Prospectors were panning gold from the Sweetwater near South Pass (in present-day Wyoming) as early as 1842, but the first real rush came in 1865 when a detachment from Fort Bridger discovered gold in the Wind River Range. One soldier found a large vein along Willow Creek, near the future Carissa Mine site, and thousands of prospectors flocked to the Sweetwater Mining District, establishing the towns of South Pass City, Atlantic City and Hamilton City. (The latter community was later renamed Miners Delight, after a nearby mine.)
The first South Pass City, about 10 miles south of the present location, was a stage and freight station, founded in 1859 at the head of the Oregon Trail’s Lander Cutoff. It later served as a Pony Express station and eventually became Burnt Ranch.
Chicago Tribune correspondent James Chisholm was unimpressed with the town when he arrived in September 1868. “It is a deserted village at the best,” he wrote in his journal. “It consists of two streets in the form of the letter T and lies in a kind of ravine between two hills—altogether a snug, sheltered nook.” Chisholm estimated the town had 50 dwellings, most of them vacant, and 50 to 60 residents. Apparently, many had moved to Green River for work on the Union Pacific Railroad. In any event, the population would soon soar.
By 1870 South Pass City boasted a population estimated at between 2,000 and 4,000. It served as Sweetwater County seat until 1873, when most of the mines played out and the county seat shifted to Green River. During the peak summers of 1870 and 1871 as many as 12,000 souls lived in the Sweetwater Mining District.
Built in 1868 using stone and locally kilned bricks, The Cave (nicknamed “Fort Bourbon”) was used to store liquor and perishable food. Rumor has it the building also served as a shelter during Indian raids.
Idaho House (later the South Pass Hotel and Restaurant) opened for business in 1868. Widow Janet Sherlock bought the hotel in 1873, added the post office and served as postmistress. She added a restaurant when the Carissa Mine reopened at the turn of the century.
The largest mine was the Carissa, which cycled through several booms and busts, closing for good in 1954.
The Moses Sturman Stamp Mill, one of some two dozen that crushed ore in the district, is not original to South Pass City. It reportedly operated until the late 1930s at Palmetto Gulch, east of town, before being moved for its protection.
The county built the first jail in 1870 at a cost of $2,000. In the 1880s its front room was converted into a school run by Dr. Walter Lovejoy. The White Swan, a saloon and brothel, also later housed a school.
The town played a role in woman suffrage. In 1869 William H. Bright, a South Pass City saloon and mine owner, introduced a bill during Wyoming Territory’s first legislative session to grant women the right to vote. It passed and was signed into law by Governor John Allen Campbell. In February 1870, Sweetwater County commissioners appointed South Pass City’s Esther Hobart Morris justice of the peace, making her America’s first female judge. She heard 26 cases during her nearly nine-month judicial term. E. Archibald Slack, Morris’ son from her first marriage, published the South Pass News until 1871, later working on newspapers in Laramie and Cheyenne. Morris died in 1902 in Cheyenne, where a statue of her graces the state Capitol.
Town resident Bill Carr, recounting the difficulty of finding qualified schoolteachers, recalled a drifter who showed up one summer and asked for the job: “If anything happened he didn’t like, and no one would tell who was guilty, he would lock the door, take a willow and start slashing the whole roomful.” The students finally escaped their tormenter when “the sheriff came over from Lander with a warrant and arrested our teacher for stealing horses in some other part of the state before he came to South Pass.”
In 1966 Wyoming’s 75th Anniversary Commission bought the town and later created the South Pass City State Historic Site. Restorers have preserved 17 of the 23 original structures, which house some 30,000 artifacts. The park is open 9 a.m.– 6 p.m. daily May 15–September 30.
For more on South Pass City, visit www .southpasscity.com or call 307-332-3684
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.