Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Captain Bonneville Views Curiosities at Soda Springs [otd 11/10]

General Bonneville.
Library of Congress.
On November 10, 1833, a party led by Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville [blog, Apr 14] camped near Soda Springs, Idaho. The “digest” of his journals prepared by Washington Irving said, “An area of about half a mile square presents a level surface of white clay or fuller’s earth, perfectly spotless, resembling a great slab of Parian marble, or a sheet of dazzling snow. The effect is strikingly beautiful … The most noted curiosity, however, of this singular region, is the Beer Spring, of which trappers give wonderful accounts.”

The native inhabitants had long known of the springs and the curiosities surrounding them, and they soon became familiar to whites who entered the region. Robert Stuart of the Pacific Fur Company apparently passed through the area in 1812. Oddly enough, however, his journal mentions nothing unusual. In 1818, Donald Mackenzie, of the British-Canadian North West Company, explored the Bear River and passed by the springs.

By the time Bonneville arrived there, the Beer Springs were a well-known landmark and curiosity. Irving wrote, “Captain Bonneville describes it as having the taste of beer. His men drank it with avidity, and in copious draughts. It did not appear to him to possess any medicinal properties, or to produce any peculiar effects.”

Less than a year after Bonneville visited, Trapper Osborne Russell [blog, July 8] commented, “some of which have precisely the taste of soda water when taken up and drank immediately. Others have a sour, sulperous [sic] taste.”

John C. Fremont passed through the area 10 years later. He expressed himself as being “disappointed in the expectations” previous accounts had raised, but still “found it altogether a place of very great interest.” He described the geological basis for the well-known Steamboat Springs and analyzed the deposits left by the spewing water, material he found to be over 90 percent calcium carbonate. He also wrote, “the water has a pungent and disagreeable metallic taste.”

Soda Springs area in 1871.
Library of Congress, William Henry Jackson photo.
Not quite ten years after that, Oregon Trail pioneer Abigail Jane Scott [blog, July 29] wrote, “A half mile farther we came to the Steamboat Spring.  … it puffed to the highth one and two feet alternately but we are informed that at sun set it puffs to the highth of from six to ten feet. The water is impregnated with soda the same as the others, but it is much warmer than any that we had seen before.”

The Springs enjoyed a heyday as a genteel tourist destination after 1882, when the Oregon Short Line tracks entered the area. That waned in the 1920s. Much of the formation is now inundated by a reservoir, but Steamboat’s geothermal activity can still be seen boiling to the surface: The location is 2-3 miles west of the present town of Soda Springs.
References: [B&W]
H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1986).
John C. Fremont, Report Of The Exploring Expedition To The Rocky Mountains ..., The Senate Of The United States, Government Printing Office, Washington, DC. (1845).
Osborne Russell, Aubrey L. Haines (ed.), Journal of a Trapper, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1965).
Abigail Jane Scott, “Journal of a Trip to Oregon,” Covered Wagon Women, Vol. V, Kenneth L. Homes, David C. Duniway (eds.), University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1997).
Robert Stuart, Kenneth A. Spaulding (ed.), On The Oregon Trail: Robert Stuart’s Journey of Discovery, University of Oklahoma Press (1953).

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