Just six miles down the trail the emigrants saw Devil’s Gate, another rock formation that consisted of a huge, narrow cleft, 370 feet high, through which the Sweetwater ran. Since the wagons couldn’t get through the narrow defile, they traveled half mile to the south. The gorge received its name through an old Arapaho legend, which told of a powerful evil spirit with huge tusks which once roamed the Sweetwater Valley. When warriors attacked the beast, it thrust up its tusks and ripped a huge gap through the earth, into which it disappeared.
The next and perhaps most significant landmark for the travelers was South Pass, a flat, gently sloping saddle through the Rocky Mountains, nearly 30 miles wide. Many recognized that without this pass, the Oregon Trail could not exist. Although many traveled the pass without realizing it, it was an important point along the journey. Here overlanders reached the half way mark, and crossed the continental divide.
After South Pass some emigrants chose to leave the main trail and follow the Sublette Cutoff, which eliminated about 75 miles of travel, but went through a waterless desert. Most followed the overland trail southwest past Fort Bridger instead. This fort, built by Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez in the early 1840s, attempted to capitalize on overland travel after the demise of the fur trade. The main structure of adobe was crude and shabby in comparison with other forts. The Mormon Trail branched off near Fort Bridger toward the Great Salt Lake, and in 1855, the fort was purchased by the Mormons. The U.S. government took over the area and constructed a new fort in 1858.
After the Sublette Cutoff and the main trail were reunited, emigrants encountered Soda Springs, an area where mineral deposits created a landscape filled with cones and craters, springs and geysers. Most emigrants tried the carbonated water, and some experimented by adding flavorings, sugar and citrus syrup being a particular favorite. One geyser-like water source was named Steamboat Spring, since it spewed water periodically, puffing like a great steamboat. Some mountain men swore they became intoxicated when they drank at another area called Beer Spring. Most, however, thought the water just tasted a bit heavy on the sulfur.
As travelers neared the Snake River, they passed Fort Hall, built by Nathaniel Wyeth in 1834 as a fur trading post. After following the treacherous and winding Snake River for some time, wagon trains passed through a narrow break in the rocks which they called the “Gate of Death”.
From the Snake River, emigrants saw a chain of hazy blue shadows on the horizon, the Blue Mountains. Luckily, crossing through these mountains turned out to be surprisingly easy, unlike their next challenge, the treacherous Dalles rapids on the Columbia River in Oregon. At the Dalles, the river dropped into a kind of sink filled with incredible boulders. The French called it “La Dalles,” meaning “the trough.” Here, just 100 miles from their goal in the Willamette Valley, travelers found themselves faced with a great land barrier,
and no choice but to brave the rapids aboard makeshift river craft. Luckily, at the end of the harsh water route, emigrants received help from Dr. John McLoughlin, the “Father of Oregon,” in charge of operations at British Fort Vancouver.
By 1846, the emigrants were offered a choice when they approached the Dalles, and could take a new trail around Mount Hood to the south, cleared by emigrant Samuel Barlow. During its early use, this route, called the Barlow Road, had a toll of 5 dollars for a wagon and team. Although the charge was steep, most chose to take the road, avoiding the Columbia rapids. The road presented its own hazards. Its first section was so steep that wagons were often let down with ropes, and decades after the use of the road had ceased, rope scars could still be seen on several trees. The road was about 90 miles long, and took travelers about two weeks to reach their destination, the fertile soil of the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
“Upon the whole I enjoyed the trip,” recorded Catherine Haun, “in spite of its hardships and dangers…I, like every other pioneer, love to live over again in memory those romantic months and revisit, in fancy, the scenes of the journey.” When they reached Oregon, the emigrants didn’t have much to show for their long trip. Often, they were running dangerously low on supplies and money. They arrived in Oregon with something very valuable, however; their lives and the memory of the scenes they had experienced along the trail. Just as the landmarks they encountered had shaped the land, so their experiences shaped the future of our country.
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.