Sunday, July 17, 2016

What’s your pleasure? South Pass City or Miner’s Delight?

In 1868, a gold rush hit the southern Wind River Mountains. Hundreds of men infected by gold fever poured into the gulches, staking claims. They were followed by merchants, freighters, saloon keepers, brewers, and ladies of the night. Towns sprang up within weeks—tents, wooden shacks, hotels, stores, saloons, dance halls and jails. Soon the Carissa was processing ore, followed by the King Solomon, Hoosier Boy, Irish Jew, Mary Ellen and many others, on the order of 1500 mines and lodes in all. Regional population peaked at 1500-2000 in 1869. But just five years later, Wyoming’s largest gold rush (small by Western standards) was done. The dreamers went elsewhere. By 1880, the towns were all but abandoned.

Yet South Pass City still looks a lot like it did at the height of the boom. Wooden buildings line the dirt street. A saloon draws folks in for cold drinks on hot summer days. A woman slaves over a wood stove, baking cookies to sell. The dance hall does a brisk business (in entrance fees). But … something’s not right. The buildings are freshly-painted and well-kept; there are no burned remains anywhere. I walked the smooth clean dirt street, breathing fresh mountain air. I didn’t have to dodge ruts and horse manure, swat flies, or breathe dust. And it was quiet—no groaning wagons squealed and screeched down the steep grades into the gulch; no one yelled at the mules. No gun shots. The jail was empty.
At the Smith-Sherlock Company Store, I bought an ice cold pepsi, and learned that for the last fifty years, the State and volunteers have been resurrecting and maintaining South Pass City as a Historical Site. They restored or rebuilt the old buildings, complete with furnishings of the day (a booklet available at the dance hall provides details). On summer weekends and holidays, volunteers bring South Pass City to life, selling cold sas’sprilla at the saloon, and baking cookies. Just imagine a large dose of chaos and grime added in, and you can experience South Pass City as it was at its heyday.
There were five hotels in town at the peak of the rush, “with accommodations both rude and refined.”
Twenty saloons did business during the gold rush years. The Carissa was a late-comer, built in 1890 to slake the thirst of those attempting to revive the Carissa Mine and set off another boom (it fizzled).
This printing press started out in Cheyenne in early 1869, moved to Laramie in the spring, and by fall had settled in South Pass City. Nathan Baker published the South Pass News twice a week, at 15¢ a copy (source).
The Exchange (above and below) began as a bank, but became another of the town's saloons.
The Exchange was popular for its a card room.

In a gulch about eight miles northeast of South Pass City lies another boom town—Miner’s Delight. This one looks very different. There are no bright colors; in fact, little paint remains. Buildings sit slightly askew. Chinking has fallen from the log walls, and windows and doors are gone. Torn wall coverings decorate the rooms, now inhabited by mice and marmots. Through the ceilings, you can see the sky. 
To visit Miner’s Delight, park at the cemetery on the ridge. After enjoying the expansive views, walk through the gate and down the trail about a half mile into the gulch.
View from Miner's Delight cemetery. Oregon-California Trail is not far below.
Trail down to Spring Creek and Miner's Delight.
Cross the footbridge at the ponds on Spring Creek (beaver returned after the town was abandoned), and follow the old main street past buildings in various states of disrepair. Aspen trees encroach on some, and have taken over the collapsed stamp mill. This was where ore was crushed to be carried to South Pass City for assay, hopefully bringing the miner his delight.
Miner's Delight had its own stamp mill.
The town was named for a lode of gold—a miner’s delight—up on the ridge to the west. Ironically, it produced the greatest wealth in the South Pass Mining District, even though the town was the smallest and most isolated. Population peaked at around 100 in 1868, but the boom ended just two years later. A few “mini-booms” followed, repopulating the town briefly. It’s hard to believe this was once a scene of intense human activity, with homes, stores, saloons and a hotel. Now it's almost dead still. An occasional bird sings, and aspen leaves flutter in the breeze.
Miner’s Delight is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which has stabilized the buildings to keep the town frozen in a state of abandonment and decay. The effect is powerful. I walked through the empty town, carefully stepped inside the structures, ran my hands over old wall paper, and picked up abandoned tools. I could imagine building, decorating and furnishing a new abode while dreaming of getting rich—or just making a decent living, which would have been fine enough for many of these people. And I couldn't help but wonder—how did they feel when they had to abandon their hard work and dreams just a few years later?
Poles hold up walls, inside and out.
This structure was moved here when Fort Stambaugh closed in 1878. Numbers marked logs for reassembly.

So, what’s your pleasure? Would you rather whoop it up on the main street of a booming gold rush town? … or listen to ghosts celebrate and lament the human condition in the peacefulness of aspen groves? I recommend both. Fortunately, South Pass City is not your typical tourist town. Visitation is generally light; there's not much to buy. If you need more excitement, head down into the gulch during Gold Rush Days.
Try your hand at gold-rush-style poker! (source).

For a more mystical experience, stroll through the towns after sunset. And listen carefully.
“Impossible, you say, impossible to believe several thousand people once lived here? People digging, pounding, shoveling, building, dreaming of gold, always gold. Others carousing, fighting and laughing. But go back again, late at night. Leave your car and walk away into a dark side street. And then listen to what you hear when the wind dies.” —Joyce Spita (1980)
Saloon keeper and State Senator "Cocktail Jimmy" Kime was the longest permanent resident of Miner's Delight. In fact, it appears he never left!


Humstone, M. 2004. Miner’s Delight interpretive plan. University of Wyoming. PDF

Lindmier, T., and Georgen, C. 2004. South Pass City; Wyoming’s city of gold. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company Publishers.

Spita, Joyce. 1980. A quick history of South Pass City, Atlantic City: Wyoming ghost towns. Colorado Springs, CO: Little London Press.

South Pass City State Historic Site walking guide. Available at the dance hall, with entrance fee. (PDF)


  1. Interesting comparison! After visiting many ghost towns and preserved living history locations, I have to say both formats are fascinating. The gold rush was an interesting time. During our trip out west recently, we read aloud Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop," which is set in the four corners region (mainly N.M.) where we were traveling. A brief discussion of the gold rush in Colorado is included. Strange to think how quickly those towns sprang up, and how quickly some of them disappeared!

    1. I agree, Beth. The ephemeralness of those towns really impressed me, as did the people--ready to go for it even with little information, take risks, and just move on when things didn't work out.

      I loved Death Comes for the Archbishop! It struck me as a bit mystical, as do some of the places I've visited in northern New Mexico. I need to return, and reread the book while I'm there.