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The Mormon Handcart Trail

Posted in Events on April 1, 2009
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Views across the hills and valleys reveal nothing manmade and enhance the feeling of isolation. Imagine the pioneers crossing this country day after day and weeks into months with no connection to the civilized world.

More than 400 immigrants huddled together in a tent camp at the sixth crossing of the Sweetwater River in Wyoming on Oct 21, 1856. They had nothing to eat and a large number of them were sick with dysentery. Two men, a woman, and an 11-year-old girl had been buried that morning. Dozens of their group had died trying to pull their handcarts across the Wyoming wilderness in snow storms and raging winds. Many of them were too close to death or too numb from the freezing cold to even notice the ghostly image of a wagon appear on a hilltop in the distance. For others, the image began as a dark spot moving slowly across the snow covered horizon. It grew larger and was joined by other dark spots that seemed to glide across the hills covered with a foot of snow. Shouts could be heard through the howling wind and then riders on horses charged into camp. They were followed by 14 wagons loaded with food and supplies. The rescue party had arrived.

A small monument now marks the location of the Sixth Crossing where the immigrant camp once stood (see part one of this story in our March '09 issue). Even today, standing in that location, the camp seems to be isolated from the rest of the world with nothing manmade visible in any direction except an old barb wire fence and the tiny monument.

On the morning of the 22nd, two more bodies were buried. Having lost both parents in less than a week, two young girls became orphans that morning. Eight of the wagons left camp headed for Independence Rock in search of the Martin Handcart Company as well as the Hodgett and Hunt wagon trains. The other six wagons would help the Willie Company continue its journey to Salt Lake City. Those who were too weak to walk were loaded into the wagons, camp was packed into handcarts, and anyone capable of walking was once again headed west.

New snow did not fall that day but there was already more than a foot of it on the ground. The wind nearly always blows in Wyoming and for the immigrants it was deadly. Frost bite claimed toes, fingers, hands and feet. There was one reported case of blindness resulting from wind chill far below freezing. When the group reached Rocky Ridge, they built their camp on the top of ice and snow with nothing more than flimsy blankets to insulate them from the cold.

The immigrants rose the following morning to face the obstacle known as Rocky Ridge. Even in good weather, getting over Rocky Ridge was a challenge due to the steep grades and rough rocky surface. On October 23, 1856, there was a foot of snow on top that rough rocky surface. New snow was falling, and the howling wind was blowing all of it in their faces. After burying two more of their members, they tackled the ridge. Getting over it and into a relatively low area for camp meant crossing 16 miles. Many of them were still dragging handcarts and did not reach camp until long after the sun had gone down. One young boy carried his four year old brother into camp, set him down by the fire, and fell over dead from exhaustion. Immigrants trickled into camp until past midnight, many of them already dying but not yet laid down. Thirteen of them were buried in a common grave the next day as the immigrants attempted to reorganize from the ordeal of crossing Rocky Ridge. Although six more wagons with supplies arrived that day from the west, they were too late for those who were laid to rest.

On October 26, the Willie Company and their rescuers crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass. On October 27, the company journal reported that for the first time in 13 days, no one died. That break in the morning ritual of putting the dead to rest did not last long. However, the arrival of the wagons with supplies enabled the company to grow stronger each day. As they continued toward Salt Lake, they met other wagons with supplies. Everyone's health and strength continued to improve.

On November 9, the Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake City. They had lost 67 members of the company. So much death and suffering. The horrors of 1857 would be fresh on the minds of the survivors for the rest of their lives.

It was a bright sunny day when Lone Writer left the Sixth Crossing Visitor Center. Much of the Mormon Trail west of the center could be followed on two track roads across public lands, but some backtracking was necessary. The first turn was only two miles from the center. A dirt road went off to the left through a gap in the snow fence. From that turn, the dirt road connected to the original trail at 1.8 miles. A concrete post marked the trail at that point. It was stamped with the Oregon Trail, the Pony Express Trail, and the Mormon Trail. All three used the same route on a course for South Pass.

Turning left on the trail would lead back to the Sweetwater River. The tiny monument on the other side of the river marks the rescue site for the Willie Handcart Company.

Trail markers like this one have been placed to retain the path taken by pioneers on the Mormon Trail, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Pony Express Trail.

Turning right on the Mormon Trail follows the original route all the way to a private property line on a hilltop. It is a beautiful drive on a two track route providing a good feel for the isolation the pioneers must have felt during this part of their journey. Keep in mind that except for the Oregon Trail nothing manmade existed in that part of the country.

Lone Writer returned to Highway 287 and followed it west to the Hudson-Atlantic City Road. That road took him to the turn onto a two track trail at a sign for Sage Creek Camp. It is a private camp used as the staging area for the Handcart Trips that are repeated many times each summer. The road leads through the camp and intersects with the Mormon Trail at the Willie Rescue Monument. Going downhill from the Monument leads to the west side of the private property that blocked the route before. Going west from the monument is closed to motorized traffic by the BLM for no logical reason. The sign says it is trying to preserve the route over Rocky Ridge but that route has been traveled thousands of times by motorized vehicles during the past 150 years without any damage so the reasoning is not logical. Hiking to Rocky Ridge at that point is a 5-mile round trip. It is possible to get much closer to it on the west side.

Getting to the west side of Rocky Ridge requires driving back to the Atlantic City road and following it west to the Lewiston Lakes Road. That road connects to the original trail and provides access to the west side of Rocky Ridge. Going the other way on the trail leads to Rock Creek Camp and the historic site where so many pioneers died.

When the pioneers reached Rock Creek they were in very bad condition both physically and mentally. Thirteen died during the night, mostly frozen to death. Two more died during the following day while the trip leaders worked at reorganizing the group. Six more supply wagons arrived which enabled many of the sick and injured to leave their handcarts behind and ride the wagons. They still had more elevation to climb in getting over the Continental Divide at South Pass so those still dragging handcarts had a lot of work ahead of them.

Lone Writer crossed Rock Creek on the gravel road and then crossed the ditch on the left where the original trail continues west. That part of the route is a two track trail that simply cuts across to another gravel road. Crossing that road ends shortly where the original trail forded Willow Creek. Lone Writer returned to the gravel road and followed the signs to South Pass City which is a restored ghost town and is time well spent.

NavigationThis navigation picks up where the story in the March issue left off at the Sixth Crossing Visitor Center. It is located on Highway 287 about 9 miles west of Jeffrey City, Wyoming. Reset your trip meter any place the mileage shown is 0.

Trip Meter Latitude North Longitude West Comments
0.0 N42 32.5130 W108 10.9700 Sixth Crossing Visitor Center. Turn west on Highway 287.
N42 32.6430 W108 13.3370 Turn left on a dirt road going through a gap in the snow fence.
N42 31.1995 W108 14.4119 This is the point where the Mormon Trail crossed the dirt road and is designated with a concrete marker.

The original trail came across the river from the left. Turn right and follow the markers. This is a dead end drive but follows the trail for about 3 miles.

2.8 N42 29.9353 W108 17.0591 At this point there is a fence across the ridge.

There is a gate on the left going down hill. We do not recommend you take that road even though it is the historic route. At some point, it enters private property by the river and could get you in trouble. Turn around and go back to Hwy. 287.

0.0 N42 32.6430 W108 13.3370 This point is back on Hwy 287. Turn west.
N42 34.6040 W108 15.8113 Turn left on the Hudson–Atlantic City Road. The sign calls it the National Historic Trails Corridor.
N42 29.3504 W108 25.1277 Turn left off Atlantic City Road on Sage Camp Road
0.3 N42 29.1679 W108 25.4085 Sage Creek Camp. This is the staging point for the handcart trips that are operated during the summer. This is a private campground.
1.8 0 N42 28.2596 W108 24.5800 This is a monument for the rescue of the Willie Handcart Company.

The original trail came up from the river at this point and headed for Rocky Ridge. I went downhill first. It dead ends at the other side of the private property. The trail to Rocky Ridge is closed at this point to motor vehicles. It is a five mile round trip hike. To get to the other side of Rocky Ridge, go back to the Atlantic City Road.

From the monument for the Willie Rescue, go back to the Atlantic City Road.

PhotosView Slideshow
Trip Meter Latitude North Longitude West Comments
0.0 N42 29.3536 W108 25.1271 Back at Atlantic City Road. Turn left.
2.3 N42 28.5394 W108 27.6922 Turn left on Lewiston Lakes Road. Sign says 4x4 advised.
N42 27.1977 W108 27.0165 At this point, the Lewiston Lakes Road connects to the original Mormon Trail. Turn left to get to the point where {{{Rocky}}} Ridge is closed.
0.6 N42 27.6176 W108 26.4858 This is the west side where Rocky Ridge has been closed to motorized vehicles

It is about a one mile hike to go over Rocky Ridge on foot and then come back. Go back to the intersection where the Lewiston Lakes Road connected.

Return to the intersection for Lewiston Lakes Road.

Trip Meter Latitude North Longitude West Comments
0.0 N42 27.1977 W108 27.0165 Intersection for access road. Go straight from Rocky Ridge.
2.8 N42 26.9286 W108 30.4061 Take the left fork near a trail marker. Gillespie Place is on the right.
3.4 N42 26.9011 W108 30.9843 Left Fork. There is a campsite here.
5.2 N42 25.9464 W108 32.5969 Turn right onto the gravel road.
9.4 N42 26.3883 W108 37.4073 This is Rock Creek Hollow Historic site. From here, follow the signs to South Pass City.

Join us next month for the Martin Company Rescue and the continuing trail to Fort Bridger.

PhotosView Slideshow

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