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The Mormon Handcart Trail

Posted in Events on May 1, 2009
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On October 19, 1856, a raging blizzard blew across the Wyoming plains and engulfed the Martin Company just as they finished pulling their handcarts across the freezing waters of the Platte River. The clothing they wore became frozen solid. There was not enough wood in the area to build fires. They were forced to move on in search of a place to camp. That night, thirteen of them froze to death under their wet blankets. Twelve miles beyond the river, the Martin Company could go no farther. They were stranded for nine days. They were nearly out of food, many were sick and dying, their spirits were broken, and the only shelter they had were ragged tents.

On October 28, two express riders located their camp. Although the riders had no provisions to help the starving people, they had brought news that eight wagons were waiting for them at Devil's Gate. Even though that was 65 miles farther, the Martin Company had new hope. The next day, they packed their camp, took their handcarts in tow, and set out in the freezing weather for Devil's Gate.

The express riders continued searching east and found the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Trains near the Platte River. They also started moving again. The wagons soon overtook the handcarts. People being carried in the handcarts were moved to the wagons. A rider was sent to Devil's Gate for more help.

The ragged company covered 30 miles in two days. On the third day, they were met by wagons from Devil's Gate allowing more of the pioneers to ride under cover. The camp near Devil's Gate became known as Martin's Cove and has a visitor center. It was a good camping spot with firewood but would not be suitable for more than 400 people to spend the winter.

The Martin, Hodgett, and Hunt companies stayed at Martin's Cove for five days hoping more wagons with provisions would arrive. On Sunday, November 9, the companies left Martin's Cove. The sick and injured were loaded into wagons. Many of the handcarts were discarded.

As the companies moved west, they encountered more wagons that had been sent to look for them. Their numbers continued to grow. At Rocky Ridge, they met 30 wagons in one party. With careful loading, everyone found a place to ride in the wagons. It was no longer necessary to pull any of the handcarts across ice and snow. The handcarts were left behind when the wagons went over Rocky Ridge. With everyone in wagons, the companies could travel as much as 30 miles a day.

Nothing existed at South Pass in 1858. It has such a gentle grade on both sides, most would not even know a pass had been crossed if not for landmarks such as Oregon Buttes and Pacific Springs. As the companies continued west toward Fort Bridger, they met more wagons looking for them. Several of the wagons were rearranged and called ambulance wagons. Those who needed medical attention the most were loaded into those wagons and sent in a group ahead with the fastest teams on a race for professional care.

Fort Bridger was the first community they had seen since Fort Laramie. They did not spend much time there. The road from that point was well traveled and was the last stretch to their destination.

One-hundred-and-four wagons arrived in Salt Lake City on November 30, 1856. The Martin Company left Iowa with 575 people. One-hundred-forty-five of them never made it to Salt Lake City. Dozens more lost limbs to frost bite and suffered from the mental anguish of the horrors they had experienced.

Two different views of Twin Mounds. This landmark was well known to cross-country travelers. Passing between them marked the approach to South Pass.

At the end of Part II in this series, Lone Writer was in South Pass City. Although the mining activity eventually made that location the place to be, the original South Pass City was closer to South Pass at the ninth and last crossing of the Sweetwater River. The town at that location went through several names but eventually took on the name of Burnt Ranch, possibly because Indians burned it to the ground twice. Burnt Ranch later became an Overland Stage Stop and a Pony Express Stop. All of that happened long after the 1856 handcarts passed through. When they went through the only thing at South Pass were more wagons with supplies waiting for them.

Lone Writer turned left on the first road past the rest area going south on Highway 28. That road is designated as Oregon Buttes Road and runs along a line that marked the boundary for the Oregon Territory at one time in our history. Oregon Buttes Road crosses the historic trails corridor about 2.6 miles from the highway. Historic markers have been placed at that intersection.

Turning left on the historic trails leads back to the ninth crossing of the Sweetwater River. It passes through a landmark used by the pioneers known as Twin Mounds. The crossing of the river is on private property for Burnt Ranch. There would not be anything there to look at so Lone Writer made no attempt to contact the owners. There were no buildings there when the handcarts passed through. The small community that was built there in later years was burned to the ground by Indians when the Calvary abandoned it.

Going the other way from Oregon Buttes Road crosses South Pass at the original location. This pass has a gentle slope and is very wide. Wagons would have taken numerous paths parallel to each other in an effort to stay out of the dust so the trail marked today is simply the one chosen to represent all of them.

A few miles west of South Pass was another very popular location because of the natural springs that provided the first abundance of fresh water on the west side of the Great Divide. Because it was on the Pacific side of the mountains, it was referred to as Pacific Springs. During the years when the Pony Express raced across the west, Pacific Springs was a relay station. There is a historic marker beside one of the buildings.

The trail crosses Highway 28 but there is no gate at that point to get on the highway. Using another access road, Lone Writer got on the highway and followed it to the crossing point. A historic rest stop with markers has been placed at that point which is called the False Parting of the Ways. It is called that because at some point in history, a marker was placed there calling it the Parting of the Ways. In fact that is not the correct location.

Lone Writer was able to get back on the original trail on the south side of the rest stop. The trail passed another landmark called Plume Rock. About 9.5 miles from the highway, he reached the true location for Parting of the Ways. This was the point where people who had shared the hardships of traveling for months across the wilderness, made the decision to part ways. Some took the shortcut called the Sublette Cutoff to shave five days off their journey to Oregon. The downside was crossing a desert with no green grass or water for fifty miles. The others chose to continue on the safer route going to Fort Bridger. Of course there was no choice for the handcart companies because the Sublette Cutoff did not go to Salt Lake City.

South Pass is marked by two historic markers: one for the first white women to cross the pass on July 4, 1836, and the other marking the Old Oregon Trail used primarily between 1843 and 1857.

Lone Writer continued his journey to Fort Bridger. Today, it is difficult to follow the historic trails. The cities, mining activities, and private property lines have chopped the trail into many small pieces. A lot of those pieces are still remote but most of them have become well maintained county roads and some of them are paved. By carefully following the navigation logs in this story, anyone can find the same pieces that Lone Writer visited. It is an experience that allows a traveler to sample a small taste of the pioneer experience. It requires a good imagination but while in the wilderness with nothing manmade within view, it's not difficult to simply stop and ask, "What if I was walking a thousand miles pulling a two-wheeled cart with 300 pounds of odds and ends and I stopped at this point? I would be tired and hungry and just wishing the trip was over. But from this point, I see nothing different than I have seen for many months. Nothing but wide open country."

These directions follow the trail from South Pass to Fort Bridger. Any time you
see a zero in the odometer column, reset your trip meter to zero.
Latitude West Comments
0 N42 28.1014 W108 48.1837 South Pass City. Follow signs to Hwy 28.
2.2 N42 29.5773 W108 48.6088 Left on Hwy 28.
11.0 N42 22.9370 W108 53.8453 Rest Area.
11.8 N42 22.3288 W108 54.5246 Left on oregon Buttes rd. reset trip meter.
2.6 N42 20.7464 W108 52.2696 Historic Trails cross oregon Buttes road here. go
left first; then come back.
0.2 N42 20.8166 W108 51.9792 Right fork.
4.6 N42 20.7162 W108 46.6285 Left fork.
7.6 N42 22.2151 W108 43.6250 Burnt ranch private property from here to Ninth
Crossing at Sweetwater river. go back 7.6 miles to
oregon Buttes road.
0 N42 20.7464 W108 52.2696 Back at oregon Buttes rd. Continue straight
across. The oregon Buttes landmark was used as
the boundary for the oregon Territory boundary.
0.2 N42 20.6752 W108 52.5055 right fork goes to South Pass.
0.8 N42 20.5864 W108 53.2056 This is South Pass.
3.2 N42 20.2803 W108 56.0095 Stay left. right goes back to the highway.
3.5 N42 20.1020 W108 56.2848 Trail is straight. Site of Pacific Springs Stage and
Pony {{{Express}}} Station is on right.
Latitude West Comments
1.1 N42 19.7336 W108 {{{57}}}.4789 Turn right, cross creek, go through the gate and
over the railroad grade.
1.2 N42 19.7756 W108 57.7043 Turn left on two-track that runs along side the
railroad grade. Historic marker is at this turn.
1.2 N42 18.8737 W108 58.4496 right fork. Watch for historic markers.
4.2 N42 17.7367 W109 1.7618 The trail crosses this gravel road but dead ends at
Hwy 28 at a fence with no gate. Turn right on the
gravel road.
0 N42 17.9264 W109 1.7672 Hwy 28. To continue, turn left. rest area is right.
1.7 N42 17.0820 W109 3.5335 Historic rest stop with markers. False Parting of
the Ways. This is a half moon shaped drive. Drive
0 N42 17.0336 W109 3.6052 As the access road connects to Hwy 28, make an
immediate right turn on two-track road. go through
the gate and make an immediate left turn. You are
now back on the trail. Follow the markers.
1.9 N42 16.6963 W109 5.7955 Marker for Plume rocks.
1.6 N42 17.5331 W109 7.3607 This is Dry Sandy Creek. It may have been a stage
stop. Follow the markers.
2.5 N42 17.3489 W109 8.3396 Left then right on faint two-track. Follow the markers.
3.0 N42 17.0785 W109 8.8021 Left.
7.5 N42 15.4593 W109 13.6126 Parting of the Ways monument. At this point, the
road splits. Take the left fork.
2.1 N42 14.3070 W109 15.6828 Left fork beside marker.
5.6 N42 12.4210 W109 18.8501 Left at intersection. This gets around the area that
is badly washed out. It runs alongside the original
trail for a short distance then crosses it. Watch for
the marker and take the right fork.
1.6 N42 11.8344 W109 20.6091 Monument for Little Sandy Crossing. Cross the bridge.
2.2 N42 11.8180 W109 21.3199 Left on faint two track.
3.0 N42 11.2895 W109 21.9799 Left on gravel road.
4.2 N42 10.3237 W109 22.4463 Left fork to Hwy 28. Turn right on Hwy 28 and go to
Farson. gas available.
0.0 N42 6.5287 W109 26.9226 Stop sign in Farson. Continue on Hwy 28.
9.8 N42 1.0845 W109 35.4483 Simpson’s Hollow. good campsites by the river in
the hollow on the left.
1.6 N42 0.1534 W109 36.9503 Turn off the highway going left beside the wooden
post. Aim for the concrete trail marker. Stay right
at the forks until you reach the back side of the
{{{Pilot}}} Butte historic site.
0.4 N41 59.8703 W109 37.3378 Backside of historic site with simulated grave
sites. From here, follow the markers on a relatively
straight course.
2.4 N41 58.6797 W109 39.1180 Cross the graded gravel road. There is a marker on
both sides. Trail has been wiped out by road work
but continues at the marker on the other side of the
road. once again it is a relatively straight course.
4.6 N41 {{{57}}}.4922 W109 41.2713 At this point, the trail splits. There were several
crossings of the green river and as many ferries.
The trail on the right follows the trail to the Lombard
Ferry crossing and is marked as the Mormon
Trail, Pony {{{Express}}} Trail, oregon Trail, and
California Trail. It was the most popular. The one
on the left is marked as oregon Trail and California
Trail only indicating it was less popular. Take the
right fork.
Latitude West Comments
5.4 N41 {{{57}}}.2396 W109 42.1514 Cross the gravel road. The trail has been wiped out
at the roadside by road work but the marker across
the road shows the way.
1.5 N41 57.0277 W109 42.9863 Cross another trail beside a historic marker.
3.3 N41 56.5434 W109 44.9740 Construction. get onto highway. At this point,
the highway has wiped out the trail and sort of
follows the same path. Follow the highway
across the green river and turn left into the
historic site.
0 N41 52.7721 W109 48.5017 kiosk for Seedskadee National Wildlife refuge.
reset to zero and head south on gravel. The original
trail followed the green river for a while.
1.2 N41 51.7180 W109 48.2729 Left at refuge sign.
6.1 N41 47.9174 W109 47.6100 right Turn on gravel road.
7.3 N41 47.8320 W109 48.9111 Left on highway.
2.8 N41 45.6222 W109 47.4404 Trail crosses highway here. Turn left to backtrack
to refuge; then come back here.
1.2 N41 46.6288 W109 46.7732 refuge boundary. go back to highway and cross
0 N41 45.6222 W109 47.4404 Follow markers west. Stay left at first fork. Stay on
a straight line at others.
1.6 N41 44.3408 W109 48.4223 Right on well defined two track.
3.2 N41 43.4238 W109 49.7918 Left fork.
4.3 N41 42.6030 W109 50.6144 The dry lake has several roads going off to
the left and the one we took which skirts
around the south side without going under
the power line.
5.2 N41 42.5723 W109 51.5378 Right fork.
7.0 N41 41.0516 W109 53.0118 After the creek crossing with the broken
bridge, watch for a trail marker on the left.
The trail is blocked at a fence line. Continue
straight across cattle guard and turn left. It
follows the fence line then connects to the
trail which goes to the FMC plant.
2.3 N41 40.0114 W109 53.5412 This is County road 11. The trail goes south but
FMC owns the property and has it all posted. Turn
left on Cr-11.
6.4 N41 41.7330 W109 43.9503 right on Hwy 372. go to I-{{{80}}} and go west to
granger Exit 66 Hwy 30.
0 N41 36.0688 W109 {{{57}}}.2575 Watch for sign designating a historic stage station.
This is County road 375 just before the overpass
for the railroad. Turn left. You are now back on the
oregon Trail.
1.2 N41 35.4453 W109 58.1955 Stage Stop. To get here, follow the signs
for the historic marker to Spruce St. Turn
south on Spruce and it’s on the right.
Continue south on Spruce.
1.0 N41 34.6545 W109 57.7751 right fork onto County road 2.
11.3 N41 30.3284 W110 8.2291 This rock formation is named Church Butte.
Foundations and ruins on the right side of the
road were called Naggi’s Station and consisted
of a store and some other buildings.
6.7 N41 24.7631 W110 11.3191 Straight to I-80 and pass under it.
9.1 N41 23.1136 W110 13.0062 Pass under I-80 and make an immediate right.
11.7 N41 21.1709 W110 14.3532 Right on Business 80 into Fort Bridger.
20.8 N41 19.0031 W110 23.3937 Fort Bridger
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