The entrance is around the corner from the parking lot, past a rock wall, and through a portico that resembles the top of a covered wagon. This one isn't run by the NPS; it's a public-private partnership between BLM, the city of Casper and the National Historic Trails Center Foundation.
Between 1840 and 1870, half a million people moved across the western plains for various reasons--free land, freedom of religion and to strike it rich. Many of those (including my grandfather's family a few years later) very likely passed through this area because six trails diverged near here: Oregon Trail, Mormon Pioneer Trail, California Emigrant Trail, Bozeman Trail, Bridger Trail and the Pony Express Trail. I knew about the first and the last...
I had no idea so many people went west in covered wagons! Since my grandfather and his parents did, that means I qualify for an Oregon Trail Certificate from the Idaho Genealogical Society. Maybe I should send in the form I picked up and get them for the whole family? How's that for a keep-within-the-budget Christmas present?) My family wasn't involved in the California gold rush--they went for the free land. Pity...
George got his passport stamps and I checked out the bookstore, then we went down a few steps to look at the dioramas, and wait for the video to start.
Specific areas of the diorama are spotlighted as they're discussed during the video. A lot of the narration comes from direct quotes from pioneers' journals. It was very well done. We learned about the various trails and routes. We learned that you need to be at Independence Rock by the 4th of July to be sure you'll make it across the Rockies before the winter snows. Our 21st century covered wagon has a lot more going for it than we realized!
After the video, we checked out the other exhibits. They have displays and exhibits--and they have interactive exhibits. Of course, my favorites were the interactive ones. (George says I'm really easy to entertain.)
We rode in a virtual wagon across the North Platte River. Once we got up in the wagon, the video started running--and the wagon started shaking! It was synchronized to the gait of the oxen pulling us, so it really felt like we were crossing the river. We could feel every bump and jolt as it lurched through the water.
We could see and hear the wagon master as he helped the wagons cross. It was like actually being in the wagon and it was really fun.
The "Roadometer" exhibit was out of order, but it was pretty clever. See the gearbox behind the wheel? For every rotation of the wheel, it clicked a tooth on one of the gears. 360 revolutions of the wheel = 1 mile. From Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Great Salt Lake = 1,031 miles, or 371,060 revolutions of the wagon wheel. Most of the pioneers walked instead of rode, so that's a pretty impressive distance. I was impressed that I didn't have to do it.
Next we went into The Martin Hand Cart Company Rescue exhibit. I sat down on the bench in the darkish room, listening to diary accounts of European emigrants who started too late to be across the mountains before the winter storms. They pulled handcarts and more than 100 died before the rest were rescued. (I thought the trails were all about covered wagons, but apparently really poor people used handcarts!) As their story progressed, the group was stuck by bad weather, lack of food and warm clothing, with people dying of hypothermia. I started getting cold too. I thought I was just being super suggestible, but George told me there was actually cold (really cold!) air blowing into the room, as they talked about the snow and ice. This was an interesting idea, but it took me a while to get warm again!
Outside the room, we got to try to pull a handcart. (I am soooo glad I was born in the 20th century!)
A trail I never thought of as a trail was the one used by the Pony Express. Lasting only 19 months, the relay-system of mail delivery between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, has become an icon in Old West history. It cost $5 per half-ounce, which later reduced to $1. (And I thought that we paid a lot for a stamp now!) Telegraphs, railroads and the Civil War brought it to an end.
Apparently it made a total of $90,000--and lost $200,000. Sounds just like the USPO!
The next day we were back on our journey--which took us along the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails--which ran the same way through this section. About 60 miles SW of Casper is Independence Rock, a major landmark on the trail. When I say major, that's what I mean. This is one great big rock! A lot of emigrants carved their names on it. (Yes, I know, it's graffiti--but this is historical graffiti.) Apparently a lot of them climbed up it before they started writing. Funniest thing happened--neither George nor I had recharged camera batteries recently, and we both ran out of charge about the same time. It's August, and it's hot and George didn't want to wait for me to run back to the truck and get spares. (sigh) I did find this one but it's from 1930.
Back in the truck and a few miles down the road, we saw a sign for Martin's Cove. We saw tour buses parked so figured we could get the 5th wheel down the hill and back. With charged batteries in the cameras, we had a quick personal tour of the Visitors Center, which was an old ranch house donated to the Mormon Church by the Sun family.
Devil's Gate is a nearby trail landmark. Devil's Gate is a gorge on the Sweetwater River. It looks like a wagon trail route, but only water goes through it. The emigrant trails passed through Rattlesnake Pass just south of here.
I've got more pictures here: National Historic Trails