Mountain Passes: Mosquito Pass

In 1860, just a few years after gold was discovered in California, a miner named Abe Lee sank his pick deep into a pile of rock, looked at what he’d unearthed, and cried out: “I’ve got all of California right here in my pan!” Lee’s discovery started a gold rush to what became the town of Leadville, Colorado. After the gold mined out, even richer deposits of silver and lead were found, which is how the town got its name.

In order to haul supplies in and gold out, the miners of  Leadville hacked a pass through the mountains, so they could reach the town of Fairplay. Like Beale’s Cut, then, Mosquito is a “doctored” pass: humans made changes to it in order to ease their passage through it. The pass was named after the town of Mosquito, which no longer exists.

Mosquito Pass is very, very high —  higher than many mountains. At this height snowstorms are possible any month of the year. But snow and ice never stopped the miners from crossing back and forth. Some died doing so — Mosquito Pass was nicknamed “the highway of the frozen death.”

Mountain Range: Rocky Mountains
Elevation: 13,187 feet 
Location: In central Colorado, part of the White River National Forest.

One man, though, conquered the pass almost daily. That was Father John L. Dyer, a Methodist minister who carried mail as well as gold between the mining camps. To walk Mosquito Pass in winter, when twenty feet of snow covered the ground, Dyer built himself a pair of “snowshoes” ten-feet long (they were more like skis). Strapping on his skis, Dyer crossed the dangerous pass at night, when the ice was hardest. Father Dyer was so much a part of the mining camps that after his death a monument was erected at the summit in his honor.

In 1949, decades after Leadville’s richest days, the merchants of the town were looking for ways to attract tourists. They thought up an annual burro pack race between Leadville and Fairplay, with a $500 prize going to the winner. The route would start in one town and end in the other — getting there through Mosquito Pass, of course. Each burro was required to carry a 33-pound pack of mining supplies: picks, shovels, pans, and so on. Each man (later women entered the race) had to walk or run with his burro, holding a 15-foot long lead. No riding was allowed. The pack was weighed both before and after the race, just in case some contestants tried to lighten the load by tossing equipment.

Back in 1949, a few of the contestants didn’t know a burro from a mule — two of them showed up with mules and were disqualified.

After several successful years, the merchants of Leadville and Fairplay split the race into two different races, held about a week apart. One race leaves from FairPlay, the other from Leadville: both go to the top of Mosquito Pass and back. Today the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race is twenty-one miles long. (The Fairplay race is 29 miles long.) Winning teams usually finish in under four hours. 

Despite the fact that humans, burros, and even stagecoaches all made it over Mosquito Pass, an ordinary car cannot do so. The pass is very rocky unpaved road with tight switchbacks, narrow in some spots, and very difficult on a vehicle’s tires and undersides. 

Four-wheel drive off-terrain vehicles, however, can make it up Mosquito Pass and back, and drivers of these vehicles love to do Mosquito Pass because the views from the top are stunning in all four directions. Still, it takes considerable skill and determination to get a four-wheel drive vehicle over the 22-mile route. In many places top speed is only four or five miles per hour, because the vehicle must “climb” up and down large rocks or boulders. 

Today many four-wheel driving clubs post photos of their Mosquito Pass trip on the Internet. Climbing the highest pass in the US gives people bragging rights.

Mosquito Pass

Traffic tonight
two miles up —
lone skier
plummets down
ice-slick trail,
intent to deliver
miners’ mail.

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

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.

Mountain Passes: Crowsnest Pass

In 1857 an Irishman named John Palliser led a scientific expedition sponsored by the British Royal Geographical Society. Its mission was to learn about western Canada — about the plants and animals, the rock structures, the climate, and the Indian tribes.The expedition members were also searching for mountain passes through Canada’s southern Rocky Mountains. If good passes could be found, a railroad could be built, connecting the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.

The Palliser Expedition discovered six southern passes previously known only to First Nations people. One of these was the Crowsnest Pass, not far north of the state of Montana. Although Crowsnest pass had been known to First Nations people for thousands of years, it wasn’t shown on Canadian maps until after the Palliser expedition. The area of Crowsnest Pass is the richest archeological zone of the Canadian Rockies, containing stone tools of the Clovis culture, which dates back 11,000 years. The area is also rich in coal deposits.

Even though it’s over 4000 feet in elevation, Crowsnest was one of the lower passes through the Rocky Mountains. This made it a natural choice for the Canadian Pacific Railroad to route the railroad through, and in1897 that’s just what the CPR did, completing the rail lines through Crowsnest Pass in Alberta. 

Because the entire pass area was rich in coal deposits, many small mining towns sprang up alongside the railroad line. In 1900 the Frank Mine opened in the newly-sprung-up town of Frank.

Mountain Range: Livingstone Range of the Canadian Rocky Mountains
Elevation: 4,455 feet (1358 meters)
Location: On the Continental Divide, on the Alberta and British Columbia border of Canada, near the Rocky Mountains Forest Reserve.

Above the town of Frank sat enormous Turtle Mountain. The Blackfoot and Kutenai tribes of the area would not camp near the mountain because it groaned, trembled, and moved. Indians called it “the mountain that walks.” In 1800 members of the David Thompson (see Athabasca Pass) expedition avoided Crowsnest Pass as they trudged westward, most likely because they heeded what First Nations tribes told them about the dangers of “the mountain that walks.”

The intimate knowledge of the land accumulated by First Nations people was disregarded by mine owners and investors panting for profit. The Frank coal mine was dug underneath and into Turtle Mountain. As they worked underground, miners felt the mountain moving. In fact, its movements shook coal loose from the rooms and tunnels the miners had dug. “The mountain that walks” made coal mining cheaper, because there was less digging involved.

The area of Crowsnest Pass would prove to cost hundreds of working-class lives. In 1914 an explosion at the Hillcrest Mine killed 189 miners: Canada’s worst mine disaster. (You can hear Canadian singer James Keeleghan’s version of his song “Hillcrest Mine” on youtube.)  And before the Hillcrest Mine disaster came the one at Frank.

Crowsnest Pass

On the morning of April 29, 1903, at 4:10 am, the east face of Turtle Mountain ripped loose with gigantic force. In 90 seconds more than 100 million tons of rock, ice, and mud thundered down the mountainside. The explosion could be heard 100 miles away: people thought that a volcano had erupted. An immense amount of the landslide is still there today, boulders strewn across the land.

The town of Frank was destroyed. More than 90 of the town’s 600 residents lost their lives. Businesses were wiped out. The railroad tracks were destroyed. Until the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, the Frank Slide was the largest landslide in North American history. (The Mt. St. Helens slide is thus far the largest landslide in world history.)

In the dark morning hours, made darker by huge clouds of dirt and dust, made more dangerous by fires started by rock dust and fueled by wooden buildings, those who survived rushed out of their houses to help rescue others.

When Turtle Mountain fell, it sealed the entrance to the Frank coal mines, covering up the air shafts that allowed miners to breathe fresh air. And it flooded the nearby river, turning it into a lake that poured into the mine.

Seventeen miners were trapped inside. They knew that unless they could dig their way out, they would drown or die from the poisonous mine gas.

Grabbing their picks and shovels, the miners dug straight up. They did not know how far “up” was, but they could not get out any other way. Three men dug frantically for half an hour, then another three took over, then another three. They did not believe they would make it, but they had to try something.

After 14 hours of hard digging, the miners broke through to sunlight and fresh air. They climbed out of their vertical tunnel and looked around. Inside the mine, they had no idea of what had happened. Now they saw the horrible site below. Their town was gone. They climbed over the gigantic rocks and mud and ice and stumbled down the 100 million tons of smashed mountain to help the survivors.

Crowsnest Pass

Grumbling mountain 
strongly suggests 
traveling through
instead of settling.
Humans stop, build, 
dig tunnels.

Mountain shudders 
in disapproval.

————————————

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

Mountain Passes: Sitgreaves Pass

Sitgreaves Pass was named after Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves, a member of the Corps of Topographical Engineers of the US Army. Prior to being given the assignment that led him through Sitgreaves Pass, he had worked on a wide variety of civil engineering duties. Among them: constructing roads in Wisconsin; surveying Sault St. Marie; surveying the US-Texas border (when Texas was a republic); improving the Hudson River; and surveying the harbor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Sitgreaves’ 1851 expedition was the first to survey the area that today comprises northern New Mexico. He explored the Zuni River and the Colorado, but his main task on this expedition was to find an overland route to California. In doing so, Sitgreaves crossed through the Black Mountains, a 75-mile long, 15-mile wide chain of mountains in western Arizona. After the expedition ended Sitgreaves wrote a detailed report of its findings. 

In 1857 President James Buchanan asked General Edward F. Beale (see Beale’s Cut) to help create a road from New Mexico to California. Under the command of Beale, soldiers built that road along the route that Sitgreaves had surveyed, through several mountain passes, one of them being Sitgreaves Pass. And, because the Army’s experiment with camels in the Texas deserts wasn’t working out, Beale took the camels with his troops as he marched west through Sitgreaves Pass.

Sitgreaves Pass could be traversed by people on foot and by people riding horses or mules, but it was impassable for wagons. In order to allow wagons through, Beale ordered his soldiers to cut a narrow road into the side of the pass. The Old Beale Road, as it was called, was the chief means of transportation between the Southwest and California for decades. The Butterfield Stage jostled many a south-California-bound passenger through Sitgreaves Pass, just as the Overland Stage bounced north-California-bound passengers up, down, and sideways through Bridger Pass (far to the north, in Wyoming).

Sitgreaves Pass

Mountain Range: Black Mountains
Elevation: 3,652 feet

Grade: 12%
Location: In northwestern Arizona, near the California-Nevada-Arizona border; also near Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

After coach travel was replaced by rail travel in 1867, Sitgreaves Pass was used much less. 

And then came the automobile.

For most of the US’s development, from the colonial 1700s through the early 1900s, California and the West were isolated from the East and Midwest — this was because of the wide desserts and high mountains that lay west of the Mississippi River. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1867 connected the two ends of the country.

After the invention of the automobile and the mass-production of the Model T by Henry Ford in the 1920s, families began to take road vacations. Once again, California and the West were isolated from the rest of the country because so many roads were unkept and unmarked and, most importantly, stopped at the foot of the mountains. Most people could not drive to the West Coast because they couldn’t find roads through the mighty mountains.

During the 1920s Cyrus Avery and John Woodruff, entrepreneurs, set out to change this by persuading Congress to build a national paved road from Chicago to Los Angeles. The road, labeled Route 66, was completed in 1926.

Route 66 traveled through eight states, heading southwest from Chicago. Logically, in order to avoid the high mountains, Route 66 should have veered to the south in Arizona, as do today’s Interstates, Routes I-40 and I-10. But the town of Oatman, Arizona, was a thriving gold-mining community during the 1920s, home to more than 15,000 people, and the business owners of Oatman wanted Route 66 to pass through their town. They persuaded the builders to do so.

This meant that the road had to be built through Sitgreaves Pass. While Sitgreaves is not all that high, it’s very steep — the westbound grade approaches 12%. Route 66 as it was built through Sitgreaves Pass was full of very tight hairpin curves, steep rocks lining the edge of the road, narrow lanes, and blind curves that drivers couldn’t see around until it was, perhaps, too late to avoid an accident. 

Sitgreaves was so steep that Model T’s couldn’t make it up the pass. That’s because the Ford engine was gravity fed: gas flowed downward from the higher-placed tank into the lower-placed combustion engine. As the Model T’s chugged up steep Sitgreaves, the gas no longer flowed forward to the engine — the direction of flow was reversed and the cars stalled.

Bold drivers solved this problem by driving up the steep, winding pass in reverse. That way, the back end of the car was above the engine-end, and gas flowed from the tank to the engine. Some drivers, however, were too shocked  and hesitant to drive Sitgreaves frontwards or backwards, so they hired local Arizonians to pull their cars up the pass with oxen, mules, or horses.

For nearly fifty years Route 66 was the most famous road in the US. By the late 1950s, though, big Interstate highways began to replace it. When I-40 was being built from North Carolina to California, it took traffic through northern Arizona — but the engineers of I-40 directed traffic south of Sitgreaves Pass, as Route 66 itself would have gone had not the town of Oatman had such influence. 

Today Route 66 is no longer on the maps, though parts of the original road remain in different states. And the town of Oatman is almost a ghost town, home to 200 people.

When the mines of Oatman and the surrounding areas were closed, mining families and businesses moved out almost overnight. They left behind their ladders, tables, and other mining supplies — which are still there to be seen. And the miners released the burros that had been used to pull the mine cars.

The burros took to the desert and became semi-wild. They also populated the town of Oatman, where today they walk on the streets and into abandoned buildings. The also thrust their heads into tourists’ cars, looking for a handout of carrots or other goodies.

The occasional tourist who takes Old Route 66 through Sitgreaves Pass can hear the burros braying in the dessert. She might even encounter one around a blind curve.

Sitgreaves Pass

Through this gap
mules pulled,
camels shambled,
Model T’s squeezed
their way west.

————————————

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

Mountain Passes: Avalanche Pass

By the mid-1800s most of the important mountain passes in the West had been discovered and were being used for migration and transportation. Back East people were enjoying leisure time and looking to spend some of this time in the wilderness. This desire to know the wilderness wasn’t new. Almost from the first, the British colonists explored the land around them. Surveyors and scientists climbed high peaks to determine just how high they were and to gaze at the land below from atop a mountaintop. By the 1770s New Englanders climbed Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, and by the 1780s they had conquered Mount Washington. 

In New York nature lovers traveled to the Catskill Mountains in the southeast part of the state. Painters such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Frederick E. Church toted their canvases, paints, and easels into the mountains of New England and New York during the 1820s. These painters were described as the Hudson River group (because the beautiful Hudson River was one of the subjects they often painted). These nature paintings attracted even more wealthy people to the the Catskills, which they believed contained  New York’s tallest mountains.

But in northeastern New York state, south of Quebec and Ottawa, lay the Adirondacks, which would prove to be wilder by far than the Catskills. Unlike all the other mountains of the East, the Adirondacks are not part of the Appalachian Mountain system. Instead, they are part of a rock layer known as the Canadian Shield. The rocks of the Canadian Shield are the oldest known rocks on Earth —  one billion years old.

There is no record of white Americans in the Adirondacks before 1836, when William Redfield, Ebenezer Emmons, and James Hall entered the area to learn about its rocks, streams, trees, wildlife, and mountains. What they discovered was a rough, harsh wilderness where winds howled and snow and ice persisted even in August. That year the group discovered Avalanche Lake, which is surrounded by steep cliffs on each side. They also discovered what they thought were the tallest peaks in New York. They were right: the area was full of so many tall mountains that it became known as the Tall Peaks region. 

The following August the three men returned with others, who this time included portrait painter Charles Cromwell Ingham. Emmons and Redfield and several of the others climbed Mt. Marcy , which at 5,344 feet proved to be New York’s tallest peak. Mt. Marcy’s summit was crusted with ice even in August. The group also explored Avalanche Pass, a long narrow pass that allows movement between Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain. 

Remnants of mud slide in Avalanche Pass

Avalanche Pass and Avalanche Lake received their names for the many mudslides and avalanches that roar down on them from the surrounding mountains. In 1869 landslides gouged Avalanche Pass, blocking it with debris. Eventually the pass was cleared by woodsmen and hikers. In 1942 still more avalanches blocked the pass and filled Lake Avalanche, raising its water level. In 1999 the same thing happened again: the heavy rains of Hurricane Floyd sent huge mudslides into the pass, burying it under twenty feet of dirt and uprooted trees. With shovels and chainsaws, members of the Adirondack Mountain Club worked to cut a narrow passage through the debris, so that hikers and skiers could squeeze through Avalanche Pass.

Mountain Range: Adirondack Mountains.
Elevation: 3,065 feet 
Grade: 5-26%
Location: In upstate New York, near the Canadian border, within Adirondack State Park.

After visiting the Adirondacks in the 1830s, Redfield and his companions told others about the wild area, and by the 1850s New Yorkers began to take outings there, hiking by day, sleeping in tents by night. One of the most popular destinations was Mt. Marcy and the Avalanche Pass Trail.

Although the Avalanche Pass Trail is not an easy one, it was highly popular right from the start, 150 years ago. Avalanche Lake, hemmed in by steep rock cliffs, sits at one end of the pass. To get through Avalanche Pass, a hiker had to somehow cross the lake. A hiker could walk alongside Avalanche Lake . . . except that there was no ground to walk on. There was a ledge that ran along the bottom of a cliff — but the ledge sat two to three feet under water!  Not everybody who wanted to hike Avalanche Pass felt able to walk the underwater ledge.

Back in 1868 a nature lover named Matilda Fielding, along with her husband and their niece, hired Adirondacks guide Bill Nye to take them hiking and camping. Led by Nye, the group hiked in the High Peaks region, camped out, and even climbed Mt. Marcy. When it was time to head back to civilization, Nye took the group through Avalanche Pass.

When they reached Avalanche Lake, Nye gave the Fieldings two choices: (1) he could build a raft and the group could float across the lake; (2) he could carry Mrs. Fielding, Mr. Fielding, and their niece across the underwater ledge one at a time. The Fieldings chose to be carried, starting with Matilda, who sat on Nye’s shoulders as he walked on the underwater ledge. But she started to slip down . . . down . . . down! As they saw Matilda slipping  and her skirt trailing in the water, her husband and niece shouted, “Hitch up, Matilda! Hitch up!” 

Avalanche Pass

Nye told the story to other guides and soon everybody was calling the ledge under Lake Avalanche “Hitch-up Matilda.” Today narrow wooden catwalks are bolted into the high rock walls — hikers use the catwalks rather than the underwater ledge.  But these narrow catwalks are even today called Hitch-up Matildas.

The wilderness area of the Adirondacks was so valued by the citizens of New York that in 1892 they established Adirondack National Park. Today the park comprises six million acres. This is larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon Parks put together! Except for state parks in Alaska, Adirondack National Park is the largest in the US.

In Avalanche Pass a small waterfall splashes onto a big boulder. Part of the water hitting the boulder flows south and part flows north. The part that flows north trickles through Avalanche Pass and ends up in Lake Champlain. From there it streams into the St. Lawrence River, the major waterway that flows between the United States and Canada. 

The water that heads south trickles down Avalanche Pass in the opposite direction, into Avalanche Lake. From there it streams into other Adirondack lakes and finally into the Hudson River, which flows through the state of New York and through New York City itself. The Adirondack lakes provide fresh drinking water for the citizens of New York City — and it all starts in Avalanche Pass.

Avalanche Pass
Mud slides
and avalanche
jettisoned from above —
tall peaks are known to show mighty
tempers.

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

Mountain Passes: Beale’s Cut

As early as 450 A.D. the Tataviam, a Shoshone-speaking tribe of Indians, migrated from northern California into the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valleys in Southern California. To move north and south between the two valleys, the Tataviam climbed a very steep, very narrow mountain pass in the Santa Susana Mountains.

More than a thousand years later Gaspar de Portola, a Spanish soldier appointed Governor of Las Californias, traveled overland from Mexico to the California coast. Exploring the mountains and valleys, Portola discovered and used the steep, narrow pass in 1769. Despite its small size, this mountain pass was the main entrance to the Los Angeles area and thus played a very important role in California history. Along the way it was called by many different names, including the San Fernando Pass, Fremont Pass, Newhall Pass, and Beale’s Cut.

Approximately eighty years after Gaspar de Portola explored the area, US Army General John C. Fremont marched through the pass on his way to southern California. That was in 1847. As a result Anglo-Californians began to call the thirteen-foot-wide gap Fremont Pass. People on foot and people on horseback were able to climb the 29% incline and walk through the 240-foot-long pass —  but carts, wagons, and stagecoaches couldn’t make it up or down the extremely steep incline.  

Sensing an opportunity, entrepreneur  Henry C. Wiley figured out a way to get wagons through the pass. In 1852 he built a huge windlass. For a fee Wiley helped tie a wagon or stagecoach onto the windlass, which sat at the top of the narrow pass, and then helped lower the suspended vehicle into the valley below. Luckily for travelers this frightening method of getting through the San Fernando Pass lasted less than two years.

In 1854 Phineas Banning, who owned a stagecoach line, organized a team of workers to dig into the top of the San Fernando Pass and lower it by thirty feet. The incline remained at 29%, but at least the highest thirty feet had been removed, so the ascent was shorter. This allowed the first stagecoaches to travel through the pass without having to be lowered by a windlass. People now called the opening the Banning Cut.

Just three years later US General Edward F. Beale marched through the pass with a caravan of 25 government camels. The camels need explaining. Just a few years earlier the US Army had purchased 75 camels from several Mideastern countries. The deserts of the Southwest were tough on horses and mules and humans, and the Army believed that camels could carry heavier loads, need less water, eat sparser food, and fare better than any other pack animal. The camels were shipped to Texas, where they became part of the army’s Camel Corps.

Although the camels performed exceptionally well, the soldiers and prospectors of the area hated the smelly beasts, which they claimed frightened their mules. General Edward F. Beale, however, thought very highly of the camels. In 1857 President Buchanan asked Beale to help create a road from New Mexico to California. This he did, having soldiers build the dirt road known as the Beale Wagon Road, which went through the Freemont Pass (Banning Cut). 

Beale took 25 of the camels with him on his exploratory and road-building route, along with soldiers, horses, and mules. The Army wanted to know how the camels would fare in the deserts of Arizona and California. Beale himself envisioned the camels as future mail carriers, each loaded with 600 pounds of missives. This never happened. Eventually the government gave up on using camels because the soldiers detested the animals. When the Civil War started, the Union Army pulled out of Texas, releasing the camels into the desert. 

Likewise, the camels that Beale escorted to Arizona and California were decommissioned from the Army and put up for sale. Beale bought several, which spent the rest of their lives on his California ranch. The last reported sighting of an Arizona camel was in 1891, but the last surviving camel of the US Army Camel Corps was Topsy, who died in the Los Angeles Zoo in 1936.

Mountain Range: Santa Susana Mountains
Elevation: 1,750 feet
Grade: 29%, then 20%
Location: In the town of Santa Clarita, California, near the Angeles National Forest.

But getting back to that steep, narrow pass that the Tataviam used to enter the Santa Clarita Valley — a few years after Banning had workers lower the pass by 30 feet, General Beale ordered a crew to cut an additional 60 feet down into the pass. This work started in 1861 and took two years of digging. The workers also reinforced and smoothed out the 240 feet length at the top of the pass. From then on Beale’s Cut, as it became known, was ninety feet less high than nature had made it. People going through the pass for the first time were astonished by how steep the ascent and descent were over such a short distance, but Beale had actually lowered the grade of the pass from 29% to 20%. Beale’s Cut served the needs of the Santa Clarita Valley for another fifty years, until the arrival of the automobile. 

In the 1870s the town of Newhall was founded in the area of Beale’s Cut, and people started to call the opening the Newhall Pass. The road through the pass was paved with asphalt in the 1870s. Although the first automobiles began to travel through the pass in 1909, the state of California was already looking to build a better road over a better route. In 1910 the Ridge Route was finished, complete with a tunnel blasted through the mountains so that traffic could avoid the troublesome mountain pass. In no time at all, Beale’s Cut was abandoned by drivers.

But not by Hollywood movie directors, who were always looking for inexpensive locations in which to film. These directors decided that Beale’s Cut looked very “western.” During the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s, Beale’s Cut appeared in silent westerns and even in early “talkies.” Directors used both the top and bottom of the cut for maximum drama. At the bottom they filmed a stagecoach being held up or rushing through, as in the John Wayne film, Stagecoach. At the top, they filmed a horse and rider jumping across the large gap, as in the Tom Mix film Three Jumps Ahead. (Even today there’s still debate over whether this jump shot was faked.)

Eventually Hollywood also abandoned Beale’s Cut, and the steep, narrow gap stood there, surrounded by highways full of cars zipping by. But historians didn’t forget, and in 1992 Beale’s Cut was given historic landmark status. In 1998, during heavy rains from El Nino, a mudslide fell into Beale’s Cut, refilling approximately 30 of the 90 feet. 

In the story of mountain passes, Beale’s Cut is one of the narrowest, but also one of the most interesting.

Beale’s Cut
Nature strews mountains
every whichway, not caring
that people want through.

————————————

Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Kittening Gap.

Mountain Passes: Kittaning Gap

The Shawnee, Lenape, and and other Native American tribes walked the length of the Appalachian Mountains to trade with other tribes and also to wage war. The path they wore into the land was called the Warriors Path. But these same tribes also traveled east and west on a trail over the Allegheny Mountains. This trail and its most important pass were both named Kittanning, after a large, prosperous Indian village on the western side of the mountains.

According to a treaty signed by William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, the Allegheny area was closed to white settlers. Colonists brutally pushed their way westward anyway. More convinced than ever that the whites would steal their lands, the Delaware and Shawnee who lived in Kittanning raided settlements, killing or capturing the inhabitants.  In August of 1756 the Delaware burned Fort Granwell (near present-day Lewistown). As a result the governor of Pennsylvania sent Lt. Colonel John Armstrong to lead an army against Kittanning.

In September of 1756, after a six-hour battle, Armstrong’s troops conquered Kittanning and leveled it. With the destruction of the Indian stronghold, more and more settlers violated the treaty and passed through Kittanning Gap into central and western Pennsylvania. By the time of the American Revolution in 1775, Fort Pitt (today’s city of Pittsburgh) thrived on the western end of the state.

Even with the existence of the Kittaning Gap, however, travel from one end of Pennsylvania to the other was not easy.  In the early 1800s a Philadelphian who wanted to visit  Pittsburgh had to use the Allegheny Portage Railroad, which meant four grueling days of switching between jarring wooden-wheeled coaches, canal boats, and trains.

Kittaning Gap
Mountain Range: Allegheny Mountains
Elevation: 2,154 feet 
Location: Outside the town of Altoona, in central Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Railroad Company yearned to lay tracks from one end of the state to the other, to haul passengers and goods and thus make a profit. Despite the wishes of the Pennsylvania Railroad Board of Directors, though, the locomotives simply could not climb the steep Allegheny Mountains. Even with a helper locomotive attached, the railroad engines of that time could not conquer more than a 2% grade (a climb of two feet upward for every one-hundred feet forward). Kittaning Gap had a 4.5% grade.

During this period (mid-19th century), the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest railroad in the world, with more than 6,000 miles of tracks. Due partly to the leadership of its Chief Engineer and President, J. Edgar Thomson, the PRR was known for high quality construction and for innovation. Thomson had a plan for getting the PRR through the Kittaning Gap and thus to the other side of the Allegheny Mountains. His solution would turn out to be the so innovative that it was considered one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century.

Thomson solved the problem of the steep grade by lengthening the distance of the incline — thus decreasing its grade. He hired more than 300 Irish workers to build a unique, horseshoe-shaped curve that ran along the side of a mountain, turned to cross a wide valley, then turned again to run alongside a second mountain. Using only picks and shovels, the workers  hacked a narrow ridge into the mountainside. Then they laid three rows of tracks on top of the ridge. As they worked, they threw the rock and dirt into the valley below.

The curve is about half a mile long and about a quarter mile in diameter (from one of the mountains to the other). It was completed in 1854 and supports three railroad tracks.

Horseshoe Curve, as it was called, increased the distance that a locomotive had to pull its cars and in this way decreased the grade. The added distance allowed the grade to remain at 2%. With the help of Horseshoe Curve, Thomson conquered Kittanning Pass. Workers blasted a tunnel through the remaining mountains and — at last! — the railroad reached the other side of the steep Allegheny Mountains. After Horseshoe Curve was completed in 1854, travel time between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh was reduced from four days to half a day.  

The challenge of the Alleghenies behind them, the railroads went on to lay tracks west across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. They would not encounter another mountain barrier until they reached the mighty Rockies.

Today Horseshoe Curve is not that different from what it was in 1854. For more than 150  years trains have traveled on it as they head eastward or westward. In the upper right-hand corner of the photo below, you can see the steep climb the locomotives would have to make if they headed straight up the mountain. Thanks to J. Edgar Thomson, the locomotives make the more gradual ascent around Horseshoe Curve.

Today people come from all over the world to watch trains bend in half as they chug around the Curve — the locomotives heading in one direction, the caboose in the opposite direction. An average of 51 trains a day go through Horseshoe curve, so train buffs and visitors stand a good chance of seeing at least one train make the curve.

In 1966 Horseshoe Curve was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Kittanning Gap

Steeper
than Iron Horse
could climb, 
heights were safe
from progress — 
then smart Engineer 
threw
a curve.

————————————

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

Mountain Passes: Smugglers Notch

During Thomas Jefferson’s second term, Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807, forbidding Americans to trade with Great Britain or its dominions such as Canada. This meant that citizens would have to buy products manufactured in the United States rather than less expensive ones made abroad. 

The passage and enforcement of the Embargo Act caused economic hardship for many Vermonters, who had an established route of trade with Canada and had been trading with Montreal merchants for several generations. Herding their cattle northward, Vermonters traded them for silk, lace, and whiskey. Hauling home the trade goods, they then sold them throughout New England. Many Vermont traders were so infuriated by the Embargo Act that they refused to obey the law and thus became smugglers.

At first the smugglers used ships to sneak in Montreal goods: sailing a ship on Lake Champlain was much easier than carrying crates on horseback or foot through thick forests and over hard mountains. But the government appointed law officers, called revenue men, to capture and imprison the smugglers. In June of 1808 ten revenue officers under the command of Chief James Watson stopped the Black Snake, a boat carrying smuggled goods on Lake Champlain. The smugglers fired on the revenuers, who shot back. One officer was killed and Chief Watson was badly wounded.  The other side fared worse: one smuggler was killed, two badly wounded, five captured — and the government confiscated the Black Snake. The prisoners were tried for murder and smuggling: one was executed and four went to prison for life. But Sandy McPherson, the captain of the Black Snake,  eluded capture.

After capturing the Black Snake the government agents guarded Lake Champlain so well that smugglers dared not use their water route — they resorted to the slower, more difficult method of smuggling goods over land. In order to do that, they had to cross the Green Mountains at some point. The pass they chose was a high, dangerous one between Mount Mansfield and Sterling Peak.  (Mount Mansfield is Vermont’s highest peak, standing at 4,383 feet.)  In places the notch was so narrow that people and horses edged single file along a ridge with 1,000-foot drop-offs.

Not only were there drop-offs: there was snow. Because passes are lower than the surrounding mountains, they fill with snow. And fill. And fill. The normal snowfall in Smugglers Notch, for example, is 271” a winter — that’s almost 23’ of snow, as high as a two-story house. To be trapped in a mountain pass filled with snow and to be unable to walk across that snow would mean death. The smugglers were experienced winter travelers: they wore snowshoes.

If the smugglers thought that nobody would find them or the smuggled laces, silks, and whiskey that they hid in the notch’s many caves, they were wrong. Henry Matthews, recently graduated from the University of Vermont, joined the revenue service: after Chief Watson was wounded in the battle with the Black Snake, Matthews was put in charge of finding Sandy McPherson and his gang. Henry Matthews did not suspect how personal this assignment would become.

According to local history pamphlets and magazine articles, the following story is true. A young woman named Anna Barry lived in Burlington with her father and their large Newfoundland dog, Wolf. During the summer of 1808 Sandy McPherson asked Mr. Barry to help the smugglers by hiding their goods on his property. Anna’s father refused. McPherson vowed revenge. He waited until a day in August when Mr. Barry and Wolf were gone. Then he forced his way into the house and demanded that Anna tell him where her father kept his money. When she wouldn’t tell him, McPherson kidnapped Anna and left a ransom note asking $1,000 for her return. Anna Barry was Henry Matthews’ fiancé.

Northern Vermont was a land of rugged mountains and rushing rivers, with yowling catamounts prowling the thick forests.  McPherson must have felt that nobody could find him and the cave in which he kept smuggled goods. That night he took Anna to the cave, a huge twenty-foot by thirty-foot room hidden from the outside by jutting rocks. Boxes of smuggled goods were piled high inside the cave, which was in Smugglers Notch. McPherson, Anna, and several other smugglers spent the night there. 

According to legend, Mr. Barry returned home that evening with Henry Matthews. As soon as they saw what had happened, they found the kidnapper’s footprints and commanded Wolf: Find Anna. Putting his nose to the scent, Wolf followed the trail, leading Henry Matthews and Mr. Barry to the secret cave by morning.  Matthews found a way through the rocks into the cave. He saw the boxes of smuggled goods; he felt the warm ashes of a recent fire. But he did not find Anna.

Smugglers Notch

Mountain Range: Green Mountains
Elevation: 2,162 feet
Grade: 7-15%
Location: Vermont, in the Mount Mansfield National Forest, in Smuggler’s Notch State Forest.

Early that same morning, Sandy McPherson had set off through the wilderness with Anna. For two full days they traveled through thick forest until they reached the house of Jake Glass and his wife Molly, both of whom were fellow smugglers. McPherson left, ordering Jake and Molly to keep Anna prisoner.

Barry and Matthews and Wolf continued the search, but eventually Wolf lost the trail.  While Mr. Barry continued to search for his daughter, Matthews felt it was his duty to seize the smuggled goods. Taking several men with him, he returned to the cave, captured three smugglers without firing a shot, and confiscated the goods.

Anna did not wait for somebody to rescue her. She watched and waited. After Jake Glass went hunting one morning, Anna locked Molly Glass into a room, gathered food and a blanket, and escaped into the forest, heading in the direction she thought home. For two full days she walked and slept beside fallen logs until, finally, she met an Indian who led her to a white settler’s house. The settler took Anna back to Burlington, where she was reunited with her father, Henry Matthews, and Wolf.

Although every sign warned him to stop smuggling, McPherson thought he was smarter than the revenuers. In September he and six other smugglers returned from Montreal with seven horses loaded with goods.  McPherson knew that his Smugglers Notch cave was no longer secret, but he must have thought he could spend one night there anyway. 

Close on McPherson’s trail, Henry Matthews and his men surrounded the cave in the middle of the night. When they closed in on the smugglers at daybreak, the revenue men were driven back by gunfire and several were wounded. All morning, afternoon, and evening the gun battle continued. Matthews requested reinforcements from Burlington: he also requested a keg of gunpowder.

Still according to legend, during the middle of the second night Henry Matthews carried the powder keg close to the cave. Then he lit a long fuse and ran. The blast shook the earth, bringing down part of the mountain and  killing the smugglers, who were buried with their goods beneath thousands of tons of rock.

Due to the presence and actions of the revenue men, smuggling along the Vermont-Canadian border stopped for nearly a century.  In 1809 the unpopular Embargo Act was done away with. But the mountain pass has kept the name it received back then — Smugglers Notch. Escaping slaves used the notch to reach Canada and freedom. During the years of Prohibition, when alcohol was illegal in the United States, Canadian whiskey was smuggled south through the notch, which by that time had a road running through it.

Today Smuggs, as the locals call it, is a highly popular skiing area as well as an official state scenic drive.

Smugglers Notch

Snuggled,
smuggled.
Blasted,
forgotten.

Woe is
the fate
of goods
ill-gotten.

———————————————

Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Yellow Mountain Gap.

Mountain Passes: Yellow Mountain Gap

In 1776 the American colonists delivered their Declaration of Independence to King George who, refusing to let them leave the British Empire, ordered the British Army to conquer them. The British had the support of perhaps one-third of all colonists. These supporters of Britain were called Loyalists because they were loyal to what had been their government. Those who rebelled were called Patriots.

From 1775 onward, the invading British Army and the defending Patriots engaged in battles from Massachusetts to Georgia. By 1780 British General Lord Cornwallis had seized Charleston, South Carolina, the largest city in the South. Cornwallis intended to subdue all of South Carolina, then march into North Carolina and from there into Virginia.

Mountain Range: Appalachian Mountains
Elevation: 4,682 feet
Location: On the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, in the Pisgah National Forest.

Major Patrick Ferguson, second in command to Cornwallis, campaigned throughout South Carolina to successfully rally Loyalists to his cause. [South Carolina contained more Loyalists than any of the other thirteen colonies.]

Successful in South Carolina, Ferguson found himself meeting major resistance from the settlers who lived on the west side of the mountains. These frontiersmen called themselves “Over the Mountain” men because they or their parents had crossed the Appalachians, many through the Cumberland Gap. Ferguson called these men mongrels and threatened that he would march his army over the mountains, “hang their leaders, and lay their country to waste with fire and sword.”

Instead of waiting for Ferguson to march into their territory, the angry frontiersmen marched east from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and what is today Tennessee. Riding horses, they wore frontier buckskin and carried long rifles.  Their small groups of 30 or 40 joined one another to become more than 1,000 strong, among them at least five black men. The groups came together at what is today Elizabethton, Tennessee (in the far eastern end of the state). One of the African-Americans was Essius Bowman, a free man. The Overmountain women prepared food and packed supplies. One in particular, Mary Patton, worked nonstop to make 500 pounds of high-quality, fast-burning gunpowder for the Patriots.

Armed and ready, the Overmountain men marched from Elizabethton southward, through the high mountain passes. On the night of September 27, 1780, they entered Yellow Mountain Gap, the highest point of their 14-day trek. Snow in the gap was already “shoe-tongue” high. Camping alongside Roaring Creek, they made beds on the ground, placed their long rifles on top of the bedding, then lay on top of the rifles to keep them dry. During the night at Yellow Mountain Gap, two men deserted to the Loyalist side and rode ahead to warn Major Ferguson.

Even though Ferguson’s troops outnumbered the Patriot soldiers, he started to retreat toward Lord Cornwallis’ large army at Charleston once he heard the Overmountain men were marching toward him. But instead of continuing to the coast, he stopped on Kings Mountain in South Carolina. There he stationed his troops so that they occupied the mountain top and could shoot down upon the Patriots and route them.

On the night of October 6, the Overmountain fighters chose the 900 fastest horses and 900 best shooters. These 900 set out in a cold rainstorm and marched all night and most of the next day, covering 35 miles. At 3 p.m. on October 7 they reached the foot of Kings Mountain. Unseen by the Loyalists, they  divided their forces: one half of the men stealthily crept up one side of the mountain, one half stealthily crept up the other side.

When the shooting began the long rifles of the Overmountain Men, although they could fire only once a minute compared to the four times a minute the British muzzles could fire, proved superior — they hit their target more accurately. A volley of bullets, at least one of them fired by Essius Bowman, knocked Major Ferguson off his horse, killing him. In close quarters the British soldiers fought with bayonets, but the mountain men fought with tomahawks like the Cherokee used. Within one hour the smaller Patriot force had overwhelmed the Loyalists and caused them to surrender. Patriot losses were 28 dead and 62 wounded. Loyalist losses were 150 dead, 150 wounded, and 800 captured. The victory at Kings Mountain destroyed the left flank of Cornwallis’s army.

After the battle a man named Joseph Greer volunteered to walk north to tell the Continental Congress about the Kings Mountain victory. Using a compass for direction, Greer walked for thirty days to reach Philadelphia. His message of victory inspired the American colonists, who had thought South Carolina lost. More soldiers were drafted or volunteered to fight. Cornwallis was pushed backward toward the sea until he abandoned Charleston. One year after the Battle of Kings Mountain, Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington. Years later President Thomas Jefferson called the Battle of Kings Mountain “the turn of the tide” in the American Revolution.

Yellow Mountain Gap

Heroes trod
this path
to clash
with Redcoat
wrath

Today Yellow Mountain Gap, named for its beautiful fall colors, is one of the many stops along the famous Appalachian Trail. Over 2,000 miles long, the Appalachian Trail is a series of many connected hiking paths from Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. 

The Appalachian Trail is the most visited hiking trail in the world. Each year nearly four million people hike one or more parts of the trail. And a few spend months hiking the entire trail, all 2,174 miles of it. These hikers carry their own food and water and tents, and when they are lucky, they can spend the night in a hut or shelter. 

The shelter at Yellow Mountain Gap is larger than most: it’s an old barn that has been converted into sleeping quarters for at least 35 people. It’s named the Overmountain Shelter, in honor of the men who helped win the American Revolution.

_________________________________

Barbara Gregorich’s previous post on mountain passes was Athabasca Pass.

Mountain Passes: Athabasca Pass

Athabasca Pass is located in the Canadian Rockies, on the Continental Divide between Alberta and British Columbia. During the early 1800s it was an important pass on the highly lucrative fur-trade route, with furs trapped west of the Rockies carried eastward and shipped to England.

The first non-Indian to see Athabasca Pass was David Thompson, perhaps the greatest European explorer of the North American continent. David Thompson was Welsh, born in London in 1770. Although his family lived in poverty, he was able to attend the Gray Coat Charity School, where he excelled in mathematics. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to the fur-trading Northwest Company and sailed to Canada. There he would have been a clerk working on books indoors, except for the fact that he broke his leg so badly that he spent a long time recovering. During that time, he was taught how to use a compass and sextant and locate the exact position of land forms by sighting the stars. 

Thompson became so good at determining location that the rival Hudson Bay Company hired him as a mapmaker. In 1798 he mapped the upper Missouri River and the Mandan villages. When Lewis and Clark explored that area of the continent in 1804, it was David Thompson’s maps that they used.

Because Thompson used a sextant to site the stars and determine the exact location of rivers, lakes, mountains, and even forts, the First Nations people called him Koo Koo Sint — he who looks at stars.

In 1807 Thompson was the first Euro-Canadian to cross Howse Pass in the Canadian Rockies. The native tribes such as the Kootenay and Piegan (Blackfeet)  had been using this pass for centuries, and shared its location with Thompson. Using Howse Pass, Thompson and other fur traders crossed the Canadian Rockies yearly, bringing furs back east. 

But First Nations people (in this case the Piegans) resented being cut out of the fur trade business. They resented white people taking over their land. They especially resented that Thompson’s men traded weapons to the Kootenays and Nez Perce, who were enemies of the Piegans.  When David Thompson and his group of trappers tried to cross Howse Pass in 1810, he was warned away — the Piegans had blocked the pass. Even though Thompson was highly respected by the indigenous tribes, his life was in danger — he left Howse Pass and headed north, convinced he would find another way through the Rocky Mountains.

Thompson headed north during the month of November — winter was fast approaching. In fact, it had arrived in the Canadian Rockies. In preparation for heading north, Thompson and his group of thirteen hunters/trappers spent nearly three weeks building dogsleds and snowshoes.  With the help of an Iroquois guide named Tomas, they did find a pass further north. Thompson called it Athabasca Pass, after nearby Lake Athabasca. The pass was 30 miles long.

Thompson’s men grumbled all the way — the going was very, very difficult. In crossing, the men sank into snow up to their kneecaps. When they tested the snow with a 20-foot pole, the pole did not touch bottom. The temperature was minus 30 degrees, the winds howled, and there were no game animals to eat, so the traders were forced to eat dogs and horses, much like the Lewis and Clark expedition would do in Lolo Pass. 

Mountain Range: Canadian Rockies
Elevation: 5,751 feet
Location: On the Continental Divide between Alberta and British Columbia, in Jasper National Park, Canada.

One man who made the crossing of Athabasca Pass wrote: “We were obliged to stop every moment to take breath, so stiff was the ascent. . . . On either side were immense glaciers or icebound rocks.” But where others saw difficulty, David Thompson saw beauty. He wrote that the pass was “a most exhilarating sight, but . . . a heavy gale of wind, much more a mountain storm, would have buried us beneath it. . . . . My men were not at their ease, yet when night came they admired the brilliancy of the stars, and as one of them said, he thought he could almost touch them with his hand.”

Despite the difficulty of the climb and the steeper descent heading west and the glaciers and the ice and snow, Athabasca Pass was a safer trading route than Howse Pass. For nearly forty years this far-north pass was the most-used pass in the Canadian Rockies. the main route used by traders of all kinds. But then, with the coming of the Canadian Railroad, the pass was abandoned by traders and travelers.

During the 28 years that he worked out west, David Thompson traveled 55,000 miles and covered eight million square miles of land. He explored the entire length of the Columbia River, which runs from the Continental Divide into the Pacific Ocean. He found the headwaters of the Mississippi River and mapped the lands and waters around them.

After the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, David Thompson was asked to map the new borders — both sides accepted his findings without question. And much later, when he was 58 years old, Thompson was asked to determine the boundary between Canada and the United States from Lake Superior westward. Again, his decision was accepted without question, so great a cartographer was he, and so trusted. Many have called David Thompson “the greatest land geographer ever.”

In 1971 Athabasca Pass was declared a National Landmark by Canada. It lies in the southwest corner of Jasper National Park and is enjoyed by hikers. Blazes left on trees by Thompson and his men two-hundred years ago are still visible.

Athabasca Pass

Centuries of slumber
broken by a brief flurry
of fur trade glory,
and then a rolling over
and back to sleep.

___________________

Barbara Gregorich’s previous post on mountain passes was Lolo Pass.