The characters of the American west cast a long, legendary, and controversial shadow today. Cowboys, Indians, Mountain Men, Ranchers, Farmers, Gold Miners, and Pioneer Women make up the elaborate foundation of these extraordinary moments in history! One such moment was the 1849 California Gold Rush. From across the United States and the world men, women, and children left everything behind to go ‘strike it rich!’ Little did they know that on their fevered-race to California they had passed over vast amounts of natural resources including gold that wouldn’t be mined until decades later.
Ten miles north of the Oregon Trail on the Sweetwater River in what is now Wyoming, one such treasure trove was waiting. As early as the 1830s, soldiers used their leave time to mine the river for Sweetwater gold! Because this time was short, the soldiers were not able to develop the mine beyond panning in the river. From Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger rumors of gold soon spread. In 1867, prospectors followed these rumors to South Pass. Instead of limiting themselves to the river, they began tracing the gold back to its vein. Above willow creek, they found it… the Carissa Load!
Eureka! A Community is Born
Three cities sprung up overnight in 1868: South Pass, Atlantic, and Hamilton. At first the majority of settlers in these towns were single men. No one could know how long the strike would last so the cities, like many other boom towns, weren’t built to last either. A rag tag combination of tents and hurriedly built structures dotted the skyline. As the rush continued and the mine became more sophisticated, business entrepreneurs,families and saloon girls joined the town’s earliest residents.
Over time, the Carissa Mine went through a series of booms and busts because of the unique geology of the load and the technology available for extracting it. The Carissa vein folds over itself like a ribbon in the hillside making it difficult to follow the course of the load. Miners would have to determine what they believed to be the course of the load before digging their shaft. Often this meant the miners would work dawn to dusk and get nothing for their trouble. After the last of these busts in the 1950s, South Pass City no longer had the resident population to maintain a school. This led to its modern status as a ghost town. Atlantic City struggles on today with mine claims still being worked in the hills. Hamilton wasn’t as fortunate as its neighbors, though, and it’s now known as Miner’s Delight for the early success of its claims.
Gold Rush Days
This year, South Pass and Atlantic Cities celebrated 150 years since their founding! Annually, on the weekend after July 4, visitors–like my family and I– are invited to participate in a weekend journey back in time to the height of the Carissa’s prosperity. The event takes place in the restored South Pass City and Carissa Mine. Walking through the town’s buildings a week or so ago, I could see how difficult it must have been to survive the harsh winters in South Pass.
I also began to find that this small city was a major center of social and political happenings in its day. Women played a prominent role in the business of South Pass City. Janet Sherlock-Smith owned and operated the Carissa Hotel and boarding house after the death of her first husband. With her second husband she opened the Smith & Sherlock Store. While a few miner’s struck it rich working on the load, her family struck it rich supplying all the miner’s supplies, equipment, and timber needs! After the death of her second husband she opened the Carissa Saloon. South Pass was also represented in the Wyoming legislature. However, their greatest accomplishment was that they voted into office the first female justice of the peace in the world, Esther Hobart Morris! I walked through her house and viewed the monument set up there in her honor.
The Friends of South Pass
This information and my wonderful experience is all thanks to the Friends of South Pass who donate their time and resources each year to bring this moment in history to life. While I was there, I connected with one of our former Artists-in-Residence, Mike Parker, who demonstrated how a printing press would have worked in the 1800s giving me a souvenir bookmark I helped to print! Other volunteers shoot off an anvil, demonstrate the Pony Express mail pass off, take the field for an old-fashioned baseball game, and even operate the Carissa Mine.
When they aren’t celebrating Gold Rush Days, South Pass City is open from May 13-September 30 for visitors to tour the town’s buildings.