Sunday, July 14, 2013

South Pass City

Today we ventured out of modern Wyoming life and into pioneer Wyoming life.

We drove over South Pass, where you can still see the ruts made by wagon wheel after wagon wheel carrying homesteaders out West on the Oregon Trail. The great unknown.

South Pass is, as it's name suggests, a mountain pass. It goes south, as you would guess, around the Wind River mountain range.

As the elevation climbed the temperature dropped and the wind picked up and I realized that I forgot where I live when I got dressed this morning. Wearing a tank top and shorts the wind and 60 degree (but sunny!) weather was a bit cool. But then I remembered that as long as you are standing in the Wyoming sun, you will be fine. And I was. Almost hot as the temperature climbed into the 70's as the day wore on. All to say, it was much cooler up there than down in the valley that Lander calls home.

We passed Atlantic City, population 'about 57'. Tiny mountain town tucked into the sides of mountains.  A general store, a restaurant, a community center that boasted 'free wifi for everyone!'. And we were out of town. Two miles later we hit South Pass City. A very creative name. I'm sure it was the men who rushed to this spot in 1867 who named it. They were too excited about the gold to think of a better name.

The town sprung up over night into a thriving community. A butcher, saloon, blacksmith, mercantile, bakery, the first jail in Wyoming, the pony express even came through...everything that you could want to ease the isolation of the wild west. Now,however, the town boasts a population of 'about 5, 4 dogs and 2 cats'

(I'm not sure why these tiny towns feel the need to preface their numbers with 'about'. Maybe it's just a ploy to get you thinking that maybe this town could be bigger than you think it is. Boosting their own ego)

We parked and paid our admission fee and walked down the gravel 'main' street. Carved logs mark the places where the butcher and other buildings stood before time got the best of them. The length of the street is about 1/2 mile, tucked into a beautiful little valley. From the town you can't see much or very far except a few of the taller Wind River peaks in the distance.

Today, with people milling around, a baseball game going (South Pass City has their own team!), music playing, and sweet women baking cookies just like the would have to do in the old cast iron stove and long dresses with bonnets, it felt like a peaceful place to be. No traffic, except that of the two horse carriage giving rides up and down the hillsides that protect the little community and over the hill to get a good view of the Carissa Mine which the town was built around and the pony express horse. The only sounds made by birds, banjos, guitars, an 'on the hour, every hour' anvil drop, and a very interesting demonstration of a stamp mill. It crushed rocks to get the gold out. No clouds in the sky. I thought 'I could stay here for a while!' But as we continued down the street and talking with the 'residents' of South Pass City, who all had back stories and traditional clothes for the era I realized that while I love the west and Wyoming in particular, I'm not sure South Pass would have been it for me. The summer would have been great! Sunny and warm but not too hot. But the winter, at almost 8,000 ft was/is brutal. Wicked, was actually the word used to describe it. And a lot of these families were headed way out west on the Oregon Trail and heard about the gold and decided to get of the trail and find South Pass City and try their luck. Once they got arrived they used canvas tents as their homes until they could build one. The blacksmith showed us how to make nails. He said he could do 100 in hour, but still. It would take awhile to get all the nails and other supplies plus the time and the right weather to get your house up. So one family stayed in their canvas tent (beds and all!) for THREE years. Through the icy snowy cold windy mountain winters. We learned some tricks about how to keep the wind out (poor water on the canvas, it freezes and becomes a wind blocker for the tent residents.) and keep the inside warm, but it would have taken a lot of work.

And because of how things worked back then, you know, how the women didn't really have a say in anything, the men could just decided to leave their wives in town with the tent and the kids and go off to the mine. These women were basically dropped off in the wilderness. Thanks honey.

I admire homesteaders. They were strong strong people. They built the West. And sometimes I feel like I want to be a pioneer. Some things are cool. The community, how you have to depend on your neighbors and they on you. Making your own bread and jam and things like that. Being resourceful with what you have around. So much work, but also how rewarding!

It was such an isolated community . 45 miles from the nearest town (Lander). And during the winter that would have seemed FOREVER because you probably weren't going to be able to across the pass. See you the spring civilization!

And also, because the town sprung up around gold mining, I bet you can guess what happened. The town died. The last nail in the coffin was driven in around 1872. The town was built up for 5 years and then it just died. Some people were still around, and some new people came in the 1890's to mine other minerals but it was no longer thriving. People had to move on. All those years spent in tents, and building a house...let's do it again!!

No thanks.

So I'll learn a lesson from the homesteaders about strength and resiliency and resourcefulness and enjoy hearing their stories and all the while be thankful that I am living in the modern Wyoming where I can sit inside my (non-air conditioned) house that I did not build with my own hands at a table I did not build with my hands typing on a computer telling you all about my experiences out here. Which, while I'm not homesteading out here, still including some pretty fantastic things that are uniquely Wyoming.

PS I also learned about how mining for gold, coal, etc etc...whatever other minerals you can think of that we mine, has been the springboard for much of our technology. How to best get the earth's resources. I was not aware of how influential mining has been to our lives. Of course, I cannot think of the examples the 'mining man' said right now....

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