September 14, 1862: Mount Shasta City
Mount Shasta is about 14,500 feet high—the precise height we cannot yet give. It is higher than any mountain in Switzerland and only 1,200 feet less than Mont Blanc. Yet it lacks the grandeur of the Swiss Alps, and it is entirely destitute of many of the elements of beauty that they possess. In this dry climate, where there is no rain during the summer—although immense quantities of snow fall on it in the winter—no glaciers form. Much of it is so steep that the snow blows or slides off, and at this time in the year the snow lies only in patches and streaks over the upper seven thousand feet.
In a rainy country these bare patches would be more or less clothed with alpine plants, and streams of water would come down the sides everywhere. Not so here. The waters of the melting snows are drunk up and absorbed by the porous lava rock of the mountain, so its watercourses are dry. The soil is a mixture of decomposed lava and volcanic ashes and would undoubtedly possess great fertility with water, but as it is, it is barren.
Above the timber the mountain is naked, and all above nine thousand or ten thousand feet is a scene of unmixed and unrelieved desolation—rock, snow, and dry soil, that is all. No plant cheers the eye, no insect or bird appears. This barren scene succeeds immediately the failure of the upper zone of timber. In Switzerland, or the Tyrol, or the eastern United States, above the timber there would still be vegetation—first, green pastures; while up among the eternal snows, where a rock was bare of ice or snow, some alpine plants would be warmed into life. The Alps are grand in their beauty, Mount Shasta is sublime in its desolation.
Geologically it is as barren as it is botanically. It is a great cone of lava, nothing else. Not, like Etna, made up of an almost infinite number of small eruptions, but it seems as if it had been formed in a comparatively short period, by a few gigantic eruptions. It appears to belong to a series of volcanoes that formed a line—like the Central American volcanoes of the present day—that had their time of greatest activity during the Tertiary period. This line extended nearly north and south—Lassen’s Butte is another of them, in the south—but the chain ran north to an unknown distance into Oregon….