Historic California Posts, Camps,
Stations and Airfields
Fort Soda Lake, and Camp Soda Springs)
This desert camp, variously
named for the dry soda lake in its vicinity, was first established
south of Baker, San Bernardino County, in the spring of 1860
by men of the 1st Dragoons and called Hancock's Redoubt. Latter,
in the spring of 1867, an outpost was maintained there for a
few weeks. Then, beginning on August 21, 1867, the site was manned
almost continuously as an outpost of Camp Cady, 35 miles distant, until May 23, 1868, when it
was abandoned by the Army permanently.
by Colonel Herbert
M. Hart, USMC (retired)
Council on America's Military Past
Things at Soda Lake almost
got out of hand back in 1863, but "prompt action and determined
manner convinced the Indians they had picked the wrong set of
This was in the interim
period between Army posts at what an Army inspection termed "a
dried up lake, or sea, whose salts of soda efforesce and whiten
the ground like snow for miles in every direction."
In 1860 it had been the
site of Hancock Redoubt, a series of breastworks and corrals
constructed to protect travelers on the Government Road. It was
35 miles from Camp Cady, the nearest post to the west, and 75
to Fort Beale in the Piute Mountains to the east.
After 1860 most of the
posts were not manned, an encouraging situation as far as the
Indians were concerned. The scene was set for them, they figured,
on July 30, 1863, when a band spotted two government teams with
wagons at Soda Lake. The teams were bringing potatoes to Fort
"The Indians demanded
flour and tobacco as the price of peace," the commander
at Fort Mojave reported. "Not having these articles supplied
them, they commenced climbing into the wagons to help themselves,
when the men with the teams seized their muskets, drove them
from the wagons, and their prompt and determined manner induced
Indians to lay down their bows and arrows and forego not only
the above-mentioned luxuries, but the luxury of a fight also."
Apparently the natives
had forgotten the lesson administered to them at Soda Lake three
That was during the period
of construction of so-called "Fort Soda." While Carleton
and his men devoted their main effort to building Camp Cady,
a detachment was sent to locate the Indians believed to be in
the vicinity of Soda Lake.
Here, in their temporary
homes from which they could plunder and ambush travelers, the
Indians were surprised by an Army patrol. A desperate battle
followed in which the scales of victory tipped to the Army because
of the primitive weapons used by the tribe. The Indian casualties
were three killed, one seriously wounded, and one woman prisoner.
Not long afterward, the Indians asked for a truce.
Hancock Redoubt did not remain in action long after that. Less
than a month later, the post was abandoned. It had been intended
only as an overnight camp although an officer with the Boundary
Commission credited it with a higher stature. "There is
a small fort at the sink of the Mojave and another 35 miles above
known as Camp Cady, neither of them are garrisoned. They have
both been constructed of mud and willow brush and a half dozen
resolute men could hold them against all of the Indians combined
inhabiting the Great American Desert," he said.
"I am told they
were built to afford shelter to small parties of whites traveling
through the country who were apprehensive of Indian activities,"
he added, "but it would seem to me that a party of Indians
meditating on attack would have the sagacity to occupy the fort
When the posts were reopened
in 1867, Hancock Redoubt became Fort Soda or Camp Soda Springs.
The name is uncertain because it never got into official records.
It served in anonymity.
One of its most serious
incidents occurred in 1867 when an Army ambulance was jumped
by 15 Indians between Soda Lake and Camp Cady. The first shots
dropped the escort's horse. The soldier jumped into the ambulance
and it broke out for Soda Lake after an hour's fight.
Despite the heavy fire
being conducted out the rear of the ambulance, the Indians kept
up the pursuit. Every likely ambush spot was manned to Fort Soda,
but the ambulance got through. A surgeon who was a passenger
in the vehicle was fatally wounded in the fight. He lived only
long enough at the fort to write a final letter.
Incidents of another caliber
highlighted the history of this short-time post. During the period
when the chain of redoubts were being abandoned, the officer
in charge at Fort Soda had to report that a private had deserted,
"taking the best horse at the post." The horse was
not given a chance to prove himself, apparently, because the
private was caught a few months later. He had turned gold miner
and had located himself at Eldorado Canyon. He didn't know that
the same unit provided men for the Mojave Desert forts and various
Nevada camps ... including Eldorado Canyon, only a few miles
upriver from Fort Mojave.
TO GET THERE: Soda Springs and Soda Lake show on the Soda Lake
1:62,500 Quadrant. From Baker, go west six miles on U.S. 91.
Turn on Road 466 to the south. In five miles, turn in to Zzyzx
Springs, formerly privately-owned non-profit health and rest
resort and now the Desert Research Center of the Fullerton State
University. This is only fort along chain which is convenient
The guardhouse's original
walls can be detected for first couple of feet above ground.
Original construction was without mortar, but was so solid that
it could be built upon with only minor improvement. Unchinked
portion of walls is original part; obviously roofs, window, and
painted area are new. Building now serves as dining room for
California State University Fullerton's Desert Research Center.
Soda lake from Fort Soda
was described in 1866 by Army Inspector Rusling as "a vast
basin, rimmed around with desolate hills and mountains, and during
the rainy season a considerable body of water, indeed, collects
here. Soon, however, evaporation does its work, and the lake
proper subsides to little or nothing, worth speaking of. When
we were there, it was said to be 20 miles long, by four or five
wide, though of course everything very marshy or shallow."
This was before Fort Soda was re-established and "there
was no house or even but there; no person or living thing; and
what with the heat, and glare, and awful desolation-I think it
was about the most wretched and miserable day I spent everywhere."
Rusling suggested situation was complicated by presence of Indian
fires in hills during night, suggesting possibility of attack.
Even more so, he noted that a rattlesnake had crawled into blankets
of member of party, causing uproar when owner arose in morning.
"After this," Rusling added, "we usually retired
with all our clothes and tallest boots on." This view is
across Soda Lake toward Cow hole and Old Dad Mountains and Devil's
Playground. In 1871 officer's wife passed here, wrote, "I
had no idea that such a forlorn district was comprised within
the limits of the United States . . . We traveled 18 miles through
deep sand, which is the hardest thing imaginable on the poor
mules, for their feet being very small sink deep in, the last
few miles being through choking dust." Lake was last full
in 1937 when it flooded entire area.
Fort Soda may have looked
like this, based on ground remains. Stone buildings were used
by travelers in years after Army left, then by German chemical
company in 1910's. Company rebuilt buildings so that modern inspection
of site cannot be certain whether buildings date from that period
or earlier. Layout and building identifications are based on
local legend. Site is 930 feet above sea level, quite a drop
from 5079 feet only 42 miles to east near Rock Springs. (Drawn
from a 1964 inspection of ground remains.)
This page was
reprinted with permission from Old Forts of the Far West,
published in 1965
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