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Geology and history

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Hiking into the past along Gillem Bluff
Alvan Gillem
Photo by Lee JuilleratBoulders near the south end of Gillem Bluff.
Photo by Lee JuilleratThe Devils Homestead Lava Flow dominates the view from Gillem Bluff.
Photo by Lee JuilleratA rock corral is among the featured stops on the Gillems Camp Trail.

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — Alvan Gillem’s time as the U.S. Army’s commanding officer during the Modoc War was regarded as a failure. But ironically, one of the most visited sites at what is now Lava Beds National Monument and a neighboring bluff remember his name.

Gillems Camp, a short loop hike with information panels, is located near the park’s north entrance. Gillem Bluff is the ridge that rises upward of 550 feet and provides bird’s-eye views of the camp and large portions of the park, including the eye-boggling Devils Homestead Lava Flow.

While the camp trail, which is only about a third-of-mile long, is heavily visited, Gillem Bluff sees far fewer people. A trail from the camp climbs to the ridge, where those who make the trek enjoy the view and then hike back to the camp.

On a recent outing, members of the Klamath Basin Outdoor Group met for a 4-mile point-to-point hike that began about three miles south of the camp off the Gold Digger’s Pass Road and ended at Gillems Camp. After a car shuttle, we parked in an open area just west of the Lava Beds-Modoc National Forest boundary. Other times from the same parking area we’ve hiked developed trails south back into the park to Whitney Butte, but this time we called Gillem’s bluff and aimed north.

Traveling Gillem Bluff is a make-it-yourself trail where the choices include staying on relatively easy terrain that eventually reaches overlooks or, my choice, following the ridge edge for eye-popping, dazzling, panoramic views from the bluff’s sharp drop-offs.

Among the most impressive sights is the Devils Homestead Flow, a sprawling mass of black basalt lava that spans about 990 acres. The flow’s blocky, uneven surface is visually and genuinely intimidating, as Army troops who survived the Modoc War’s Thomas-Wright Battle learned while fleeing from the battle site back to Army headquarters at Gillems Camp.

The Thomas-Wright Battle, also known as the Battle of Sand Butte — and until the 1970s was called the Thomas-Wright Massacre Site — happened April 26, 1873, just days before Gillem was replaced by Colonel Jefferson Davis — no relation to the Civil War general.

Gillem had authorized troops under the leadership of Capt. Evan Thomas and Lt. Thomas Wright to see whether the Army could move howitzers and mortars closer to Modocs who had earlier abandoned Captain Jack’s Stronghold. The mission proved a dismal failure. Thomas, Wright and more than 20 others were killed and 15 others were wounded by gunfire from Modocs hidden in the rocks above where the patrol rested for lunch.

When news of the battle spread, Gillem was rebuked in the “Army and Navy Journal.” In “Modoc War: Its Military History & Topography,” by Erwin N. Thompson, it’s noted, “The commander was ultimately responsible. Gillem had had his opportunity and was found wanting. Most critical of all was the lack of faith in him that many of his subordinates now felt.”

Gillems Camp, the command post where Army troops were based, had been created earlier that month. Along with being near the Stronghold, it provided a flat, relatively rock-free terrain near the shores of Tule Lake, and offered easy access for pack trains carrying supplies on the trail from the bluff to the camp. The camp was occupied only seven weeks — abandoned in June after the Modocs had been captured and the war ended.

Pamphlets available at the Gillems Camp Trail parking area explain sights at the trail markers. Stops include information about the camp, such as a large rock ring that was possibly used as a stone corral for captured Modocs. Another post provides a view of Signal Rock, where signal flags were used to transmit messages to an Army camp at Hospital Rock.

The trail also passes along a rectangular rock enclosure, a cemetery that once held 30 soldiers killed in the war. Other markers indicate where the shores of the then-massive Tule Lake supplied troops with water for drinking and bathing. By using the brochures, visitors also learn about the area’s geology, mid-1800s settlers, and Tulelake homesteads. Explained, too, is the camp’s history as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp from 1935 to 1942, when it housed about 1,400 enrollees.

Because of his faults as the Army commander during the early stages of the Modoc War, Colonel Alvan Gillem’s legacy is not the stuff of glory. According to “Modoc War,” when he was replaced by Davis May 2, Gillem was allowed to retain title as the commander but, “Gillem, sick at heart and in body, realized that he was through, yet he outwardly went through the form of office.”

Gillem, a major general during the Civil War, had been commissioned as a colonel in the regular Army in 1866 and was based in Tennessee and Texas before taking command at the lava beds. In 1875, Gillem became seriously ill and returned to Tennessee. He died in the Soldier’s Rest Home near Nashville Dec. 2, at the age of 45.

Although his time at the Lava Beds was brief and filled with frustration and disappointment, Gillem is remembered.

For more about Gillems Camp, including tales of a purported hotel on Gillem Bluff, Toby’s Cave, boats that carried the wounded after the Stronghold Battle back to the camp, and the history of the graves of soldiers who were buried at the camp and later reburied elsewhere, visit the “Lava Beds National Monument: Modoc War,” website at www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/labe.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.