The watery curse of Utah Judge Orson Hyde
October 12, 2005
By Mark McLaughlinIt’s that time of year again and many people are wondering what this winter may have in store. As a weather historian, I don’t walk that plank, but the National Weather Service long-range climate outlook suggests equal chances for average precipitation in our region, and a slightly better than even chance of temperatures a bit warmer than normal. Since sensors indicate no significant warming or cooling in Pacific Ocean seas surface temperatures (ENSO) this year, the long-range forecast is a roll of the dice; equal chances of below, normal, or above average precipitation. But you don’t have to be a weather prophet to realize that because precipitation in 2004-05 was nearly 150 percent of normal, the odds favor this season being drier than last year.The devastating floods of Hurricane Katrina serve to remind us that nature can sometimes wield incredible power, an important lesson for those of us in the Truckee River Basin. The Truckee is a volatile river and prone to serious flooding. Over the last 150 years, there have been 20 major floods, which means statistically we can expect a serious flood along the Truckee River about every decade or so. It’s been nine years since the $650 million New Year’s Flood of 1997 and the clock is always ticking. Many cultures embrace the myth of a “Great Flood.” In some countries, the story reveals the natural cycles of earth or the creation of life. Other ancient tales speak of a wise and powerful creature that saves the people. Some cultures believed the primeval flood punishment for the wicked behavior of humans on earth. But no matter how tragic the devastation, all the myths end with hope and the continuation of life, even after disaster.
Orson HydePersonally, I believe that our own regional flood problems date back 143 years, to 1862 and the Curse of Orson Hyde.The story actually begins in 1850 when Congress established the Utah Territory, comprising what is now the State of Utah, most of Nevada, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, became the first territorial governor and dispatched Mormon settlers throughout the new territory. His religious converts established the first farming operations and trading posts in the region.In the spring of 1851, John Reese, Stephen Kinsey and 14 others arrived on the Carson River with 10 wagons full of flour, butter, eggs and other supplies. There were no permanent settlers in the Carson Valley, but six miners were already digging in nearby Gold Canyon when Reese showed-up. Twelve of Reese’s companions caught gold fever, quit the wagon train and joined the miners searching for nuggets. Teamster James Fenimore, later know as “Old Virginia” and folk namesake of Virginia City, was one of them.Looking for land, not gold, Kinsey explored the head of the Carson Valley near present-day Genoa and decided that area best for a trading post and settlement. Previously named “Mormon Station,” for a failed settlement attempt in 1849-50, there was now no trace or ruin. Indians had torched the few shacks constructed in the effort.In order to protect themselves against attack by Indians or renegade whites, the Mormon emigrants built a two-story store and hotel, and enclosed it all within a sturdy 12-foot-high stockade. They planted crops and gardens that flourished in the bright sun and rich soil. Within a short time, business was thriving at Mormon Station. Thus commenced in 1851 the first permanent settlement in western Utah. Life was quiet and prosperous for both religious and secular settlers until 1855, when Salt Lake’s government regulations blew in like a tempestuous Washoe Zephyr.
Hyde’s wayThe blast of hot air took form primarily in the fiery tongue of Orson Hyde, a stern Mormon elder and now Carson’s first duly appointed probate judge.Polygamist Judge Hyde, accompanied by his fourth wife, led a column of 35 fellow missionaries on horseback into Carson Valley. Their arrival greatly increased the Mormon presence. He had come to organize the district into a county under the laws of Utah, which included polygamy. Stately and aloof, Orson Hyde quickly called an election to fill those all-important county offices such as sheriff, constable, prosecuting attorney and tax collector. Most of the newly elected officers were Mormon, but not all of them were suited for their position. Nicholas Ambrosia, elected justice of the peace, could not write and signed his letters with an X. Ironically, the only qualification necessary for a person to practice law in Utah, was the possession of a “good moral character.” In 1857, the Mormon faithful were recalled to Salt Lake to defend the city against military action by United States government troops. Judge Hyde and his followers had built a sawmill in Washoe Valley, made and purchased several land claims and significantly improved these properties. They tried to sell this real estate to the secular pioneers remaining in the valley, but no one would pay. One property worth $10,000 was rented to Jacob Rose for a limited term, at a stipulated price. As a small down payment, Rose gave Judge Hyde “two indifferent mules, an old worn-out harness, two yokes of oxen, and an old wagon.”
Five years later there had been no additional payments. Orson Hyde, now living in Salt Lake City, felt ripped off by the squatters who had freely taken over the Mormon homes and crops. In his rage, he put a terrible curse on the Carson and Washoe valleys – as well as the Sacramento Valley for good measure. In a public letter addressed to the people of western Nevada, Hyde said he had been waiting for a sign from God on how to punish those who had wronged the Mormons. Accusing the settlers with crimes of abomination, drunkenness and corruption, he quoted from the bible and wrote, “You shall be visited of the Lord of Hosts with thunder and with earthquakes with floods…” He added, “God is now beginning to deal with the inhabitants of the earth for the wrongs which they have done unto his people, and for rejecting his authority and counsel, given forth from Heaven through the Mormons.” His scathing indictment, dated Jan. 27, 1862, was compelling at the time. The Carson, Washoe and Sacramento Valleys were all under deep water; the result of heavy rain melting the mountain snowpack. The overflowing Truckee, Carson, and Walker Rivers had devastated western Nevada, while runoff from the Sierra west slope had transformed the Sacramento Valley into a vast inland sea.Hyde’s Curse and our region’s volatile flood pattern may not be linked, but myth or no myth, climatologically, the next flood is just around the corner.Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.