Desolation Thy Name is The Great Basin:

Clarence King's Fortieth Parallel Survey


William H. Goetzmann

University of Texas at Austin

A version of this paper is forthcoming in: Perpetual Mirage: The Arid West in Photographic Books and Prints, Whitney Museum Exhibition Catalogue, 1996.

Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882) was the earliest photographer of the real "Great American Desert". On two great post-Civil War Surveys of the arid West, O'Sullivan, with his mule powered ambulance and large wet plate camera, photographed the vast empty wastes of the Great Basin, Death Valley, the lower Grand Canyon, the Wasatch Range and the Uintas. He breathed the dust, drank the alkali water of desert pools, hobnobbed with miners in the underground landscapes of the Comstock Lode and nearly died of starvation and exposure in America's grandest canyon. His photographs much admired for their surrealistic, abstract qualities today reflected his own direct experience of these desolate lands, not some promoter of the photographic picturesque.

O'Sullivan began his western labors with Clarence King's United States Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel in 1867. King, a veteran of the earlier California Geological Survey, had scaled the Sierras and mapped and geologized what he called "the top of California". He became well-known in both literary and scientific circles as a bon vivant, a splendid writer, a connoisseur of the arts and a flamboyant adventurer. He also had a distinct talent for science, honed at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale. So bright and so well-connected was he that at the termination of the California Surveys, Sec. of War Edwin Stanton made him director of the Fortieth Parallel Surveys -- a much coveted assignment.

Timothy O'Sullivan was King's photographer for the years 1867, '68, and '69 as the Fortieth Parallel parties struggled across the Basin and Range country mapping and geologizing along a 100 mile swath of territory that encompassed the designated transcontinental railroad route from Nevada's Sierras to the Front Range of the Rockies. Later in 1871, '72, and '73 O'Sullivan became the photographer on Lt. George M. Wheeler's United States Geographical Survey West of the 100th Meridian. On both surveys he had assistants back in Washington developing his striking wet-plate negatives. Both survey leaders successfully introduced the camera as a tool to more accurately record geological formations. Photographs became an important aspect of visual discourse in science. In King's volumes photolithographs were the medium; Wheeler's volumes were illustrated by heliotypes.1

King's survey produced the most exciting scientific results. Between 1870 and 1880, King published seven large volumes that represented a landmark in sophisticated scientific work, including a volume, Mining Industry (1870), written with James D. Hague that described the latest in mining techniques and machinery. He also published Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh's Odontorniths: the Extinct Toothed Birds of North America (1880) which suggested, long before anybody else, what survived of the dinosaur life of the ancient Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras.

O'Sullivan's work appeared in three of King's final Reports- -Descriptive Geology (1877) by Arnold Hague and Samuel F. Emmons, Mining Industry, and King's own masterpiece Systematic Geology (1878).

Rather than flat description of the terrain, Systematic Geology encompassed nothing less than a history of western geology told in incredibly dramatic terms. King departed from Charles Lyell's uniformitarian gospel that changes in the earth and its creatures were invariably gradual. In the vast American West, King had found innumerable evidences of sudden changes or huge catastrophes not unlike the recent discovery of the collapse of a Pleistocene ice dam near Grand Coulee in the inland Northwest that shaped its entire geological contours.2 Today this mixture of uniformitaranism and catastrophism described by King is designated by geologists as "punctuated equilibrium".3

In his volume, King orchestrated an immense drama that saw mountains rising to "Himalayan" heights of 30,000 feet then sinking due to relatively rapid erosion during the entire Paleozoic period as mountain and lowland were reversed in what King referred to as "a distinctly catastrophic process analogous to that of modern faults".4 Huge inland seas resulted--the lofty Wasatch Mountains became an atoll in a billowing ocean that rose and fell leaving shallow seas and marshy shores where the Rockies now stand that fostered dinosaurs during the long Carboniferous and Mesozoic periods. Late in the Mesozoic came the Cretaceous era in which the seas turned shallow and then the Great Plains abruptly domed, obliterating what King called a "mediterranean ocean" on the present Great Plains as all the water drained off into the present Gulf of Mexico or toward the Pacific. At the end of the Cretaceous period, "a tremendous orographical disturbance" occurred.5 This era was followed by the Miocene and Pliocene periods characterized by volcanic activity and fractures and huge lava beds that King, in the jargon of his day, declared were tremendous exhibitions of "telluric energy". After each major era, according to King, "not a species remained".6 King pondered the causes of these abrupt changes for most of the rest of his life. For a brief time he believed in a theory of energy generated from the earth's core. Lord Kelvin's Laws of Thermodynamics seemed to confirm his theories. Then as they were gradually discredited with respect to the cooling of the earth, King's theory likewise faded. There is no doubt, however, that King's volumes were influential--even C.S. Peirce, America's foremost philosopher of science--was impressed by his theories. He considered them superior to those of Lyell.7

While he probed deeply into nature, King also presented his work in novel, even contrasting ways. He hired Civil War photographer Timothy O'Sullivan to photograph and hence scientifically "objectify" many of the important geological landscapes along the 40th parallel. Modeled somewhat after Josiah Dwight Whitney's Yosemite Book (1868) featuring fifty of Carleton E. Watkins' original photographs, King's final Reports were among the first American exploration books to feature the "realism" of photolithographs.

O'Sullivan made about 177 photographs for King's survey from 1867-1869. Of these seventeen appeared in Systematic Geology together with nine brilliantly colored chromolithographs from paintings by Gilbert Munger as if to add the dramatic picturesque to his grand story. All of this work was done by the famous lithographers Julius Bien and Co. of New York.

Descriptive Geology published the year before Systematic Geology under King's supervision, featured twenty-eight O'Sullivan photolithographs by Bien & Co., many of them more geologically meaningful than those in King's Systematic Geology. The "Horse Shoe Curve-Green River-Wyoming" (Plate I opp. p. 192) for example not only shows the great power of the Green River's erosion (a uniformitarian concept), but the massive uplifts and tiltings of the Mesozoic formations. Plate II "Summit Valley-Uinta Mountains" not only shows the river cutting down through many layers of sedimentary rock, but also clear evidences of faulting and fracturing and the immense "telluric energy" of the Miocene and Pliocene volcanic period.

By contrast, only a few of O'Sullivan's pictures in King's Systematic Geology stand out geologically, and then only subtly in relation to King's story. Plate XIII (opp. p. 338) "Eocene Bluffs--Green River--Wyoming" is a good example of the way in which O'Sullivan de-romanticized an extremely monumental site as exemplified in Gilbert Munger's chromolithograph in Plate XIV (opp. p. 390).

Munger, like Thomas Moran, William Henry Jackson and A. J. Russell captures the whole monumental sweep of this formation. O'Sullivan seems to say "a bluff is just a bluff"8. Close inspection, however, does reveal geological layering, uplifting, whole periods of aqueous sediment representing thousands of years, then, to the left, evidence of synclinal folding and on top a thick layer of brown sandstone. King felt that both O'Sullivan's laconic close-up and Munger's panoramic chromolithograph demonstrated geologic detail sufficiently.9

Another interesting photolithograph is Plate XXI (opp. p. 644) "Rhyolite Columns--Karnak--Montezuma Range--Nevada".

Here is an amazing organ pipe stack of crystalized volcanic rhyolite perhaps 100 feet high as suggested by the placement of the mammoth wet plate camera in the middle of the photograph. Clearly this is evidence of fracture, fire and telluric energy on a startling scale.

A third photolithograph "Pyramid and Tufa Domes--Pyramid--Lake Nevada", Pl. XXIII (opp. p. 514)

suggests the former existence of the great inland sea and the intrusive volcanic eruptions.

However in considering this classic volume King's omission of many of O'Sullivan's photographs presents a mystery. Knowing of the many striking pictures made by O'Sullivan while on King's survey--the wonderfully stark view of his photo wagon in the sand dunes of the Great Basin's Carson Desert, the nonchalant view of a man resting near some alkali springs in the desolate Ruby Valley of Nevada, his almost sinister view of a smoking volcanic fissure in that same Ruby Valley, his important, even majestic panorama of the twisted, uplifted folds of the Green River, done in 1868, his revealing "Cañon of the Colorado Near the Mouth of the San Juan River (1873) and even his pioneering views of the underground landscape of the Savage and Gould and Curry mines of the Comstock Lode, one has to wonder why they are all missing from King's lavishly illustrated volumes except for the frontispiece in Mining Industry.

Weston J. Naef and James Wood in Era of Exploration assert that, "O'Sullivan was directed by both King and the geologist S.F. Emmons to make photographs that provided evidence for King's theory of 'catastrophism' and Emmons's more sober principle of 'mechanical geology'--an outgrowth of King's thinking"10. There is no evidence for this in the relevant archival collections, and in fact, as mentioned above, King's theory was a combination of uniformitarianism and catastrophism. The O'Sullivan photographs utilized by King, together with their laconic captions, do little to especially highlight "catastrophism", but rather ongoing processes of sedimentary layering, erosion and only periodically volcanism and sudden crustal faulting. King's selection of illustrations however, did have occasional lapses. Surely in the interests of accuracy he would not have approved of Plate V (opp. p. 148)

a grossly inaccurate Munger chromo of Lodore Canyon with tipis and natives at home on an inaccessible ledge partway up the canyon wall embellished from one of O'Sullivan's more striking photographs that does not appear in the book. He must have known that whatever Indians lived thereabouts they did not live in plains Indians' tipis and yet he did not opt for the more accurate O'Sullivan photographic original in which no tipis appear!. O'Sullivan is justly acclaimed for his matter-of-fact realistic photography. This generally signaled a nonchalance toward the arid dimensions of the Fortieth Parallel. There was not much beauty in such a desolate and arid region. Certainly, in his photographs, he was not inviting friends to visit his lonely camps, nor do his photographs indicate much future for "development". On the contrary, O'Sullivan's photographs portray the extreme aridity, heat, boring terrain, day by day difficulties and a thoroughly non-mythical landscape.

But this contradiction between exploration's lonely difficulties and King's dandified, heroic ways was reflected in King's greatest work. Systematic Geology was a work of well informed, careful cutting edge sophisticated science, yet it was a grand romantic narrative punctuated by O'Sullivan's matter-of-fact photographs and Munger's sometimes garish and inaccurate chromolithographs. King himself could never make up his mind whether he wanted to be a scientist or a connoisseur of the arts ala John Ruskin. The contradictions therefore between O'Sullivan's "factual" photographs and Munger's colorful chromolithographs seem to reflect a "chromo civilization" fast giving way to the depressing realities of an industrial age which King in his Mining Industry and later extensive mining ventures helped to bring West.11


1. A heliotype transferred the negative onto a metal plate rather than onto a lithograph stone and hence was much sharper and clearer.

2. Michael Parfit, "The Floods That Carved the West", The Smithsonian, vol. 26, no. 1, (April. 1995) pp. 48-58.

3. Thurman Wilkins, Clarence King, rev. ed. (Albuquerque, New Mexico University Press, 1988) p. 221 fn.

4. Clarence King, Systematic Geology (Washington, Govt.

Printing Office, 1878), p. 732.

5. Ibid. p. 356.

6. William H. Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire (New York: Alfred Knopf & Co., 1966) pp. 462-64. as well as Ch. XII pp. 430-466 for a briefer chronicle of King's Survey.

7. Wilkins, p. 223. Also on p.206 Wilkins points out that King dictated his Systematic Geology to Edgar Beecher Bronson of the New York daily Tribune.

8. Weston J. Naef and James Wood, Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West 1860-1885 (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975) p. 135, declare that O'Sullivan's views were "among the least picturesque of all western landscape photographs".

9. King, op. cit. pp. 388-390.

10. Naef and Wood, op. cit. p. 57.

11. While on the Survey both King and J. D. Hague served as mining consultants. Josiah Dwight Whitney wrote "The King of Diamonds has all the work he can do now examining mines and...never charges less than $5,000 for looking..." Quoted in Wilkins, pp. 188-9.

Pictures for the Article

1. "Eocene Bluffs--Green River--Wyoming" Systemic Geology (opp. p. 388) [plate XIII]

2. Gilbert Munger, Chromolithograph of same scene, Systematic Geology, plate XIV (opp. p. 390)

3. Gilbert Munger, Chromolithograph "Uinta Range, Colorado, Cañon of Lodore", Systematic Geology, pl. V opp p. 148.

4. O'Sullivan, Canyon of Lodore, 1872, L.C. Rick Dingus, The Photographic Artifacts of Timothy O'Sullivan [Note this is photo view of 3 above]

5. Ryolite Columns-Karnak-Montezuma Range, Nevada 1867 NA or better photolithograph, pl. XXI, Systematic Geology opp p.644.

6. Pyramid and Tufa Domes-Pyramid Lake-Nevada, Systematic Geology, Pl. XXIII, opp. p. 514.