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A Town With a Life of Its Own
by Bob Brooke


It's silent now in South Pass City. The only sound I hear is the eerie banging of a old rusty chain on the side of a weathered buckboard as I stand in the middle of the town's earthen main street. 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. Somehow I get the feeling that there's life here. But isn't this a ghost town?

Unlike many other western towns that have seen better days in the boom and bust cycle of the search for gold, South Pass City, Wyoming, lives on. Founded in 1867 during the closing last two years of the golden era 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 250 historic log, frame, and stone buildings live again thanks to loving care and preservation. The town appears today much the way it did in the mid-1880s.  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 are just two boards nailed together. Guests who stayed here 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.  As I peer into the rooms in these buildings, I 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.

The first major excitement over gold in the Wyoming Territory occurred in 1867 near the place where the Oregon Trail crosses the Rockies at South Pass. Thousands of miners and businessmen stormed into the area seeking riches. Within weeks of the first strike, prospectors descended on the area in much the same way as they had done in the gold fields of the other western territories. They stayed only as long as the promise of easy wealth, and when that fled, they followed. 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. 

Nothing can compare to that first boom when thousands of miners suddenly rushed into the area at the news of the rich Carissa Lode strike above South Pass City's future location. The gold camp burst into existence within a few months. All 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.

Main Street in South Pass City, WyomingJames Smith was just such a man. He built the first store, which later became the longest running mercantile business in town. Emigrating from Ireland with his parents at the age of nine, he eventually signed on with merchant ships and then joined the U.S. Navy to fight in the Mexican War. He traveled to South Pass City in 1867 with others seeking riches and staked out several choice business locations in town, as well as several gold claims, thus beginning a long and successful career as an entrepreneur and speculator.

Unfortunately, the strikes here turned out not to be as productive as was hoped and no "Mother Lode" was ever found. "The community began to fade in 1872," he says. "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 and 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."

By the turn of the century, South Pass city's population hovered at almost 200. But by 1917 the interest in gold took a nosedive as strategic minerals and metals came into prominence in preparing the nation for war. The final blow came with prohibition. Many miners, unwilling to endure the hardships of mining without liquor, packed up and left. Only the efforts of the Smith-Sherlock family kept the town from achieving ghost town status through diversification with a general store, post office, hotel, restaurant, livestock company and freighting business.

One resident in particular, Janet Sherlock, a Scottish immigrant and the operator of the South Pass Hotel, left a legacy for all to enjoy. Purchasing the Idaho House Hotel in 1873 and promptly renaming it the South Pass Hotel, she 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. South Pass City has always been a conservative town, even though some extraordinarily liberal things happened here. The first successful women's suffrage bill in the nation, introduced by a saloonkeeper and member of the Wyoming legislature, was subsequently passed. The woman who spearheaded this bill, Esther Morris, became the first woman justice of the peace in the world, and the first woman to hold political office in the country.

Everyone knows that when something gets old, it usually wears out and is discarded. The buildings and artifacts at South Pass City are old and worn, but they certainly haven't been thrown away. Instead, they're being lovingly preserved for generations to come.

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