Gold Rush 49ers, Devil’s Gate and the Sweetwater

Independence Rock

After the ferry across the Platte River the strong smell of sulfur rose and alkaline water was nauseously offensive. Dead oxen lay along the trail. One man wrote, “The country is a dry, sterile and dreary desert.” But here were found sage hens and huge grasshoppers. Willow Springs, with its cold, pure water came as a welcome relief for the emigrants. Their mules were now getting sick and still the oxen died. Soon after they came to a large, isolated oval dome beside the trail. Few could pass Independence Rock without adding their name with tar or charcoal. And after a couple of more miles the Sweetwater River, from six inches to two feet deep and 50 to 70 feet wide, flowed through a beautiful valley covered in much needed grass, but empty of trees.

Devils Gate, photo by Ryan Reeder

Devil’s Gate, a remarkable perpendicular gap in the granite mountains some 40 feet wide and 400 feet high where the river had cut it’s way south, was such a powerful scene that most stopped and explored. Stansbury, in his Explorations, said, “through this romantic pass the river brawls and frets over broken masses of rock that obstruct its passage, affording one of the most lovely, cool and refreshing retreats from the eternal sunshine without that the imagination could desire.” Impossible to pass through, Devil’s Gate was easily skirted and when past the gap men would see lakes and streams lined with trees that shimmered on the horizon and disappeared as they advanced. Almost all the emigrants remarked about this mirage in their diaries.

Sweetwater River 1870

Travel in the flat Sweetwater Valley was welcome, but as the river meandered back and forth it had to be crossed often to avoid projecting rocks. Perkins talks of four crossings in an hour and there were a total of nine in all. Empty, dry plains covered in sage, deep ravines, volcanic rock and ash went on for miles. The biggest complaint was the fine, alkali dust that the wagons and mules kicked up from the road that inflamed noses, lips, throats and lungs. As they approached South Pass, one man noted that for all the dead oxen he had seen there had only been six graves.

Fremont Peak, Wind River Range

Later that day, along the horizon, the snow-capped peaks of the Wind River Mountains appeared and at a nearby creek chunks of snow floated by in the July melt water. This was the Continental Divide.


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