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The Handcart Trail: Part 6 - Sixth Crossing to South Pass City

Posted in Events on July 29, 2013 Comment (0)
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We stood beside an isolated monument in a part of Wyoming that has remained unsettled since the beginning of time. From that vantage point, nothing from modern civilization was within view. We studied the single winding path that snaked its way from the river in the valley below to the top of the hill where the monument had been placed. That path first came into existence in 1812 when the Pacific Fur Company used it to avoid Indian warriors on the usual route. It is not difficult to imagine a string of wagons and handcarts trudging uphill on that historical trail across a blanket of snow.

In the last issue of this magazine, we ended the story at Sixth Crossing in Wyoming. This is part six of our self- assigned mission to follow the trail Butch Cassidy's mother traveled as a child across unsettled lands on the way to Salt Lake City. Thanks to the wisdom of Wyoming public land managers in leaving most of the original trail open to motorized traffic, that historical trail across the state still remains unclaimed by the forces of nature. In other states, the trail has either faded away due to closure or has been converted to a modern road.

It was November 16, 1856, when Butch Cassidy's future mother passed the Willie Rescue Site Monument where we were standing. Ann Gillies was traveling with her family in a small covered wagon. There were nearly 1,000 pioneers in the group made up of two wagon trains, one handcart company, and numerous wagons in the Salt Lake rescue party. The number of handcarts in the group was gradually decreasing as their owners became unable to pull them farther. Those people were riding in the wagons.

Standing at the Willie Rescue Monument offers this view of the pioneer trail. It is the only path connecting the river to the monument.

Following the handcart trail between Sixth Crossing and the Willie Monument includes crossing a short section of the Sweetwater River Project. There were no signs found when entering from the east; however, there was a sign facing the other way at the property exit that said, “Visitors Welcome by Advance Permission.” We called the phone number on that sign several times and tried all available options in the menu, but none of those options reached anyone.

The Mormon Trail continues west from that sign, but access ends at the east property line of a private ranch. Getting around that ranch involves using the access road for the Sweetwater River Project. It avoids the ranch by using a winding path across BLM land to a county road. We crossed that county road and used another winding road that intersected the original trail near the monument where this part of the story began. It is possible to backtrack the original trail from that intersection to the west side of the same private ranch. The original trail stayed close to the river until it climbed the hill to the point where the monument is placed.

We were following the only road that had connected the Willie Monument to South Pass across Wyoming in 1856. Unfortunately, the BLM in Wyoming has given in to those who want all roads closed. It is no longer possible to follow the trail across the public land that connects the Willie Monument to Rocky Ridge. Closing that two-mile section means a 10-mile detour must be taken to get to the trail west of Rocky Ridge. It also means that most of us have been locked out of Rocky Ridge and the historical signs that were placed there many years ago.

Rocky Ridge was a major obstacle for the pioneers. The sharp rocks damaged the hooves of the teams and the wheels on the wagons. When Ann Gillies and her family crossed the ridge on November 16, 1856, it was blanketed with ice and snow. Walking across it beside the wagon without slipping and falling down was very likely challenging. Those in the group who were still pulling handcarts had to help each other with some pulling and some pushing.

The route going west from Rocky Ridge is a pleasant drive across wide-open country.

From Rocky Ridge, the trail is an easy drive in a 4x4. Grass is growing between the tracks in many places and the ruts are deep, so high clearance is a must. Much of this area is used several times a year for handcart treks. Those treks are primarily designed for young Mormons who would like to experience how their ancestors got to Utah. Of course, they will never experience the hardships like those who crossed Wyoming in 1856, and they would never want to. Every day of the 1856 trip included burials of those who could go no farther.

Rock Creek Hollow is another historical point on the Mormon Trail. It is actually dedicated to the Willie Handcart Company, which camped at that point on October 24. They lost 13 people during that freezing night and two more before leaving camp the next day. When the Hodgett and Hunt wagons passed by on November 18, they found a mass grave containing those bodies. Their diaries did not mention spending any time there.

The trail between Rock Creek and the last (ninth) crossing of the Sweetwater River cannot be followed across private lands. The easiest way to get around that private property and cross the river is to follow the signs to South Pass City.

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South Pass City is about 10 miles north of South Pass. It was founded after gold was discovered in 1867. In other words, it did not exist until many years after Ann Gillies crossed South Pass. The city and the mine had a short lifespan. Most activity faded away when the Carissa Mine closed during the 1870s, but South Pass City struggled along by servicing nearby prospectors and ranchers. During the winter of 1928 and 1929, the Carissa was reopened and South Pass City experienced a short boom.

South Pass City was first established to serve the Carissa Mine. It has been restored and is open to the public as a tourist attraction.

Even though South Pass City was a boom and bust city, it lays claim to having a lot of influence on the nation, beginning with being the first to submit a bill to the governor giving women the right to vote and hold office. South Pass City was the first territory or state to sign such a bill in December of 1869.

In 1968, a group purchased the town site and donated it to the state of Wyoming. In 2003, the state purchased the Carissa Mine and designated both as a historical place. Renovations are ongoing (admission is charged). It is being preserved as a typical Wyoming town that existed in the early 1900s. Many different stories placed on small signboards throughout the buildings explain the conditions residents lived in. For example, those who lived in the boarding house only bathed a couple times a year, yet the miners preferred to sleep with others for the body heat. The bedrooms had no heat. Tours of the Carissa Mine are scheduled to begin in July of 2013.

The graveyard at the top of the hill has a few gravestones for children who died in the early 1900s.

The cemetery is located south of the city at the top of the hill. This child only lived for four years.

In the next issue, we will finish our detour around the ninth crossing of the Sweetwater River and pick up the trail on the west side. Join us as we continue our story about the journey traveled by Butch Cassidy's mother when she was only 9 years old.

Navigation: GPS Positions
This navigation begins at the point where Highway 287 crosses the Sweetwater River. The nearest community is Jeffrey City about 19 miles east of the crossing. The Willie Center at the Sixth Crossing Visitor’s Center is located near the starting point.
Trip Meter Latitude North Longitude West Comments
0.0 N42 32.5284 W108 10.9658 This point is at the bridge on Highway 287.
2.1 N42 32.6431 W108 13.3554 Turn left on Snow Fence Road. It goes through a gap in the fence.
2.9 N42 31.9993 W108 13.6297 Use the left fork.
4.1/0 N42 31.2129 W108 14.3946 There is a trail marker at this intersection. Turn right to continue. Close any gates that you had to open.
3.3 N42 29.6422 W108 17.0925 Right turn at the Sweetwater River. There was a rock with an arrow painted on it at that turn.
3.7/0 N42 29.6946 W108 17.5174 The trail that went up the hill on the right comes back down to this road. We took the low-road left fork.
0.5 N42 29.5942 W108 18.1291 Take the right fork. The left fork is actually the Oregon/Mormon Trail, but it ends at a private ranch road.
1.8/0 N42 29.7763 W108 19.4006 Jog right on a major gravel road then left on a dirt road.
0.1 N42 29.7524 W108 19.4707 Curve to the right at this point.
1.4 N42 29.7764 W108 20.7766 Right turn.
1.9 N42 29.9691 W108 21.3147 Left on Prairie Breeze Road.
3.0 N42 29.6892 W108 22.4614 Left at the sign for Silver Creek Reservoir. Return to this point to get around Rocky Ridge.
3.9 N42 29.2150 W108 23.1512 Turn left at the T intersection. Cross the dam.
6.1 N42 28.3062 W108 24.6577 Left turn into the Willie Monument.
6.2 N42 28.2510 W108 24.5799 Willie Rescue Monument.
0.0 N42 28.3062 W108 24.6577 The road over Rocky Ridge is closed. Go back to Prairie Breeze Road.
1.8 N42 29.3495 W108 25.1298 Left on Fort Stambaugh Road.
4.4 N42 28.5248 W108 27.7021 Turn left at the sign for “4x4 recommended” to access the trail west of Rocky Ridge.
6.5/0 N42 27.1976 W108 27.0164 Turn left to visit Rocky Ridge. Turn right to continue on the trail. Return to this point to continue.
0.7 N42 27.6141 W108 26.4822 Rocky Ridge parking for hiking.
0.0 N42 27.1976 W108 27.0164 Return to the last turn.
3.3 N42 26.8871 W108 30.6434 After creek crossing, next left then left again in three-tenths of a mile.
3.9 N42 26.8128 W108 31.2497 Left fork.
5.6 N42 25.9493 W108 32.5947 Right turn. You have just crossed Strawberry Creek. Ann Gillies was here for three hours while the group rested after double-teaming through deep snowdrifts on November 17.
9.1 N42 26.3831 W108 36.5188 Continue straight to Rock Creek Hollow.
9.9/0 N42 26.3846 W108 37.3873 This is the Rock Creek Hollow Willie Handcart Site.
The original trail cannot be followed from Rock Creek to the Willow Creek Crossing at Burnt Ranch. At this point, follow the signs to South Pass City. It is a fun place to visit.

Sources

We are using numerous sources for this series, but our primary source has become lds.org and other online references with stories written by those who were there. Memoirs for the Martin Handcart Company were taken from a book by Bynne Slater Turner, titled Emigrating Journals of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies and the Hunt and Hodgett Wagon Trains. For more information, including a GPS track across the state, visit lone-writer.com or email leh@lone-writer.com.

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