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.

Mountain Passes: Lolo Pass

The Bitterroot range of the Rocky Mountains is even today considered one of the most impenetrable of mountain ranges — meaning that it is very difficult for humans to move through it by foot, horseback, car, truck, or all-terrain vehicle. And if it is difficult today, imagine how it was back in 1805, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark entered this tangle of 10,000-foot peaks, thick timber, and strewn boulders. 

Lewis and Clark and their expedition companions in the Corps of Discovery were the first Euro-Americans to see this vast territory.  Along the way they were helped by Indian guides such as Sacagawea, who carried her infant son.

When the expedition reached Lolo Pass, they camped there alongside a stream, then began traversing the pass the next morning. The going was extremely difficult, with deep snow drifts, sharp rocks, and thick trees. By the third day there was no more meat and no wild game in sight. The explorers resorted to eating soup, fish, berries, and roots. They ate three of their horses. Then they ate a coyote. They were extremely cold and depressed because of the difficulty of the mountains. When their food ran out, they ate candles to fill their empty stomachs. Crossing the the mountain range through Lolo Pass took eleven days.

On the eleventh day, the sick and starving Corps of Discovery stumbled out of the Bitterroot Mountain Range. They were met by the Nez Perce Indians, who had never seen white or black men before. But the Nez Perce recognized pain and courage, and they fed the group, saving their lives. In his journal Clark called the Nez Perce “the most hospitable, honest and sincere people that we have met with in our voyage.”

Lolo Pass

Mountain Range: Bitterroot  Mountains
Elevation: 5,235 feet
Grade: 5.5%
Location: On the Montana-Idaho border, in the Bitterroot National Forest.

Lewis and Clark made it to the Pacific Ocean and wintered near the mouth of the Columbia River, in a fort they built. During the winter the men repaired old clothes and sewed new ones. By the time they left the coast on March 23, 1806, they had sewn 358 pairs of moccasins out of elkhide and deerhide — almost one dozen pair of shoes per person.

Eager to return home after nearly three years of very difficult travel, the Corps moved swiftly, knowing that once they re-crossed Lolo Pass, the waters would flow homeward and they would make good time.

img_6297_1_11But Lolo Pass was not ready to let anybody cross. When the Corps reached the Bitterroot Range in May, the Nez Perce warned them that the pass was covered in very deep snow: it would be impossible to cross until June Or maybe even July.

The explorers waited for a few weeks, but on June 10 they could contain their impatience no longer: despite warnings from the Nez Perce, Lewis and Clark set out through Lolo Pass once again.

This proved to be a mistake. Fifteen-foot-deep snow drifts filled the pass, rendering the path invisible. There was no grass for the horses to eat and, once again, no game for the hunters to hunt. Having barely survived Lolo Pass once, Lewis and Clark recognized the danger more readily on the second crossing —  they could starve to death, or they could just barely make it to the other side, where there would be no Nez Perce waiting to help them. 

The explorers turned back to the Nez Perce camp. For the first time in its long journey, the Corps of Discovery had retreated. This dejected and depressed them all. They knew not what lay ahead. By the time Lolo Pass was crossable, could they make it back to the Mandan villages before bitter winter set in? 

At last, on June 25, with the help of two young Nez Perce guides, the Lewis and Clark expedition tackled Lolo Pass again. This time they made it through: by the Fourth of July they were on the east side of the Bitterroot Range, heading downhill and downstream toward home.

stelprdb5246119Traveling faster than they imagined possible, the explorers reached the villages on August 14 and three days later left the Mandans, headed homeward. Approximately five weeks later, on September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery reached St. Louis. 

Three years had gone by since the explorers left Pittsburgh, more than two years since they left St. Louis. Citizens were astounded: many had given up the explorers for dead. As well they might have been had it not been for the Nez Perce.

Decades later, the Nez Perce, cheated out of their lands by the false treaties of the United States, were pursued by the US Cavalry. The Nez Perce eluded the Cavalry by fleeing eastward and crossing Lolo Pass at night. Hoping to escape to Canada, they were stopped forty miles short of the border. 

Today two historic trails — the Lewis and Clark Trail, and the Nez Perce Trail —  cross through Lolo Pass.

Lolo Pass

Eastern
men rush westward,
western tribes flee northward —
pass stands still, monument and
witness.

You can read Barbara Gregorich’s earlier blog on mountain passes, Panther Pass.

Mountain Passes: Panther Pass

Contrary to common perception, Europeans didn’t first occupy the land that became the United States in an east-to-west direction. The Spanish marched from south to north, establishing the town of Santa Fe in 1610, ten years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

French missionaries and explorers, on the other hand, moved through the new land from north to south, using the waterways of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to establish contact with native tribes of what are today Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Arkansas. On the lakes and rivers, of course, the French encountered no mountains and no mountain passes.

The Spanish, moving across the land by foot and on horseback, did encounter mountains. So it should come as no surprise that they encountered mountain passes. (It’s said that the first European to discover a mountain pass in what is today the US was Coronado, who in 1540 marched through the pass called La Glorieta, southeast of Santa Fe, searching for legendary cities of gold.) One of the passes traversed by the Spanish was named after the mountain lions that roamed North America. The North American mountain lion goes by various names in different parts of the continent: cougar, puma, catamount, and panther.

In southwestern Texas the puma is called a panther. In the Chisos Mountains of the Big Bend area, the panther preys mainly on deer and javelinas (wild pigs). And although these large cats prowled throughout the Chisos Mountains, the place they were most often spotted was in a particular mountain pass. Naturally this pass came to be called Panther Pass. The Chisos Mountains, incidentally, are the southernmost mountain range in the US, and are also entirely contained within the boundaries of Big Bend National Park (1,252 square miles). 

Named after the giant turn the Rio Grande makes as it flows east to the Gulf of Mexico, the Big Bend area is spectacular. This is a land of wide variety: harsh desert, rugged mountains, bountiful river. It’s populated by shrubs, cacti, trees, reptiles, birds, and mammals, many of them found nowhere else in the United States. Mainly, though, the land of the Big Bend is desert. Until modern times only Indians native to the area could survive there. They knew which roots provided food, which plants provided moisture, which caves provided shelter. 

Panther Pass

Mountain Range: Chisos Mountains.
Elevation: 5,770 feet
Grade: 15% in some places
Location: In Big Bend National Park, southwestern Texas.

Although the desert was not suitable for farming, it was rumored to contain another kind of wealth: gold. And gold was a lure to the Spanish, who forced natives to mine both silver and gold. This new-world wealth was then loaded onto ships that sailed to Spain. 

Eventually mines are mined out or abandoned for some other reason. Then legends of lost mines spring up. Possibly because so many miners kept the location of their mines secret, the legends were believed. 

One of these many legends says that the Spanish forced prisoners to work in a fabulous mine north of the Rio Grande. This mine was located on what is today called Lost Mine Peak, in the Chisos Mountains. According to legend, the prisoners marched from the Spanish stronghold, Presidio [Fort] San Vicente, which sat on a bluff above the Rio Grande, through the desert, through Panther Pass, and into the dark mine. The gold mine was so rich, legend has it, that the Spanish  blindfolded the prisoners en route so that not one of them would never know its exact location.

Big-Bend-Lost-Mine-Trail2

Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Mountains

How does a gold mine get “lost”? Legends always have an answer. In the case of the Panther Pass gold mine, legend says that the Commanche, who did not want Europeans taking their silver, their gold, or their land, raided the mine and killed everyone in it. Then they sealed the mine entrance with rocks and covered it with brush so that nobody could ever find it again. 

But legends of lost gold mines always give hope to treasure hunters, and the legend of the Panther Pass mine is no different. Supposedly if a person stands in the chapel door of Presidio San Vicente on Easter Sunday, the sun’s first rays will shine on the exact location of the Lost Mine.    

Thousands of prospectors and treasure hunters have looked for the Lost Mine, but nobody has found it. Perhaps that’s because all that remains of Presidio San Vicente are adobe ruins. Or perhaps it’s because Easter Sunday falls on a different date each year. Or maybe it’s because the Earth wobbles on its axis as it rotates, so never again will the first rays of the sun on Easter Sunday strike exactly where they struck 300-some years ago. Or, perhaps . . . the entire legend is total fabrication.

Most likely nobody has found the Lost Mine because it never existed. As they move through the world, humans leave records behind: records of births and deaths, records of ownership, and records of profit or loss. Nowhere in Spain, Mexico, or Texas is there any kind of written record (ledgers, letters, deeds) of a gold mine just beyond Panther Pass. 

But don’t let that stop you. If you’re set on treasure hunting, you can drive or bike an asphalted road through Panther Pass, cross the Lost Mine Trail, and start looking.

Panther Pass

No lost gold
mine-yours-theirs,
there’s nothing where
the puma yowls
and prowls
the arid rocks.

________________

You can read Barbara Gregorich’s earlier blog on mountain passes, The Cumberland Gap.