In two season's work nearly five hundred miles of country, in a strip a hundred miles wide, had been surveyed and explored scientifically, "The facts and collections we have," stated King, "are of great importance in a scientific sense as proving for the first time a geological unity of structure in the whole zone of ranges west of Salt Lake." The men had worked well, and the escort had done excellent service, especially after two deserters had been captured.

Winter quarters were set up in a brick building at No. 294 "H" Street in Washington, and the results of the previous season's work were plotted, classified, and written up according to plan. But winter, although important, was just an interval before the advent of another field season. On May 15, 1869, when King arrived at Salt Lake City, the exploration was already in advanced stages of preparation for what was at that time felt to be the last season of the survey. By the twenty-fifth all was ready and the campaign began. The eastern goal had been fixed at the Green River Divide, about thirty miles to the west of Green River. Operations followed the same pattern as in previous years, with several parties disbursing, working up a given area, and then meeting briefly at a prearranged place; then into the field again. In this season such geographical names as the Promontory Range, the Tangent Range, the Wasatch Mountains, the Provo Region, the White River, and Bear River, and the Green River, received considerable mention. One party with a particularly difficult assignment was the topographical group under R. Davis, a newcomer to the survey. Their job was to survey Salt Lake. In view of the fact that since the first survey by Captain Stansbury in 1849-50 a rise of nine feet in the lake had entirely changed the shoreline and had added about six hundred square miles to the area, the task was very much like breaking entirely new ground. Twice the Salt Lake party had been capsized, and had narrowly escaped death.

King hoped to complete operations to the Green River Divide by August 20. "East of there," he concluded in words that he was to retract, "it is not worth while to work, as neither topography nor geology warrant the expenditure of further money." By late in August the surveyor's transits had been in Echo Canyon, in the Uinta Mountains, at Kamas Prairie, in the valley of the Provo, or Timpanogos, and to the headwaters of the Weber River. In the Uintas; King found the evidences of "immense glacier systems and the geological evidence of synchronism with the great European Mountain chains."

All but a skeleton staff entrained for the east by early September, and so advanced were plans for the ending of the survey that an auction was held at Salt Lake City and about half of the entire survey outfit was sold; the remainder would subsequently be sold at Virginia City, Nevada. Odds and ends of work still remained to be completed, however, and King, who never seemed to be completely satisfied with his investigations, spent September and part of October with a few of his aides reviewing in the field much of what they had done since 1867 and bringing up-to-date recent changes in mining communities. This review was climaxed by a march "in general" along the Central Pacific Railroad to Reno, which King reached on November 2. "The party and animals have suffered extremely from cold, and alkaline water," he reported. While the animals rested he spent additional time in the area south of there. By the twenty-eighth of December, however, he was finally back in Washington. Offices were established at 252 "G" Street, and by mid-April of 1870 the volume. Mining Industry by James D. Hague and the volume, Botany by Sereno Watson were ready to be submitted to General Humphreys for criticism and suggestions. On June 1, the survey moved its offices to New Haven, for there was an excellent library of geology there.

At some time during this period King must have received an inkling that the Army Engineers hoped to put his survey into the field again. Nothing appears, however, until a telegram sent to Humphreys on July 25: "Did your friends carry the hundred thousand for reconnaissances? Please answer." Bearing the same date is a copy of a telegram from J. B. Wheeler (an officer in the Army Engineers): "The appropriation of one hundred thousand has passed. You will take the field without delay. By command of General Humphreys."

King's protests, that to take the field so late in the season would be a waste of time and would delay completion of the volume of Mining Industry, were ignored. Instead, a short campaign to study the problem "of the sources of the lava flows which have poured eastward from the axial line of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Ranges into the Great Basin" was launched. King intended to examine the exterior volcanic and lava fields from Lassen's Butte northward and into Oregon, consuming two or three months. By September he was at Mount Shasta, California, equipped from army supplies through the aid of General Schofield. The aridity of the Nevada side made an approach from the California side more practical. Writing from Chico, California, on October 10, King told of laboring at altitudes of 11,000 to 14,000 feet, and of completely upsetting the ideas of Humboldt and Fremont concerning Lassen's Peak. Furthermore, he had made the "somewhat startling discovery of immense existing glaciers. This [King declared] is the more surprising when we consider that Whitney, Brewer, Dana and Fremont, all visited the Peak without observing them; and that Whitney, Dana, and Agassiz have all published statements that no true glaciers exist in the United States."

By the end of the campaign (November 2, approximately), King reported that the brief season's field work had "been an entire success, and for scientific interest of results is decidedly the most profitable of the three years."

In 1871 King hoped to continue his study of vulcanism, to which had been added the study of glaciation, even to a trip to Mount St. Elias in Alaska. To this proposal Humphreys refused, and when the survey again left its New Haven offices for the field, it was to take up the work where it had left off in 1869, some thirty miles west of Green River, and to work eastward, "quite across the Rocky Mountain System, ending at about the longitude of Cheyenne, the southern boundary of the work to be the 40th parallel, the northern boundary a line one hundred miles north of the 40th parallel." On May 11, King was at Fort Bridger in Wyoming Territory, material was being assembled, and he had already split the personnel into two divisions, one under James T. Gardner with headquarters at Cheyenne, and the other under Samuel Franklin Emmons at Fort Bridger.

In this season, operations thus consisted of two rather widely separated parties. Emmons in southwestern Wyoming had the more fascinating area, geologically. He would have occasions when the deep gorges of the Green and the Yampa rivers would challenge the geologic curiosity and topographic know-how of his men, while Gardner, working eastward and southward as far as Long's Peak, would still be in challenging, beautiful Rocky Mountain country. King traveled first with one, then with the other group, climbing Long's Peak with the Gardner group and then joining Emmons' further westward. When Gardner had completed the Black Hills (of Wyoming), the Laramie Range, and the front wall of North Park in Colorado, he was sent to California where he was to spend a "month or so in locating the new towns and settlements for our already engraved gradecurve map." Settlements were springing up faster than they could be accurately marked on maps.

Emmons and his party set out late in August to work up more of the Uinta Range, and King, leading Gardner's group far to the eastward, led them into Colorado's North Park and toward the remote Elk Head Mountains. Both parties, however, were hampered in their topographical work by "extensive fires which raged throughout the entire Rocky Mountains, filling the air with such volumes of smoke as to altogether stop topographical work." Both parties therefore resorted to geological work until, early in October, a heavy snow storm prevailed over the mountains, clearing the air of the haze and smoke. By this time the constantly moving King had returned to Emmons' party in the Uintas.

Despite their knowledge of the dangers of the winter in the wilderness, the survey remained in the field endeavoring to com- plete topographical work. The inevitable happened. While in the upper altitudes of the Escalante Range in northwestern Colorado, King and Emmons' parties were trapped by a terrific snow storm which shut them in for five days. "The temperature," King reported, "was commonly in the neighborhood of zero, and a gale blew nearly all the time." They saved their mules by feeding them some barley they had along, and, when the storm was over, set out to go south along the Bear [Yampa] River. For two days they trudged along its rim before they were able to find a crossing, where the Snake joins the Yampa. Several days later, "while in a waterless desert country south of Bitter Creek," King wrote, "we were again shut in by snow, and were for about a week on very short rations of flour eked out by what game we could kill." On November 2, the party reached Fort Bridger. The Gardner party to the eastward had experienced similar conditions with the snow, and had come into Fort Sanders at about the same time. The entire survey then went into winter quarters, this year at San Francisco. It had been the "most extended and arduous" field campaign for topographical work in King's experience. "Drought, forest fires, canons, remote supplies of forage, and general absence of grass, lofty snow-clad ranges, and wide plain regions through which artificial signals have to be used, and most of all an almost [un] interrupted atmosphere combinfed] to give us constant trouble," King wrote his chief.

Although King hoped to go down the Green River in boats, in order "not to be outdone by Powell," Humphreys kept him to the fortieth parallel, so that the year 1872, the sixth year of survey operations, would this time be, save for some re-examinations, the last year in which field parties would be sent out. Fresh and rested after a vacation to the Hawaiian Islands, King pitched into a vigorous last campaign. By the time the field work ended in November, Emmons (writing in King's behalf) was able to state that between "May 1st and November 15th the entire region covered by the Exploration from the 105th to the 120th meridian west of Greenwich, on a belt about 100 miles wide, always including the Pacific Railroad, had been re-examined by Mr. King, Mr. Hague, and myself jointly . . . " Additional new work was done in the region north of the Humboldt River in Nevada, and King had done extensive work on problems of glaciation and vulcanism in the high Sierra. The artist, Albert Bierstadt, had accompanied him in this work. Gardner, working in Colorado, had simultaneously tackled the Rabbit Ears Range, the Medicine Bow Range, and had gone down the Cache la Poudre Canyon onto the plains and to the very eastern limits of the survey.

Finally, as a fitting conclusion to six long field seasons along the fortieth parallel, King, Emmons, Gardner and a few other members of the survey rode into the remote area of northwest Colorado and, in spite of the lateness of the season (it was November), searched for, located, and exposed a gigantic hoax in which two uncanny characters, Arnold and Slack, had deposited rough cut gems, mostly diamonds, on a barren half-acre of land and had duped some of San Francisco's best financial talent into believing their story. By exposing this frauds—probably the most ambitious fraud ever perpetrated in the American West—King saved thousands of investors from losing their money, and greatly enhanced public confidence in government sponsored surveys.

The office work now began, with rooms taken in New York City. In 1873 King did some additional field work, first in May and June, then from September until December. It was during the latter period that he climbed the true Mount Whitney, his earlier claims to having climbed it having been proved in error.

In the succeeding years, until early in 1879, King labored at completing the final reports of the survey. "The day has passed in Geological science," he wrote, "when it is either decent or tolerable to rush into print with undigested field observations, ignoring the methods and appliances in use among advanced investigators. It is my intention to give to this work a finish which will place it on an equal footing with the best European productions, and those few which have redeemed the wavering reputation of our American investigators . . . ."

Some of King's actions during these years would seem to bear out his announced intentions. For example, in May 1874, he sent S. F. Emmons to Germany "to examine the collections of the Surveys of Germany, France, and England, and to establish a connection and common nomenclature between European and American rocks." Emmons was also to purchase "books that are necessary for the completion of our work," and he was to bring back with him Ferdinand Zirkel, "the great German authority on rocks who is to enrich our report with a short memoir."

When Clarence King wrote his final official letter to General Humphreys (January 18, 1879) six volumes and a geological and topographical atlas had been issued, and the seventh volume, Marsh's monograph on Odontorniths, was ready for publication and would be out in 1880. There is not space here to appraise each work individually, but what of the whole? Was it worth the six hundred thousand dollars that it had cost the government? It is safe to say that the published reports raised the reputation of American science among European scientists. King's own contribution. Systematic Geology served for years as a model of geological investigation and reporting, and was assigned as additional reading to geology students for years to come. Moreover, of the four surveys (Hayden's, King's, Powell's, and Wheeler's), King's Survey was the original one that was imitated in scope by Hayden and Wheeler, and partly by Powell. King planned a geographical and topographical atlas; Hayden copied King's idea even to similarity in format and organization of the Hayden Atlas of Colorado, and James T. Gardner and A. D. Wilson, who worked for Hayden, had previously worked for King. Both Wheeler and Hayden were inspired in the presentation of materials by King's masterful plan of seven final volumes to cover the natural sciences and geology. Wheeler's final reports are strikingly similar in plan to those of the Fortieth Parallel Survey. Nor was it until several years of topographical work had been accomplished by King, that Powell conceived the plan of mapping the Great Plateau. In view of the fact that King began large scale operations several years before any of the others entered the field extensively, it becomes apparent that King led the way, and the others followed.

Yet, the Fortieth Parallel Survey had one great failing. However grand and logical the idea of a survey of a one hundred mile strip of land, always including the Pacific Railroad may have been, the fact remains that actual settlement did not occur along that strip in spite of the railroad. Where deserts lay, men stayed away. Settlement went elsewhere, and all the work done along large areas of fortieth parallel land by King's Survey was quite scientific, but, unfortunately, in a practical sense quite useless.

Lastly, what did this twelve-year-endeavor do for King's career? He never succeeded again. It should be remembered, perhaps, that it is never easy for a man of thirty-seven (as King was in 1879) to re-enter a competitive world after spending twelve long years on a grand project. King's failures, 1879-1900, may have been partly due to the twelve years of his life that were spent dedicated to pure science and to the very wonderful, but poor paying, government of the United States of America.

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