South Pass City is one of over 75 certified ghost towns in the state of Wyoming. I don’t know what that says about the site of Wyoming except that it is a rough, desolate, unpopulated stretch of mountain desert surrounded by soaring mountain peaks and inhabited by the quintessential cowboy – a real-life incarnation of the tough hombres that originally settled this inhospitable stretch of landscape. There is a reason why Wyoming is the least populous state in the union – actually there is a host of reasons – the main reason being that the climate is brutal – hot summers and freezing winters combined with a wind that never seems to lie down makes for tough living conditions suited only for the strong of heart. But it is this very imagery that attracts one to Wyoming, like a moth to the flame. Upon a more introspective search one finds beauty in this land; the mountains soaring out of a land with no foothills, cathedrals looking down on their followers, home to wildlife that thrive on the conditions, and wildflowers that bring ever-changing colors to a bedrock that at first glance seems totally incapable of providing any sustainability. You don’t have to go far to find this beauty but you do have to work at coexisting with it because it doesn’t go looking for you.
South Pass City is authentic. Located on the Continental Divide, it started out as a no-name way station for the Pony Express and emigrants heading west from Missouri. The Mormon Trail cuts through this area a little to the south of South Pass, and the Oregon Trail, the main east-west thoroughfare went a little north of South Pass and one can still see the tracks and grooves etched into the desert floor by wagons laden with cargo and families full of hope of a better life to be found.
The gold boom came to South Pass in the summer of 1867 when the motherlode was found in the hills just above the town that was soon to officially become South Pass City. Within a year the landscape was dotted with 28 mines, three hundred buildings and 3000 people. For a short while South Pass City was the largest town in Wyoming. Boom and bust – the history of the west is littered with these nouveau mining towns that barely saw the light of day before succumbing to an ignominious swan dance heralding the demise of a thousand dreams. South Pass City was no different. Other than the Carissa Mine, none of the other mines proved fruitful, and within five years even the Carissa Mine petered out, but not before leaving a roadmap of buildings that sustained the miners and entrepreneurs during the towns brief existence.
A glimpse into the life of these frontiersmen and women showed a life of simplicity – wood stoves for cooking and warmth during those long winter nights, rough hewn logs that barely kept nature at bay and which had to be filled with old newspapers and magazines for insulation.
Saloons were an integral part of life in the rough times of the gold boom, and the Carissa was no different as it was the main source of women, whiskey and hard luck tales.
The Houghton-Cotter house was originally the New Orleans Saloon & the Elephant Store (???), then a general goods store and then finally was restructured as a mercantile store. Today the building has a great collection of photographs and a lot of the tools of the trade that miners relied on.
The Cave was built to protect perishable goods and liquor and also served as protection from the always present threat of marauding Indians. Notice the locally kilned bricks that helped moderate temperatures. This building was also affectionately called Fort Bourbon.
The Wolverine Mine had a horizontal mine tunnel entrance known as an adit. This mine never panned out and was quickly deserted, but it does serve today as the only mine still safe to enter and explore and experience the darkness that faced miners every day.
No respectable ghost town goes without a school house and usually it is one of the longest standing buildings left in the ruins of a boom town and this one in South Pass lasted until 1947. South Pass City had a brief five years of meaningful existence in the 1860’s, but like many other towns had brief resurgences of activity over the next 100 years that would lead to very short and unprofitable “mini-booms.” As the booms came along, a lot of the original buildings would be reinvented into other establishments, and often buildings would be destroyed and never replaced. Of the some three hundreds buildings that originally dotted the landscape, maybe 20 still stand.
The E. A. Slack building was originally the building where the South Pass News was published. Edward Archibald Slack published this newspaper until 1871 when a fire destroyed everything but a Gordon Hand Press which is displayed in the back room of the cabin that replaced the original. The front room pays homage to Esther Morris who was appointed as the first woman Justice of the Peace in the United Staes, and to William Bright who brought the cause of suffrage legislation to the Territorial Legislature. His endeavors led to Wyoming being the first state to give women the right to vote, and in 1924 Nellie Ross easily won the race for Governor and became the first female governor of the Untied States.
Since that historic election back in 1924, a mere 42 women have served as governors. We move slowly in this country that is politically dominated by old white men, but there is hope and a brightness on the horizon that we as a country are turning the corner of social, racial and gender inequality and electing a governing entity that is truly becoming more representative of who we are as a country. Amen.
James Smith and his wife Bertha came to the game a little late, settling in South Pass City in 1917. They built a small two room cabin on their land along with a chicken coop and an outhouse. Back in the day there were two types of mining claims – a patented mining claim and a simple mining claim. A patented mining claim is one where the Federal government has passed title to the claimant who in turn is required to annually pay property taxes back to the government. A mining claim is where an individual or individuals have asserted a claim on the property which essentially prevents claim-jumping by other miners. The person or persons holding a mining claim do not own the property and are not liable for any property taxes – a cheaper way to go than a patented claim. James Smith died in 1944, but his wife Bertha continued to eke out a living on the modest mining ranch until her death in 1952, paying every year her taxes on the mining operation and the ranch property.
Mining for gold was not just putting a pan in the bed of a creek and wait for gold or silver particles to float by. Extracting gold and silver from ore was a long and tedious endeavor that was done at first by an arrastra, a primitive piece of machinery that essentially crushed the ore by using a center shaft that would drag large flat stones in a circular pattern that would crush the ore laying between the moving stone and another bed of stone below it. As the technology improved the miners would build the arrestas near a water source that would power the wheelhouse more effectively than a horse or a mule. However you look at it, early generation arrastras were hard work.
Jan and I have this unfulfilled dream to see a truly wild horse or even better a herd of them galloping across the Wyoming landscape, their hooves beating a cadence on the dry mountain desert floor, their untamed manes flowing in the wind, and in a perfect world a battle between two stallions, up on their hind legs fighting for control of the herd, with a range of mountains as the backdrop. In a previous blog I posted a picture of a wild horse we came across near Rock Springs which turned out to be really a horse put out to pasture. We were within five or six feet of this imposter and never did it look at us as we snapped a ton of pictures. Unclaimed but not wild. So – we were on this 4 mile interpretive hike through old mines and deserted ranches, a few tress here and there, absorbing the history of South Pass City when we came around a bend in the trail and saw these three critters right in our way. Convinced we had stumbled onto some real wild horses, we climbed a small hill full of brambles and briars to avoid them, snapping pictures as we circled around. When we got back to town and the docent who was on duty, we asked about the horses we had seen. “Oh”, she said, “those are pack horses we have for tourists to use on the trails instead of walking. We think it adds a little bit of the old west mystique to the adventure…and that white animal really isn’t a horse, it’s a mule.”
It was mid April when we were in this part of Wyoming – it would be hot one day and frigid the next and the day we were at South Pass City was emblematic of what you could expect. Nice warm day to start but you could see the clouds start to roll in out of the southwest, big ominous black clouds that were fueled by the rising wind. We made it back to town as the heavens opened, pouring rain and huge balls of hail that covered the ground in white.
There is a great Asian store near us in Arizona where we spend our winters. Lee Lee Market offers fare from a ton of Asian countries, the Koreas, China, Thailand, India, Pakistan, a ton of fresh fruits and vegetables and tens of varieties of soy sauce, coconut milk, hoisin sauce, and all those magic spices and curries I love to experiment with. It is the only place where I can find Thai basil, essential for the dishes we prepare from Thailand and worth the drive that also takes kind of by the nearest Trader Joe to us. It is a foodie kind of day when we go to these markets. It gets chilly here in the Phoenix area during the winter, the kind of chill that calls for comfort food, and this recipe with ginger, garlic, shallots coconut milk and salmon (just a few of the ingredients) fills that craving on a cool winter night. I totally enjoy all the recipes I put in my blogs, but this one is top five all-time. I know you will love Thai Basil Salmon Curry. Enjoy.
2 Replies to “South Pass City”
Great descriptions of the West and its unique history in this country, When we lived in Arizona on a cattle ranch, the only wild horse I actually saw was mine. It had decided to join the rest of our horses that we let out every night to forage in the adjoining meadows along the creek bed and one morning, there was “Bullet” , a wild pony who became my best friend. Why “Bullet”? Because in earlier days (not so earlier actually) the wild horses were legally hunted because it was thought that they were taking away the feed for the cattle that ranchers were introducing onto the previously wild land. He had a bullet bump in his lower stomach just behind the front leg. Fortunately just in front of where the saddle cinch wold go. Under the advice of our cowhands I tamed him to be a very feisty source of transportation. He must have enjoyed his new role because when he was let out to pasture with the other steeds, he preferred to stay with us rather than joining his old herd (which in fact we never saw!). Anyway love your posts. Nostalgia for the old Airstream! XOMichaeland Martine.
I loved this blog post, thanks for sharing Jer…the folks that headed out there were such ADVENTURERS & brave…