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The Ghosts of South Pass City
by
Bob Brooke

 

It's silent now in South Pass City, Wyoming. The only sound is the eerie banging of a old rusty chain on the side of a weathered buckboard. Gone are the rowdy miners, the painted-up dance hall girls, and the cavalry soldiers in town on leave. The buildings that remain stand tall and proud. Each looks as if someone might come through its doors on cue as if in a movie.



The town got its name from South Pass, the point where the Oregon Trail crossed the Continental Divide. Unlike many other western towns that have seen better days in the boom and bust cycle of the search for gold, South Pass City lives on. Founded in 1867 during the closing last two years of the Oregon Trail, there was talk early on that it would rival Denver in its wealth, importance and population. One of the most authentic large historic sites in the nation, it's 25—out of the original 300—historic log, frame, and stone buildings live again thanks to loving care and preservation.



The Discovery of Gold
Beginning in the 1860s, scattered handfuls of frontier military personnel protected telegraph lines, Pony Express stations, and emigrant trails in the South Pass area. The first sizable gold excitement in the South Pass region took place when a party of men out of Fort Bridger located the Cariso Lode, later called the Carissa Mine, in June 1867. A prolonged bust quickly followed the initial gold rush as eager miners and investors came to realize the realities of profitably working the claims in the Sweetwater River area.

The gold rush lasted only about four years. Besides the Carissa, twenty-five larger mines, with colorful names like King Solomon's, Northern Light, Hoosier Bay, and Mohamet, and hundreds of smaller ones operated at its peak. The population of South Pass City grew to 3,000 and at one point the townspeople thought it would become the new capitol of the Wyoming Territory. They hoped that the transcontinental railroad would come up the Sweetwater River, then follow the route of the Oregon Trail. When the railroad decided to locate their route 90 miles south of town, that pretty much killed the town, since by this time the placer gold found in the stream gravel was all played out. They had to start doing hard rock mining, and they simply couldn't get the equipment that they needed.

Unfortunately, the strikes in the South Pass City area turned out not to be as productive as everyone hoped and no one found a "Mother Lode." The community began to fade in 1872. However, a series of smaller booms occurred later on. Whenever the national economy turned downward and the nation would go into a recession or depression, the interest in gold mining would have a resurgence and people would move back into town and reopen the old mines. They'd work them for a year or two, then they'd go broke and their kids would go hungry and they'd move away. When things got better in the rest of the country, they'd try to find a real job somewhere else.

Nothing can compare to that first boom in 1867 when thousands of miners suddenly rushed into the area near the place where the Oregon Trail crosses the Rockies at South Pass at the news of the rich Carisso Lode strike. The gold camp burst into existence within a few months. All the businesses servicing the prospectors necessities followed almost immediately. They included the usual proliferation of saloons, hotels, breweries, general stores, brothels, and even a newspaper, the South Pass News, and a bank. Such businesses appeared overnight because people with experience in previous gold booms in California, Nevada, Colorado and Montana and elsewhere knew the easiest way to make money in the gold fields was to sell supplies to the miners rather than chip into solid rock or pan the frigid streams themselves.



Notable Residents
The town owes a lot to one resident in particular, Janet Sherlock, a Scottish immigrant, widow, and mother of five daughters who became the operator of the South Pass Hotel, left a legacy for all to enjoy. She came from Scotland and settled in Salt Lake City even before the founding of South Pass City. She lived there for six years and met James Smith, whom she married.

James Smith was a Mexican War veteran born in Blackrock Ireland in 1840. He emigrated with his parents when he was about 9 and signed on with a merchant ships as a cabin boy and sailed all over the world. At 17, he signed up with the Navy and saw action in the Mexican War. He mustered out of the service at the Brooklyn Navy yard in 1848 and was given a land grant in California. The military did this to encourage the soldiers and sailors that were mustered out of the service to go settle in California. So he shipped out and went to California and then went to San Francisco and applied for a land grant in 1849. He went through Panama and worked on board ship to pay passage.

He ran a a steamboat up to the gold fields from San Francisco for a while. Then he ran a sloop picking up lumber in Monterrey, California, taking it to Lima, Peru and going over to Tahiti. He had some experience at gold fields in California and started doing some placer mining. The story goes he was in one of the gold camps in California and was either shot in the head—came out of his sinuses 15 years later—was lodged in his head. He went to Arizona and Colorado and ended up in Montana in 1867 when the first news of the gold strike here in the Sweetwater area came about and was one of the original gold people who came here in the Spring of 1867 and staked out several choice business locations in town.



The next year in 1868 when South Pass City became a boom town, these locations became really valuable property. He picked up several gold claims that started up about a mile from town and essentially became a success. He began one of the most prosperous businesses in the area—mine speculation. He would buy a piece of property and then sell it to someone else for a profit. All he had to do was convince the buyer that the property was worth more than what he paid for it.



And that's how the Smith Sherlock Company got started. He also owned a store while he was speculating. Purchasing the Idaho House Hotel in 1873 and promptly renaming it the South Pass Hotel, Janet Sherlock turned it into a business that supported a large extended family for the next 80 years. Soon after taking over the hotel, she married James Smith, the owner of the general store. This began the dynasty of the Sherlock-Smith family which lasted until 1948.

Janet’s brother was shot to death in the hotel over a card game, just like in the movies. Robert Todd Lincoln stayed in this hotel, one of seven such establishments in 1868, so did General Sheridan and other notables.

South Pass City was on the main north-south route to Yellowstone. The South Pass Hotel, then known as the Idaho House, had a contract with the stage company. Its walls were just two boards nailed together. Guests who stayed there anytime other than July would wake up in the morning with ice on top of their blankets. But it sure beat sleeping in the snow.

The stagecoach used to stop at Janet Smith’s hotel twice a day—at Noon and 2 A.M. Janet Smith hardly got any sleep since each stage carried 17 people. She would have to cook all night to prepare for them and cook all day to prepare for her hotel guests. Her daughters waited tables, helped cook the food, and scrubbed the tabletops, and did the laundry. This was a rough place to live, especially for women, because the weather was so gruesome in the winter.

The Janet Smith Tibbals Collection
One of Janet’s daughters, Anna Smith, began collecting South Pass memorabilia at the age of seven. Eventually she assembled a huge number of objects, including vintage clothing, papers, and personal belongings--all labeled according to whom they belonged and what they were used for--which she stored at her family's ranch in Pinedale. Included were hundreds of photographs with the photographer's name, date and subjects' names written on the back.

Whenever a member of the oldest generation would pass on, Anna would come over with a stock truck and load up all their belongings and take them over to Pinedale. When her daughter, Janet Smith Tibbals, died in 1989 without a will, the folks who ran South Pass City as a state historic site went over to the ranch and couldn't even open the doors there was so much. This vast collection of items, added to over the years, went on the auction block.

Michael Fox, a cousin of Janet Smith Tibbals, was put in charge of doing an inventory of her estate. He personally gave over 10,000 artifacts to the site, and the State of Wyoming purchased 12,000 more, creating the Janet Smith Tibbals Collection, one of the most complete in the West. A special legislative appropriation helped erect a new laboratory and storage facility to maintain the collection.

South Pass City has been blessed with a tremendous wealth of information. The historical depth of the collection doesn't exist anywhere else. Stories, passed down from generation to generation, tell who died in which bed and about Butch Cassidy, when he used to stand in the doors of the old bank and flip silver dollars. The kids on the street called him Uncle Butch.



The community began to fade in 1872. and then there was a series of small booms- Whenever the national economy turns downward, the interest in gold mining encouraged people to move back, reopen the old mines, and work them for a year or two. Then they would go broke and their kids would be hungry and they'd move away.

South Pass City Today
In 1874, James Smith built the structure which housed his mercantile business for 20 years. Today, it exhibits the processes of gold mining in the Sweetwater mines as well as videos on local geology.

He also built the Carissa Saloon around 1890. It takes its name from the area's richest gold mine. The Carissa was a simple affair, offering basic furnishings & refreshments to customers.

All of the historic structures in town still have their original contents exhibited in the same rooms where people used them. Two-story buildings lined the main street, South Pass Avenue, all the way to the hills at the edge of town and for three-fourths of a mile to the west. The town appears today much the way it did in the mid-1880s.

Across the street stood the millinery, next to that the livery stable. The bank later became a saloon. Peering through the windows of these old buildings visitors can see the real Old West. Here, the actual pieces of furniture, dishes, clothes, and tools that the townspeople used remain in a perfect state of preservation. Definitely not a dilapidated ghost town, South Pass City is more than realistic—it's reality.

Because the winters are so harsh, South Pass City State Historic Site is only open during the warmer months from

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