Updated on June 26, 1999.
We stayed four extra days at the Fort Caspar Campground in Casper, Wyoming, to see the Mountainman Rendevous and to do some exploring of the Oregon Trail.
We first looked in on the recreated Fort Caspar, named for a Lieutenant Caspar Collins who was killed along with four of his 20 men at the Platte Bridge Station the morning of July 26, 1865, by Souix, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians. Later on that day the 22 men with the wagon supply train Lt. Collins was going to protect were killed just to the west at the Red Buttes Crossing of the North Platte River.
In 1865 this crossing of the North Platte had already been in use for over 50 years. Over 350,000 emigrants had traveled the trails up the Platte towards Oregon, Utah, and California. Casper is where the trails (or roads as they were called then) started diverging.
Many of the emigrants traveled in covered wagons. Alice was amazed at how small they were. Here she is next to a replica sitting on a ferry used to cross the river before the 800 foot bridge was built.
The next day we hopped into the truck and headed back west. We took the GooseEgg loop off of WY220 to escape road construction and went by the place where Owen Wister's "Virginian" had switched the sleeping babies in the middle of the night at the dance party, much to the chagrin of the mothers later in the morning as they traveled home.
Then it was on up the road following the Platte River until we came to the Government Bridge. Here we pulled off the road to get a chance to get out and see just how much water the river was running. The river was running full. A local told me that they were draining the reservoirs as fast as they could to be able to hold the snow melt they knew was coming in a few weeks.
We started climbing into broken bluffs and soon went by Alcova Lake, a water control reservoir on the Platte just below the big Pathfinder Reservoir. The uplift in the land created several sharp climbs in the road. Finally reaching the top, we continued across the rolling plains towards the low mountains in the distance.
After traveling almost 20 miles, we reached the rest stop next to Independence Rock, a large granite extrusion where exfoliation of the rock has produced the rounded surfaces of its distinctive shape. Part of the partially buried Granite Mountain Range, Independence Rock is towers several hundred feet above the surrounding plain. It was a major milestone for the emigrants traveling west; they had to reach that point by July 4 if they wanted to beat the snow over the passes to California and Oregon.
After a brief stop we continued west past Devil's Gate. This cut made by the Sweetwater River through the rock is 400 feet wide at the top and only 30 feet wide at the bottom. During some winters ice blocks the channel and the river backs up, flooding the valley you see in the foreground.
Devil's Gate was not a thorough-fare, but it was a well-known landmark. Just to the south of Devil's Gate is a low pass through which all the traffic went.
Over 70,000 of the emigrants who went through Casper were Mormons, members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints on their way to Salt Lake. Many of them pushed or pulled handcarts rather than using oxen to pull covered wagons; it was much less expensive and the men could move twice as fast as the oxen.
In 1856 two parties of LDS emigrants started very late in the season. The Martin Handcart Company had just left the Caspar area and the Willie Handcart Company was nearing South Pass when a severe winter storm struck the area, bringing their progress to near zero. Carrying meager rations, they were forced to continue. Word had reached Salt Lake of their coming, and rescue teams were immediately sent back along the trail to help them. Even so, many of the Willie Company fell victim to the storm. The Martin Company straggled past Devil's Gate and took refuge from the wind and snow in what is now called Martin's Cove. The rescue party found them there, but as many as 145 of the 576 members of the Martin Company had starved or frozen to death.
There is now an interpretive center at the former headquarters of the Sun Ranch, located a couple of miles from Martin's Cove, that tells the story of the handcart companies very well. It is well worth the short side trip and time to visit. If you wish, you can borrow one of the handcarts and push it along the trails to experience what it was like for the early pioneers.
Within the interpretive center are some artifacts from the old Sun Ranch, including the old fireplace. Within the fireplace were rocks from all over the ranch, including rose quartz, fossils, and petrified rock. There was also the design of the brand for the ranch. The rifle above the mantle was given to Tom Sun by Bill Cody.
This ranch was started by Tom Sun in the 1870s, and it was run by four generations of the family until 1997. The Sun Ranch was the largest ranch in Wyoming, with over three million acres. The map to the left shows the path of the emigrant trails through the ranch.
The remaining rooms of the center cover the details of the experiences of the Martin and Willie companies.
Leaving the center, we turned back east and went through the low pass where all the traffic had flowed. There we saw some early graffiti carved on some of the rocks, like this bit from 1850. There was also a grave whose headstone had been marked in 1847. Guess that proves that tagging is not a new passtime.
After returning to the highway, we drove on past the rest stop and turned down a dirt road a couple of miles to where the old Sweetwater Pony Express station had been located. This was what the young man stationed there saw every day in good weather, miles and miles of expanse. Independence Rock is in the distance.
Even though the wind was blowing fiercely, Alice fixed lunch on the tailgate of the truck. It was a good lunch, but the bread dried out pretty quickly.
There are people who spend their summers redriving the Oregon Trail in covered wagons. Some of them were camped at the base of Independence Rock. There were horses and oxen, and there were also mules. The caterer that was serving the hot meals was having a heard time with the wind as well. Such is the hard life we now lead.
The Sweetwater River runs to the west and south of Independence Rock. It was flowing a pretty good head of water at the time. This first view is looking west towards Devil's Gate.
We were standing on the old highway bridge, which is starting to fall into the water. This did offer a more expansive view of Independence Rock looking towards the east.
We headed back towards Casper and decided to take WY319, the Oregon Trail Road. When we turned off we did not realize just how far we would have to travel over the dirt road, but it was still a pleasant drive -- so long as we could keep ahead of our dust cloud. The trail came up this way rather than follow the path of the highway, WY220, because it had to miss the cliffs over near Alcova Lake and Pathfinder Lake. There were few cliffs and for the most part there were few gullies or washes to traverse. But there were some spots along the way where there was a long, hard pull.
There was little water along this part of the trail. This is one of the few springs, and I did not see much water in it, only some green grass indicating there was water around. Definitely, not enough for thousands of emigrants. The river was over 20 miles away at this point, so they must have been carrying much of their drinking water with them.
After 34 miles we finally arrived back on US20 just north of Casper. It had been a long trip back in time, but we both had a much greater appreciation for what an effort those early pioneers must expended to even survive much of the time. It is a pretty country, but a harsh one. If you travel it in an RV, you tend to lose appreciation for what it could be like. Someday, maybe we will go pull a cart to Martin's Cove.