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A Historic Journey Into Death Valley

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

When he was twelve years old Rogers Birnie stood on his porch listening to the sounds of battle thundering over the fields from the direction of Gettysburg, some dozen miles. What would have been an unforgettable experience for anyone proved more so for Rogers, steering him into a military career in ordnance, the design and testing of big guns. Though as a founder of the National Geographic Society, naturally he would pay his dues as an explorer along the way.

When Rogers graduated number one from West Point in 1872, he had his pick of assignments. Since the Point was an engineering school, the elite engineers generally got the cream of each year’s crop. But Rogers instead chose the Infantry, the Queen of Battle, and was assigned to the 13th Regiment, then stationed in the West, fighting the Indian Wars.

Those wars were in a smoldering phase when, later that year, Lieutenant Birnie arrived at Camp Douglas outside of Salt Lake City, which was little more than a collection of huts at this time. To the south the Utes and the Mormons had been fighting, and in neighboring states there had been sporadic outbursts of violence. But quiet Camp Douglas was located just off the newly-completed Transcontinental Railroad line, so perhaps the most interesting thing was that sooner or later the government-funded geographical surveys all passed through Salt Lake City.

The country to the north and east—Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado—was largely the domain of the “Geologic and Geographic Survey of the Territories,” called the “Hayden Survey” for short because led by geologist Ferdinand Hayden. To the west, running on a line from the Rockies to California, the Geologic and Geographic Survey of the 40th Parallel—or the “King Survey” because led by Clarence King—was nearing completion. To the South, the Geologic and Geographic Survey of the Rocky Mountain Area—the “Powell Survey,” so named for its magnetic, one-armed chief, Major John Wesley Powell—was mapping the Grand Canyon together with all the mysterious subsidiary canyons of the Colorado Plateau region.

These were largely civilian surveys, but the one that particular autumn that was fitting out near Salt Lake City and called itself the Geologic and Geographic Survey West of the 100th Meridian might have attracted more of Birnie’s attention, for it was mounted by the U.S. Army. Before the Civil War, the Army’s Topographical Engineers had led the exploration of the West. Now they were fighting simply to maintain a piece of the action. The “Wheeler Survey,” as this Army endeavor was called, was led by Lieutenant George M. Wheeler, and he galloped over practically half of the West in an attempt to outsurvey and outmap his competition. Since he also outfitted huge parties, he needed lots of soldiers to serve as leaders and escorts. And that might have been one reason that, in the fall of 1874, Birnie found himself detached from the 13th Infantry and ordered to join Wheeler and become an explorer.

One day during his first season with the Survey, the young lieutenant reigned in his horse and dismounted in a dusty spot in northwestern New Mexico. He might not have known that the ancient structures, covered in a heavy growth of sagebrush, were called Aztec Ruins, nor that it wasn’t the Aztecs who had built them but rather a mysterious people later called the Anasazi; but he could tell that they were very old indeed.

“The most extensive ruins met with were on the right bank of the Las Animas River, about twelve miles above its junction with the San Juan,” he wrote in a report for Wheeler’s official record. “I had been previously informed of this, my informant stating that he had counted 517 rooms in one pueblo. On visiting the ruins we found what had once been, apparently, quite a town, with two main buildings and numerous small ones about them.”

Carefully Birnie surveyed and scrutinized, measured and measured again. He observed everything with an engineer’s careful eye. Only “want of time prevented me from making measurements and obtaining much accurate data that I desired.” Nevertheless, his report, containing some of the first descriptions of certain of Aztec Ruins’ most prominent features, would be the most systematic assessment of the place for the next half century—a place destined, a century later, to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Into the Valley of Death …

In June 1875 Birnie led a survey party out of Los Angeles, over the San Gabriel Mountains, and following rail line, road, and trail crossed the Mojave Desert to the Panamint Mountains of Southeastern California. From the summit of their highest point, Telescope Peak, he could see in one glance the field of that season’s endeavors, from towering Mt. Whitney and the crest of the Sierras in the west to the dry, corrugated Great Basin in the east. In between, stepping down from west to east like a giant staircase, was a series of north-south ranges and valleys: the Owens Valley, the Inyo Mountains, the Panamint Valley, the Panamint Mountains, and off to the east the Aragosa Range, with such gloomy sounding names as the Funeral and Black Mountains, Last Chance Gulch, Furnace Creek, and Deadman Pass. For stretching between the Aragosas and Telescope Peak lay, shimmering with heat, 140 miles long but only 15 wide—one of the deepest gashes on the planet, the hell-hole called Death Valley. It was still what one prospector called a “ghastly sink,” strewn with “sun-dried mummies …of whom no trace or recollection is preserved.”

A full moon lingers over sunlit sand dunes in Death Valley's desolate landscape. Photo by David Alan Harvey, c. NGS.

After reaching the valley floor somewhere near a site later called Hungry Bill’s, the men turned north and, hugging the western slopes, camped for two days at Bennett Wells, which had barely palatable water. From there they ventured east and then south across the burning sands, trying with their barometers to determine the deepest point. (282 feet below sea level, but they missed that spot.)

The soaring walls hemmed them on every hand. The rocky ramparts were famous for their constantly changing palette of colors and tones. Also visible were the traces of ancient shorelines, for the basin had once been a lake. After the water had evaporated, it had left a crust of salt on the valley floor, interrupted here and there with huge alluvial fans of gravel, the remnants of rivers that had once flowed into the lake. Now the valley looked like the scorched surface of a dead planet.

The valley floor, however, was surprisingly marshy in places, almost impassably so. “We were compelled to leave our animals and make the rest of our journey on foot,” Birnie later reported, “sometimes sinking nearly to the knees in ash-colored mud beneath the salt.” In other places the ground was honeycombed, potholed really, with leg-shattering depressions. Then there were regions where it seemed to be baked flat and smooth. Wherever the men ventured, it was hot. Their thermometers once registered a temperature of 140 degrees Farenheit. Yet it didn’t feel hot, Birnie recalled, perhaps because of the ceaseless southerly breezes.

From Bennett Wells the detachment continued north along the western border of the valley floor, crossing to the northeast. Having spent a few days at Furnace Creek, named for the hot springs bubbling out infernally along its course, they climbed the valley’s nearly sheer eastern wall, the Aragosa Range, and then back down the other side into the Aragosa and Oasis Valleys. Though these lay above sea level they were scarcely less inhospitable desert than had been the Ghastly Sink. At one point the men rode 38 miles without a drop of water for themselves or a blade of grass for their animals. They barely got their animals across. One of them died, and others had been without water for 48 hours. One lesson Birnie always remembered about Death Valley: Don’t bring animals. There was never enough water for both animals and men.

By October, having climbed out of the lowest hole in the Western Hemisphere, they were standing on the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Lower Forty-eight, enjoying a “most grand and comprehensive view.” They had been out 143 days, triangulating 8,000 square miles of territory. Most importantly, Birnie’s resulting report on the Death Valley expedition was, according to writer and historian Edwin Corle, “the first authentic and scholarly account of [the region’s] climate, geography, flora, fauna, and geology.”

Though Birnie realized that leading exploring parties was not conducive to military advancement, he showed no interest in transferring to the Cavalry. Instead he put in for the Ordnance Corps, which meant guns, the bigger the better, and the really big guns weren’t out West, they were out East, in the coastal fortifications, pointing out to sea since the War of 1812.

It so happened that Frederick Dent Grant had been a cadet in the class ahead of him. So Birnie wrote to Grant’s father, who had a little influence with the Army, posting the letter to the White House.

“Pursuant to your Verbal directive to me on the 31st of July 1876,” he explained to the President, “that in the event of a vacancy in the Ordnance Department of the Army, I should write you personally of it, and you would appoint me to that vacancy, as I have already passed the examination required by law, such a vacancy having occurred I have taken the liberty to address you.”

All it took was a scrawled sentence—“I commend him as in every way willing and capable”—for the orders to come through. After one final season with Wheeler, he reported for duty at the War Department in Washington.

So it was that the 36-year old officer was in D.C. to attend a meeting to discuss whether or not it was worthwhile establishing a new scientific society in the capital, one devoted to the “increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.” After stepping into the Cosmos Club on the appointed evening—January 13, 1888—he found himself back among the circle of friends from his exploring days. Henry Henshaw, G.K. Gilbert, and the topographer Gilbert Thompson, all from the Wheeler Survey, were there. Two fellow officers were also present. One was General A.W. Greely, Chief of the Signal Corps, and the other was Captain Clarence Dutton who had served as geologist to Powell’s U.S. Geological Survey.

Birnie must have liked what he saw, because two weeks later his own name was among the fifteen listed as “Incorporators” of the new National Geographic Society. They were those willing to stand as legal representatives of what turned out to be a 165-member strong scientific society. The ordnance captain was also elected to the organization’s first board of managers, serving three consecutive terms.

However, his official duties would keep him occupied as an ordnance officer for U.S. troops stationed in Cuba, and later as a civilian adviser during World War I. His expertise was such that, General Leonard Wood, Army Chief of Staff between 1910-14, paid the departing ordnance expert a soldier’s accolade: “[T]he science of gun construction,” he said, “owes Colonel Birnie a lasting debt of gratitude. His rules and formulas are known by gun makers throughout the world.”

After the war, Rogers must have read with interest about Neil Judd’s archaeological work at Chaco Canyon in the pages of National Geographic and applauded the establishment of Death Valley National Monument.

View of an excavated section of Pueblo Bonito. Photo by Neil M. Judd published in the July 1923 National Geographic Magazine.

In 1937, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, President and Editor of the Society that Birnie had helped found nearly a half century earlier, invited the colonel over to the Society’s new 16th Street headquarters to help reconstitute the names of those who had first met that January evening in 1888. Together with a wizened Hart Merriam and a still spry Sam Gannett, they pooled their memories and came up with a list of names who would be canonized as the Society’s Founders.

Birnie lived long enough to see his grandson be admitted to West Point at the age of 16. But he did not live long enough to see him graduate number two in his class and become a noted general in his own right. Rogers Birnie, Jr., who had listened to the old single-cast guns thundering at Gettysburg in July 1863, died at 88 on September 25, 1939, three weeks after German Panzers and Stukas began attacking the Polish cavalry, triggering the Second World War.

Comments

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  2. [...] know better in the years ahead. Grove Karl Gilbert was fast becoming the nation’s star geologist. Rogers Birnie was a young West Pointer attached to the cavalry companies that accompanied the scientific parties, [...]