Dreams and Reality – Birdseye Pass Part II

    Shoshoni was full of dreamers in the early 20th century. C.H. King, whose name became synonymous with the rapid growth of the small desert town, opened a lumber yard, a bank, a hotel, and various other businesses in Shoshoni. The arrival of Chicago Northwestern in early 1906 brought even more business.

    Electricity arrived in Shoshoni in 1908 as Boysen’s 720KW generator went into action. Telephones were already in place and the town became a haven for prospectors as claims were made on nearby Copper Mountain and areas of the Owl Creeks west of the river.

    A stage company from Shoshoni to Thermopolis made sense. The only competition remained from Ft. Washakie 50 miles to the west with regular stage and freight service over a new route from 1898 until October 1905 over the Mexican Pass – Red Canyon Route a few miles from the old Blondie pass line.

    Blondie Pass was first taken by the American Army in 1873 under an expedition by Capt. William Jones from Ft. Brown to the newly created Yellowstone National Park. A Shoshone guide, Togote, led the cavalry troop through the Owl Creek Mountains over Blondie Pass and then into the park via Sylvan Pass that summer. His name was altered slightly to the modern spelling Togwottee with the pass west of Dubois named in his honor.

    An advertisement for the Ft. Washakie – Thermopolis Stage over Blondie Pass – h/t Wind River Mountaineer

    The town of Birdseye began to take shape in the summer of 1906. The Birdseye Hotel and Halfway House was the first building. As the name implied, it was halfway between Shoshoni and Thermopolis.

    The Birdseye Hotel offered all the amenities common to the rough-and-tumble traveling days of the early 20th century. The Halfway House offered meals and contained a small store. Needless to say, the second building, a few dozen feet away, was a bar. There never was a name given to the bar, just a big sign in handwritten letters reading “Saloon.” That was more than enough for the miners, freighters, and ranch hands who frequented the establishment.

    A lively time at the Birdseye Saloon – h/t Hot Springs County Museum

    Shoshoni Capital, February 25, 1906 – C. S. Kelly, proprietor of the Meeteetse-Thermopolis and Basin Thermopolis stage lines, was in Shoshoni the first of the week. Mr. Kelly came over to arrange a line between Shoshoni and Thermopolis, and we understand will do so at once. The line would pass the mining camp of Birdseye on Copper Mountain and be a great advantage to the fast-increasing traffic between Shoshoni and Copper Mountain and Thermopolis.

    The Shoshoni to Thermopolis stage line opened on August 1, 1906, and lasted until October 20, 1913. It had a good run, but technology led to its demise.

    Boysen Reservoir from the top of Copper Mountain – h/t Randy Tucker

    The route was never reliable aside a few months, mostly late June to early October. Subject to high winds, heavy, unpredictable thunderstorms, and winter snowstorms that could dump dozens of feet of heavy snow along the trail, it was a challenge even in the warm summer months.

    An example of the unpredictable weather and the dedication of the men operating the stage line came with this story.

    Copper Mountain Miner – February 21, 1908 – That Thermopolis received her eastern mail on Monday night is due to the courage, and perseverance of E J. Richards, one of the proprietors of the stage line between Shoshoni and Thermopolis. The worst snowstorm of the winter came up suddenly on Monday and when the time came for the northbound stage to leave Birdseye, the storm was so bad that it was impossible to see the buildings from one side of the street to the other. A start with the coach was made but it was found to be impossible to continue. Mr. Richards, however, believed that he could get through with the mail on horseback and started from there at 9 pm, well-wrapped and protected from any danger of freezing.

    Grave fears were entertained as to his safety by those remaining behind at Birdseye but with the coming of Tuesday morning the storm was over and the outfit that went out to break the road met Mr. Richards bringing the outgoing mail from Thermopolis. He had made the trip in safety, reaching his destination at 8 o’clock, just two hours behind his scheduled time.

    Soon after dam construction, the Burlington Northern Railroad arrived at the mouth of the canyon. This transcontinental route would connect Chicago with Seattle and 20 miles of it wound through the tight confines of the Wind River Canyon.

    Depass Mercantile – from the ghost town of Depass 1908 – h/t Copper Mountain Miner

    Add to the blasting and digging for the dam and the rail bed, a few hundred miners intent on getting rich in the copper deposits that brought about Copper Mountain’s name and a few thousand gold seekers desperately chasing the latest strike into the nearby mountains and you have a crowd of aggressive, eager, young men looking to find their fortune.

    Fights, robberies, and a few murders took place around Birdseye and were all diligently reported in the Copper Mountain Miner, the newspaper of the era.

    The Miner, along with the Wind River Mountaineer and the Shoshoni Standard all reported the daily action and travesties taking place high atop the mountain between Thermopolis and Shoshoni.

    The railroad punched through the canyon and gradually eliminated the need for a stage and freight line. Mail, passengers, and freight could be taken to Shoshoni on the Chicago Northwestern for shipment east, or to the nearby town of Bonneville, a few miles north of Shoshoni for transportation anywhere in America on the Burlington Northern.

    The Moneta to Thermopolis stage route – h/t Tom Davis

    Birdseye Pass remained viable, at least in the summer months for cars and trucks. Many people from the newly created railroad towns of Riverton, Arapaho, and Hudson drove over the pass to pick up high-grade coal from the mining town of Gebo a dozen or so miles north of Thermopolis. The coal was a better grade than that mined at Hudson.

    The road began to degrade with lighter traffic but remained a route for the young and adventurous. An example of a couple of “traveling men” and their Fort Model T losing a battle with a pair of horses appeared in the summer of 1922.

    Editor’s note: A flivver was a 1920s slang term for a poorly constructed automobile)

    Thermopolis Record – June 29, 1922 –  Horses Object to Flivver in Road – “Wyoming horses are remarkably proud and intelligent animals. They object to being crowded out of their natural field of activity by the plebian flivver and they know how to apply direct action in removing the unfair competition. Two of them met a despised Ford on the Birdseye Road yesterday and promptly proceeded to junk it. Orin Garretson and E. E. Wilson, the latter an Omaha traveling man, looking for western thrills, were Fording up the south side of the mountain and stopped at Birdseye Creek to cool off their radiator. A team from the road camp farther up the hill got away from their driver and took the middle of the road with a scraper trailing behind them. The men at the creek heard the racket, but thought it was a truck bumping over the rocks. When the team came around a sharp turn in the road it was too late to get the car out of the way, so the men sought safety themselves by climbing a bank. When the scraper struck the creek the horses broke loose from it, but this only spurred them to greater efforts. Maybe they didn’t break any speed record, but they certainly broke the Ford. One horse passed on each side of it and proceeded to do their darndest— but they say the machine is worth salvaging. As if to add insult to injury, the runaway team looked back over their shoulders and gave the wrecked flivver the horse laugh. All Fords will now carry extra insurance when starting over the Birdseye Pass.

    The road through the Wind River Canyon eliminated the Birdseye Pass route by 1924, but a few diehards refused to quit. One of the more colorful characters remained on top of the mountain for many years.

    The Birdseye Stage at the Halfway House and Hotel – h/t Riverton Museum

    Cody Enterprise – February 20, 1924 – Wildcat Sam’s Voice Thawed Out When Chinook Came

    “Wildcat Sam” Abernathy was down from his traps and shack on Birdseye Pass this week looking like the breaking up of a hard winter and feeling like a bear after a season of hibernating. While Thermopolis has been sitting proudly on the banks of the Big Horn without suffering any of the outrageous flings of the storm king, Birdseye Pass, according to the stories of “Wildcat Sam,” has been buried deep in the snow and bearing the rigors of an old-fashioned winter.

    For a time, according to the story he tells, Sam thought the entire hill was haunted. Winter came in September with plenty of snow on Birdseye Pass. Late travelers over the mountain were snowed in and Sam in assisting them out used pretty strong language.

    “During the January thaw,” said “Wildcat Sam,” “I heard the cry of the coyote and the wail of the wolf, but investigation disclosed none of the animals. My own voice in helping out the snowbound travelers last September came back to me in January, and I couldn’t figure out where the noises were coming from.” Then “Wildcat Sam” took a hitch on his whiskers, grown longer and thicker because of the severity of the winter. He added: “It was so doggone cold the echoes froze up and the noises I heard were only the echoes being thawed out by the mild January weather.

    A map of the Casper to Big Horn County stage – h/t Tom Davis

    The stage line had one last hurrah in the autumn of 1923 when a rockslide closed the railroad for a few weeks. The rapidly advancing highway through the canyon ended the Birdseye Pass for good the following summer.


    Cody Enterprise – October 10, 1923 – Old timers who rode into the Big Horn Basin when the hills were holes in the ground were carried back this week twenty years to a remembrance of old times when there was a regular stagecoach line over the notorious Birdseye Pass.

    A.P. Kelly, the owner of the Stone Front, is all that remains of the livery business in Thermopolis, put on all of the stagecoaches between here and Shoshoni. One of the three coaches that started on the forty-mile trip Monday morning brought a thrill to the old-timers.

    It was one of the yellow coaches formerly used in Yellowstone Park traffic. Four horses were hitched up one more time. With the “ribbons” between his fingers was “Red” Neal, who pulled the reins from the same seat when Indians were lurking in the sagebrush and “bad men” held up timid tenderfeet for their bankrolls.

    Three 4-horse stages made the initial trip without trouble worth speaking of, carrying a crew of reclamation service men and other passengers. At Shoshoni, according to reports. “Red” Neal jumped from the driver’s seat with the smile of a maiden and the heart of a child. “The country’s not gone to the dog yet, by heck,” said “Red,” as he placed his passengers safe on the Northwestern depot platform and then stretched out his long legs before preparing for the return trip.

    The trips will be made daily over Birdseye Pass between Thermopolis and Shoshoni, says Mr. Kelly, until the railroads are back on.

    College students have routinely run through highway department roadblocks trying to get home, or just to get out of Laramie on spring and Thanksgiving breaks. Five University of Wyoming students pushed the limits of the need to get home late in 1923.

    The view from Copper Mountain 2023 – h/t Randy Tucker


    Casper Daily Tribune – December 31, 1923 – THERMOPOLIS, Wyo., Dec. 31 –  Ralph Johnson, Edward Walsh, Joseph McDonald, Ralph Jones, and Lamar Jones, five Thermopolis boys attending the University of Wyoming at Laramie, pulled a stunt that only boys with the blood of the west could have accomplished In order to get home for the Christmas holidays.

    Birdseye Pass, an old stage route over the mountain which is the only highway entrance to the Big Horn Basin country from the south and which will be a thing of the past In March when the Wind River Canyon highway is completed, has been ‘snowed up for weeks. Nobody has attempted to negotiate the pass even with horses. The boys started from Laramie Thursday afternoon at 5 o’clock, drove by way of Cheyenne in a dependable flivver, and made it over Birdseye Pass, arriving here at 4 o’clock Friday afternoon. Their only stops were to eat as they pounded away all Thursday night.

    Over Birdseye Pass, four of the boys pushed at the machine while one drove. In this way they managed to beat through the high banks of snow, the only auto that has been over the pass for weeks and perhaps the only one that will get over again until next May.

    The end of Birdseye Pass as a highway began in the summer of 1922 when a crew of 450 men began working their way north into the canyon. They blasted three tunnels through the rock at the southern entrance, then proceeded with five steam shoves, dozens of teams of horses, and hundreds of hand tools.

    Boysen’s ill-fated original dam marked the narrowest section of the canyon, where the rock wall was too large and steep to remove, so the three familiar tunnels were blasted out.

    Construction was delayed by heavy runoff during 1923, which washed out railroad bridges and swept away sections of the newly graveled highway.

    A snowy January 1924, marked the first transit of the new road from the Shoshoni side through the canyon to Thermopolis. Approximately 100 people rolled slowly along the river route in 21 cars to mark the historic event.

    You can still take Birdseye Pass over Copper Mountain today, but the trail travels through private property.

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