The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1976, Volume 22, Number 4
James E. Moss, Editor
Thomas L. Scharf, Assistant Editor


Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor

A Trace of Desert Waters: The Great Basin Story. By Samuel G. Houghton. Glendale: Arthur Clark, 1976. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Glossary. Index. 287 pages. $17.75.

Reviewed by Lawrence B. Lee, Professor of History, San Jose State University.

The author’s statement in the preface that “any place, unspoiled can be worth knowing intimately,” explains the genesis of The Great Basin Story. He wants to impart to others his appreciation for this arid physiographic region stretching from the Sierra Nevada on the west to the Wasatch Mountains on the east. Houghton is not a professional physical scientist, anthropologist or historian, but his outstanding talents as writer and popularizer of these disciplines serve his purpose admirably. One is impressed also with his fine attention for detail as though he might have covered every square mile of much of this vast and sometimes forbidding land during his half a lifetime residence there.

Essentially the book is historical geography, organized according to hydrological subdivisions for the entire region. The intimate knowledge he wishes to convey centers about the role of water over a geological time span of some 75,000 years in its effects upon this region of interior drainage. His geology is not that of tectonic crustal upheavals. Rather, it is concerned with climatic changes and the effects of erosion and the presence of water on the landscape, the biotic community and man’s cultural development in the area. Embarrassed by today’s mere trace of water in this realm he plainly favors the so-called pluval period when Lakes Lahontan, Bonneville, Manly, etc. dominated these hydrological basins. For the reader this search for water, however, is often lost sight of in the mass of unreliable detail which can at times sober the most earnest student.

The book has another purpose which transcends mere description, for Houghton is deeply concerned with retaining the unspoiled character of this natural environment. He firmly believes that “we have a debt and duty to posterity” to preserve the rare and elusive qualities of the Great Basin living space. He is no environmentalist, however, as he recognizes the fact of Sun Belt-directed population build-up. Much the best part of the work is the concluding chapter where he examines systematically the alternatives by which a fragile desert environment can accommodate to these rising human tides. Interestingly, he seems to approve of water importation from as far away as Alaska and Canada but regrets Los Angeles’ preemption of the Owens Valley stream so many years ago. He would mount a crusade against the depredations to the desert created by motorcycles and off-road vehicles. Ultimately population control must be the answer to save this desert environment whose many enticing qualities evoke his ecstatic response.

Just as the Great Basin Story really is many stories, those relating to the five separate hydrological basins, for instance, so this book appeals to many types of readers, especially nature lovers and antiquarians. For the traveller the book can serve as a more profound and up-dated WPA Guidebook to little known regions. Note is taken of the surviving pupfish in briny Death Valley streams, the only surviving glacier in the Great Basin beneath the summit of Wheeler Peak near Lehman Cave national monument in Nevada, Red Rock Pass near Downey, Idaho, where Lake Bonneville at its maximum spilled over into the Snake and Columbia river watershed. The student of history will gain new perspectives as the routes of the explorers: Dominguez, Escalante, Garces, Smith, Walker, Fremont, Simpson are traced on the landscape and some trails broaden out into wagon roads and rail routes to open up the mining, grazing, agricultural and industrial exploitation of Great Basin resources.

The author also has a didactic penchant which provides the reader with discursive but valuable accounts of the science of soil stratigraphy, carbon and other dating techniques, the value scaling of multiple purpose water usage and the provenance of artifacts in anthropological digs, for example. This handsome volume is encyclopedic in its wealth of information made eminently useful through a valuable index, glossary and maps.