Grand Teton
Historic Resource Study
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The Transportation Frontier

Mr. and Mrs. J. P Nelson were down from Elk last Saturday, Mrs. Nelson stating that it was her first trip to Jackson in about four years.

Jackson's Hole Courier, January 13, 1918

Strange how a dominating physical feature moulds the character of a country. The Pass—it is always spoken of as The Pass—is never very far away from the thoughts of the inhabitants of the valley.

—Struthers Burt, The Diary of a Dude Wrangler

car in snow
Heavy snow often closed Teton Pass, and community residents had to endure long periods of isolation. Workers struggled to get the gasoline truck through the cleared path on Teton Pass, which was often hand dug each spring. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Geographic isolation, more than any other factor, binds the history of Jackson Hole. Getting supplies and mail over the divides preoccupied valley residents as much as any other activity. Severe winters compounded their problems. Indeed, poor transportation links retarded development in this valley well into the twentieth century.

After the United States acquired a continental empire from coast to coast, finding a way to link this land drew national attention. Only the great issues of slavery and sectionalism overshadowed this problem; in fact, the controversy over a transcontinental railroad route became enmeshed in the politics of slavery. Gold rushes in California in 1849 and Colorado in 1858 made Americans conscious of the transportation problem. These migrations did not typify frontier expansion; rather than emanating from civilized centers east to west, the miners' frontier skipped from the Mississippi Valley and eastern United States to the Pacific Coast, then headed east to the Rockies.

The Oregon Trail was the primary overland route to California and Oregon. This trail bypassed Jackson Hole, utilizing South Pass about 100 miles to the southeast. The Oregon Trail was so arduous that many people preferred travel by ship, either to Panama and the short overland trip across the isthmus or around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. In the 1850s, the army conducted several surveys to evaluate and recommend a route for a transcontinental railroad. None of four proposed alignments passed through Jackson Hole.

Meanwhile, western pressure increased to develop reliable mail service between California and the East. Responding to political agitation, Congress authorized the postmaster general to let a contract for semi-weekly or weekly mail service to California. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company received the contract and established mail and passenger service between Tipton, Missouri, and San Francisco. The Butterfield route was a tortuous track that skirted southwest and then west through Arkansas, the Indian Territories, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, a distance of 2,812 miles. The Butterfield Company contracted with the Abbott-Downing Company of Concord, New Hampshire, to produce a suitable vehicle. The New England company manufactured the Concord stagecoach, which revolutionized travel in the West. These coaches sported special adaptations to western conditions—heavy broad, iron-rimmed tires that would not sink in sand, wide axles to prevent tip-overs, and leather thorough braces to absorb shocks. [1]

In 1860, entrepreneurs established the Pony Express in another effort to link the continent. They set up a route between St. Joseph, Missouri, and San Francisco. Relays of dashing horsemen each rode 70 miles to cover the entire route in just over ten days. The Pony Express never showed a profit and was doomed by new technology, the electric telegraph. In 1861, the federal government subsidized the construction of the first transcontinental telegraph, which construction crews completed in just under four months. [2]

The Civil War delayed construction of the transcontinental railroad until 1866, when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific began laying track across the continental expanse in earnest. The two companies raced over the rugged landscape. The Union Pacific laid track across southern Wyoming in 1867 and 1868. The two companies met at Promontory Point in Utah in May 1869. The completion of a transcontinental railroad was perhaps one of the most significant feats in American history for it bound the nation together both in symbolic and practical terms. The Union Pacific line, 150 miles south of Jackson Hole, provided access to supplies and mail, and facilitated settlement in the region of northwest Wyoming and southeast Idaho. [3]

Early routes into Jackson Hole were nothing more than the old trapper and Indian trails. The first settlers, John Holland and John Carnes, entered Jackson Hole from the Green River Valley via the Gros Ventre River. The so-called Bacon Ridge Trail was the most used route into the valley at first. The U.S. Geological Survey Mount Leidy Quadrangle, 1902, and the Gros Ventre Quadrangle, 1910, show the wagon road following the west bank of the upper Green River to Bacon Ridge. At the south end of the ridge, the road splits, one traversing the Kinky Creek Divide, the other the Bacon Creek Divide. The roads rejoined near the confluence of the Gros Ventre River and Fish Creek and followed the Gros Ventre into Jackson Hole. [4] In 1883, President Chester A. Arthur led a large entourage into Jackson Hole from Fort Washakie. Crossing Lincoln or Sheridan Pass, they cut a trail down the Gros Ventre into the valley then followed the Snake River north into Yellowstone. W. O. Owen's map of Township 42 North, Range 115 West shows a broken four-mile trail along the north side of the Gros Ventre River near the Kelly townsite, dubbed the Sheridan Trail. [5]

The Hoback River route followed the old trapper trail to Hoback Junction, a tortuous trail clinging to canyon walls in places. In 1878, William Henry Jackson traveled this trail, describing it as scenic but difficult because of long steep slides. "One of the mules took a roll of about 200 feet into the stream below, but fortunately with no serious harm to itself." [6]

The Snake River Canyon route was not used much because it remained a rugged horse trail over steep-pitched canyon sides. Further, Jackson Hole settlers had little reason to use it since better routes to supply sources existed. About 1906, Fred White, a local justice of the peace, used this route to take funds obtained from elk licenses to Evanston, Wyoming. After he failed to return, search parties scoured the canyon. They found his body and determined that he had been murdered. Since the money was gone, robbery was the probable motive. [7]

The trail over Teton Pass became the primary route into Jackson Hole, for it provided the closest access to supplies and mail, first to the train station at Market Lake, then later to Rexburg, Idaho. By the late 1880s, a crude wagon track had been cleared over the high mountain pass. According to one reference, R. E. Miller, John Cherry, and Jack Hicks brought the first wagons over Teton Pass in 1888. The three teamsters hauled the baggage with pack animals and drove the wagons empty over the divide. The Wilson-Cheney party brought six covered wagons into the valley in the fall of 1889. It took them two weeks to complete the trip, taking two wagons at a time, each pulled by three teams of horses. Getting to the summit was one thing, but easing the wagons down either side of the summit proved even more difficult. Travelers employed several techniques, either separately or in combination, such as placing the larger rear wheels on the front of the wagon, which helped stabilize it. Some rough locked the rear wheels, fastening a log across them with a chain, in essence creating a brake. Travelers also dragged a log behind wagons to serve as another brake, which was called "putting on a dowser." Drivers even used this last method to control the descent of early automobiles down the divide. Thus, wagon traffic became commonplace over the pass in the 1890s. [8]

In 1901, Otho Williams surveyed the first formal road over Teton Pass, using a surveying instrument made of a walnut table leaf. The road grade followed the old trapper trail. Peter Karns, the local road commissioner released $500 for improvements. The source of this money is unknown, but it may have been raised from property taxes in Uinta County. [9]

As the valley's link with the outside world, the condition of the "Pass" preoccupied citizens most of the year, especially during winter. "How's the Pass?" was the question asked most often. Struthers Burt even titled a chapter in his The Diary of a Dude Wrangler, "The Pass." He wrote that it was "strange how a dominating physical feature moulds the character of a country. The Pass—it is always spoken of as The Pass—is never very far away from the thoughts of the inhabitants of the valley" [10]

Every resident who crossed the Pass had at least one hair-raising episode to recall—and if they did not, probably made one up. Burt recalled seeing a man thrown around 20 feet from the seat of a sleigh when a runner hit a buried stump. He plunged head first into the snow "and for a moment nothing was visible but absurdly kicking heels." Burt's son, Nathaniel, recalled a truck turning a corner in too wide an arc, putting a rear wheel over the edge of the narrow road. Other incidents were more serious, such as the massive snowslide that swept down Crater Lake in 1932, killing a teenage boy. [11]

The Marysville (Idaho) Road and the Ashton Moran freight road were the other significant roads to towns in Idaho. Residents occasionally used other routes over the Teton Range, but none were especially practical. Parthenia Stinnett recollected that people traveled over Fox Creek Pass at the head of Death Canyon during the late summer, but difficult terrain prevented it from becoming a viable route. In the early years, pioneers crossed Conant or Jackass Passes via the Berry Creek Trail. Carrie Nesbitt Dunn moved to Jackson Hole with her mother, Lucy Nesbitt Shive and her stepfather, Jack Shive, via this route. The Ashton-Moran freight road and the Marysville Road followed river and creek drainages between the north end of the Teton Range and Pitchstone Plateau in Yellowstone. Willis L. Winegar, who later lived in Jackson Hole, claimed to have driven the first wagon over this trail in 1883 enroute to Yellowstone, probably over the Marysville Road route. In 1910, the Reclamation Service constructed the Ashton-Moran freight road to provide a supply line to the dam project on Jackson Lake. This freight road became a significant supply line for people in the north end of Jackson Hole. [12]

The federal government constructed a military road from Fort Washakie to Fort Yellowstone via Togwotee Pass around 1900. Senator Francis E. Warren introduced a bill to construct this road in 1896 as a result of the Indian scare in 1895. A 1902 map of Township 45 North, Range 113 West, 6th Principal Meridian shows a track labeled the Military Road along the north side of the Buffalo Fork. This road joined the trail that skirted the east shore of Jackson Lake. [13]

None of these routes surpassed the Teton Pass Road as the main link with the outside world. Teton Pass, followed by the Ashton-Moran Road, provided the best access to railroad towns in Idaho. In 1882, the Union Pacific began constructing the Oregon Short Line, a trunk road connecting eastern Idaho with the main Union Pacific line at Granger, Wyoming. The Oregon Short Line reached Rexburg, Idaho, in 1899 and St. Anthony by 1902. In 1912, workers laid tracks to Driggs and Victor, the terminus of the branch line. [14]

Memories of the trek into Jackson Hole are common in the few extant personal accounts of early life in the hole. Maggie McBride's journal of the migration of the Budge, Allen, May, and McBride families is one the few and best accounts of a journey to Jackson Hole prior to 1900. Leaving home in Rockland, Idaho, it took them two weeks to make the trip to Jackson Hole. Rather than travel by covered wagon as the McBride caravan did, many settlers traveled by rail. In 1902, J. P Nelson and his family moved to Jackson Hole. They rode the Oregon Short Line to its terminus at St. Anthony Idaho, then purchased a team of horses and a wagon for the remaining trip through Teton Valley to Jackson Hole via Teton Pass. In 1912, Dick Winger filed on a homestead in the valley that he had never seen. He traveled to Driggs, Idaho, in a boxcar stuffed with farm machinery, furniture, and six cattle. He then arranged to have it all shipped over Teton Pass. [15]

Linda McKinstry wrote an undated memoir about her 1915 trip to Jackson Hole. H. C. McKinstry, her husband, paid for an immigrant car, which was a boxcar available to homesteaders at special rates. In it, they loaded furniture, books, household articles, two mares, water, and hay. They had also purchased "considerable farm machinery," which included a Studebaker wagon, a sulky plow, a mower, and a hayrake. In addition, McKinstry obtained the necessary tools for constructing a log cabin—a cross cut saw, an axe, log chains, a peavey and a drawknife. Mrs. McKinstry insisted that a Majestic kitchen range be added to the load. McKinstry rode ahead in the boxcar, unloading at Victor. He hauled the most needed goods over Teton Pass and stored the remainder of the freight in Victor.

Linda McKinstry followed on another train from Fargo, North Dakota, to Butte, Montana, where she and her brother-in-law switched to a train bound for Idaho Falls, the entire trip taking three days and two nights on "dirty dusty trains." The next day they took a train to St. Anthony, a two-hour ride, then switched trains for a four-hour trip to Victor, where she rejoined her husband. They spent the night at the little frame hotel at Victor, which she described as lacking conveniences available in Idaho Falls.

The next day Mrs. McKinstry persuaded her husband to rent saddle horses for the final leg of the journey over Teton Pass. It turned out to be a terrible mistake. Unused to long horseback trips, they plodded through melting snow on the upper elevations. "Not only was this hard on the horse, but also on the rider, and a novice would receive a terrific jolt." She arrived in Jackson "lame, sore, and very tired" and "simply fell off of the horse when I was helped down." The McKinstry narrative illustrates the importance of the Idaho railroad system to settlement and development in Jackson Hole. Immigrant boxcars allowed settlers to bring in a much greater quantity of supplies and materials than their predecessors, who had only pack animals or covered wagons. Even so, the McKinstry's trek over Teton Pass indicates the difficulty of getting mail, supplies, and people into this alpine valley. When Struthers Burt first came to Jackson Hole in 1907, the railroad terminus was in St. Anthony, "a 105 miles away a two days' journey if you were lucky and the weather was good, a three to five days' journey if you were unlucky and the weather was bad." [16]

In Jackson Hole, the first roads were primitive wagon trails. The township maps of William O. Owen, surveyed in 1892 and 1893, and the U.S. Geological Survey Grand Teton Quadrangle of 1899 document the early road system. Owen's 1892 map of Township 41 North, Range 116 West, shows an extensive network of wagon tracks in today's town of Jackson and the Elk Refuge area. Roads existed in Spring Gulch and along East Gros Ventre Butte up Botcher Hill. On Township 42 North, Range 116 West, which covered lands north of the confluence of the Gros Ventre and Snake Rivers, Owen mapped a road on the west side of the Snake that conforms in places to the present Moose-Wilson Road. No road is shown crossing the Gros Ventre River. Since Owen did not survey the Jenny Lake—Timbered Island area, no record exists of roads in this area during the early 1890s. In surveying the quadrangle encompassing the Antelope Flats area, Owen plotted the "Old Road," a trail that began southeast of Blacktail Butte and went up Antelope Flats, where it ran north to the Buffalo Fork then bore east up the Buffalo Valley. Owen's survey map of Township 44 North, Range 115 West shows portions of road along the west shore of the Snake River into the Potholes. His map of the next township, Township 45 North, Range 114 West, records a road across the Buffalo Fork near its mouth that follows the general grade of the current highway. Although not labeled as such, this may have been the Sheridan Trail. Owens township surveys indicate the existence of primitive wagon roads in the park by 1893. [17] The Grand Teton Quadrangle, surveyed by T. M. Bannon in 1899, reveals the road system in the park. Settlers could travel from one end of the valley to the other via roads on both sides of the Snake. Fords and other major river crossings are shown on the map. [18]

Despite more or less reliable access to railroad towns in Idaho and the construction of wagon roads in the valley itself, travel remained a time-consuming and difficult activity. Settlers did not just hitch up the team to the wagon and drive the family to the town of Jackson on a whim. As a result, trips to Jackson were limited for many homesteaders, occurring only once or twice a year. Consequently Jackson Hole developed as a cluster of several small communities centered around post offices and small villages. Marion Allen recalled that up to 1918, the valley consisted of "three or four parts" centered on Moran and Elk in the upper valley Grovont and Kelly in the middle, and Jackson and Wilson in the lower end. In October 1918, the Courier reported the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. J. P. Nelson in Jackson from their Spread Creek ranch. This was Mrs. Nelson's first visit to Jackson in nearly four years, a trip of approximately 30 miles. [19]

The geographic isolation of the Teton country increased the cost and scarcity of supplies, especially during the winter months. Prior to 1900, settlers freighted all of their supplies into the valley but as businesses developed in Jackson, Wilson, and Kelly, they relied increasingly on local sources. For years, the standard charge for hauling freight was a penny per pound. Freighting added to the cost of living as these charges were added to retail costs. Don Hough recalled, in his tongue-in-cheek The Cocktail Hour in Jackson Hole, that a ten-cent box of corn flakes cost a quarter in Joe Jones's grocery. The grocer's "business slogan" was "it's all got to be brought over the Hill." While Hough needs to be taken with a grain of salt, other evidence reinforces the high cost of transport. For example, in 1937, the superintendent of Grand Teton National Park purchased a quantity of supplies at Kemmerer, Wyoming, and Pocatello, Idaho, saving the government 30 percent in costs, much of it due to freight charges. [20]

Isolation caused scarcity, particularly in the wake of a severe winter. Struthers Burt described the frustration he and his partner, Horace Carncross, experienced in securing needed supplies to construct their new dude ranch. A severe winter and abominable conditions on Teton Pass left store shelves empty. Building materials such as nails and roofing paper failed to arrive on time or at all, and the only foods available were canned fruits, coffee, beans, and carrots. Burt complained that not even flour, sugar, or canned milk were available. "Eventually it became difficult to look a canned peach or a bean or a carrot in the face. And the fact that canned peaches are ordinarily the most expensive of luxuries did not increase the doctor's or my appetite for them. We suffered both internally and externally." [21]

Two other factors hindered travel in the valley severe winters and rivers. Jackson Hole winters are known for their length and the amount of snow that blankets the ground. The Snake River and its tributaries were transportation barriers. In the spring and early summer, watercourses swollen with snowmelt became treacherous. Winter imposed serious constraints on travel, as well as other aspects of life in the valley Snow can cover the ground for as long as six months per year. At Moose, Wyoming, an average of 196 inches of snow fell annually between 1959 and 1970. This amounts to 30 to 40 inches of snow on the ground during the worst part of winter. Snow depths increase with elevation, which choke the passes into Jackson Hole. Frigid temperatures typify winters, particularly in the months of December, January, and February. The highest daily temperatures seldom exceed the freezing mark and lows frequently dip below zero. In December 1924, the town of Jackson recorded a low of -60° Fahrenheit, while the Elk Refuge recorded a low of -54° Fahrenheit. In 1933, the thermometer plunged to -63° Fahrenheit at Moran. Snowfall comes in uneven amounts, often during severe winter storms. For example, Moose, Wyoming, recorded 21 inches of snowfall in one day in January 1962, while Moran recorded 15 inches in the same storm. [22]

Historically severe winter storms cut off transportation routes to Jackson Hole. The closure of Teton Pass delayed the publication of the first edition of the Jackson's Hole Courier for three weeks in 1909. Several years later, in 1916, the Courier reported that heavy snows had buried eastern Idaho, blocking train traffic for more than a week. A year later, heavy snow and avalanches left the people of Jackson Hole snowbound for 28 days. To make matters even worse, snow blocked the rails to Victor for 52 days, isolating not only the valley but the upper end of the Teton Valley in Idaho. In 1927, a series of blizzards pummeled northwestern Wyoming; on January 20, the Courier reported that just about every slide on Teton Pass had run, and that there were snowdrifts up to 15 feet deep. Even in the 1930s, links with the outside world remained unreliable during the winter months as the Pass could be closed for several days at a time. [23]

Austin on skis
Game warden Al Austin, ca. 1910. During the long Jackson Hole winters, skis were a necessity. Early skis were homemade; the single long pole was used for balance and to propel the skier. Grand Teton National Park

Winter was also the time of avalanches, a deadly threat feared by travelers. Slide runs on the Teton Pass Road posed significant hazards. Between 1911 and 1913, avalanches killed two mail carriers, Owen Curtis and Frankie Parsons, both on the west side of the pass. In 1932, a slide swept down the mountain side in the Crater Lake area burying Harry Swanson, 14 years old, in 30 to 40 feet of snow. His body was not recovered until the following spring. Stephen Leek described his experience in surviving a snow slide on the pass. Hearing a booming noise signaling a slide, Leek wrapped his arms around a tree and hung on for perhaps 30 seconds of sheer terror. As the slide passed by he described the mist as suffocating, the noise deafening. Hechtman Lake is named for Fred Hechtman, who was killed in an avalanche in the Berry Creek area in 1914. [24]

To get around during the winter, settlers used Nordic skis (also called snowshoes). By today's standards, pioneer skis were cumbersome, heavy wooden boards sometimes as much as 12 feet long. Skiers used one large pole made of a sapling rather than the two lightweight poles used today. The first skis were home-crafted with native materials. A homesteader on Flat Creek named Big John Emery reputedly made the best skis out of "red fir," also known as Douglas fir. He cut down a tree two to three feet thick, quartered it, then let the wood cure. After the wood dried, he worked skis out of the quartered sections; the tips were soaked in water and lye, then bent around a tree and fastened in place to fashion a curve at the tips. The housings could be heavy shoes or boots attached to the skis, or primitive wooden bindings. Canvas or seamless sacks served as leggings or gaiters. Settlers improvised waxes—applying beeswax, elk tallow, and pine pitch to ski bottoms. There were probably even more wax substitutes that have not been recorded. To climb steep hills, Stephen Leek recalled wrapping rope around the skis to provide good traction. The first manufactured skis were introduced in the 1920s. Mike O'Neil, a Forest Service employee, may have been the first to use manufactured skis in 1925-1926. Valley pioneers also used snowshoes, constructing frames of sapling poles and using rawhide strips for webbing.

Chambers family
The Ed Chambers family, who lived west of Blacktail Butte, used several forms of winter transportation: skies, snowshoes, and dog sleds. Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum

Immigrants to the valley not used to such deep snow, usually had to learn how to ski. Charlie Hedrick swore that big heavy skis were the only way to travel in winter. Others were not so sure. Butch Robinson homesteaded far up the Gros Ventre River, a wonderful but even more isolated country than Jackson Hole. Robinson's brother, Eddie, joined him at the homestead. With the onset of winter, Butch decided his brother would have to learn to ski. So they plodded up an open hill, blinding white in the winter sun. Only a single tree broke the snow laden slope. Butch explained the rudiments of controlling a descent and, with the instructions fresh in his ear, Eddie took off down the slope. He gained speed rapidly and lost control. Trying to avoid the lone tree, Eddie headed straight for it. Butch yelled, "Ride your pole! Ride your pole!" This technique involved straddling the pole and squatting on it to control speed. Despite his brother's instructions, Eddie Robinson crashed headlong into the tree, knocking himself out. Butch rushed to aid him. When Eddie came to his senses, Butch asked, "Why didn't you ride your pole?" His stunned brother replied, "In the first place, I was going faster than the sound of your voice, and in the second place I was riding my pole but the rear end was on top of one of the skis." [25]

Horse-drawn sleighs were the chief mode of travel in winter and were used well into the 1930s and 1940s. Only when state and county governments began keeping roads open year-round did their use decline. Old photographs show that settlers used a variety of sleighs for travel. The Jackson stage in 1909 was a small cutter, which appears to be nothing more than a platform with runners attached to it. Sometimes people covered the sleds with canvas tops to provide some shelter from severe weather conditions. Others went so far as to install wood stoves in covered sleighs. Al Austin built one for the National Park Service in 1930-1931, which the superintendent referred to as a "Jackson Hole Special." Not only were sleighs used to carry mail and supplies, but they also served an important social function as they enabled groups of people to gather for dances and celebrations, a welcome break from isolated winters. The Jackson's Hole Couriers are full of references to people traveling by sleigh to parties and dances. For example, in December 1927, two sleigh loads of neighbors surprised the Woodmans at the Flying V for an impromptu party that lasted all night. [26]

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Last Updated: 24-Jul-2004