Mountain Passes: Bridger Pass

In 1849 Major Howard Stansbury of the US Army Corps of Topographical Engineers was assigned the job of exploring and surveying Great Salt Lake and its surroundings. In 1850 the Stansbury Expedition employed mountain man Jim Bridger to guide them through areas of the Rocky Mountains. It was during that time that Bridger found a pass south of South Pass and led the expedition through it. The significance of this pass (named Bridger Pass) was that it cut 61 miles off the distance of the Oregon Trail. In the mountains a wagon train may have averaged ten miles a day, so Bridger Pass could have saved immigrants a full week of travel as they headed to Oregon. 

James Bridger was born in Virginia in 1804. At a very young age he went west to St. Louis, where he worked as a blacksmith. In 1822, at the age of seventeen, he joined the Missouri River Expedition to further explore much of the territory that Lewis and Clark had traveled. Bridger was the youngest man on the trip.(Jedediah Smith was on this expedition, as were Hugh Glass and Thomas Fitzpatrick — all three of them mountain men (trappers and explorers). Many members of the expedition, among them Jim Bridger, stayed in the mountains to trap furs after the expedition had ended. Mountain men traveled thousands and thousands of miles, zigzagging across the west, blazing trails, finding rivers, lakes, and mountain passes.

In order to survive in the wild Bridger learned to speak with anybody he met. He spoke not only English but also Spanish and French and six different Indian languages. In addition, he was fluent in sign language.

In 1843 Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez opened a trading post in Utah Territory. Their outpost came to be called Fort Bridger — a very important stop on the route west. Wagon trains stopping at Fort Bridger were able to buy food; re-shoe their horses, mules, and oxen; repair their wagons or buy other wagons; and receive further directions on where to travel and how to do it. The Donner Party stopped at Fort Bridger on its way to California in 1847.

Although California was admitted to the Union in 1850, statehood did not make communication with the far western state any easier. Business and personal mail still took months to reach California via wagon train or ship. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company was a stagecoach line that carried passengers and mail to the west, too. At first the stage took the southern route through Sitgreaves Pass to Los Angeles, then north to San Francisco. Later it switched to a northern route going through South Pass. And then it abandoned the South Pass route for the Bridger Pass one. Still, a letter sent by stagecoach took weeks and weeks to arrive in California.

In 1860 the founders of the Overland Mail did something very bold: they started a mail service of relay riders whose sole job was to carry saddlebags of mail from the end of the telegraph line in St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The Pony Express, as it was called, employed young men who weighed approximately 120 pounds, so that their body weight would not slow down the horses too much. The men were young, with an average age of 20, and one rider was 11 years old.

Each rider was paid $100 for a month of work. He rode from 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles at one of the 185 Pony Express stations along the route. At the end of 75 or 100 miles, the rider passed his mail on to another rider. One rider left from the east and one from the west once a week. Via the Pony Express the mail reached California in just eight days in summer, twelve days in winter. These riders galloped east and west through Bridger Pass.

Started in April of 1860, the Pony Express ended in October of 1861 — a mere eighteen months. It ended when the telegraph line across the continent was completed and messages could be communicated in a matter of minutes. By connecting California to the Union via speedier mail, the Pony Express helped keep that state on the Union side during the Civil War. In addition the Pony Express proved that the central route across the United States — through Bridger Pass — could be traveled all year long and was the best route connecting the different sides of the country.

Bridger Pass was significant in another transportation-and-mail way, and that had to do with the Union Pacific Railroad. Before the Civil War the federal government had plans to build a transcontinental railroad. Although the bill providing for this railroad was passed in 1862, and work on the railroad began then, it wasn’t until after the Civil War ended that the government went full speed ahead with the transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad headed west from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific headed east from Sacramento, California.  (The tracks met in Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.)

The chief engineer of the Union Pacific was General Grenville Dodge, who had served in military intelligence during the Civil War. According to some accounts Dodge, wanting to shorten the route of the Union Pacific in any way he could, asked Jim Bridger if there was an alternative to South Pass. According to these accounts Bridger encouraged Dodge to do what the Overland Mail and Pony Express had done — use the mountain pass that Jim Bridger had discovered in 1850. Dodge and the railroad engineers investigated Bridger Pass and decided that building the railroad through it would indeed save time and money. And so the tracks of the Union Pacific were laid through that pass.

Mountain Range:  Sierra Madre
Elevation: 7,532 feet 
Location: On the Continental Divide in southeastern Wyoming, near Medicine Bow National Forest.

In order to speed up the laying of railroad track across 1,776 miles, the government urged the two railroads to “race” each other. For every mile of track laid, each railroad was granted $48,000 in government bonds plus 12,800 acres of land. In order to lay more miles of track the Union Pacific offered male passengers reduced fare if they would help lay the railroad beds and tracks.

The Union Pacific (which had to dig a mere four tunnels compared to the Central Pacific’s fifteen tunnels) won the race, and General Dodge credited Jim Bridger for this. Bridger died in 1881, one of the last of the mountain men. In 1904 General Dodge had a monument erected over Bridger’s grave, crediting him for discovering Bridger Pass and helping lay the route of the Union Pacific Railroad.

Not only was Bridger Pass a great route for the railroad, it turned out to be the best route for Interstate 80, which runs from Teaneck, New Jersey to San Francisco, California. Exploration, immigration, communication, transportation — Bridger Pass played a prominent role in each.

Bridger Pass

Hello
hoof beats, dust cloud,
skinny rider, bursting
saddlebags: why not stay a while? — 
so long!

————————————

Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Crowsnest Pass.

5 thoughts on “Mountain Passes: Bridger Pass

  1. Wow! Great post Barbara. In ’74, my wife and I drove from Rome, NY to San Francisco and I’m sure we transited Route 80 along the way. If nowhere else, than driving across the bridge into the center of San Fran with my 74 Plymouth Duster. I remember the wife had the map (screaming directions), while I freaked out trying not to hit or be hit by those “little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars!” I’ll have to thank Mr. Bridger when I finally see him :).

    Like

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