December 20, 2022
To Fort Hall
We’ve rejoined the Oregon Trail heading north from Fort Bridger, in southwestern Wyoming.
This is Kemmerer, a Wyoming coal mining town where John Cash Penney (yes, that was he real middle name) established his first store in 1902.
Penney got his start in nearby Evanston, Wyoming, working for a pair of partners who owned the “Golden Rule” store there, which unlike general or company stores offered fixed prices and allowed customers to handle the merchandise – but for cash only, no credit.
They wanted their top employee, Penney, to open a new store in Ogden, Utah, but he preferred a smaller, more manageable market to start: Kemmerer.
From what the locals told me, I believe his first store was actually located in what now is the bar. He lived above the store, next door to the town’s most popular bordello.
Penny and his wife eventually lived just down the street in this modest cottage, which is now a small museum.
His wife, who set up this sewing room in the back, was a real source of strength to Penney, who often battled doubts.
Penney’s partners fell out with each other, and he bought them both out and renamed his store (Golden Rule couldn’t be trademarked).
He followed the same model: hire a carefully selected employee with potential, train them – make them almost part of the family – then send them out as a partner to open a new store.
In the early days, Kemmerer was a center for bootlegging. It became notorious for running illegal alcohol, “the Chicago of the West”. Their lawlessness was one reason Penney lived close to his store.
J.C. Penney started off poor, but became one of the richest men in America. After his wife tragically died, he lost interest in the business and lost all his money in the Florida real estate bubble. But the company kept him on as a figurehead until the day he died.
Schrodinger’s Motel, Kemmerer, Wyoming. (It is both open and closed, vacancy and no vacancy).
90 million years ago, the area around Kemmerer, Wyoming was a giant lake. Many of the storefronts in town advertise fossils. So despite the rain the next day, we headed out to a nearby quarry to hunt for ancient fossils.
That’s what you have to do, bend over and carefully tap a wedge between the layers of limestone, like opening the pages of a book.
And every once in a while, you’re rewarded with the imprint of a very, very old fish.
In just over an hour, we found quite a few fish, in fact.
We also found this guy, but I don’t think he counts.
They cut our fossil finds into pieces for us to carry home.
t’s really amazing to think that, however small, you’re looking at a creature that has been hidden in rock for 90 million years.
This one isn’t a fish, it’s a palm frond, frozen in ancient time.
While we were getting ready to leave, one quarry worker came by with this 90 million year old fossilized tree branch he had just discovered.
Just down the road is Fossil Butte National Monument, where some really amazing finds from the same ancient time period are on display.
This is what the region looked like 90 million years ago.
There were crocodiles, snakes, turtles, and small mammals including tiny early horses.
There were insects, palms, tree branches, and many, many fish.
There’s a whole world hidden under Fossil Butte, Wyoming, and we had caught just a brief glimpse of it.
The Oregon Trail passed unknowingly over the hills around Fossil Butte, then down to present-day Cokeville, named after the area’s plentiful coal deposits.
The Hideout Motel, Cokeville, Wyoming.
The Oregon Trail follows the Bear River now, as it arches into Idaho.
Soon after crossing into modern-day Idaho, the Oregon Trail migrants faced a difficult ford over the Thomas Fork Creek. In later years, they could pay for a toll bridge, or take a lengthy detour around.
Cattle ranch in eastern Idaho.
The Bear River begins in western Wyoming and loops north, before turning south to feed into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. It won’t take us to the Pacific, but it will take us part of the way.
We have avoided Big Hill, a difficult summit (looking back here, on the horizon) that early migrants on the Oregon Trail took a whole day to climb and descend right after crossing Thomas Fork Creek.
n 1852, a colleague of pioneer Ezra Meeker built a road that allowed migrants to go around Big Hill – the same route the modern road follows today.
After following the Oregon Trail as a young man, Ezra Meeker went back in later life to trace it in an automobile, and later in an airplane. It’s largely due to him we know the precise route the Trail took.
Arriving in Montpellier, Idaho. Why should I beware of the bears? They look very helpful and cute.
Butch Cassidy was the son of Mormon migrants to Utah. He soon took up cattle rustling and bank robbing. In 1896, he and his gang robbed the bank here in Montpellier, Idaho.
A mock-up of the bank robbed by Butch Cassidy in Montpellier, Idaho.
Maybe this is the bear I’m supposed to beware of. Outside the National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpellier, Idaho.
The automated ox-wagon ride (included in the ticket) at the museum was broken, but rather than take a discount, I negotiated for some Mooseberry Syrup to be thrown in for free.
Our “trail guide” at the museum in Montpellier walked us through an imaginary trip from Missouri all the way to the Clover Creek campsite, where we were standing. Here he is showing us his Texas Bowie knife.
Buffalo hide blanket. Surprising soft and good for those cold nights. Montpellier, Idaho.
Black bear coat. Not very soft at all, but warm. Montpellier, Idaho.
Loading up the wagon with help from our trail guide. Montpellier, Idaho.
Stocking up on laudanum. This mixture of opium and whiskey was one of the few effective medicines in the Oregon Trail, useful for everything from toothaches to dysentery. You could grow to like it.
Hard tack. Biscuits with a long shelf life. But don’t try to bite into them without softening them first with water or meat juices. You could lose a tooth. And then you’d need that laudanum.
And of course, the ever-present buffalo chips, collected by the children each day along the Trail, and used to fuel the fire (and cook the food) each night.
Another job for the children was to tie a handkerchief to one of the wheel spokes and could how many times it turned. Then you’d have an idea how far you traveled that day.
An assortment of weapons we might need on the Oregon Trail, mainly for hunting. But beware: accidentally self-inflicted gunshot woulda were one of the most common causes of death on the Trail.
Quilts were essential along the Oregon Trail, for keeping warm, sleeping on, trading with Indians for food and other supplies – and as shrouds for burying the dead. Some on display – and for sale – at Montpellier, Idaho.
Heading north now, along the Bear River, looking for Sulfur Springs.
We looked for Sulfur Springs, but the turnoff got muddier and muddier and finally was blocked by a fallen branch. But we could smell the rotten egg smell, so we knew it was around there somewhere.
So we continued down the road to Soda Springs, Idaho, one of the most popular stops that emigrants enjoyed along the Oregon Trail. But for us, it’s obviously a very rainy day.
Outside of Soda Springs is the Pioneer Cemetery, a tangled warren of lumpy grave mounds, tree stumps, and thickets.
Soda Springs has hundreds of natural springs of carbonated water in and around town. This made it a well-known and attractive place for Oregon Trail migrants to camp, rest, and explore.
In 1937, the town was drilling a well to build a natural hot springs swimming pool when they struck a pressurized chamber. The resulting geyser was capped and now “erupts” every hour on the hour.
The bubbling geyser waiting to erupt. Soda Springs, Idaho.
In 1861, a family of seven fell behind their wagon train just west of Soda Springs. That night they were killed by Indians. They were found and buried together, using their wagon box as a coffin.
It’s hard to see the original Oregon Trail ruts just west of Soda Springs, Idaho, but they’re there.
The Bear River, winding it’s way west of Soda Springs, Idaho.
… and turning past Sheep Rock, to the south, where it will flow into the Great Salt Lake. We will follow the Bear River no more.
Sunflowers at Sheep Rock, west of Soda Springs, Idaho.
We’ve reached the Hudspeth Cutoff, where gold-seekers bound for California in 1849 sought a short cut by turning south of the main trail.
From here, we had a choice. Following the early route north around Putnam Mountain would be tough because of the poor roads combined with the rain. We chose the later route, west past Lava Hot Springs and the Portneuf River. Sadly, it was too cold for a swim.
By either route, the Oregon Trail migrants were bound for Fort Hall, today replicated in Pocatello, Idaho (some miles from where it was originally located).
Fort Hall was a fur trading post on the Snake River, initially founded in 1834 by Americans, but soon sold to the Hudson Bay Company.
The British-owned Hudson Bay Company dominated fur trading in the entire Pacific Northwest, which until 1846 was disputed territory between the US and Britain. The Company didn’t want American settlers arriving to shift that balance.
When the missionary couple Marcus and Narcissa Whitman arrived at Fort Hall in 1836, the British traders there tried to discourage them from continuing on to Oregon, telling them there was no road suitable for wagons. They went on nonetheless.