South Pass National Historic Landmark


South Pass National Historic Landmark

South Pass National Historic Landmark, Wyoming.

South Pass National Historic Landmark

Includes South Pass City State Historic District, Atlantic City, Hamilton City (Miner's Delight)

SOUTH PASS of Wyoming is one of the most significant geological locations in the American West, as it was the only place along the Continental Divide that wagon trains could safely cross during the Great Western Expansion.  Located along the Historic Oregon Trail, South Pass allowed 

hundreds of thousands of emigrant to reach beyond the Continental Divide between the early 1840's through 1869. Without South Pass, the unfolding of the Great Western Expansion would have been profoundly different...therefore the historic importance of South Pass of Wyoming cannot be emphasized enough.

South Pass of Wyoming is located about 35 miles southwest of Lander Wyoming on Wyoming Highway 28, and is the lowest point on the Continental Divide between the central and southern Rocky Mountains.  Nestled just south of the magnificent Wind River Mountain Range, South Pass provided pioneers who were heading west a natural crossing point through the treacherous Rocky Mountains.  Because of South Pass's tremendous historic significance and importance, it was deservedly designated a National Historic Landmark, and is a wonderful area to visit for anyone interested in history of the Great American West.

South Pass National Historic Landmark, Wyoming

South Pass National Historic Landmark, Wyoming

South Pass is a very broad sage brush covered saddle that is technically two passes along the Oregon Trail in close proximity to each other, one being 7,412 feet in elevation, and the other being 7,550 in elevation.  The name "South Pass" is the collective term for these two passes.

This broad saddle is over 35 miles wide, and the gradual incline up to the pass and back down the other side was ideal for wagon trains heading west.  Any other route through the Rockies could not be crossed with wagons.

Keep in mind however that even though South Pass was the "easiest" way to cross the Rockies, the Oregon Trail in general was quite treacherous and difficult for families riding in covered wagons, and many of these brave pioneers endured incredible hardships during their journey, and a fair number of these pioneers lost their lives along the trail.

Brief History of South Pass

When Lewis and Clark made their historic expedition in 1805-1806, their route through the Rocky Mountains via the rugged Bitterroot Mountains of Montana was far too difficult and treacherous for wagon
trains, so another route through the Rocky Mountains was necessary for any possibility of a significant western expansion by pioneer families using wagons.

South Pass of Wyoming was first discovered in 1812 when a fur trader by the name of Robert Stuart and six others of the Pacific Fur Company accidentally crossed South Pass while traveling from their fur trading establishment near present day Astoria, Oregon to Saint Louis, Missouri.

They were attempting to avoid Indian confrontations, and just happened to come across this important pass, which would prove to be one of the most important discoveries in the Great American West.  This discovery of South Pass would eventually change the course of American History, but at the time, even though Stuart created detailed maps and presented his new discovery to President James Madison, it would be several decades before South Pass would become widely known and prove itself to be the best way to reach the Oregon Territory.

Original wagon ruts along the Oregon Trail on South Pass

Original wagon ruts along the Oregon Trail on South Pass.

The Great Western Migration, 1846-1868

The few-and-far-between crossings from 1812 and 1836 were historically significant because it established South Pass as the only way to cross the Rocky Mountains.  One of the earlier South Pass crossings included the wagon train crossing of Captain Benjamin Bonneville in 1832. Then 26 years after Robert Stewart's historic journey, the first pioneers began their journey from Missouri to Oregon in 1836. Led by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, a small missionary party took their wagons on this new, less hazardous trail, soon to be known as The Oregon Trail, but were forced to leave their wagons just 200 miles shy of Oregon. Even so, they proved to the rest of the nation that wheeled travel was indeed possible, and so the great surge of settlers heading west was soon to begin. But what really lit things up and what really started the "Great Western Migration" was when Lieutenant John Charles Fremont crossed South Pass in 1842.  After crossing South Pass, John Fremont returned to the East and announced to the public that South Pass could easily be crossed "without toilsome ascents".  This news spread like wildfire and would soon trigger the start of the Great Western Migration.  Between the years of 1846 through 1868, South Pass would be used by approximately 500,000 emigrants heading west along the Oregon Trail on wagon trains, thus making South Pass one of the most important locations in the history of the Great American West.  

Oregon Trail Map

Oregon Trail Map, Courtesy of University of Texas Library.

South Pass Overlook, South Pass National Historic Landmark, Wyoming

South Pass Overlook

Transcontinental Railroad: End of an Era, New Beginnings

The need for South Pass, as well as the need for the entire Oregon Trail to reach the Oregon Territory and California became virtually non-existent overnight due to the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.  The days of the great wagon trains loaded with brave pioneers heading west were over. For more information on the history of the Oregon Trail and additional historic places along the Oregon Trail, click here.

South Pass Historical Markers

There are two historic markers resting on South Pass.  One is a large granite boulder that was erected by Ezra Meeker in June of 1906.  Ezra was an 1852 pioneer emigrant who  purposefully traveled this section of the Oregon Trail (from west to east) to permanently mark what is known as "The Old Oregon Trail".

The other marker found on South Pass is a dedication marker, honoring Narcissa Pretiss Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, who were the first white women to travel over South Pass.  This historic crossing occurred on July 4, 1836.

The marker honoring these two brave women was erected by Captain H.G. Nickerson in 1916. Nickerson was the president of the Oregon Trail Commission of Wyoming, and he personally inscribed the 80 letters found on this historic marker.

South Pass City: "The City of Gold"

With the gold rush boom of 1867, which was completely unrelated to the Great Western Migration, South Pass City was built literally overnight.  One year later South Pass City had over 250 buildings and over 1,000 people inhabiting this booming Wyoming gold rush town.

Known as "The City of Gold", there were of course hotels, saloons and other familiar businesses and establishments that one would expect to find in a western gold rush town.  South Pass City was a thriving center of commerce during this period, and was the first of three other mining towns to be established in the South Pass area.  The other two towns that cropped up in the area were Atlantic City and Hamilton City (Miners Delight).  The entire South Pass mining area became known as the "Sweetwater Mining District", and was a lively and vibrant western gold rush metropolis...of course while gold recovery remained plentiful....

South Pass City State Historic Site, Wyoming

South Pass City State Historic Site, Wyoming.

But as the amount of gold found in the creeks began to diminish, and as the harsh winter weather made mining very difficult and miserable, and as rumors of new gold discoveries worked their way through the South Pass mining towns, the population of South Pass City dropped abruptly to only a few hundred people by 1872.

And even though there were a few more "booms" in the area through the next 80 years, there was never a "boom" big enough or long-term enough to sustain a permanent, successful township.

Carissa Mine, South Pass City State Historic Site, Wyoming

Carissa Mine, South Pass City State Historic Site.

South Pass City State Historic Site

Just past the Yellowtail Dam Visitor Center visitors will encounter the Ok-A-Beh Marina.  This outstanding marina where you boating adventure begins.  The Ok-A-Beh Marina is extremely well done, and offers a boat dock, marina, and a large boat ramp.  Shortly after boaters enter the Bighorn Canyon to the south, they will quickly find themselves in a gorgeous canyon with sheer cliffs towering above them on each side. Within the canyon are several designated camping areas along this 55 mile long canyon that can only be accessed by water, such as the Black Canyon Campground.

Things To Do In South Pass City

While visiting the historic ghost town of South Pass City, there are many things to do and see.

Of course the most popular activity is taking the guided tour through each of the 17 restored buildings that contain thousands of the original artifacts found in this historic gold rush town.  You can even test your skill at panning for gold on Willow Creek!

There is also a three-mile long Volksmarch Trail which is great for wildlife viewing that includes antelope, mule deer, moose and more, as well as many bird species for those who enjoy bird watching. There are also several rivers and lakes in the surrounding area that are home to blue ribbon fishing opportunities for rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout and cutthroat trout.

South Pass City State Historic Site, Wyoming

South Pass City State Historic Site, Wyoming.

Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

The fabled Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, that runs from Canada to Mexico, runs directly through the town of South Pass City... so don't be surprised if you see hikers with really big backpacks on hiking through the middle of town.

Esther Hobart Morris House

South Pass City was the home of Esther Hobart Morris, who was the world's very first Justice of the Peace.  She was sworn in on February 14, 1870.  Her home and office still stands in South City.

Oregon Trail - California Trail - Mormon Trail

The Oregon Trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail are all extremely significant historic trails used by emigrants heading west during the Great Western Migration, and all three of these trails cross over the historic South Pass, which is only 8 miles from the ghost town of South Pass City.

South Pass City State Historic Site, Wyoming

South Pass City State Historic Site, Wyoming

Atlantic City

Atlantic City was another boom town in the South Pass Area during the area's gold rush beginning in 1867. Atlantic City was seemingly erected overnight, and was home to over 2,000 miners and entrepreneur during the peak of the gold rush.  There were of course all the businesses that you would expect in a western gold rush town, including saloons, hotels, brothels and more.

There was also an opera house, beer garden, large dance hall, a brewery, and a two story stone building where Calamity Jane at one time ran a business on the second floor.  But nearly as fast as Atlantic City rose to fame, it fell as the placer gold recovery declined.

By the early 1870s, the population of Atlantic City, Wyoming dropped dramatically, but this hardy town remained "breathing" as advances in mining continued to bring prospectors to the area, and during the period of 1960 through 1983, Atlantic City Wyoming was the headquarters of one of U.S. Steel's iron ore mines.

Atlantic City, Wyoming

Atlantic City, Wyoming

Today, there are only a handful of people who live in Atlantic City, yet a fair number of original structures remain and is a popular place for visitors that enjoy historic western ghost towns.  Atlantic City is located on a gravel road about five miles off Wyoming Highway 28.

Atlantic City Ghost Town Attractions

Historic Atlantic City Church, WyomingThis classic Wyoming ghost town has a surprising number of structures that have survived.  The Atlantic City Tour includes over 27 structures and attractions, including homes, stores, saloons,hotels, stables and other attractions that still remain in this charming old west ghost town.

As you are exploring the South Pass Area, which includes the South Pass National Historic Landmark, and the boom towns of South Pass City and Atlantic City, we highly recommend that you take the time to walk through the buildings, and take in the amazing history that occurred in this historic area.

Atlantic City Mercantile, Wyoming

Atlantic City Mercantile, Wyoming

Hamilton City (Miner's Delight)...A True Ghost Town

Hamilton City, also known as Miner's Delight, was the third gold rush boom town located near South Pass. Founded by Jonathan Pugh in 1868, Hamilton City is among the first communities in the present day state
of Wyoming.  Gold was discovered near the location of Hamilton City at the Miner's Delight mine in 1868, which is only about a quarter of a mile from the town.  Hamilton City experienced several "boom and bust" periods, until the gold diggings dried up in 1882.  

The Miner's Delight Mine was shut down and never used again until briefly in 1907 and 1910, and it then closed for good.  Today there are a few original buildings still standing at Hamilton City, and is a wonderful reminder of the Wyoming Gold Rush Era of the 1800s.   And by the way, Calamity Jane spent time in Hamilton City as a young girl. Interestingly, Hamilton still had inhabitants up until 1960...however there are no longer anyone living there...except for the ghosts of the gold rush days.

Hamilton City, also known as Miner's Delight, Wyoming

Hamilton City, also known as Miner's Delight, is a true ghost town.

Wyoming Map, South Pass Area
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