December 20, 2022
Crossing the Continental Divide.
Passing through downtown Casper, Wyoming, early the next morning.
Fort Caspar (yes, slightly different spelling than the town) was the migrants’ last stop before departing the North Platte River, which they had been following for over a month.
The small military cemetery at Fort Caspar, Wyoming.
Fort Caspar originated as a wagon ferry site set up by Brigham Young in 1847 to assist Mormons and other emigrants across the North Platte.
Later, an independent trader, Louis Guinard, built a competing wooden toll bridge across the North Platte at roughly the same site.
Guinard, a French Canadian, also established a store next to the bridge where migrants could restock supplies – at a price.
Sign for the Mormon ferry crossing at Fort Caspar, Wyoming.
In the 1860s, the US Army established a presence to protect the bridge and the ferry. Here’s a view inside one officer’s quarters.
The military commissary at Fort Caspar, Wyoming.
The telegraph station at Fort Caspar, Wyoming. A telegraph line was laid along the trail to California in the early 1860s, replacing the Pony Express.
Soldiers quarters at Fort Caspar, Wyoming.
Fort Caspar (and, by misspelling, Casper Wyoming) is named for 20-year-old Lt. Caspar Collins, who was killed in a skirmish with Indians near the fort in 1865.
Caspar Collins was the son of Lt. Col. William Collins, the fort’s commander. An embroidered vest belonging to young Caspar:
Native American peace pipes on display at Fort Caspar, Wyoming. The pipes were smoked to seal a ceremonial commitment, such as a treaty.
A “sheep wagon” on display at Fort Caspar, Wyoming. Used by sheepherders as their mobile home in remote areas.
After finally leaving the North Platte, the Oregon Trail migrants faced a tough haul across the next stretch with little or no available water. So will we, especially if we break down – which is why I’m filling up water bottles at the Fort Caspar museum.
Mailboxes at Emigrant Gap, west of Casper, Wyoming.
The small break in a ridgeline called Emigrant Gap brought the migrants out of the North Platte valley they had followed and onto a rocky, arid plain. We’re going to eschew the modern roads and follow that route as best we can.
Heading down “Poison Spider Road” through Emigrant Gap.
Of course, at the end of Poison Spider Road is Poison Spider School. Go Spiders!
Double checking and yes, this is the right road.
Sometimes we had the benefit of GPS to guide us, but out here the signal came and went a lot.
To our relief, we were not entirely alone. From time to time we passed a pickup truck heading to and from the oil wells sprinkles about the area west of Casper, Wyoming.
Today there are a few irrigation ditches. But the only water the Oregon Trail migrants encountered here was poisoned by alkalis. When the oxen, driven mad by thirst, tried to drink it, they died.
I’m actually a bit concerned to see rain falling from the clouds up ahead. I’d much rather deal with dust than mud on a remote road like this.
I’m looking ahead for an Oregon Trail landmark called the Avenue of Rocks.
This is it, the Avenue of Rocks, a distinctive craggy ridge line running alongside the trail.
It’s amazing to realize that the wagons of the Oregon Trail passed right here – and obviously not much since.
On and on we followed the path, at a slow enough pace to see and avoid any hazards. Lots of ups and downs, but overall we’re on a rising incline.
Nothing in sight in any direction.
If we are where we think we are, this must be the final climb to Prospect Hill. From here, migrants had a vista of the trail ahead.
Well, we made it to the top of Prospect Hill.
There’s actually a small interpretative plaque here, looking south across the broad valley ahead. The hills in the distance are our destination – where eventually we will meet up with a paved road.
You are here. About halfway to Oregon. Maybe.
Prospect Hill is a bit of a false climax. From here, the migrants faced a long haul across an equally dry plain until the reached the long-anticipated Sweetwater River.
As we approach the Sweetwater, we encounter the Pathfinder 101 Ranch. It was near here that Ellen Watson (aka “Cattle Kate”) and her husband set up a homestead in the 1880s.
Watson came into conflict with some powerful cattle barons, who accused her (falsely, many historians have concluded) of rustling their cattle, and lynched her and her husband. They are buried on a nearby rise, on private land.
The Sweetwater River was dammed in 1909 to form the Pathfinder Reservoir, which now provides irrigation to the surrounding area.
Just ahead is a major landmark on the Oregon Trail, a massive granite outcropping dubbed by the migrants “Independence Rock”.
Independence Rock was important for two reasons. First, it meant the migrants had reached the Sweetwater River, a source of fresh water after the long parched stretch they had just completed.
Second, if they reached “Independence Rock” by July 4, it meant they were on schedule to reach Oregon before the winter snows could block their way.
As a result, Independence Rock was the site of many July 4th celebrations and happy diary entries. Many emigrants made the steep climb to the top of the rock, as we did.
Migrants then, and later, carved their names into the rock at the top. Milo J. Ayer, age 29, 1842.
September 12, 1852. These folks were running behind. Hope they made it.
L. Willis was on track in June 1852.
The names of Oregon Trail migrants carved onto the top of Independence Rock, Wyoming.
From atop Independence Rock, looking south, you can see the Sweetwater River winding its way towards the gap of Devil’s Gate, just ahead. That’s our path.
A nest of baby birds at the visitor center at Independence Rock, Wyoming.
Later that night we were in bed at the hotel, and the TV aired a promo for “Miracle Workers: Oregon Trail”. “Will they reach Independence Rock?!” it blared. My son and I looked at each other and cracked up laughing.
The original Trail bends south and then west around the shoulder of a notch in the hills called Devil’s Gate, through which the Sweetwater flows.
Here’s a good view of Devil’s Gate. The migrants were thrilled by the landmarks like this along the Oregon Trail, and recorded them in their diaries, because most of the Trail was day after day of plodding tedium.
But the valley behind Devil’s Gate was also the scene of one of the greatest tragedies along the westward migrant trails: the Mormon Handcart Disaster of 1856.
As I mentioned before, many Mormons traveling to Utah – many of them working class coverts from Britain – lacked the money to purchase wagons. Instead, the Church provided them with handcarts to pull themselves the entire way.
That was hard enough, but in 1856, two companies of 1,100 Mormons left Nebraska in AUGUST. By November, about 500 of them, starving and freezing, were forced to take shelter from the winter snow at this small trading post.
Eventually they hunkered down in nearby Martin’s Cove, until a relief party sent out from Salt Lake City could rescue them. The exact number who perished is known, but it was well over a hundred.
From here, the Oregon Trail migrants – hopefully closer to July than November – followed the Sweetwater upstream to the west, between two lines of mountains on either side.
But we need to take a quick detour to Muddy Gap, the only gas station along our route, because without it, we don’t have enough gas to cross South Pass ahead.
Three cheers for Muddy Gap, and everyone who has passed through here and signed their name on the walls and ceiling.
Even if they charge extra for every additional push of the cheese button.
From Muddy Gap, we head west to rejoin the Oregon Trail at Split Rock, which migrants also compared to the notch of a gunsight. Notice the growing haze. That’s from the wildfires burning in Utah.
Passing through Jeffrey City, Wyoming, once a uranium mining boom town, now an abandoned ghost town. I read there’s a gas station here, but I didn’t see one, just “Monk King Bird Pottery”, which was closed. Good thing we filled up at Muddy Gap.
The next Oregon Trail landmark is Ice Slough, a swampy little creek cutting across the main road. Back in the day, the migrants could dig here and find ice even in summer, which thrilled and fascinated them at a time when refrigeration was unknown.
Finally it’s time to cross the Sweetwater River for the last time, as it winds it’s way upstream to South Pass and the Continental Divide.
I mentioned two Mormon handcart groups that set out in August 1856. This – the last crossing of the Sweetwater – is where the second one got snowed in and had to wait for rescue. An equally deadly affair, now commemorated by visiting Mormon pilgrims.
Old book and fresh eggs for sale, at the crossing of the Sweetwater River, near South Pass, Wyoming.
The original migrant trails that lead up and over South Pass are unmarked and very sketchy. I knew they would be trouble.
I figured to give it a try, but as the trail faded more and more it became clear that without a jeep, we were barking up the wrong tree, and would have to go over South Pass via the modern road.
Passing through layers of geological time, as we descend towards Lander to meet the modern road across South Pass. If we follow this road north, we’d cross the Wind River Indian Reservation and end up in Yellowstone.
The modern road across South Pass follows the path of a gold rush that took place here in 1866, leaving behind the husk of short-lived boom towns with names like Atlantic City, consisting mainly of saloons.
Okay, maybe “modern” road was a bit of an exaggeration.
Some of the nearby hills are topped by gold mines, a few of which continue to operate.
The Carissa Mine, overlooking South Pass City, is one of them and can be visited on tours. But it was closed when we passed through.
The sign on entering South Pass City says population “about 4”. A 25-year-old Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) passed through here by stagecoach in 1861, on his way to Nevada, and reported four log cabins.
South Pass City flourished momentarily during the gold rush a few years later, sporting a hotel, two saloons, and a handful of stores. This was the Main Street.
My son took a try at panning for gold in the creek running through South Pass City. You never know …
The bridal suite at the hotel in South Pass City, Wyoming.
Entrance to the Wolverine Mine overlooking South Pass City, Wyoming.
If you strike it rich, stop by for a fun time at the Carissa Saloon, South Pass City, Wyoming.
Since we didn’t strike gold, we’ll have to settle for a root beer and elk jerky.
Back on the road. One of the things that somewhat mystified the Oregon Trail migrants is that South Pass – their pathway over the Rocky Mountains – looks nothing like a high and narrow mountain pass.
Ever since Missouri, we have been gradually, almost imperceptibly rising in elevation, from 1,000 feet above sea level to … 7,550. Without noticing, we’ve reached the divide between waters flowing east to the Atlantic and west to the Pacific.
South Pass was discovered in 1812 by fur trappers working for John Jacob Astor, returning from establishing a fort in Oregon. They reported a pass over the Rockies suitable for wagons. The discovery of South Pass is what made the Oregon Trail possible.
We’ve rejoined the Trail, and at this point it divides. The safer, longer route goes south to Fort Bridger, where migrants could rest and restock. The Sublette Cutoff, on the other hand, heads west in a short cut to the Snake River. But water along that route is scarce.
The original wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail, heading off into the distance at South Pass.
We’re following the longer route, along with the Pony Express, south to the crossing of the Big Sandy River.
Where we grabbed a gigantic ice cream cone at the small hamlet of Farson, Wyoming (population 313).
Next, however, we took a 40-mile detour to stay the night at Rock Springs, Wyoming. That’s because the highland overlooking the town, called Pilot Butte, serves as a nature reserve for wild horses.