History 1800-1942

Early Exploration (1826-1859)

The first Euro-American exploration of the Utah area occurred in 1776 under Spanish rule. The Domingues-Escalante expedition out of Santa Fe was in search of a route to California which would avoid the Grand Canyon. They found the landscape of what is now known as Utah difficult to cross, and turned back before they came upon the vicinity of DPG.

The next recorded explorations into the region were largely completed by fur trappers and occurred while the area was under Mexican rule. While some of the trappers moved into the area which is now Tooele County, none crossed the desert until 1826.

In the early days of transcontinental travel, most parties crossing the desert opted for a more northerly route near the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake and then due west. This was known as the "Hastings Cutoff", which was pioneered by John Fremont in 1845 and recorded by Lanford Hastings in his Emigrant Guide. It was the route used by the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846. Overland immigration to California from the East on a grand scale began in the 1840s. Settlers and gold seekers traveling west with loaded wagons had a difficult time traveling through the mountain passes that surround DPG. Lacking roads, the pioneers dug slopes or grades through the mountain passes. Along the grades, they dug trenches, known as "dugways," for the uphill wagon wheels in order to keep the wheels level and keep the wagons from tipping.

The most important route through the Dugway area was established by Captain J.H. Simpson. His task was to find a better wagon road between Camp Floyd and Carson Sink in the present state of Nevada. Simpson established a route that ran along the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake from Salt Lake City, then headed through Tooele and Rush Valleys, then through the Wasatch Mountains at Johnson's Pass (then known as the Reynold's Pass), turned west at Simpson's Springs (then known as Pleasant Springs) to parallel the southern boundary of what is now DPG, and continued west. This route soon became the most popular route between Salt Lake City and California. It was virtually the same route adopted by the Pony Express and Overland Mail Company, the route followed by the first transcontinental telegraph, and the route eventually adopted by the Lincoln Highway Association for the first transcontinental automotive highway.

Old stone building that once served as a Pony Express station

Early Transcontinental Travel (1859-1869)

William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell established the Central Overland, California and Pike's Peak Express Company, after purchasing the contract for mail and transportation services east of Salt Lake City in 1859. Russell, Majors and Waddell planned to run a daily mail service and reduce the time needed to transport mail from coast to coast to just 9 or 10 days using a relay of horse riders: the "Pony Express."

After the decline of the Pony Express, the US Government contracted the route to the Overland Mail Company in 1861. The importance of the Central Overland route intensified with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Confederate forces established early control over the southern route to California and access to the wealth of California via the central route was key to the Union interest. Holladay ran a stage service for several years between Atchison, Kansas, and Placerville, California, gaining control over all other portions of the route leased to the Overland Mail Company by 1866.

None of the Central Overland Route stations were located within the present boundaries of DPG, although several stations were established directly to the south. These stations, from east to west, were Simpson Springs (named for surveyor J.H. Simpson, but was originally called "Pleasant Springs" by the Simpson Expedition), River Bed, Dugway, Black Rock, Fish Springs, Boyd, and Willow Springs. Remains of the station exist at Simpson Springs, Dugway, Fish Springs, Boyd, and Willow Springs (Pinkham and King, 1982). Simpson Springs is the closest of these stations to the base. Simpson Springs eventually became one of the most prominent stations in the West Desert due to the availability of excellent water. Simpson Springs was abandoned in 1869 following the collapse of the Overland Mail.

Settlement and Expansion (1869-1942)


There is little additional information specific to the early history of DPG lands. Major occupations were sheep and cattle ranching. There is some evidence that improvements were made by early sheep ranchers along the northern edge of DPG. The BLM records indicate one early homestead and several mining claims existed within the limits of DPG. The most intense homesteading activities occurred to the east of DPG and north and south of the area near the present DPG main gate.


Mining in the area reached its peak during the mid-1800s, with small discoveries of gold in the region, and had, for the most part concluded at the closing of the century. In 1984, archaeologists found a mining camp at the north end of Granite Peak on DPG which they believe dates to the end of the 19th century and represented a re-kindling of interest in gold mining at the tail end of the century.

Lincoln Highway

The story of developments in travel and communication in the vicinity of DPG continues with the construction of the Lincoln Highway in the early 20th century. The Lincoln Highway Association officially came into being on July 1, 1913.

Considerable political wrangling was involved in determining the route for the highway and in determining the states through which the route would pass. From Salt Lake City, the original route for the Lincoln Highway went through Tooele, Clover, over Johnson's Pass to Orr's Ranch (directly north of where the present DPG gate now stands), to a landmark designated "County Well" (on the east side of DPG, near Ditto Area), and then in a sweeping curve, approximated the route of the Pony Express and Overland Mail around the southern end of the desert to Dugway, Fish Springs and Callao). In 1915, a new route was proposed that would straighten out the curve at the south end of the Great Salt Desert and would shorten the distance between Granite Peak and Black Point, and in 1918 construction began on what became known as the "Goodyear cutoff".

More than half the Goodyear Cutoff (18 miles) was graveled in 1918, and the grade was entirely completed by the time the State stopped work on the route in favor of the Victory Highway to the north. Although the Highway Association attempted a lawsuit against the State for breach of contract, the State answered that it could not be sued without its consent. The Goodyear Cutoff remained unimproved and by the early 1920s the highway through DPG was virtually abandoned.

In 1925, the American Association of State Highway Officials started planning a federal highway system based on a numbering system. Named roads were assigned numbers, and approximately two-thirds of the Lincoln Highway became U.S. 30. By 1927, the Lincoln Highway Association had virtually ceased to exist, and in 1935, it was officially dissolved.

For a more detailed look at the history of Dugway Proving Ground, see the links below.


HISTORY 1800-1942 1942-1945 1945-1950 1950-1963 1963-1972 1972-1989