If a pin were dropped in the center of a topographic map of Nevada, it would land amidst a series of low mountain ranges, running roughly north and south. The ranges ripple towards the eastern border of the state, forming an arrangement that looks like a furrowed brow. In 1878, Charles Sprague Sargent, the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, embarked for these arid mountains in what would be the first non-local plant collecting expedition by an Arboretum staff member. Sargent found forests within this area that appeared “scanty and stunted.” He counted only seven tree species, of which the single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophyla) and Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma, then considered J. californica var. utahensis) were the most abundant. Despite the limited diversity, Sargent was impressed with the trees for their resilience and age. Some, he estimated, were eight hundred years old, if not older.

Sargent began this botanical reconnaissance near the town of Eureka, a silver-mining community located roughly in the center of the state. In 1869, the town consisted of one or two cabins, but by the time Sargent arrived, nine years later, it had grown into the second largest town in the state, with a population, according to boosters, that neared seven thousand. The town boasted a new brick hotel, an opera house that could seat five hundred, two banks, four churches, three newspapers, and, most importantly, sixteen furnaces for smelting silver ore. All of this—along with Sargent’s arrival—was facilitated with a narrow-gauge railroad, completed in 1875, which connected Eureka with the town of Palisade, about eighty-five miles to the north. Those tracks, in turn, were made practical by the Pacific Railroad, completed in 1869, which carved its way through Palisade. The Pacific Railroad—composed of the Central Pacific to the west and the Union Pacific to the east—was the first railroad to span the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains, connecting San Francisco with Omaha and cities beyond.

To Sargent, railroad transportation would have seemed ordinary. After all, his father, a banking president named Ignatius Sargent, had been on the board of directors for several New England railroad companies since 1849, and in 1880, Charles would assume his father’s membership on one of these boards—the Boston and Albany Railroad—and would continue in that capacity through 1900. Railroads were in the family. Yet when Sargent headed for Nevada, the Pacific Railroad was less than a decade old, and the railroad was just beginning to redefine botanical possibilities in the western United States. Sargent, himself, described his expedition as a “hurried journey,” suggesting how remote landscapes had been rendered newly accessible. Unlike botanical explorations that occurred in Nevada before the ceremonial golden spike was driven on May 10, 1869—the date when transcontinental rail passage was inaugurated—Sargent’s field research could be conducted in the matter of two weeks (rather than months or years), with the subsequent research publication written in the comfort of Boston and Brookline.

By Horse and by Foot

In 1955, Susan Delano McKelvey, an Arboretum botanist, published an eleven-hundred-page tome on early botany of the western United States, titled Botanical Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West: 1790–1850. According to McKelvey, an Englishman named Joseph Burke was one of the first scientifically trained botanist to make observations in central Nevada. Burke spent thirty-eight months in the western United States, beginning in the spring of 1844, and he crossed Nevada in the summer of 1846. His account of the Nevada landscape provides scant details, however, because when that portion of the expedition ended at Fort Walla Walla, in southern Washington, he received two overdue letters from William Jackson Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who was the primary sponsor for the trip. The second letter informed Burke that his funding had been halted due to Hooker’s dissatisfaction with the amount of collections Burke had provided. Burke defended his record in a long response letter, noting several shipments of seed—the most recent of which had been sent “across the mountains by the express” and herbarium specimens that had been sent for a ship in Vancouver. Burke then resigned from the expedition. “I think, Sir William, it is a very hard case if a collector is sent from the Royal Botanic Gardens to a country where he cannot send his collections by any means by the time mentioned in your letters,” he wrote. “I trust, Sir William, you will forgive my retiring from the service without waiting an answer, as it would be two years or upwards before I could receive one.” It would, in fact, take fourteen months for his letter to arrive on Hooker’s desk. So, Burke’s estimate was realistic, and without the guarantee of money and supplies in the meantime, his explorations could not continue. He returned home.

McKelvey, for her part, felt that Hooker was unfair to Burke, noting the physical rigor associated with backcountry botanical expeditions, where botanists were responsible for travelling with packages of seeds and herbarium specimens—not to mention food and supplies—for weeks if not months on end. “To work one’s way thus encumbered through a pathless wilderness of swamps, undergrowth or fallen timber, up and down ravines, across creeks and rivers, in fair weather or in, veritably, foul or to traverse for days on end waterless deserts in horrible heat and permeating dust, was exhausting work, and the collector was not chosen because he was qualified as a Paul Bunyan,” McKelvey writes. She goes on to narrate the evening routine botanists were generally obligated to undertake: stopping for camp, building a fire to prepare food and stay warm (even in the desert), and then arranging the daily collections of plant clippings between layers of paper and pressing them tight. Often, too, given that the papers used for herbarium specimens were prone to become damp or wet throughout the course of a trip, the botanist would need to regularly redo older specimens, transferring them to drier papers, in order to prevent mildew. Plant collecting was (and still is) physically demanding.

These routines would have certainly applied to Burke, although it is unclear how many botanical collections Burke made in Nevada. He travelled across the state with a group of settlers that were following a newly blazed trail for Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The team consisted of twenty-four individuals and several wagons, and it took nearly seven weeks for them to pass between Fort Hall, on the Oregon Trail, and the Willamette. Burke wrote little about Nevada, but he noted that when the team passed through the northwestern corner of the state, a landscape now known as the Black Rock Desert, it was the “most miserable volcanic region, with many boiling springs.” He recorded nothing of botanical interest until spotting an expanse of California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), which decorated a recently burned river valley with papery orange flowers, in southwestern Oregon. The poppy was “a very shy fruiter,” he wrote, as was the golden chinquapin (Castanopsis chrysophylla) that he encountered several days later. When they arrived at the Willamette farmstead where the leader of the wagon train lived, the whole team heaved with exhaustion, horses and humans alike. Burke rested three days and then continued to Oregon City—south of Portland. His horses “nearly drowned” while swimming a creek on the way (presumably soaking any herbarium specimens that he had collected), and it would take him another two weeks to reach Fort Walla Walla, where his resignation letter was ultimately penned.

Over the three decades that separated Burke from Sargent, other botanists passed through northern and central Nevada, and the most detailed observations were rendered by Sereno Watson, who would later become the curator of the Gray Herbarium and Library at Harvard. Watson embarked, in 1868 and 1869, as the lead botanist on two of six field seasons by a geological team surveying the fortieth parallel between California and the Great Plains. Watson’s first season focused primarily on central Nevada, the second on Utah—almost entirely within the self-contained watershed of the Great Basin. The region was of interest for the survey (which had begun in 1867) because no accurate maps existed and because the federal government was intent on cataloguing the natural resources along the projected path of the Pacific Railroad.

Watson began at Carson City, Nevada, in April 1868, moving east on an indirect path. The purpose of the survey was thoroughness rather than speed, and the team spent a full six weeks working from a basecamp at Fort Ruby, about seventy miles northeast of the prospecting encampment at Eureka (of which Watson makes no mention). From Fort Ruby, explorations were made in the surrounding mountain ranges and valleys. Watson observed several locations where relatively sizeable conifers could be found, including limber pine (Pinus flexilis), growing in the East Humboldt Mountains, with individuals sometimes (though rarely) reaching fifty feet high.

Although Watson documented his findings in incredible detail, he wrote little about the comforts or difficulties of travelling with the survey team, and he said nothing about the logistics of offloading herbarium specimens for shipment. Nevertheless, had his months in Nevada occurred even one year later, the realities of the railroad would have begun to reshape these considerations. By 1868, railroad workers had already begun to lay tracks across Nevada, and in 1869, these tracks were operational. Therefore, Watson’s study marked an important moment: not only had it resulted in the most detailed account of the flora of central Nevada published to date but it also represented the final botanical study in the region before the landscape was bound into the national infrastructure of steel tracks and steam locomotion. Geologists on the survey would subsequently comment about strata and fossils observed at railroad cuts, indicating how the presence of the railroad became ingrained in the researchers’ world.

Botanical Space

Given that Watson and Sargent would become Harvard colleagues, the men must have conferred about the flora and landscape of central Nevada while Sargent was making travel preparation in 1878. Yet Sargent also saw his trip as a follow-up to an expedition the previous summer by Asa Gray—the preeminent Harvard botanist—and Joseph Dalton Hooker, the English botanist who had assumed his father’s role as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. When Sargent returned from his trip, he sent Hooker a letter recounting his findings in detail, noting that he expected Hooker would remember the Palisade station on the railroad. Sargent continued south to Eureka, whereas Hooker and Gray continued riding the Pacific Railroad to Carson City. Yet the implications of Hooker’s presence in this region is significant, given that thirty-one years before, Joseph Burke was passing through this exact same stretch—then remote and without a defined wagon route—under the direction of Hooker’s father. The son, acting in the same official capacity as director of Kew, was making a passage that his father had commissioned another to make.

McKelvey stresses the power dynamics that were often at play between collectors and the individuals who sponsored their trips. She notes that few of the botanists considered in her book—individuals working in the western United States before 1850—were engaging in their own independent research. “By far the greater number went at the behest of professional botanists living in proximity to the essentials of herbaria and libraries, and in distinction to their emissaries, amid safe and comfortable surroundings,” McKelvey writes. “The backers of the scheme—often called ‘closet botanists’ for the reason that, working in offices, they may never have seen the living plants which they described—were engaged for the most part in descriptive botany, writing botanical papers or compiling floras of small or large scope.” While Joseph Hooker began his early career with an expedition to Antarctica (and the surrounding islands) and then another to India, those two expeditions collectively required more than seven years abroad. The fact, therefore, that Hooker could now spend scarcely three months travelling from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast of the United States and back was a radical convenience. Instead of sending an explorer with youthful enthusiasm and resilience—someone like Burke—Hooker himself could go, even as a sixty-year-old and even as the director of a major botanical institution.

For Gray, this was a second trip on the Pacific Railroad; the first was in 1872. Gray’s wife, Jane Loring Gray, accompanied him on both trips, and she would later recall him racing into the landscape at short station stops, collecting whatever he could find. This caused considerable intrigue for fellow passengers, who then gathered around to watch Gray prepare his herbarium specimens. Eventually others began to collect plants as well, bringing them to Gray for identification and causing exasperation for the conductor. It took them a day to cross Nevada, where Gray noted the snaking green vegetation along the Humboldt River. In a letter to his friend Richard William Church, Gray described the whole experience with exceptional enthusiasm. “There were fatigues and small discomforts, of course, but these are all forgotten long ago, and the whole transit dwells in memory as one continual and delightful piece of pleasant, novel, ever-varied, and instructive sight-seeing,” he wrote. “Of course, the identifying at sight, as we flew by, of flowers new to me in the living state, and the snatching at halts, and the physical features of districts which I had always been interested in, and knew much about but had never seen, all gave me occupation and continual pleasure.”

Sepia-colored photo of seated individuals sitting in front of pitched canvas tent
Harvard botanist Asa Gray rests at La Veta Pass, Colorado, holding an herbarium press (foreground), with Kew’s Joseph Hooker at his side (seated at left). Jane Loring Gray wears a light-colored coat at the table behind. This 1877 expedition continued to California using the Pacific Railroad. Courtesy of the Asa Gray Herbarium

In this way, the Pacific Railroad was beginning to reshape botanical space in the western United States. By the time the Grays made their rail passage in 1872, five hundred miles through the Great Basin no longer meant the same thing that it had with Watson’s expedition a mere four years before, let alone more than two decades before with Burke. While botanical explorations in the region could still be physical and immersive, the work was conducted with two steel lifelines to urban centers. Herbarium specimens no longer needed to be transported for weeks or months before reaching a shipping location. While Sargent and other leading botanists would continue to enlist field collectors to work in the western United States, the power and money associated with collecting along these railroad axes had been forever transformed.

Botanical Limits

Certainly, the Pacific Railroad did not uniformly influence botanical space in the western United States, and in summer of 1883, Sargent would participate in a geological survey associated with the installation of the Northern Pacific Railroad that connected Tacoma, Washington, with St. Paul, Minnesota. Although he was gone less than two months, that expedition was rife with peril, including two instances where pack animals slipped and fell precipitously. (In the second case, the horse fell fifteen hundred feet, carrying Sargent’s plant collections and the team’s guns.) Yet Sargent, like others, quickly understood that it wasn’t just botanists that would be benefit from this reconfiguration of space along the railroads. The power to study these landscapes came with the simultaneous power to exploit the resources found therein. Both processes could be conducted at an unprecedented rate.

In 1878, after Sargent arrived in Eureka, he obtained a wagon and continued southwest for about seventy-five miles, exploring the Monitor Range, which reaches points well over ten thousand feet above sea level. He then continued to Carson City, from which he proceeded into California. During his two weeks in Nevada, he collected a considerable amount of seed, which he planned to introduce into garden cultivation. Meanwhile, he became increasingly attuned to the risks facing these unassuming and hardscrabble forests. Wood of the Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) was widely harvested for cheap fuel, given that it was the only tree found abundantly at lower elevations. (Its wood even powered the steam locomotive on the Eureka and Palisade Railroad.) Other tree species were harvested for lumber, charcoal, and even bearings for machinery.

Most striking, however, were his observations of the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva, then considered P. balfouriana). He found several specimens, growing between fifteen and thirty feet tall, on a mountain near Eureka. “Formerly the whole summit of this mountain was very generally covered with this species,” he wrote, “but with few exceptions the trees have all been cut to supply the mines with timbering, for which purpose the strong and very close-grained, tough wood of this species is preferred to that of any other Nevada tree.” Sargent didn’t estimate the age of these trees or count the tightly packed growth rings, but in California, this species is now known to reach more than five thousand years old. On the same mountain, Sargent observed a curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius)—a small tree in the rose family (Rosaceae)—and he suggested that plant was least 890 years old, if not much older. “It is perhaps permissible to suppose that the seed which produced this little tree had already germinated when the oldest living Sequoia on the continent was still a vigorous sapling with its bi-centennial anniversary still before it,” Sargent wrote.

Sargent suspected that someone travelling across the Great Basin on the Pacific Railroad would perceive a landscape that was essentially “destitute of trees,” much like the prairies to the east. Yet he came to recognize the “immense value” of the forests, no matter how diminutive. “It will have been seen that the forests of Nevada, consisting of a few species adapted to struggle with adverse conditions of soil and climate, are of immense age, and that the dwarfed and scattered individuals which compose them reach maturity only after centuries of exceedingly slow growth,” he wrote. “On this account, and because, if once destroyed, the want of moisture will forever prevent their restoration, either naturally or by the hand of man, public attention should be turned to the importance of preserving, before it is too late, some portions of these forests.” He proposed that the federal government should step in to preserve the remaining woodlands, warning that “terrible destruction” would occur otherwise. (About three decades later, the Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest was established, protecting vast swaths of these non-contiguous mountain forests.) In this sense, Sargent’s railroad-powered expedition allowed him to articulate the finite limits of botanical space. Forests that were once remote and practically inaccessible for a Bostonian like Sargent were now mere days away, and their future, as a result, seemed ever more precarious.


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Citation: Damery, J. 2019. Hurried journey: Botany by rail. Arnoldia, 76(3): 34–39.

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Jonathan Damery is the associate editor of Arnoldia.