Renegade Roads

Oregon Trail Endangered

On the trail of the top 10 most endangered sites found along the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon.

renegade-roads_pioneer_oregon-trail

I have spent years traveling overland trails in the West; some might say I have an obsession for traveling three miles an hour in a covered wagon.

During the past 20 years I have been able to follow the routes to Oregon and California, and the Mormon Pioneer Trail in Utah. I have traveled the Bridger and Bozeman Trails to the gold fields in Montana. And I have been on the Cherokee and Overland Trails in southern Wyoming. While walking or riding in a wagon along our pioneer trails, I have seen some incredible vistas.

Sadly, every year we lose more of these trails to the ravages of both nature and man. Erosion scours ruts, wind-blown dust fills trail swales and farmers plow segments. Homes and barns go up just feet from the trails—sometimes right over the top of the historic ruts. Energy development and industrial activities cause their own impacts, if not to the actual trails, then often to the visual landscapes.

Last year the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) attempted to identify the Top 10 Endangered Sites on the Oregon Trail. It wasn’t able to do it, in part because members couldn’t agree on which places should “qualify” for such a list. I know from my own travels along these trails that important sites have already been or are in imminent danger of being permanently changed.

In 1993 I traveled with the Oregon Trail Sesquicentennial Wagon Train led by Morris Carter of Casper, Wyoming. His four teenaged daughters, Oneta, Ivy, Ariane and Katrina, along with Ben Kern, also of Casper, and Earl Leggett, of Aurora, Oregon, drove wagons from Independence, Missouri, to Independence, Oregon.

On July 23, 1993, I rode with Kern from Pacific Springs to Parting of the Ways in Wyoming. Of that journey, I wrote, “We had a view of sage, bitterbrush and four remarkable sets of parallel ruts. The landscape had changed little during the past 150 years.… We could have easily believed we’d time-traveled. We saw no vehicles, no power lines, no roads, no other people, and because of the clouds, not even any jet contrails.… West of South Pass this land hasn’t changed much since the Great Migration.”

Kern and I later wrote a book about that journey, Wagon Wheels: A Contemporary Journey on the Oregon Trail. Best-selling novelist Kathleen O’Neal Gear, who had connections with the trail through her earlier work as a Wyoming State Historian for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, wrote the foreword.

“It is a great national tragedy that many people in modern America cannot even imagine a place where a man or woman can stand and gaze into infinity, without fences, telephone poles, or houses to mar the view. Or imagine why it matters,” she wrote. “If nothing else, readers will see that the western experience is, and always has been, a thing of the land, that hardship is the price of freedom, and its exceedingly great reward.”

Travel with me now as I take you to some of the special places that I believe are truly endangered along the Oregon Trail. Trail people across the land will no doubt disagree with my choices. You may write letters to this publication or to other sources telling me how wrong-headed I am. Good. Please do! If I make you think about these historic places—and perhaps even criticize my choices—then I have succeeded in my effort to preserve them, because I have engaged you in the work of caring for our Western lands.

 

#1 South Pass

I believe my #1 Oregon Trail site—South Pass—will not be disputed by anyone. This pass through the Rocky Mountains is the reason the Oregon, Mormon, California and Pony Express Trails went through central Wyoming. During the period of emigration, from 1841 to 1869, somewhere around half a million folks crossed through here. Of course, Indians and even mountain men and explorers used this pass long before the first pioneers.

Wyoming Highway 28 now bisects the pass not far from the pioneer trails. Recent studies by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and OCTA have shown that the routes of the early travelers are widely spaced through the pass. Efforts are underway to define South Pass. Some contend it starts down in the Sweetwater Valley, dozens of miles east of the actual point where the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans divide, and then continues beyond the divide itself for several miles.

Risks to the trail in this area are diverse. Gold mining activity that began as early as the 1860s, and which continues to this day, is one. Recurring suggestions that an oil or gas pipeline could cross the pass, or that wind energy developments could be put in place in the area, are greeted with fear and trepidation by OCTA and other groups, such as...

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