Mike & Joyces Travel logs

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Places Visited: Wyoming: Fort Laramie, Guernsey and Casper (North Platte River, US-26 and I-25)

July 7 & 8 2006: Casper East RV-Park Casper, Wyoming. Casper East RV-Park is a mom and pop operation without a mom & pop! N42° 51.357' W106° 17.338' $24 for water & 30-amps central sewage. They feature gravel interior roads & pads: This is NOT a campground we would relish staying in again however, it certainly looks much better than the Fort Casper RV-Park.



We got up this morning and headed west to Casper, Wyoming following the Oregon Trail. We were following the North Platte River on US-26. Lush fields of irrigated crops followed us into Wyoming. The picture on the right is a mowed field of alfalfa hay where the hay has been raked into rows to dry. When the moisture content is right the farmer will run a bailer through the field collecting the drying hay and package it into bales like in the picture to the left.




Hay can also be baled into blocks like these.

Coal trains run out of Wyoming with a sticatto frequency heading from the immense coal fields to points east. In one 20-mile stretch we counted five of these giant trains all carrying coal east.





When we arrived in Ft Laramie we turned south on SR 160. Within a few blocks we were crossing the North Platte River and looking at an ancient bridge that crossed the river a few yards down stream from the new bridge we were crossing. While at Fort Laramie I read about the construction of this bridge and if I remember correctly it was constructed during the Indian Wars period so that would put construction in the 1870's or thereabouts. In any event it is an OLD bridge. The steel used in construction was probably shipped in on the newly constructed railroad.



As soon as we cross the river we can see old Ft Laramie National Historical Site sitting prominently on a knoll overlooking the river. While visiting Ft Laramie we learned that it was/is situated at the confluence of the North Platte River and Laramie River even though we could not see water in either river from where we were at the fort.




Fort Laramie was at the crossroads of a Nation moving west. It may be the single most important location in America's westward expansion. The fort had its origin in 1834 as a trading post. It did not become a military fort until 1849 (the year 30,000 49'ers made their way west) when the US Army purchased the fort. Fort Laramie remained an army post until it closed in 1890.

Fort Laramie played a pivotal role in projecting American will on the frontier. It was America's foothold in a rapidly changing west.



It served from the era of fur traders as fur company fort. Then as a military fort it protected pioneers on the Overland Trail (Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, California trail-Pony express and stage coach lines) and saw the area through the Indian Wars before closing.




Some things are changing while others remain the same as we continue west along US-26 in Wyoming.

The landscape reverts back to normal Wyoming sans irrigation. However, the coal trains heading east remains constant.






Another thing that remains constant is the North Platte River we are following.









Our next stop was in Guernsey, Wyoming at Register Cliff State Historic Site. Register Cliff is a prominent cliff that runs along the southern flank of the North Platte River. The relatively soft sandstone lent itself to "leaving your mark" much as a dog does with a fire hydrant. The wayfarer's penchant for inscribing names and dates on trees and cliffs gives us a view into their small window of history.


Along this famed transcontinental route of the 1800's pertinent dates from the 1820's through the 1860's can be found. Register Cliff invited emigrants because of its broad river bottoms and lush pasture. Travelers eagerly sought this rest stop where they could recoup during lay-overs. Here rest offered the opportunity to "register" with name and date.

Emigrants were not the only ones to "register". Early inscriptions were by Mountain Men inured to wilderness life - many were descendants of two centuries of French fur trade. One such inscription reads "1829 This July 14" He may have been noting Bastille Day! Who knows?


We noted a cave in Register Cliff and wondered about it. Then we found a kiosk that explained that one of the 20'th century property owners blasted this cave for the storage of potatoes. The cool dark recesses of the cave offered ideal conditions.






Cliff swallows were also using the protection of Register Cliff as a home as can be seen by this picture. This many cliff swallows in one colony can create an enormous amount of activity. It was this activity that caught our attention.






For emigrants who reached this portion of the Oregon, California, Mormon Pioneer, Pony Express trails between 1846 & 1868, the landscape was changing and new challenges lay ahead. Rested and resupplied with provisions from Fort Laramie, emigrants bound for destinations in Utah, California and Oregon now encountered increasingly difficult travel conditions as they made their trek westward. It would be 368 miles to the next major supply point Fort Bridger, or even further if other cut-offs were taken.

The importance of the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer, California and Pony Express Trail dwindled for emigrants with completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. However, the trail was still utilized by a few travelers and the military, especially after Fort Laramie became a hub of activity during the Indian Wars period.

It is estimated that 500,000 people ventured westward over the trails to settle and develop the vast resources of the American West. Soon, however these trails began to wain in importance. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 the 2,000 mile journey that once took up to 6-months by wagon or on foot could be accomplished by rail in a mere two weeks.



While in Guernsey we also visited Origan Trail Ruts State Historic Site that preserved visual evidence of the thousands of wagons that passed this way.




Through a narrow passage at the crest of this hill, thousands of people and wagons cut deep ruts into the sandstone.












This hill is just a days journey from Fort Laramie and less than 3-miles from Register Cliff.








One can only imagine how livestock and wagons struggled through this rocky terrain.


While the North Platte River provided critical water for livestock and the emigrants themselves, it also provided a barrier to overland travel. The river's waters were swift and treacherous especially in the spring and early summer. That is why the trail went over this hill, to avoid the rushing waters of the river just over the hill.


The road west can be described in a number of ways: Settlement of new lands (Oregon & California), freedom from religious persecution (Mormon migration to Utah), quest for personal riches (California Gold Rush), communications (Pony Express) and commerce were all reasons for this road west.

Although overlaps occur 5-general trail eras can be identified:

The Mountain Men discovered the trail and used it prior to the 1840's.

Then came the Oregon Trail era: The Bidwell-Bartleson wagon train left Independence Missouri in the spring of 1841, bound for the fertile valleys of Oregon and Washington. They pioneered the westward migration. Their 2,400 mile journey ended in Oregon near the Columbia River Valley/Oregon City area.

Next came the California Trail era: This trail started shortly after the first wagon train left for Oregon but achieved prominence in 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California. In 1849 alone approximately 30,000 "Forty-Niners" used it to reach the gold fields. Many more emigrants followed in subsequent years.

Then came the Mormon Pioneer era: Seeking freedom to practice their religious beliefs, Brigham Young led the followers of Mormonism from the banks of the Mississippi River into what is today Utah. In 1846 they left Nauvoo, Illinois and wintered along the Missouri near present day Omaha, Nebraska. In the spring of 1847 they departed for the Great Salt Lake of Utah. By late July, the pioneers had completed their 1,400 mile trek. Inspired by this first group of 148 emigrants, nearly 70,000 followed the trail over the next 20-years, most seeking sanctuary in the Great Salt Lake Valley.

Finally the Pony Express days: With emigrants now settled on the west coast the need for communications became necessary. The Pony Express Trail was the first inland communications route linking the Eastern United States with new settlements in the west. Beginning in April of 1860 riders began carrying mail from St Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco, California. With a series of stations along the way to supply fresh horses and riders, the 2,000 mile trip could be completed in only 10-days. Although service was terminated in November of 1861-coinciding with completion of the transcontinental telegraph line-the Pony Express provided a vital communications link between the east and west.

Life along "The-Trail" was constantly changing. In the early years there was just a trickle of Mountain Men and traders then emigrants to Oregon began to increase. Those early travelers may have never laid eyes on another "white person", other than their party, on the entire journey. However, as the years past there was a constant flow of people and wagons west. In the heavy flow years, beginning in 1849 with the California gold-rush, it was common for groups to meet other groups many times over the course of their journey. One group may lay over a day for rest or good pasture for the livestock and be passed by many other groups only to catch up and pass those groups when they had a rest day.

The era of the Forty-Niners saw groups of men heading to the California gold fields with no wagons to encumber them. They moved fast taking only the minimum supplies. Some walked the entire way with only a pack animal to carry supplies.

As western settlements became populated suppliers and supply wagons began making the trip. These supply trains not only supplied trading posts along the route some even made the complete trip to the west coast. Supply wagons were BIG in comparison to the much smaller wagons emigrants used. Ten yoke of oxen (20-oxen) were hitched to one wagon that had another wagon attached to the back of it. Sometimes these supply wagons were pulled by teams of mules. Which ever beast of burden was used you can be sure there was much work for the men tending to them.

Many individuals and groups stand out in making this epic journey possible for those that followed.

Army Officer John Freemont with his, scout Kit Carson and his map maker Charles Preuss's surely are near the top of any such list. In 1842 Lieutenant John Freemont let an expedition west to map a route to the Oregon Territory. Freemont's report and Charles Preuss's maps were published and widely distributed. They were heavily used by emigrants.

The Mormon's also did much to enhance to arduous journey for those that followed. Early Mormon parties gathered information and tested techniques to make the journey easier for those who would follow. Difficult and unorganized travel from Nauvoo, Illinois, to winter quarters near present day Omaha, Nebraska, taught church leaders that both discipline and planning was necessary if a mass migration were to succeed.

Mormons shared their new found knowledge by leaving signs along the way, publishing a guide, and sending supplies from Salt Lake City back to winter quarters to help the next wave of emigrants. These out-and-back trains were unique to the Mormon migration. They provided Oxen, wagons and experienced guides to new groups of emigrants.

Knowing that information would be important to later emigrants, Brigham Young selected William Clanton to record the journey of the Mormon's first Pioneer Party. Clanton suggested the creation of a "roadometer" that could be attached to a wagon wheel to measure distances. He also published the most accurate guide of the trail that benefited later emigrants both Mormon and non-Mormon alike.

Mormons and others built and operated ferries and bridges across the North Platte River that most assuredly helped make the trip possible for wagons.
In the summer of 1847 ten Mormons stayed throughout the summer to run a ferry across the North Platte River and operate a blacksmith shop near present day Casper, Wyoming. Their operation was a tremendous help for both Mormon and non-Mormon alike.

The Mormons operated another ferry at another treacherous crossing on the Green River beyond South Pass.

Things along the trail drastically changed in 1949 when over 30,000 forty-niners flooded over the trail. Businesses sprang up ending the "wilderness-experience" that earlier emigrants had experienced. In the 1850's emigrants could stop at improvised supply points and blacksmith shops along the way. They could have their wagons repaired and oxen re-shod while buying supplies and food. They could also trade out worn out animals for fresh stock. Some merchants even collected and resold items that had been discarded by emigrants that had overpacked.


In 1852 John Baptise Richard (pronounced REE-shaw) built a toll bridge over the North Platte River near present day Casper, Wyoming. It was the primary bridge for the migration from 1852 until 1860. While emigrants could ford at no cost most paid up to $5.00 per-wagon to cross the bridge. Cost per-wagon was determined by how much water was flowing in the river. The higher the river the more it cost to use the bridge.




This is a reconstruction of a small portion of that bridge. This replica is only showing one section with one pier while the entire bridge consisted of 8 similar piers that spanned the river to a rock outcrop on the north side.





One Oregon emigrant, John Murray, wrote on June 9, 1853: "The bridge is a substantial structure-it has 8 wood framed piers filled and sunk with rock and the reaches are supported by heavy braces. The sides are railed up and the bottom planked. The bridge is about 150-yards long and comes out on the north side on a rocky bank...at each end of the bridge are Indian lodges and trading houses and a blacksmiths shop. Above the bridge about a mile is another trading post where they have lots of horses and mules for sale or trade."



This is a closeup of one of the 8 wood framed piers filled and sunk with rock. While this "pier" is on dry ground now it was probably under water during spring flood.






This is the rock outcropping the north side of Richard's bridge was connected to.






The Mormon companies that make the trek to to the Great Salt Lake Valley really captured my attention. Some of these companies made the trip with hand-carts. Usually two or three men would join forces with one hand cart to carry all their earthly posessions. One or two would pull the cart while the other pushed. Food supplies and bedding would be transported by Mormon wagons drawn by oxen. By using this method many more emigrants were able to make the journey.






While visiting the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming I had a chance to experience pulling one of these carts. This was a diorama where you could get on a tredmill and experience pulling one of those handcarts. A display told you how fast you were pulling the cart in relation to how fast you would have to go to make the required 15-miles per-day. I can guarantee you that there were no "fat-boys" on that trip.







Another display at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center was their "register" wall where a sampling of names & dates on register cliffs throughout Wyoming have been duplicated. When I say duplicated I mean down to the color of the rock the name & date is inscribed on. It is interesting to see these names and dates on this wall without having to search through so many graffitti artist names that have been added since the days of the great migration.


This has been an awsome stop for us. I don't know how it could have been any better.

Until next time remember how good life is.

Mike & Joyce Hendrix






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