THE OREGON TRAIL
The first wagon train to use the Oregon Trail left Independence, Missouri in the spring of 1843. In the next 40 years, nearly 400,000 people would brave the rigors of crossing the country by way of the Trail. Here we are with our own covered wagon (our Airstream trailer) 155 years later about to embark on another historic adventure, following as much of the old Oregon Trail as is presently possible.
Actually, the Trail had its beginnings much earlier than 1843 when the fur trappers - the old "mountain men" of the West - made their way across country. But their mode of travel was on horseback or afoot. The first wheeled vehicle to complete the journey over the trail was in 1841, and the first wagon train was in 1843.
The Oregon Trail has been known by many names - the Platte Trail, the Great Platte Trail, the Emigrant Road, the Road to Oregon, the Oregon Trace, and the Oregon and California Trail. Parts of it were also part of the Santa Fe Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Overland Trail, or the Great Salt Lake Trail. Indians called it the Great Medicine Road or the White Topped Wagon Trail. It was marked in the early years only by a sign where it left the Santa Fe Trail that merely said "The road to Oregon."
From Missouri, the old Trail led travelers through areas that are now the states of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River on the edge of present day Portland. The Trail meanders through the Great Plains, over the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, then along the Columbia river basin.
Our covered wagons looked a bit different than the wagons of the 1840s. A typical covered wagon of 1843 vintage was 10 feet long, 4 feet wide and 2 feet deep. The canvas cover, or bonnet, was a double thickness and waterproofed with a coating of paint or linseed oil. Often, the cover was lined with storage pockets. With space so limited, only necessities were packed. Those who attempted extravagance and tried to take furniture and such, soon had to discard them along the trail to lighten the load. The rarely used driver's seat had the only springs found on the wagon, one leaf on either side. Water barrels, a butter churn, shovel and ax, a feed trough, and a chicken coop were also attached to the wagon. The animals of choice to pull the wagons were teams of oxen. They were more durable and less cantankerous than mules, though slower. An oxen drawn wagon travelled about two miles per hour. People mostly walked alongside, often barefoot. It's hard to imagine walking those 2,000 miles.
Our Airstream trailers and motorhomes ranged from 25 feet to 35 feet in length with just a few more amenities than those of the old pioneers. All had battery power, many with solarpanels to keep the batteries charged, so television sets, radios, CB radios, cellular phones, computers, even air- conditioning, were standard fare. There were 29 such Airstreams that made up our wagon train as e left Independence on May 14, 1998. Our wagonmaster, or caravan leader, was Jerry Larson, accompanied by his wife, Joan.
Those folks of the 1840s had heard about fertile, and free farmland. Some of the pioneers were escaping hard economic times in the east. Others were free spirited adventurers, like us. Today, times are so good we are blessed with the opportunity to make the journey in comfort - just for the fun of it.
Our rendezvous point was the Campus RV Park, not far from the home of President Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by our caravan leader, Jerry Larson, and given a beautifully put together Drivers' Manual, some maps and other brochures, along with ID stickers for the Suburban and the trailer. Our parking spot in Independence was within sight of the Mormon Temple with the huge ornate spire. Not long after getting unhitched and setup, Joan Larson came down with information on the activities we would be engaged in. She explained that we would be having one meal together at every stop, always on the evening we arrived. She took our menu choices in a very organized way.
We carpooled to Stephenson's Old Apple Farm Restaurant in Independence for a good meal of baked potato and roasted chicken. Then Jerry Larson had a section of the old pioneer's guide book read to the group. These were instructions related to the organization of a wagon train or "company." It was surprising how much the old instructions were applicable to the organization of a modern day caravan 155 years later. Jerry gave us a preview of the trip, went over the format of the Driver's Manual, and explained how jobs would be allocated.
Already there appeared to be an unusual camaraderie among the caravaners. We were all excited about the things Jerry said we could expect to see. He and Joan have really done their homework. We were back at the campground by 9:30pm.
INDEPENDENCE TO FORT KEARNY
We spent four days in Independence getting well oriented with the history of the pioneers who travelled the old trail. Independence was the principal beginning point for travellers on the old Trail, though not the only one. Other towns along the Missouri also competed with some success for the business brought by the pioneers. Independence, however, had more facilities for furnishing supplies, mules, oxen, and wagons. The pioneers gathered in early Spring, waiting for the grass on the plains to begin growing. There was otherwise no feed for the animals. They needed to get as early a start as possible so as to complete the 2,000 mile journey before the snows started in the Fall. Our start in mid-May was a little later than most of those earlier starts, but then we expected to do a little better than the fifteen mile daily average of the wagon trains.
A chartered bus was at the campground at 6:45am on Thursday to take us on our first tour of Independence. It was a bit hard to visualize the modern city as the "brawling, boisterous town" it was in 1845. The emigrants arriving via steamboat on the Missouri River from St. Louis could find all they needed in supplies, equipment, and entertainment in Independence. At night the saloons did a bustling business. Independence was the "jumping off place," - the last stop for the early pioneers before they left the United States. Twelve miles to the west was the border, beyond which was the Great American Desert - Indian territory with its myriad of unknowns.
The bus stopped first at Cave Spring, a natural spring from which flowed good water at the rate of a million gallons an hour in the old days. It was probably Cave Spring that was the drawing point that brought people to Independence in the first place. As the emigrants gathered awaiting the greening of the grass in the Spring, they used the water from Cave Spring for themselves and their animals. Area development has sharply reduced the flow of water to a mere trickle now.
Our second stop was at the Red Bridge Crossing. This was a spot where the trail crossed the Blue River. The ground remains depressed from the countless wheels and hooves that passed at the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail. Erosion has changed the wagon ruts to a entle swale. It was really the Santa Fe Trail that the emigrants followed when they left Independence, a trade route to old Mexico that had been in use from the early 1820s. It would seem more accurate for the start of the Oregon Trail to be designated at the spot where it leaves the Santa Fe Trail about 20 miles west of Red Bridge Crossing, but that junction is on private property now. By the same token the California Trail should begin where it leaves the Oregon Trail, but all the reference material shows all three trails beginning in Independence.
Our third stop was at the Alexander Majors home. Mr. Majors built a prosperous freight business on the Santa Fe Trail. At its peak, his freight line had 40,000 oxen and employed over 4,000 men. In partnership with two other men, Waddell and Russell, he started the Pony Express. The Pony Express successfully shortened the time for mail delivery, but was a financial disaster for the partnership. When the telegraph lines were completed cross country, that was the end of the Pony Express. It had lasted only about 18 months. Mr. Majors home was clearly a home built for a wealthy man of that time. It sits just inside the western boundary of Missouri and, therefore, just inside the western boundary of the United States at that time. His front yard was in the Kansas Territory. On the premises he had a blacksmith shop for wagon repair. For freight, Majors used Conestoga wagons, unique because of their curved floors. Since most of the freight they carried was packed in barrels, these curved floors kept the barrels from rolling around. Each wagon carried up to 3,000 pounds of freight and was pulled by twelve oxen.
Our last stop with the bus was at Harmon Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Here the Santa Fe Trail was well marked and, again, the trail was visible as a gentle depression, or swale, running through the park. Throughout the tour, Jay Maxwell shared his expertise in the history of the trails.
The first of many GAMs were conducted on Thursday evening. These "Get Acquainted Meetings" were very helpful in getting caravaners to know each other better. Following the GAMs we all gathered in the park pavilion for ice cream and a viewing of an Oregon Trail video tape.
Friday morning brought the threat of stormy weather, but that did not deter us from a carpooling tour of several important Independence sites. We visited the National Frontier Trails Center, the Bingham-Waggoner Estate, the 1859 Jail and Marshall's Home, the Vaile Mansion, and the Truman Library and Museum.
The National Frontier Trails Center is on the site of the old Waggoner Mills which milled flour from emigrant days until 1966 when the plant exploded and burned. The mill was established to supply flour to the emigrants as they passed by. The Center displays diary excerpts from the pioneers, artifacts, and does a good job of telling the story of the trail's hardships. The artifacts included such things as a steel tire compresser, ox shoes, a typical freight wagon, a typical emigrant wagon, and many items of personal utensils and tools. One problem the travellers had was that the steel that rimmed their wagon wheels would fall off when the wood around which it was wrapped shrank in the dry desert. The compressor was a unique gadget that reduced the diameter of the tire to refit it to the shrunken wheel. Across the street from the center is the Bingham-Waggoner home and estate. This large home was built about 1855 alongside the Santa Fe Trail as it left Independence. The first owner, John Lewis, sold water to the emigrants for $5 per barrel as they passed by. In 1864 the property was purchased by George Caleb Bingham, an artist who painted real life scenes depicting life during and after the Civil War. In 1879, the estate was purchased by the Waggoners, owners of the mill across the street. The Waggoners used their wealth to add many rooms to the house. Through several quirks of fate, the home has been preserved along with all of its contents. It now belongs to the City of Independence and is maintained by a group of volunteer history buffs. The elaborate fixtures and ornate decorations make the home a showplace which reflects the prosperity of its owners. There are no roped off areas - no "do not touch" signs. Visitors are encouraged to touch and feel the furniture, quite unlike so many old restored homes. It is used often for weddings, business meetings, conferences, receptions, dinners, family reunions, and private parties. This "enjoy it to the fullest" approach made for a greater appreciation of the place.
After lunch we went to the old Jail. The dungeon like cell area consisted of small rooms within massive limestone walls. During the Civil War southern sympathizers were sometimes crowded into these small 8' x 10' cells, twenty to the room. The jail once confined the notorious Frank James and William Quantrill. A young man, obviously deep into his history, described in chilling detail how the jail was used in its time. Frontier justice were extremely harsh.
Our next stop was the Vaile Mansion. This opulent home was built in 1881 by Colonel Harvey Vaile and his wife Sophia. Vaile was a lawyer, journalist, and entrepreneur. The house shows his flamboyance and wealth. It has had running water, flush toilets, from its beginning. Ceilings on the ground floor were 14 foot high. There were very few original furniture pieces, but the rooms were filled with period pieces to make it look authentic. Unlike the Waggoner mansion, these rooms were roped off and touching the furniture was discouraged.
Our last stop of the day was at the Truman Library. By this time many caravaners were reporting tired legs and feet. The library contains an excellent portrayal of Truman's presidency. His letters to wife Bess were on display in a special exhibit. We were reminded that President Truman probably had more decisions to make that had a major impact on the world than any other U. S. president. Of special note was the mural painted on the wall facing the entrance. Artist Thomas Hart Benton captured the entire emigrant story from the landing of the river boats to encounters with the Indians.
Despite the threatening start to the day, the storm clouds blew over, and there was no rain. Our share of the predicted storm was just a lot of wind. By the time we returned to the campground the sky was a bright blue with but a few cottony clouds rushing across from the west.
On Saturday, everybody spread out doing individual things. Some did the laundry; some visited unusual attractions around the area; others just stayed in camp resting up for the first day of caravan travel.
Obviously there was much to see and do in the Kansas City/Independence area.
FIRST DAY ON THE TRAIL
Sunday, May 17, 1998 - Wagons Ho!! And we were off. The caravan leader and his early work crew left at 7:00am with the rest of the caravan leaving shortly thereafter. Very little of the old trail is still visible, but historians have pinpointed it with pretty good accuracy. The route we took was the closest highway route to the trail's original location. The route is well marked with "Oregon Trail" signs. Yet, if we had not been trying to follow the trail, we would not have known we were on a special road. The first 28 miles out of Independence were on four lane divided highway. When we turned off that we realized that by 8:30am we had covered more ground than the Oregon Trail emigrants could have covered in two days. About 55 miles out we drove through the city of Lawrence, Kansas, the town that was destroyed by Quantrill's Raiders during the Civil War.
At several points we left the paved road to drive back three or four miles on gravel roads to see certain landmarks along the old trail. The first point of interest that is mentioned often in the emigrant diaries was Blue Mound not far before reaching Lawrence. This was a tree covered high hill off to the left a couple of miles. The first point of interest we stopped at was "Coon Point" where the emigrants would have spent their fourth night out. A historical monument tells of Coon Point campground.
We crossed the Kansas River just beyond Topeka. This is a wide river, but probably quite shallow. It still must have been a challenge to the pioneers to get across. We drove across easily on a high bridge. The next point of interest was the St. Mary's Mission, a ruined Catholic church that dates to the early 1800s when the Catholic missionaries were sent to the area to convert the Pottawatomie Indians.
We crossed the Red Vermillion River about 120 miles out. The pioneers paid $1 per wagon to cross the old toll bridge here. During the busiest seasons old Lois Vieux, a Pottawatomie chief took in $300 per day in tolls. His cemetery is nearby. At the present bridge there is an emigrant cemetery where many cholera victims were buried in 1849. Cholera accounted for most of the deaths along the trail.
At Scott Spring a path led down to an area where a child's grave has been found. The child's identity is unknown. Fifty miles further, Alcove Spring was a popular camping place for the emigrants. They had a good supply of water at the springs and could rest in comparable comfort while waiting for favorable conditions to cross the Big Blue River. At Alcove Springs traces of the old trail ruts are quite evident near a hiking trail about a half mile off the gravel road. Many of the boulders around the spring have emigrant's names and dates carved into them - a sort of antique graffiti. This was one of the spots the ill-fated Donner party stopped, and one of their number - Grandma Keyes - is buried there. Our campground for the next two nights was the American Legion fairgrounds in Wilber, Nebraska - 246 miles into the trip. In one day we had covered more ground than the emigrants could have covered in two weeks. At 6:00pm we met at the Hotel Wilber for a Czech meal in the hotel dining room. Wilber is considered the Czech capital of the U.S. The 1800 residents of Wilber celebrated their 125th anniversary in 1998, and celebrate with a Czech festival every year. The Wilber Hotel was built in 1895. We were greeted by a small band playing polkas with accordions and a tuba and enjoyed a good meal.
Monday, May 18, 1998 - We visited three sites this day: Homestead National Monument, Rock Creek Station, and the Hollenberg Ranch Pony Express Station. Homestead is a monument to the Homestead law which brought thousands of people to the plains. In 1861 President Lincoln signed into law a bill that provided for "free land" - 160 acres to any head of household that would settle on the land and develop it. One of the first to claim a homestead under the new law was a Union scout from Iowa, Daniel Freeman. His farm, in a creek in a beautiful part of Nebraska, is now a national monument to those hardy folk who settled the area. Indoor exhibits included the tools and utensils found on the property, pictures of the family, and stories of other homesteaders. On an outdoor trail, there were exhibits of the many different prairie grasses and plants native to the area. A ranger told us about the tall grass that grew eight feet tall. Most of this has been plowed under now to reach the rich black soil.
Rock Creek Station, now an Historic State Park, is on the Oregon Trail at the site where Wild Bill Hitchcock murdered three men. Kit Carson and John Fremont were here in 1842. The creek was one of those points where it seems incredible that the wagons were able to get across. The banks of the creek are steep, and the creek bottom is strewn with large rocks. In time a toll bridge was built, and the owners got rich. To avoid the hazardous crossing, the travellers would have paid almost anything the tollkeeper charged. But here, the toll seems reasonable - $.50 per wagon. The ruts of the old trail are clearly visible at Rock Creek Station, The old roadway is three or four feet deep where a continuous parade of wagons wore it down.
After an excellent lunch at Ricky's in Hanover, Kansas, we drove over to the Hollenberg Ranch Pony Express Station. This is one of only two such stations where the original building still exists on its original site. Jay Maxwell, with his expert knowledge of the trail, showed us how the Oregon & California Trail Association marks the trail crossings. A white marker made of a material called Carsonite is placed on either side of the highway where the old trail crossed. At Hollenberg's, the markers had symbols of the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Pony Express Trail. We had to drive back off the road to the edge of the woods to see the marker on the opposite side of the road from the station.,
Our third GAM was held at 7:30pm. We've all now met at least fifteen of our fellow caravaners. Afterwards, Jerry and Joan conducted a drivers' meeting, outlining the travel to Minden, Nebraska.
Tuesday, May 19, 1998 - We continued west, moving camp to Minden, Nebraska. On the way most of the caravaners stopped in the little town of Red Cloud, named for a Sioux Indian Chief that may or may not have ever visited there. Red Cloud was the childhood home of Willa Cather, the renowned author of the early 20th century. Her stories and books about life in the late 19th and early 20th century Nebraska won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1922. Among the best sellers were My Antonia and O Pioneers! A museum in Red Cloud tells the very interesting Willa Cather story. The museum is located in an old bank building - an unusual four story structure.
A few miles further along we arrived at the Pioneer Village Campground in Minden. Though the temperature was hot, we were parked in the shade of cottonwood trees which made it tolerable. The campground was on the site of Harold Warp's Pioneer Village. None of us had ever heard of Harold Warp, but this place was on a par with the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan - a fantastic collection of cars, tractors, utensils,
Appliances, airplanes, bicycles, radios, clocks, cameras, pencils, pens, buttons, chinaware, buggies, carts, wagons, and much more. There were over 350 old cars. It was truly an unusual thing to find way out here in this little Nebraska town. Harold Warp grew up near Minden on his parents homestead. While a very young man, he developed a product called Flex-o-glass. He and his brother moved to Chicago and built a business that made him a multimillionaire. He started the Pioneer Village in 1953 and set up a foundation to maintain it. He dedicated it to his parents and gave it to the town. To fully appreciate the Village would require a week or more.
There was also a motel and restaurant on the grounds along with the museum and campground. We had a caravan buffet dinner in the restaurant before retiring for the night.
Wednesday, May 20, 1998 - Fort Kearny was established in 1848 - 150 years ago this year. It's first purpose was to protect the emigrants as they travelled west on the Oregon Trail. It was the first of six major forts the pioneers would pass on their journey. The fort also served as a Pony Express station during the short life of that endeavor. It was an outfitting post for many Indian campaigns, and it was the seat of government, such as there was, for the area. Toward the end, troops stationed at Fort Kearny protected the work crews building the first transcontinental railroad. In 1971 the fort was abandoned. It is now a Nebraska State Historical Park. There are many artifacts of the emigration days on display, including one of the hand carts pulled by the Mormons through the area on their way to Utah. After the abandonment, there was a concerted campaign to move the federal capital from Washington to Kearney. The military reservation at that time included 100 square miles, and the location is exactly halfway between Boston and San Francisco - 1733 miles. Even though the move made some sense, it was never seriously considered by the powers in Washington.
Fort Kearny is just south of the Platte River, the river claimed to be a mile wide and an inch deep. The Platte is not deep. It is strewn with a myriad of islands throughout its length. The Oregon Trail follows along the south side of the river for several miles before crossing. Quicksand was the most worrisome thing facing the pioneers as they sought safe places to make the crossing.
From Fort Kearny we went to the town of Kearney where we all made a visit to Cabello's, the world famous hunting, fishing, and sports supply store. Few caravaners managed to get out of there without spending some money. Then we were on our own for the rest of the day. At 7:30pm we had our 4th GAM, then icecream together, and a drivers meeting under the trees. Our leaders read from two trail diaries. Each told of the daily experience these emigrants had on trail. There were complaints of bugs, lack of fuel, scarcity of good water, and poor hunting. They described seeing many graves along the road. They had Indian scares, but there were also exclamations of beauty and excitement as they saw birds and wildflowers and encountered their first buffalo. They marvelled at the wide open spaces. We have climbed about 800 feet in elevation since leaving Independence. On Wednesday evening Jay Maxwell, our trail historian, announced that he had discovered a remarkable historical fact. The urinals in the campground men's room were obtained from a World War II prisoner of war camp in Atlanta, Nebraska.
We keep asking ourselves why a family would risk everything, leave their home and most of their possessions, to take this hazardous 2,000 mile trip to Oregon. The diaries those folks left tell part of the story. Some were escaping a burden of debt, others were running from the law, some were getting away from the acute slavery problem, some were just adventurous, but most were responding to exaggerated advertising and promotion of the rich, fertile land of the Willamette Valley in Oregon. After 1849, it was the lure of gold in California. The general character of the travellers changed then. There were more ruffians, thieves, and hard cases, and fewer families. This was the group that stirred up the Indians. For whatever reason they came, the result was the spread of the country to the west. Had it not been for these emigrants, the west coast of North America may have become British or Russian or Mexican.
FORT KEARNY TO FORT CASPAR
Thursday, May 21, 1998 - From Minden, Nebraska we followed the Platte River all day as the caravan moved to Ogallala, Nebraska. This stretch of the Oregon Trail is now Interstate 80. As we left camp, the weather was threatening, and it only got worse. The wind picked up, and the sky got darker by the minute. The car radio reported tornadoes in the area. When the rain started it was unusually heavy, definitely washing off all our dust. Several of our group had hail damage to their trailers and tow vehicles. We couldn't help but wonder how the early pioneers handled this kind of storm. Those canvas tops could only have protected just so much. The speed limit on I-80 is now 75 mph. Again, that invited a comparison to the speed of the emigrants in their wagons. Their average speed was 15 miles per day.
As we passed Kearney (pronounced Carney) we were reminded of the new archway that is planned at the nation's midpoint. The funds have already been collected to build this mammoth arch. It will span Interstate 80 and be at least as large as the big arch in St. Louis. It will probably be called the Midway Arch - 1733 miles from Boston, 1733 miles from San Francisco.
Once the rain stopped, we made several stops. The first was at Gothenburg at the Pony Express Station there. This is an original building, but has been moved to this city park. The young man tending the little store inside was full of interesting information about the Pony Express. The PE riders covered a route which matched the Oregon Trail for much of their trip. Eight miles to the west the Midway Station, another Pony Express Station. This one is in its original location.
At Mile Marker 150 we crossed into Mountain Time. At this point we were an hour ahead of Independence. By the time we arrived in camp in Ogallala, we had climbed another 900 feet to 3200 feet in elevation. The climb was so slow, it didn't seem like a climb at all. The countryside in Nebraska is mostly wide open flat country.
At North Platte, Nebraska, the Platte River divides into a north branch and a south branch. The pioneers following along the south side of the Platte at this point had to begin looking for a way to get across to then follow the north branch of the river in a northwest direction.
Another stop was at O'Fallon's Bluff. This was an often mentioned landmark in the pioneer diaries. For most of the trail, there was not a single narrow pathway, but here, the wagons were forced to go single file between this bluff and the Platte River. Their ruts are still clearly visible. Four sets of wagon wheels (hoops) have been set up to mark the old trail - an interesting interpretive display of the trail.
For lunch many of us stopped at Ole's Big Game Lounge and Grill in Paxton, Nebraska for a buffalo burger. It tasted much like beef, but was very lean.
We arrived at the Ogallala campground about 1:00pm where our hosts welcomed us warmly. At Ogallala, we were about 600 miles into the trip. It would have taken the pioneers over a month to get this far. Ogallala was a destination of many cattle drives after the railroad came. In the 1870s and 1880s it was known as the Queen of the Cowtowns and the Gomorrah of the Plains. Cowboys, fresh off the trail, made it a wild and wooly western town, flooding Ogallala's saloons and gambling parlors. Boot Hill near town is the resting place of many gunmen who thought they were better than they were. Many were taken up there and dumped into an open grave with their boots still on, then covered over.
An outdoor meal had been planned for 6:00pm, but because of tornado warnings and rain we had to move into a small recreation room. Togetherness was the word as we feasted on mesquite beans, barbecued beef and chicken, corn, and peach cobbler. Just as the food was being put out, it began to hail, then rain with lightning and thunder. The campground hosts invited all 58 of us to come to their basement for shelter as the radio and TV continued to warn of tornadoes. Again we thought of how the emigrants, with no place to hide, had to deal with severe weather.
Friday, May 22, 1998 - The most popular spot for the emigrants to cross the South Platte River was between what is now Brule and Big Springs, Nebraska. From this crossing point, the trail climbs California Hill to reach a ridge line that it follows northwesterly as it approached the North Platte River. This was the first hilly terrain the pioneers had seen since the Blue Mound back near Independence. The Oregon and California Trail Association owns several acres between the rivers here to preserve a long section of clearly defined trail ruts. On either side of the OCTA land, all trace of the ruts have been obscured by plowed farmland. We've all now become regular trail rut nuts, searching out these 150 year old depressions in the landscape.
One of the most treacherous spots on the entire trip was a place the diaries refer to as Windlass Hill. To descend into Ash Hollow valley the wagons had to come down a steep 25 degree grade for a hundred yards. The drop in elevation was 150 feet. They locked their brakes, held onto ropes tied to the back of the wagons, and hoped for the best as they slid down the long, steep hill. It must have been a scary few minutes. We climbed Windlass Hill and saw the old wagon ruts as they approached the brink. There is no evidence that they used a windlass, but they must have wished for one to ease the wagons down, therefore the name Windlass Hill. We were well winded as we hiked to the top of Windlass Hill, but the views from the top were striking and well worth the effort.
The scenery changed abruptly at Windlass Hill. From flat open prairie, the landscape became ruggedly hilly with several vertical cliffs. This land between the rivers was very beautiful. The valley called Ash Hollow is plush with trees, and there were several clear springs the pioneers could use for water. Ash trees provided shade. It must have been tempting to some just to stay here. There is a cave in one of the cliffs at the side of Ash Hollow where bones and artifacts have been found indicating there has been human life here for 8,000 years. Ash Hollow is now a state historical park. The ranger program at the Visitors Center there was interesting. At this point we were - as were the emigrants - about a third the way into the trip.
Saturday, May 23, 1998 - The old pioneers stopped about once a week for a day of rest. So, also did the caravan. We stayed in Ogallala the entire Memorial Day weekend. Many used the time to do laundry and make minor repairs to the rigs. Some ventured out to investigate the town. Some folks found time for a round of golf at a nearby course.
The Petrified Wood Gallery in Ogallala is a unique display of polished petrified wood sections. Twin brothers Howard and Harvey Kenfield have spent four decades collecting these specimens of ancient wood. Their collection would rival anything in a major museum of natural history. Not only have they collected thousands of pieces of petrified wood, but they have fashioned much of it into beautiful works of art. The small gallery is in a building between the homes of the two brothers, located on a beautifully landscaped yard with rock and flower gardens. The museum also houses a large collection of arrowheads and artifacts found in Keith County, Nebraska. In much of the artwork, the brothers have fashioned scenes of Nebraska prairie life out of small splinters of the petrified wood. The artistic designs included old barns, windmills, churches, outhouses, ghost towns, and other buildings of the old West. It was a remarkable exhibit to find in such a remote place. There was no admission fee to the museum, but a small room in the back had small items for sale.
Saturday night we all went to the Crystal Palace Saloon for a show and shootout. The dancing girls and cowboys were high school and college kids from Ogallala. The place was packed, not only with Airstreamers, but with others who'd come for the first show of the season. Dave Gragg had the honor of being escorted to the stage for kisses from all the girls. He came down with lipstick on his face and a smile. The show lasted for about an hour.
Sunday, May 24, 1998 - Sunday, those who wished went to local churches, then rested up for our next move. The weather was gorgeous, no hint of the storms that plagued us earlier. The temperature was pleasantly in the 70s. At the drivers' meeting in the evening, our leaders again read from trail diaries. We're about a month ahead of the pioneers. They reached this area in mid-June when it was much warmer.
Monday, May 25, 1998 - We spent Memorial Day on the road, moving from Ogallala to Gering, Nebraska. U.S.26 in western Nebraska closely follows the Oregon Trail route. Our route for the day took us along U.S.26 from Ogallala through Oshkosh, Lisco, and Bridgeport to the little town of Gering. The scenery was vastly different from what we'd been seeing the first third of the trip. Chimney Rock, Jail Rock, Courthouse Rock, and Scotts Bluff were all given these lasting names by the emigrants . They were landmarks mentioned in all the diaries. Other rock formations were called Castle Rock, Steamboat Rock, Table Rock, Coyote Rock, and Roundtop. At Gering, we camped at the Robidoux RV Park.
At the drivers meeting on Sunday night, Jerry and Joan again read from the old diaries. The emigrants saw Chimney Rock for three days on their trip. At one point they found an abandoned wagon and cut it up for firewood. Because of the scarcity of trees to cut for firewood, they regularly used dried buffalo chips for fuel. On this leg of the diarist's trip, a 29 year old woman died of cholera and was buried within view of Chimney Rock.
The railroad also parallels the North Platte River. We saw no less than seven trains hauling coal out of Wyoming for markets in the east as we made the trip to Gering. All the trains were pulling a hundred cars or more. One had 114 cars. We travelled for awhile north of the North Platte where the Mormons came through, then crossed the river to the south side on into Gering. The first of the named rock formations we saw were Jail Rock and Courthouse Rock. Then it was Chimney Rock. Our campsite, Robidoux RV Park, was in a wide open area near Scotts Bluff.
Chimney Rock is the most famous of the landmarks along the Oregon Trail. As the pioneers passed it, they could tell they were making progress. We passed it in a few minutes, but they saw it for two or three days as they came by. Erosion has reduced the height of the spire of the rock by 100 feet in the last 150 years, but it is still an imposing sight.
A short drive from camp took us to the Visitor Center at Scotts Bluff National Monument. The massive monolith sometimes called Nebraska's Gibraltar was named Scotts Bluff in memory of on old fur trapper, a mountain man named Hiram Scott who died alone in the vicinity after being deserted by his friends. The emigrants had to go around or across this mighty fortress of the plains. The earlier wagon trains went around, crossing at Robidoux Pass. Later, the choice was to cross at Mitchell Pass where present day SR 92 crosses. A paved road now goes to the top of the bluff, and there are many hiking trails. The road curves around through three tunnels before reaching the top.
The Dixons, Herums, Manleys and Garners did a superb job of preparing a lasagna cookout on Monday evening. Hot bread, salad, and Million Dollar Pineapple Pie rounded out the meal.
The Clevelands reported seeing a herd of cows being driven across the highway by several cowboys on horseback. Such sights are probably not unusual for the local residents, but to caravaners this was a rare sight. We watched a video in the recreation center, then played table games until time to retire.
Tuesday, May 26, 1998 - Our leaders took us on a 90 mile carpool tour of the rocks, beginning at 8:00am. Our first stop was at Chimney Rock. This unique formation is a spire about 350 feet in height. The lower two thirds of the spire is covered at its base by a large conical shaped mound of rocky debris. It is easy to understand how it was given its name, as it looks like a chimney extending up from a large tepee. Another description we saw was that it looked like an inverted funnel. As a landmark for the emigrants, no other rock held more interest. Many of them walked three or four miles out of their way to climb the cone and etch their names in the spire. In a 30 minute video at the Visitor Center we learned that, as a result of erosion, the spire is about 100 feet lower now than it was 150 years ago. One emigrant described in his diary how he meticulously calculated the height of the spire. He measured the length of the spire's shadow and the length of his own shadow, then set up a ratio to determine the height of the spire.
From Chimney Rock we drove about 20 miles to the twin monoliths called Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock. These formations are about five miles south of Bridgeport, Nebraska on SR 88. These structures were awe inspiring to the emigrants who were mostly Midwestern flatlanders. We were told that Courthouse Rock, the larger of the two, got its name because it reminded emigrants of the courthouse back in St. Louis, Missouri. It was dry and windy, but that didn't keep the caravaners from taking many pictures.
Our next stop was at the Wildcat Center in the heart of a region called Wildcat Hills. There were some excellent views from the Visitor Center. This area is popular with mountain bikers, hikers, campers, and horseback riders. We had made a big loop and were quickly back in camp.
After lunch several of the group went into town for some shopping. Gering is a small town of about 5000 residents. The Platte River separates Gering from the larger city of Scotts Bluff. A shopping mall in Scotts Bluff was a major attraction for our women.
Near sunset a nasty looking storm darkened the sky. The weather advisory said we were in another tornado alert. The wind blew, and a few drops of rain fell, but the storm passed to our south. Just at sunset a beautiful double rainbow appeared in the eastern sky against the backdrop of black clouds. For a time, the full arch of the rainbow was brilliantly visible.
Gathered in the recreation hall, we watched a movie, complete with popcorn prepared by Joan Larson. The movie was about Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa and their missionary effort in Oregon. The Whitmans were Presbyterian missionaries who went to Oregon in 1836. They brought the first wagon across the mountains. The Whitman story ended when they were killed by the Indians they were trying to help.
Wednesday, May 27, 1998 - The caravan scattered this day as everyone was on their own to explore the area. Some visited local museums. Some played golf. Others shopped, or just relaxed. Some went to the Roubidoux Pass and, on the way, saw one of the few identified graves along the Oregon Trail.
At the intersection of U.S. 26 and the South Beltway out of Scotts Bluff, there is the very well kept grave of Mrs. Rebecca Winters. This 50 year old woman died of cholera on the trail in 1852. Those who buried her crudely engraved "Rebecca Winters, age 50 years" on an iron tire rim and placed it over her grave. In 1925 when the Burlington Railroad was building a line across the Platte, the work crews stumbled upon the lonely grave. They changed the route of the railroad slightly to avoid disturbing the grave. The wagon tire told them who was buried there. Later, descendants of Mrs. Winters beautified the grave and installed the granite marker that is there now. Of the 20,000 or more emigrants who died along the trail, there are less than a dozen that have been positively identified. The wagon tire engraving put Rebecca Winters' name on this short list.
Thursday, May 28, 1998 - The caravan moved into Wyoming on Thursday, and it was a day to remember. We passed the sites of the Horse Creek Treaty signing and the Grattan Massacre. We visited Fort Laramie. We saw Register Cliff and some deep wagon wheel ruts. Each bears some further description.
The Horse Creek Treaty and The Grattan Massacre
Contrary to popular opinion, the emigrants had very little problem with the Indians of the Plains. In the early years the Indians were friendly and even helpful. Occasional cow theft was the biggest problem early on. Even then, the Indians probably considered the cows as free as buffalo - put on earth by the Creator for their benefit. Circling the wagons was done primarily to form a corral for their animals. By 1850 however, the increased number of emigrants began to cause concerns for the Indians. The emigrants were killing buffalo for sport and for their hides, and this threatened the very means of life for the Indians. In 1851 a council was called to parlay with the Indians over these concerns. Ten thousand Indians representing twelve different nations came to the Horse Creek Treaty Grounds. It was the largest such gathering in American history. In return for a government "annuity" in the form of beef subsidies, the Indians agreed that they would not bother the emigrants as they passed across Indian land. This was the first of many treaties that would be broken by the white man. There was peace for about three more years. Then came a turning point in Indian relations. It all started with a dog barking at a cow.
On August 17, 1854 a large Mormon caravan heading for Utah passed an Indian encampment. In the rear was a man driving a single lame cow. The cow was frightened by a dog from the Indian camp and ran toward the camp. The Indians were Brule, Oglala, and Minniconjou Sioux camped about six miles below Fort Laramie awaiting their promised beef allotment. One of the Minniconjou butchered the cow and served it at a general feast. The cow's owner complained to the army stationed at Fort Laramie that the cow had been stolen. On August 19th a troop led by a young second lieutenant - Lt. John Lawrence Grattan, fresh out of West Point - was sent out to recover the cow. When they arrived at the Sioux camp, the cow had already been consumed. The Indians offered to settle the dispute by paying $10 for the cow, but the owner insisted on $20. Communication was poor at best, but the army interpreter was said to have been drunk which made matters worse. Failing to reach agreement on a settlement, Grattan demanded the surrender of the Minniconjou who had butchered the cow. The Indians refused. Trying to assert his authority, Lt. Grattan fired a shot over the Indian camp. The Indians thought they were under attack and before the ensuing battle was over, all twenty-nine of the soldiers were dead. The army couldn't let this go without retaliation, and one thing led to another, each increasing in intensity. There was a lull in fighting during the Civil War because the army was diverted from the Indian problem, but immediately after the Civil War, the Indian wars resumed, until the Indians were finally subdued at Wounded Knee in South Dakota 36 years later.
Perhaps the conflict with the Indians was inevitable, but all hope of peaceful coexistence ended simply because of that initial dispute over one cow. Lieutenant Grattan's name survives in infamy as that battle near Fort Laramie is called the Grattan Massacre and the site of the battle as the Grattan Massacre Site. A monument to the tragic event stands three miles west of Lingle on Wyoming SR 157. The white man's condescending attitude toward the Indians is reflected in many of the books on the subject. Especially the books written in earlier years always refer to the Indians as savages, and the Grattan Massacre is cited as a glaring example of "savage hostility."
By the time of the Grattan Massacre, the greater part of the Great Migration had already passed. But the event was a turning point in Indian relations. As hostilities increased, it became more dangerous for emigrants on the trail, and travel on the Oregon Trail was further abated. A red granite marker on County Rad 157 about four miles west of U.S. 26 marks the spot of the unfortunate event.
Fort Laramie was a major stop for the emigrants. To the women on the train, it was like coming to a modern shopping mall. In one of the old diaries we're following, the wagon train camped three miles south of the fort for two nights while they went to the fort for supplies. These folks left about the same time we did, but it was July 8th before they reached the fort.
Fort Laramie began as a trading post established by fur trader William Sublette in 1834. As traffic on the Oregon Trail increased, the army purchased the property and established it as a sure 'nuff fort to protect the emigrants. It existed as an army outpost from 1849 until 1890. There is an interesting group of buildings there, some of which have been restored, others of which one can only see the old foundation. Some still have only their old walls standing. The fort's importance to the history of the West has warranted making it a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service. It was a park ranger that led us around, interpreting the history of the fort and relating the story of the men who served there.
One famous building at the fort was called "Old Bedlam." This was a large two story building with porches all across front and back on both floors. It was used to house the bachelor officers. The name "Bedlam" came from the riotous parties these men threw at the house. Today, Old Bedlam is the oldest standing building in Wyoming. It has been restored to its 19th century appearance.
The fort was never attacked by Indians, but as the Indian troubles escalated in the 1850s and 1860s, many of the battles fought used troops stationed at Fort Laramie. The Pony Express also used Fort Laramie as a major station.
First View of the Rocky Mountains
One rest stop was especially unique with its good view of the wide valley. Posts had been planted in the ground all around the viewing area. Each had a hole drilled in it at eye level with a plaque explaining what could be seen through the eye hole. It was here that we first saw the Rocky Mountains in the distance. One of the eye holes was directed to the tallest of the mountains, Mount Laramie. These mountains must have looked formidable to the emigrants as they pondered how they would get across such a barrier. We were still following the North Platte River. It was now wider and flowed much faster. It was also much less muddy, a further indication that we were getting closer to the mountains.
Register Cliff and The Oregon Trail Ruts
Near Guernsey, Wyoming a large sandstone cliff gave the emigrants a place to engrave their names. One might call it 19th century graffiti. The cliff wall is literally covered with names and dates, some as far back as 1843. The penchant for carving one's name continues, as we found several with 20th century dates too. Cattle were wandering free among the rocks on the path leading to the cliff, so we had to watch where we stepped.
In the same vicinity are the most prominent wagon ruts we've seen. As the emigrants had to scale these cliffs, they of course picked the lowest spot they could find. There was no other spot even possible, so every wagon went over this same path in the sandstone rock. Over time the iron tires on the wagon wheels cut ruts 4' to 6' deep for a 100 foot long stretch.
Since we were making this stop in route to our next campsite, everyone had their trailers in tow. We were also more bunched up than usual since we were timing our arrival in Fort Casper to get there in time for dinner. This made an interesting sight in the parking areas near Fort Laramie, Register Cliff, and the Trail Ruts. There would, at times, be 10 to 15 trailers parked together.
Our new campsite at Fort Casper was at 5200 foot elevation, yet we were still not in the mountains. The climb across the plains was so gradual that there was little sensation for climbing at all, yet we are 4300 feet higher than we were at Independence. Someone noted that we had crossed the North Platte River at least fifty times - always on bridges. Our friends of 150 years ago would have looked with wonder at the modern bridges we so take for granted. Soon after arrival in camp we all gathered at the Emerald Junction Grill for dinner. Then several of us drove to the foot of the mountains to watch the deer come out at sundown begging for handouts. There were still patches of snow on the mountain tops. It was a nice end to a very full day.
FORT CASPAR TO SOUTH PASS
Friday, May 29, 1998 - Gathered at Fort Caspar Campground, anxiously waiting to board the covered wagons we would later ride, we spent a day visiting some of the things to see in the area. At 11:00am we convoyed to the Ayres Natural Bridge about fifty miles east of Casper. We found ourselves in a hidden red rock canyon on a little stream - LaPrele Creek - that flows under an unusual natural bridge. This is one of the few natural bridges in the world that has water flowing under it. The bridge arches fifty feet above the water and is a hundred feet long.
The tree shaded, grassy park surrounded by high red cliffs made for an exceptionally nice picnic area. Jerry and Joan brought 87 breasts of Kentucky Fried Chicken with beans, cole slaw, and biscuits, more than enough for the whole caravan. We got a little more history here too.
According to Indian legend an Indian brave was struck by lightning near the natural bridge and was killed instantly. His people thereafter believed that an evil spirit dwelled beneath the bridge and had swallowed the life of this warrior. From then on, the Indians would not go near the bridge. So, the bridge became a sanctuary for anyone fleeing the Indians.
Jay Maxwell told us the story of little Joel Hembree. In 1961, the owner of the adjacent ranch was collecting rocks to build a small dam on LaPrele Creek. Upon turning over one of the rocks, he noticed that it had a flat face with "1843, J. Hembree" chiseled on it. After considerable research it was found that there was a nine year old boy named Joel Hembree on Marcus Whitman's 1843 wagon train. Little Joel was riding on the tongue of his wagon when he fell under the wheels of the wagon. With a fractured skull he lived less than 24 hours. The accident happened on July 18, and the company continued on into camp on LaPrele Creek with the unconscious boy. He died at 2pm the next day and was buried on the 20th. With that information, the grave was excavated. Under three feet of earth lay what appeared to be the drawer of an old oak dresser which covered the body. The fracture at the base of the skull was evident on the perfectly preserved skeletal remains. The remains were placed in a pine box and reburied on higher ground a quarter mile to the west with a new and more permanent marker. Apparently, it was considered great sport for young boys to ride on the wagon tongue between the rear oxen, with a hand on the rump of each. How remarkable that the records of that 1843 wagon train were complete enough to have this identifying information available!
The red cliffs were alive with birds swooping in to their nests. Our bird watchers, Nan Russell and Tim Traylor, concluded that the birds were cliff swallows. We'd seen these same birds with their mud hut nests at Register Cliff. The cottonwood trees were also teeming with birds singing away. The backdrop of birds created music made this peaceful spot in the canyon by the little stream an idyllic place.
These carpooling adventures have provided another way for the caravaners to get to know each other. We've been encouraged to change about, offering and accepting rides with different couples on each trip out.
Saturday, May 30, 1998 - The sun was shining, the sky was blue, but my, was it windy! We were camped in the Fort Caspar Campground at the place on the North Platte River where the emigrants had to cross. The first crossings were all done by ferry, which was nothing more than a crude raft just large enough for the wagon. Then a toll bridge was built, putting all the ferry tenders out of business. The army chose the site for a outpost they called Platte Bridge Station. After Lt. Caspar Collins was killed in an Indian raid in 1865, the name was changed to Fort Caspar.
When the buffalo, or bison, were roaming free, this was one of the areas where they were most often seen. Bison bones of an even earlier era have been discovered here by archaeologists. These earlier bison were a much larger animal. The Indians of that era hunted the bison on foot with spears.
After the visit to the Fort Caspar Museum, we headed out of town to a ranch where three wagons were waiting for us. For the next six hours we rode the trail and got a taste of what it was really like in a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail. We also got a taste of trail dust.
Each wagon was pulled by a team of two draft horses - Percherons and Belgians. In less than a half mile we were negotiating steep downhill ruts. The brakes jammed on one wagon, and all had to get off so the horses could better control the descent. While walking alongside, we had to watch for rattlesnakes in the sagebrush. About a half mile further we stopped for our "nooning" at an emigrant campsite on the banks of the North Platte. Six Indian tepees were set up there, and the cooks were preparing a lunch of stew, beans and bacon, fruit, and a biscuit. To escape the wind, we all got inside the tepees to eat.
After lunch we boarded the wagons again for a ride through the countryside, at times riding the ruts of the actual route of the Oregon Trail. Unlike the pioneer wagons, our wagons were equipped with springs, but that was scarcely noticeable. It was a rough ride.. At a place called Red Butte, Indians appeared at the top of a nearby hill. They were on the warpath. There was then a re- enactment of a battle in which about two dozen soldiers were killed. In the actual battle in 1865, there were about a thousand Indians attacking the soldiers in waves. It took 45 minutes, but in time the Indians overwhelmed and massacred the soldiers. This was the Battle of Red Butte, memorialized by a small cemetery with headstones for the soldiers, though their remains were never recovered. .
By the time we arrived back at our starting point, we had been about six miles in about six hours - about the same distance the emigrants would have travelled in the same length of time. As we approached, there appeared on the horizon a long line of strange looking vehicles - maybe Martian spaceships? No, it was our convoy of suburbans, vans, and pickups right where we'd left them - all coated with a layer of dust. We had a new appreciation for our own newer, smoother riding wagons. What a day!! This was the highlight of the trip so far - a day to be long remembered.
Sunday, May 31, 1998 - After a cool night that demanded blankets, we arose to a beautiful day. The sun was out; the air was clear - and there was no wind! Those who wished found area churches to attend. Then, after lunch we again went rut hunting.
It was in this area that the pioneers had to cross the North Platte for the last time. The next fresh water was 18 miles away at Willow Spring. Knowing they had to make this in one day, the emigrants started before dawn and did not arrive at the springs until after sundown. We followed their path almost exactly along a dusty, dirt road. There was water along the way, but it was heavily alkaline, therefore poison to cattle. The emigrants had to fight their thirsty cattle to keep them away from this water. Those that drank the water died almost on the spot. One diary told of seeing 35 dead cows during the day. The hilly countryside gave them further trouble. We passed such landmarks as Emigrant Gap, Rock Avenue, and Devil's Backbone, before arriving at Willow Spring.
Emigrant Gap was a convenient gap between two hills - a welcome sight for the wagons, even though the hills were not extremely high. Rock Avenue was the part of the trail that ran alongside the Devil's Backbone, a long ridge of rugged rocks. We stirred up clouds of dust. This must also have been a problem for the emigrants. The dust, which collects as a fine powder in every exposed crevice of man and machine, becomes a slick mud after a rain, making the roads impassable.
The next landmark was Prospect Hill, a long pull up a steep grade. At the top, we and the emigrants saw the Green Mountains in the distance. The emigrants could stand here and ponder their prospects for what lay ahead. All through this area are traces of the old ruts. In this particular area, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, and the Pony Express Route all came together.
Monday, June 1, 1998 - When we left Casper, we also left the North Platte River which the Oregon Trail followed for 400 miles. The emigrants took 7 or 8 days to get to Independence Rock. Their goal was to reach Independence Rock on Independence Day, July 4th - hence the name. It took us just an hour. By 9:00am the rock, which resembles Stone Mountain in Atlanta except that it is in the middle of nowhere, was teeming with caravaners. Climbing to the top of Independence Rock was a challenge which few could pass up. The emigrants chiseled their names by the thousands on the rock. Many of these inscriptions are still visible along with the more modern chiselings.
The next landmark we came to was Devils Gate. Somehow, the little Sweetwater River chiseled its way through a huge outcropping of rock to form this gap in the mountain. The river takes up the entire bottom of the gap. It was here in 1856 that the Marin company of Mormon emigrants met disaster. They left the east too late in the season, reaching the Devils Gate area in October. Caught by an early snow storm, hundreds of them froze to death. The Mormon church has recently purchased several thousand acres of the Sun Ranch to make this spot a church shrine. They have set up a Visitors Center and have built several hundred replicas of the emigrant carts. Their members can experience the effort required in pulling one of those carts across such rugged terrain. Several of us walked the half mile trail into the Devils Gate - an unusual scene.
The third landscape feature which the emigrants mentioned in their diaries was Split Rock. Several view points along the road called attention to Split Rock. It was a "Vee" notch in a tall formation that would probably go unnoticed unless attention was called to it. But the emigrants saw it and marked their progress by it.
Driving into the wind most of the day really drank up the gas and diesel fuel. The wind was so stiff that when going down steep grades the gas pedal had to be pushed instead of the brakes to keep moving. We all arrived safely at the Hart Ranch Campground near Lander, Wyoming shortly after 1:00pm. At Lander, we were over a mile high - 5400 feet elevation. There was time for some to some sightseeing. Others chose to do the necessaries like laundry and car washing. An excellent campside meal was catered - thick slabs of sirloin steak, barbecued to perfection, with beans and slaw. Afterwards, the ranch hands put on a skit depicting typical scenes from 19th century Lander. .Then, we sat around a campfire, sang songs, and roasted marshmallows until time to retire for the night.
Tuesday, June 2, 1998 - This day started with a campfire breakfast, served by our host at the Hart Ranch. Large pots cooked over the open fire for an hour while we looked on, wondering what was inside. When "the mayor" opened the pots and started serving, it was a mixture of scrambled eggs, onions, potatoes, and cheese, to be served on a tortilla. Quite good. "The mayor" called it a "sore tummy" breakfast.
Before the breakfast was fully digested, we were off for a tour of the Eagle Bronze Foundry in Lander. These people cast bronze replicas of sculptures brought to them by various artists. The process requires creating a mold, lining it with wax, placing a cast on the outside, heating the result until the wax melts and runs out, then pouring molten bronze into the void. Once the bronze sets up, the plaster is chipped away, and the bronze casting is polished into a beautiful piece of artwork. The size of the castings ranged from a small statue - 5 to 6 inches tall - to huge castings 30 feet long, such as a full size dinosaur. One of the things they were working on was a 1 1/2 times life size cattle drive that is being placed in a park in Dallas, Texas.
Six miles from Lander is a place called Sinks Canyon State Park - Sinks because the river sinks into the ground, then rises again. We did not expect to see anything so spectacular, but this is considered the 8th wonder of the world. The Popo Agie (pronounced Paposia, like ambrosia) River is a rushing mountain river that disappears into the mouth of a cave. A quarter mile down the canyon, it reappears in a large calm pool called "The Rise.". What is really strange is that it takes two to six hours to do that. If it were flowing on the surface, it would probably flow that distance in a few minutes. Also, there is more water coming out than going in, and the temperature is several degrees warmer. There is no way of knowing what path the water takes to get that half mile. The canyon itself is also unusual. The slope on one side is a plush green conifer forest, the other side is rocky and almost barren. There is a herd of bighorn sheep in the canyon, several moose, deer, and other animals, but we didn't see any. The scenery is beautiful in contrast with the dry dusty terrain so widespread just a few miles away.
Wednesday, June 3, 1998 - As we approached the summit at South Pass, we climbed 3,000 feet in about 25 miles. The grades were 6 and 7 percent. One could not help but try to visualize the struggling oxen pulling the emigrant wagons up these grades. For them, the grades had not been made even and smooth like ours. Surprisingly, the diaries generally expressed surprise that the ascent to South Pass was so easy. Perhaps they had been hardened by the rugged terrain they had already gone through. South Pass was the halfway point in the emigrant's journey - also the halfway point in our caravan.
We passed the Continental Divide about 30 miles out of Lander. This is the line along the ridge of the Rocky Mountains which divides the water flow from east to west. From this point on, the rivers and streams will all be flowing toward the Pacific Ocean. The Continental Divide here was also the western boundary of the land Thomas Jefferson purchased in 1902 from Napoleon called the Louisiana Purchase.
South Pass doesn't look like a classic pass through the mountains. It is ten to fifteen miles wide. The high mountains can be seen in the distance, but except for the cooler air and patches of snow around, one would think they were on the plains with gentle rolling hills. Many pronghorn antelope were out in the sage brush. At several spots along the road monuments to the pioneers had been placed. One said simply, "THE OREGON TRAIL - IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO PASSED THIS WAY TO WIN AND HOLD THE WEST" Another marked the "Parting of the Ways" - the place where those headed for Utah and California took a more southerly route, while the rest continued on toward Oregon.
SOUTH PASS TO STRICKERS STORE
Thursday, June 4, 1998 - Our campsite for three nights was at the Foothills RV Park in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Kemmerer is a town of about 3,000 residents. It began as a mining town at the turn of the century. It also was the home of James Cash Penney in 1902 when he founded J.C. Penney Stores. The "mother" store is in downtown Kemmerer.
After a rainy, cold night we awoke to reports that there was as much as seven inches of snow in higher elevations, like South Pass. It seems we were fortunate to make it through the pass yesterday.
After visiting Fossil Butte National Monument, there were no planned activities for the next two days. The time was used for haircuts, vehicle maintenance, laundry, seeking out local attractions, or just relaxing on a rainy day.
Friday, June 5, 1998 - There was snow on the ground at daybreak this day, and the temperature was in the low 30s. Patt Herzing was out early creating snow men on the picnic tables in the park. She and Bill have a beany baby rabbit named Floppity. Floppity experiences everything the Herzings do and gets her picture made in all the important places on the Oregon Trail. So, a picture of Floppity and the Herzing snow man seems in order.
This kind of cold weather makes us sympathize with the original Oregon Trail emigrants. They had no electric blankets, no propane furnaces, no way to escape the cold wind. Their only heat came from campfires fueled with buffalo chips. There were other things we take for granted that the emigrants would have been amazed at - paved highways, gas stations, electric blankets, microwave ovens, television, satellite dishes, computers, video cameras, air conditioning, and solar panels to generate electricity for it all. Camping in 1998 is tough.
Fort Bridger began as a trading post established by mountain man Jim Bridger about 1844. It became a major supply point for the earlier wagon trains, second in importance only to Fort Laramie. Bridger sold it to the Mormons in 1853. Thereafter most of the wagon trains used a shortcut, or either the Lander Cutoff or the Sublette Cutoff, to avoid the post. The U.S. military took the fort in 1857, and it remained a military post until 1890. It was a Pony Express station. It is now a Wyoming State Historic Site. Visiting the site, one could easily miss the reconstructed fort in the rear of the park. Most of the displayed area deals with the Carter estate (a later trader) and the army installation. The little Fort Bridger Trading Post, stuck way back on the property, looks the way it would have in the mid 1800s. It is still a trading post - now trading with tourists.
Saturday, June 6, 1998 - From Fort Bridger to Fort Hall in Idaho, the Oregon Trail follows alongside or under U.S.30. About 2 1/2 miles before reaching Cokeville, the folks who took the Sublette Cutoff rejoined the trail. Fifty miles from our campsite in Kemmerer we entered Idaho, and the scenery almost immediately changed. With snowcapped mountains in the near distance, the foothills were green and abounding in trees. Shortly, we came to Thomas Fork, a wide, boggy area and creek that caused the emigrants considerable grief. After getting through that, they had to climb "the Big Hill" - thought to be the steepest, longest hill they had seen. While the ascent was long and tedious, the descent was abrupt and even more difficult. The wagon brakes were not capable of holding back on the descent, so ropes were tied to trees to help brake the descent. We, of course, were driving on a smooth, graded highway, just reading the signs at the historical markers about the problems the emigrants had. The further into Idaho we went the more beautiful the mountain scenery.
At Soda Springs, the emigrants marvelled at aprings, geysers, and a beautiful landscape. So did we. We were startled by something else extraordinary - red hot lava cascading down a man made mountain. Monsanto Chemical operates a phosphate refinery in Soda Springs that produces elemental phosphorus for use in laundry detergents and other products. Part of their process is the removal of slag from the ore. Every 10 to 30 minutes a large vat of molten waste material is dumped off the cliff. It looks just like a volcanic lava flow. It quickly cools and solidifies, urther building the mountain.
We sampled the soda water from Hooper Spring, the only one still flowing out of more than a hundred that the emigrants saw. The soda water contains silica, iron, calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate radical. It tasted like - soda water.
A geyser blows off at regular intervals in a city park. This is the world's only captive geyser. In 1937 the city was attempting to find a hot water source for a swimming pool. They drilled down 315 feet and to everyone's surprise unleashed the geyser which shoots up 100 feet or more. They were able to cap it, but can open it at will depending on the direction and force of the wind. It was set to open every half hour when we got there.
We arrived in Pocatello early in the afternoon, camping at the Pocatello Fairgrounds. A horse race was in progress at the fairgrounds track. Later we all went to a nearby restaurant called "Frontier Pies" for a delightful dinner.
Sunday, June 7, 1998 - We were Methodists today in this predominantly Mormon community. There were 14 caravaners there. There was a unique communion service. A loaf of bread was broken. The congregation went forward, and each person broke off a piece of the bread and dunked it a cup of grape juice, then ate it in one motion.
After lunch at another "Frontier Pies" we drove out to a replica of Fort Hall. This historic fort was originally about 14 miles away on the Oregon Trail. The new Fort Hall was established in a city park on the north end of Pocatello, Idaho. The original was established in 1834 as a fur trading post by Nathaniel Wyeth. Three years later he sold it to the Hudson's Bay Company, putting it into the hands of the British. The British attempted to influence the early emigrants to divert to California, leaving Oregon to them. It didn't work. The emigrants kept coming, insisting they would continue on to Oregon. Fort Hall became an important rest stop and resupply station. A number of authentic exhibits were set up at the new fort.
Adjacent to the new Fort Hall, there is an outdoor zoo with deer, elk, buffalo, and several varieties of birds. A museum was also on the premises, but it was closed for the day. Several caravaners used free time on Sunday afternoon to resupply at the Walmart trading post. There were some alternatives like the Pine Ridge Mall or Albertsons.
Monday, June 8, 1998 - About 16 miles west of Pocatello, a dam and power plant have been built on the Snake River. The resulting lake or reservoir is huge. Just below the dam are the American Falls, a scenic spot where numerous species of birds, including several white pelicans, were milling about. There is apparently good fishing in the river at that point as evidenced by the birds and the human fishermen present.
On the way back to Pocatello, we stopped at the Shoshone and Bannock Trading Post and Museum. There were many Indian artifacts - also pictures of their prominent chiefs. Chief Pocatello was given special honor in the gallery. He was a hero to the Shoshone, but an outlaw to the white man.
On Monday afternoon we had a tour of the FMC phosphate plant just west of Pocatello. This plant produces the same product as the Monsanto plant in Soda Springs - what they call elemental phosphorus. The plant uses the same amount of electricity as is used in the entire city of Seattle, Washington. That is a major factor in locating it in Idaho where electric power is cheap. We watched a video of the process, then did a convoy tour with the guide on the CB around the exterior of the plant. It was a mammoth operation.- dirty and hot.
Tuesday, June 9, 1998 - After three days in Pocatello, we were on the road again, headed for Twin Falls. We lost two wagons in Pocatello. The Traylors took a cutoff to Boise to fulfil an assignment there. The Garner wagon lost a few of their horses (or rather their transmission), but they hope to catch up later. The other wagons were all repaired, resupplied, and ready to go. From Pocatello we followed the Snake River in the rain past such historic places as Massacre Rocks, the City of Rocks, and the Milner Ruts. Each would have been an opportunity for hiking and picture taking had it not been raining.
Massacre Rocks gets its name from three clashes with Indians in 1862. The battles which left five whites dead and an unknown number of Indians led to the naming of the rocks. This was almost 20 years into the great emigration, so most of the emigrants passed before this event. There are two rock masses on the southeast side of the Snake River with just enough gap for the passage of the emigrant wagons. The City of Rocks is mentioned in numerous diaries. In the midst of an almost treeless, flat plain there is an outcropping of unusual rocks that reminded the emigrants of buildings in a town. The Milner Ruts is a place where several miles of wagon ruts are still visible. The emigrants followed along the south side of the Snake River.
As we approached Twin Falls, the sky cleared with only a beautiful patchwork of cumulus clouds. The caravan parked in the Twin Falls County Fairground in Filer, Idaho.
A three day dog show was concluding at the fairgrounds, so we got a bonus watching the various breeds of dogs perform and be shown off. These folks, whose life is built around showing their dogs, go all out. Some travel from show to show in their motorhomes with 7-10 dogs with them. There was also a rodeo workshop in progress, so horses and riders were making a steady passage through our campsite.
For dinner we all went to North's Chuckwagon Buffet in Twin Falls and did what caravaners do best. The Ruffin and Edwards wagons came into camp at the fairgrounds, joining us for dinner. Al Scheibe introduced Don and Barbara Edwards, and Bob Rihm introduced Harding and Faye Ruffin. They were on their way to Boise. After dinner, there were many versions of working off a big, delicious meal.
We rode with Jay and Glenda Maxwell to some interesting spots along the north rim of the Snake River Canyon. Jay had found a place earlier where the Shoshone Falls could be seen from that different angle. The road was gravel, and we had to walk a short distance over rugged rocks to get to the canyon rim. We then drove across the Perrine Bridge and east along the canyon rim to Twin Falls. At one time there really were twin falls, but a power plant and dam have eliminated one of the twins. In the summer dry season all the river water flows through the power plant turbines, leaving none to flow over the falls. At this time of year, however, there was plenty of water, and the falls were spectacular.
Wednesday, June 10, 1998 - We conquered the Snake River this day - in rubber rafts. It was a three mile trip through whitewater in the Canyon Springs section of the river. Entering the water at Centennial Park near Twin Falls, the smooth, gently flowing river gave no hint of the wild, surging, turbulence that lay ahead. Warned that we might get a little wet, we innocently boarded four rafts, eight people to each raft. The first mile was a slow float through the canyon where the walls were 400 feet high volcanic rock. The canyon was wide, with space on either side of the river for beautiful golf courses. Further along, birds of many descriptions were on the rocks and in the trees. There were gulls, and herons, and white pelicans, and a host of smaller varieties. Waterfalls from small creeks emptying into the Snake adorned the dark canyon walls. Then came the whitewater!
There were four sets of rapids. The first was mild, then we plunged into deep waves that washed over the raft, soaking everyone aboard. The third set of rapids was almost as fierce, and the last, only slightly milder. The river was at its spring high. Our pilot said we'd been through a Class 3+ or 4 run. After the fourth turbulence we paddled for dear life to get to a relatively calm spot on the rocky shore. Just a short distance downstream was a Class 6 rapid that no raft has ever tried. We were a cold, bedraggled, soggy crew, yet exhilerated, when we stepped ashore to await the arrival of a school bus to take us back to Centennial Park.
The bus ride up a narrow, winding path along the canyon wall was almost as fearsome as the raft ride. Had we known that it was the driver's first time at it, we may have worried even more, but we made it back safely. The day was beautiful for the excursion with clear skies and little wind. We had been a little over three miles, in an hour and a half, on one of the roughest parts of the river.
Back in Centennial Park we dried off, then enjoyed a picnic lunch on the canyon floor. At that point we were a hungry bunch of caravaners, ready to relax for a bit After lunch, several of us drove upstream above the canyon to Shoshone Falls, called the "Niagara of the West." Here the Snake River plunged 212 feet in an awesome display of power. Though not as wide as Niagara, these falls are 52 feet higher - still a massive flow.
We enjoyed a teenage rodeo at the fairgrounds later in the evening as an unexpected bonus on this day. To say this was a day to remember would be a gross understatement.
Thursday, June 11, 1998 - This was a day we could go and do what we chose. Some played golf. Some sought out laundries and car washes. Others sought out sites along the Trail. One of things reported was a trip to Stricker's Store on the Oregon Trail. This was the next evidence of civilization the emigrants came to after leaving Fort Hall. It was on Rock Creek where there was plenty of water and good grass for the animals. The emigrants camped here, usually for a day or two to rest. It later became a stage coach station.
Stricker's Store, established in 1865 has been designated as a national historic site, but is in sad disrepair - probably like all such sites before someone showed enough interest to restore it. At the gate is a "Welcome to Strickers" sign made of barbed wire. The store building itself was in pretty good shape, but the outbuildings were falling down. The remains of a covered wagon was strewn about a nice new monument. The ruts of the Trail were clearly visible, running right in front of the store. There were two underground rooms, one was once used to keep the drinks of the saloon cool. The other was used as a jailhouse. The Stricker home was adjacent and in good repair, though it was locked up. Going back through the weeds, we could stand on the banks of Rock Creek. This very significant site needs some tender loving care, but it was none the less interesting.
On Thursday afternoon, Bob Mann and I played golf at the Canyon Spring Golf Course down in the canyon. The scenery was distractingly beautiful. At one point I teed up and hit a golf ball all the way across the Snake River.
Most of the caravaners drove into Twin Falls in the evening for a outdoor concert by the Twin Falls Municipal Band. From the City Park Band Shell, the program was called "Happy Feet." Most reported an enjoyable evening listening to music that folks our age like.
Friday, June 12, 1998 - We did little today, resting and relaxing in camp. Others fanned out to visit local attractions. We've decided that Twin Falls is a very desirable city - very progressive and modern. There doesn't seem to be any industry here, but lots of farms. The Snake River canyon is the major attraction. The area is called the "Magic Valley."
I had to exchange the HP color printer purchased in Pocatello for a new one. There was no question about doing that at Office Max.
Saturday, June 13, 1998 - It was impossible for the emigrants to cross the Snake in the deep canyons around Twin Falls. About 25 miles downstream the first of several ferries was established to move wagons across, but to ford the river and thus avoid the ferry fees, they had to go 50 miles downstream to cross at Three Island Crossing. Even here it was not easy. Some floated their wagon boxes over, converting them into rafts. Some raised their wagon boxes higher on their chasses. It was a scary time. The wagon trail ruts are still visible across the river where the wagons came down to the floor of the canyon. There is now a beautiful state park on the north side of the river at Three Islands.
The caravan moved from Twin Falls, Idaho to Baker City, Oregon in about five hours - a distance of 250 miles. We stopped at Thousand Springs, Three Island Crossing, the Welcome Center at the Oregon Border, and Farewell Bend. It took most of the emigrants a month to make the same move. We crossed the Snake River several times (or it crossed under us), as we generally followed it into Oregon. As we crossed the state line, we had to change our watches and clocks again. We're now three hours behind the clocks in the east.
Thousand Springs is an area of the Snake River Canyon where multiple springs pop out of the canyon walls to pour into the river. Farewell Bend was where the emigrants left the Snake to cross over to the Columbia, thus the name - Farewell. The park at Farewell Bend is beautifully landscaped - a pleasant place to sit and ponder. The river is wider here than at any other place we saw. Campgrounds at Three Mile Crossing and at Farewell Bend were inviting.
A major stop for the emigrants was at Fort Boise. Since we were returning to Boise for the International Airstream rally, we skipped that stop. What's there is a replica. The old fort is long since gone. As we crossed the state line into Oregon, the scenery abruptly changed again. Now it was almost barren, not so gentle, hills. Because of the steepness of the hills and the lack of grass for their animals, the emigrants recorded this as the roughest terrain of their journey so far. Family heirlooms, furniture, stoves, any extra weight had to be abandoned to make the grades. The trail was littered with the discards.
Descending into the Powder River Valley, we arrived at Baker City, Oregon and the Oregon Trails West RV Park. Baker City is the birthplace and boyhood home of Wally Byam, the founder of the Airstream Company. A museum in town has an exhibit that tells the Wally Byam story.
Baker City is nestled in a green valley with the snow capped Elkhorn Mountains to the west and the even higher Wallowa Mountains to the east. When gold was discovered in 1861, little towns sprang up along the Powder River. In time, Baker City became the "Queen of the Gold Mining Towns." The city is named for Oregon's first U. S. senator.
Our evening meal was at Haines Steak House, a renowned establishment about fifteen miles from the campground. We had a choice of steak, halibut, or chicken in a very western setting. The little town of Haines is an old western town with not much going on aside from the restaurant.
BAKER CITY TO OREGON CITY
Sunday, June 14, 1998 - After church in Baker City, we drove out to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center on Flagstaff Hill, about five miles from town. Here the history of the Trail really comes alive. No better interpretation of the Oregon Trail exists. There are life size figures of the emigrants, their animals, and their wagons, in poses that represent the many emotions, struggles, and heartbreaks. Much of the motivation that brought the emigrants west is explained. There were pictures, quotations, scenery depicting the hardships and triumphs of the emigrants from Independence to Oregon City. Outside there were trails to walk to see the wagon ruts of the Trail.
Treeless Flagstaff Hill was chosen for the Interpretative Center because of the panoramic view from the summit. From the top of the hill, fifteen miles of the Oregon Trail can be seen as it passes by in the valley below. Some of us walked the short, 2 1/2 mile trail; others walked the longer, 4 mile loop. The hillside is covered with purple sage, intermingled with several varieties of grasses and many wild flowers. The emigrants saw these flowers too. Having travelled the Trail as we have, the Interpretative Center was very meaningful.
Back in Baker City, we lined up for a horsedrawn tram ride through the city. We rode right down Main Street where the store fronts have all been restored to their 1890s elegance. The gem of the buildings is the Geiser Grand Hotel which includes every luxury available when it was completed in 1889. It has Otis Elevator No.3, only the third such machine made by the company. The main dining room has an outstanding stained glass ceiling. Restoration of the hotel was completed just this year (1998) after three years and six million dollars. City Hall sports a Seth Thomas clock in its tower, and one of the banks has an 80 ounce gold nugget on display - a nugget found nearby during the gold rush days.
An unusual feature of Baker City was the extensive underground network of tunnels that were dug and used by the Chinese. Valued only for their labor, the Chinese were not allowed to be seen out on the streets in town, thus the tunnels provided a way for them to go back and forth from their jobs to "ChinaTown."
Baker City came along after most of the Oregon migration was over, so it was not something mentioned in the emigrant diaries. There were many comments about the steep, treeless hills in this area though. The last hundred miles had been tough, but now, the valley ahead looked good to them. Though there was still more hazardous country ahead in the 300 miles yet to go, there would be some respite for awhile. In fact, the area here looked so good to them, there were some who came back to settle here..
After the wagon ride through town, we visited the Oregon Trail Museum in Baker City. This was once what was called a "natatorium" - a combination swimming pool, skating rink, and dance hall. The swimming pool has been filled in, and the room now houses all sorts of antique things - automobiles, tools, wagons, sewing machines, etc. There are clothes exhibits, rock exhibits, shells, musical instruments, military equipment, and a host of other things. It was a good museum with lots of artifacts, yet we couldn't help but wonder why it was called the Oregon Trail Museum. There was very little about the Trail to justify the museum's name.
Monday, June 15, 1998 - Despite rain, most caravaners took a side trip to Hell's Canyon this day, a descending drive into the gorge. At Hell's Canyon, the Snake River has carved the deepest gorge in North America - about 70 miles north of the Oregon Trail.. This was a sight the emigrants never saw. And what a sight it was! As we drove north along SR86 past the Interpretive Center, the countryside gradually changed from treeless hills to forested canyon. We followed the Powder River to the little town of Oxbow where the Powder joins the Snake, then followed the Snake down into the canyon. At the end of the road, the cliffs alongside the canyon were as high as a mile. Bighorn sheep were spotted on the steep cliffsides.
At Oxbow, we crossed a bridge that took us to the Idaho side of the Snake. Following that road another seven miles brought us to the Hell's Canyon Dam where the jet boat ride began. Those who took the boat ride descended several miles deeper into the canyon. The rain stopped, and the sun came out about 11:00am, making for some great photo opportunities. These canyon walls were not quite vertical as they were near Twin Falls, but they were rocky and rugged. It is a unique place - a must see for anyone visiting this area. The almost 200 mile round trip from Baker City was well worth the effort.
Tuesday, June 16, 1998 - When the pioneer emigrants came out of those steep hills into the broad Baker Valley, they saw flat valley for as far as they could see. With snow capped mountains on either side, they marvelled at the scenery, and they had a respite from a tough part of the Trail. But, it was not to last long. After 30 miles in the flat valley, they started seeing trees, then the hills started again. After 50 miles they approached the Blue Mountain Crossing and had to negotiate the steepest grades yet. Two of the grades exceeded 50 percent (steeper than 45 degrees). To get up the first, they had to use eleven yokes of oxen (22 animals) to get each wagon up. On the second, it took ten yokes. In the trees they had to remove fallen timber from the trail.
We stopped at Blue Mountain Crossing and walked over to the clearly visible old wagon ruts. The terrain looked impossible, but the emigrants did it. Had we not stopped, we could have been through the crossing in fifteen minutes. It took the emigrants 10 days. The scenery was beautiful, but it's likely they had little time to enjoy it. To descend these treacherous slopes, they chained heavy logs to the backs of their wagons for brakes. Once across the Blue Mountains the countryside opened up again to a treeless desert, and the road started a long descent. In 17 miles, we dropped from 3800 feet elevation to 1000 feet. The steep descent made us wonder about going back up on our return trip. At our new campsite in Boardman, Oregon, we saw the Columbia River for the first time and had a beautiful spot on the river to camp. We had come down another 500 feet in elevation.
All along this section of I-84 were signs pointing to sites along the Trail route where traces of the old road could be seen. The Levers reported a side trip to the little town of Echo on the old Trail. They called Echo a treasure trove of history and saw more well defined wagon ruts.
In the evening, we were treated to a cookout on the grounds of the campsite. Our cooks, the Gerens, DeWittes, Ranbergs, and Graggs, fed us well with ham, beans, potato salad, rolls, strawberry shortcake, and ice cream.
THE COLUMBIA RIVER
Wednesday, June 17, 1998 - We awoke to a beautiful day - not a cloud in the sky. After crossing the Blue Mountains the day before, we were ready for a little rest. Our campground on the Columbia River was a beautiful spot. Actually, the river here is called Lake Umatilla, created by a dam downstream at The Dalles. Tugboats and barges are a common sight. A walking and bike path borders the water.
From Walla Walla, where Marcus and Narcissa Whitman had their mission, the Oregon Trail generally parallels the Columbia River, although the Trail was too far from the river for it to be seen.
Jerry and Joan led a convoy back to Pendleton to tour the Pendleton Mills. Comments ranged from "good" to "hot and noisy." From the mill they went back to the little town of Echo where those with enough energy walked about three miles to see some well defined wagon ruts.. Some folks went to Walla Walla to visit the Whitman Mission. Others went to The Dalles.
Thursday, June 18, 1998 - It was another gorgeous morning when the caravan left for its final stop in Troutdale. This last 150 mile leg of the caravan was nothing short of spectacular. Our first stop was at a monument where the emigrants first saw the Columbia River. They had to descend a steep hillside through a narrow pass to reach the point. After so many miles of hardship, this must have been a thrilling sight to them.
Wagon ruts were clearly visible for several hundred yards alongside the highway. After crossing the Deschutes River, the Trail left the river again for more level terrain, then returned at The Dalles.
Until 1846 The Dalles was the end of the overland portion of the Oregon Trail, but the emigrants still had to get to the Oregon City/Vancouver area. The Barlow Road, opened in 1846, provided an overland alternative to the Columbia. Although a toll was charged to use the Barlow Road, it was less expensive than fees charged to ride the river. The road was no picnic though, so when reaching the Columbia a decision had to be made whether to go overland or go on the river. To go on the river meant abandoning their wagons and putting the few things they had left on crude rafts. Heavy winds in the Columbia River Gorge made the float trip hazardous. The river claimed many lives - both human and animals. The emigrants had to portage and walk several miles around the rapids and falls of the Cascades, 45 miles below The Dalles.
The last leg of our caravan took about four hours to drive. Working our way down into the gorge from east to west with the morning sun at our backs provided some breathtaking views. The scenery changed from dry, brown, low hills to dry, brown, steep hills bordering the river. Across the river in Washington, it was the same. Then the landscape started getting greener with trees and shrubs more plentiful. The walls of the gorge grew steadily more precipitous as we progressed westward. We first saw Mount Hood when it was barely visible 100 miles away. Often we would round a curve to see the great mountain straight ahead, growing ever larger as we got closer. The last twenty miles through the Columbia River Gorge is one of the most scenic roads in the country, with numerous waterfalls. We stopped at Horsetail Falls and Multnomah Falls. The Multnomah Falls are almost 600 feet high.
As soon as everyone arrived in camp, we formed a carpool to go to the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretative Center in Oregon City, officially designated as the End of the Oregon National Historic Trail. The interpretative center is located on Abernathy Green, the main arrival area for the emigrants as they came into the Willamette Valley. The site features three 50 foot high buildings shaped like covered wagons. Again, the story of the emigrant journey was told, and again we marvelled at their courage and tenacity.
We made it! With all the side trips, most of our odometers read far more than the 2,000 mile distance from Independence. We all now have a better appreciation of what the emigrants went through to stretch the United States westward to the Pacific Ocean. We also have a better appreciation of those folks who are working to preserve the last traces of the old Trail. And we are all now certified "rut nuts." While still in Oregon City, we ate our evening meal together at Izzy's Buffet.
Friday, June 19, 1998 - Before assembling for the final caravan banquet, we made one more trip into history - to see the old Barlow Road. This was the alternative to riding the river the last 100 miles. It was a toll road, but the toll was less than the cost of going down the river. Those emigrants who chose to take the Barlow Road had no picnic. It was far rougher even than the Blue Mountain Crossing. Some of the grades were 65%. On these the ox teams were unhitched, and the wagon winched down by wrapping ropes around stout trees to let them down slowly, hoping all the while that the ropes would hold. The route of the Barlow Road was around the south side of Mount Hood.
Then it was time for the final banquet. We all cleaned up pretty good and met at the Rheinlander German Restaurant for a sumptuous meal, some fairwell commentary, and some reminiscing about what we had seen during our five weeks together. We had become much like family. Most of us would continue on together back to Boise, Idaho for the International WBCCI Rally, but it was goodbye for a few who had to get to other commitments. All agreed that we had had a great time together.
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