20 March 2012

Great Book: Hard Road West

... In the category of "Why didn't I think of that?" ...  This book is a must-read for anyone with Gold Rush ancestors.

Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.  By Keith Heyer Meldahl.

I have always been interested in geology, as was my father, and many of my fondest family memories relate to rocks and roadside vistas with him.  With lots of maps and illustrations, Meldahl explains the geology of the land surrounding the Oregon and California Trail.  It's an easy read, but maintains the rigor of the science.

The great part is that Meldahl illustrates the geological description with excerpts of the actual journals written by settlers &/or hopeful prospectors as they made the trek in the 1840-50s.  In the preface (p. xv), discussing the trek as the "greatest mass migration in American history," Meldahl explains how the area along the trail is a past that we can see today:
The rocks and mountains of the West have changed little since 1849 (unlike most of the native animal and plant populations and native cultures). The geologic landscape along the trails needs no reenactments, no props, no tricks of animation to re-create historic authenticity. It is genuine. Subtract the buildings, highways, and reservoirs, and you see the landscape much as the emigrants saw it. The past becomes personal when you stand in the old wagon ruts and read what emigrant men and women thought and wrote while looking out at the same scenes. Byron McKinstry, and 1850 pioneer who kept his diary going even through the worst of times, was once chided by a companion, 'My God, McKinstry, why do you write about this trip? All I hope for is to get home, alive, as soon as possible, so that I can forget it!' Luckily for us, there were many McKinstry's on the road west--emigrants who took the time to write, nearly every day, through the months of toil.
All along the trail, the reader learns the geography, geology, and what it looked like or felt to someone actually there at the time.  For instance, on page 210, the caption for a photo of the Humboldt River outside Elko, Nevada, reads:
The steam comes from a hot spring on the riverbank.  This spring flowed more powerfully in emigrant days and was a famous landmark. Forty-niner Wakeman Bryarly described the water as 'boiling hot & sent off steam & heat from its surface, which [was] as hot as the scape pipe of an engine. Even after it ran into the river, it foamed & hissed as cold water poured into hot and sent off steam for 80 yds. below, and extended half over the river.' Many emigrants bathed and washed their clothes here in the spring-warmed river. The ledge and the lumpy, white slope consist of travertine deposits precipitated by the hot water.
The book is very well documented with many notes and an 8-page bibliography.  No less than two of those pages are emigrant history books or journals.Some of the many surnames quoted include Ackley, Bryarly, Delano, McCall, and Searls.

I don't have gold rush ancestry, but my grandparents met outside Elko and several of the great-greats lived, farmed, or mined in Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri.  So, I know they would have seen many of the same vistas described and explained by Meldahl.  I hope I've done this book justice and that you can tell how much I enjoyed it.

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