The Geologic Story of the Uinta Mountains

Bulletin 1291




The opening of the West after the Civil War greatly stimulated early geologic exploration west of the 100th Meridian. One of the areas first studied, the Uinta Mountains region, gained wide attention as a result of the explorations of three Territorial Surveys, one headed by John Wesley Powell, one by Clarence King, and one by Ferdinand V. Hayden. Completion of the Union Pacific Railroad across southern Wyoming 100 years ago, in 1869, materially assisted geologic exploration, and the railheads at Green River and Rock Springs greatly simplified the outfitting of expeditions into the mountains. The overlap of the Powell, King, and Hayden surveys in the Uinta Mountains led to efforts that were less concerted than competitive and not without acrimony. Many parts of the area were seen by all three parties at almost the same time. Duplication was inevitable, of course, but all three surveys contributed vast quantities of new knowledge to the storehouse of geology, and many now-basic concepts arose from their observations. Powell's area of interest extended mainly southward from the Uinta Mountains to the Grand Canyon, including the boundless plateaus and canyons of southern Utah and northern Arizona. King's survey extended eastward from the High Sierra in California to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and encompassed a swath of country more than 100 miles wide. Hayden's explorations covered an immense region of mountains and basins from Yellowstone Park in Wyoming southeast throughout most of Colorado. Powell first entered the Uinta Mountains in the fall of 1868, having traveled north around the east end of the range from the White River country to Green River, Wyoming, then south over a circuitous route to Flaming Gorge and Browns Park, and finally back to the White River, where he spent the winter. In 1869, after reexamining much of the area visited the previous season, Powell embarked on his famous 'first boat trip' down the Green and Colorado Rivers. This trip was more exploratory than scientific; his second, more scientific trip was made 2 years later. Powell revisited the Uinta Mountains in 1874 and 1875 to complete the studies begun 6 years earlier. His classic 'Report on the Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains and a Region of Country Adjacent Thereto' was published in 1876. King's survey?officially 'The United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel'?is better known simply as the '40th Parallel Survey.' King began working eastward from California in 1867. The Uinta Mountains region, however, was mapped by S. F. Emmons, under the supervision of King, in the summers of 1869 and 1871. Emmons' work was monumental, and although he emphasized in his letter of transmittal to King the exploratory nature of the work?as the formal title of the report indicates?his maps, descriptions, and conclusions reflect a comprehensive understanding of the country and its rocks. The 40th Parallel report contains the best, most complete early descriptions of the Uinta Mountains. It, indeed, is a treasurechest of information and a landmark contribution to the emerging science of geology. Hayden visited the Uinta Mountains in 1870, descending the valley of Henrys Fork to Flaming Gorge in the fall after having earlier examined the higher part of the range to the west. Most of Hayden's observations were cursory, and he repeatedly expressed regret at having insufficient time for more detailed studies. In reference to the area between Clay Basin and Browns Park, he remarked (Hayden, 1871, p. 67) somewhat dryly that 'the geology of this portion of the Uinta range is very complicated and interesting. To have solved the problem to my entire satisfaction would have required a week or two.' Eighty-odd years later I spent several months there?looking at the same rocks. Powell was perhaps more creative?more intuitive?than either King or Hayden, and his breadth of interest in the fields of geology, physiography, ethnology, an

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USGS Numbered Series
The Geologic Story of the Uinta Mountains
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U.S. Geological Survey
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U.S. Geological Survey
144 p