Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles about the 150th anniversary of White Pine County.
By Sean Pitts
White Pine County would become one of the later discoveries of the American West. The area which would become Nevada was considered an inhospitable environment and the area that must be crossed before arriving in the fertile farmland of California.
Travelers in the 1800s found it easier to follow the California trail, which avoided the Great Basin rather than to try to cross it. The route added more than 300 miles and nearly a month to the total travel time, but was considered the safest way to get to the fertile valleys of the coastal states.
Famed explorer Jedediah Smith was the first European to cross what would become White Pine County in 1827 on his first trip through the Great Basin. He was returning from his first Southwest Expedition of the previous year in search of new trapping grounds as a new partner in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
He didn’t find much in the way of fur, but he did find a central route across what would become the State of Nevada passing through or near what would become Ely.
His reports of the area were not favorable and he would avoid the area on his second expedition to California. The area would remain largely unexplored for nearly 20 more years.
John C. Fremont would pass through White Pine County from north to south on his mapping expedition to California in 1844.
Sponsored by the U.S. Government, Fremont was charged with exploring and charting the vast American west. His party was the first to provide accurate maps of the area.
While his reports of Nevada were limited, he did accurately chart the distances, mountains, valleys and water sources that would encourage further exploration.
Fremont’s descriptions of California and the Oregon Country were glowing. His journal recorded rich farm lands and mild climates that encouraged thousands to consider crossing the continent to obtain land on the west coast.
The descriptions of Fremont and other explorers encouraged a massive move west during the 1840s.
European immigrants and Americans alike were seeking new opportunities and looked to move west. While a number of routes existed, they all avoided Nevada due to the lack of water necessary for the animals which were pulling heavy wagons.
Early attempts to take a cut off were met with disaster. The Donner Party tried one such shortcut in 1846. The tragedy all but eliminated any attempts to cross the center of the Great Basin.
Howard Egan bravely traversed what would become White Pine County in 1855 looking for a central route from Salt Lake City to California.
He was in need of a direct route to drive cattle across the Great Basin and established the trail 40 miles north of Ely. (Just south of present day Cherry Creek.)
Existing trails were too long and indirect. He felt a more direct route could be completed in ten days.
He was nearly correct, it took 11 days, but Egan’s route proved to be the fastest trail and would become known as the Central Route when surveyed by U.S. Army Captain, James Simpson in 1858-59.
The trail became permanent when the Overland Stage Company established stations along the route.
Egan Station, some 40 miles north of Ely, became a necessary supply stop on the trail and would become among the first permanent settlements to White Pine County.
It housed the stage coach stop and eventually the Pony Express Station during its years of operation from 1860-61.
Early travelers, including a young Samuel Clemons (writing under the name of Mark Twain), would stay at the Egan Canyon. He describes it in the book Roughing It in less than glowing terms in the chapters from Salt Lake to Carson City, “…truly and seriously the romance all faded far away and disappeared and left the desert trip nothing but a harsh reality- a thirsty, sweltering, longing, hateful reality!”
It would take something incredibly valuable for people to consider moving to such a place as the Great Basin.
Next time: Discovery of Silver and the creation of White Pine County.