SHERIDAN MEN WIN GAMBLE
WITH DEATH IN CANYON TRIP
Four Pioneers In Small Boat Accomplish Feat
Equaled But Once Since in 30-Year Period;
W. G. Griffen, James P. and Thomas Robinson and J. W. Newell
Braved Hazards of Man-Trap, Where Many Had Died in Vain Effort;
Story of Adventure Reads Like Fiction;
Trip Filled with Thrilling Experiences and Narrow Escapes
(This absorbing story of the first successful boat-trip through the canyon of the Big Horn river of Wyoming, made by a party of Sheridan men about 30 years ago, is far more interesting than most fiction. It will appear in four installments in The Post, an installment presented herewith and one each of the three succeeding Sunday issues. -- Post Editor's Note.)
A trip by boat through the canyon of the Big Horn river of Wyoming and Montana is a feat to be accomplished but twice in the history of the country, so far as is known at this time, and the first successful attempt was made by a party of Sheridan men, in the summer of 1893.
I have no notes of the trip, or memoranda to refresh my mid, and am writing this from memory after a lapse of 30 years. Some of the events were so indelibly stamped upon my mind that they can never be obliterated, while doubtless others of a more trivial nature may have escaped me. I am indebted to W. G. Griffen for reminders of numerous incidents which I had forgotten.
There had been many stories told and printed to the effect that such a feat was impossible, that several parties of adventurers had started down the river with the avowed purpose of going through or perishing in the attempt, and that not one of them had ever after been heard of; that others had been wrecked and stranded on an island where they had remained many weeks, subsisting on such game and fish as they could shoot and catch. Still others, according to the stories we heard, had become discouraged by insurmountable obstacles which they had encountered, and returned on foot along the banks and over the tops of mountains which extend to the waters edge and terminate in perpendicular stone walls. There were accounts of great falls in the walled portions of the canyon which it was impossible for even a wild animal to pass; of giant whirlpools where every floating object was sucked down, never again coming to the surface. The theory was advanced that there was a sub-aqueous outlet through which everything that came downstream was drawn into the bowels of the earth and deposited in some vast subterranean cavity, the water finding its way out and eventually back into the river through seepage and springs. It was with all these reports in mind, and a determination to ascertain their truth or falsity, that the Sheridan men outfitted and started on what they suppose was a perilous undertaking.
Four Men Took Trip
The party was composed of four men, the late Judge James P Robinson, his brother, Thomas Robinson, then a practicing attorney at Fort Collins, Colorado, now of Los Angeles, California, who was here on a visit, W. George Griffen, now of the Sheridan Savings Bank and Sheridan Banking Co., and the writer of this story, J W Newell.
Provisions to last a month, bedding and extra clothing, tents, guns and ammunition, fishing tackle and prospecting tools, together with a photographic camera were packed, and the party left Sheridan on the 10th day of August 1893.
Transportation was furnished by G. Frank McLaughlin (who subsequently died in Sheridan, the victim of an assassin's bullet), consisting of a four-horse team and covered wagon, a typical old-time prairie schooner, which we loaded to the limit. Harvey Fryberger, now of the New York Store, was a member of the party as far as Bald Mountain, which was at that time enjoying its boom as a gold mining camp.
Our road lay through Dayton, up the old red grade, which was little more than a trail, across Fool's creek, past the Burgess cabins, and on to Bald Mountain, the apex of the main range. Turning south at Little Baldy, we traversed a trackless wilderness of pines and underbrush, up and down steep and rocky gradients to the head of Beaver creek where we found a passable road. During this day's travel occurred our first accident. The wagon was negotiating a rocky hillside and I was riding the brake on the uphill side to prevent the wagon from overturning. When the critical point was passed I stepped backward to the ground, slipped and shot my feet under the hind wheel. Fortunately, the tire caught the heel of my shoe, stopped my progress downward and prevented the breaking of both legs. However, my heel was pinched so hard that I did not walk on it for several days.
At some distance down the course of Bear creek we came to a sawmill where we bought rough pine lumber with which to construct our boat, and drove on down to the ranch of J W Price on Shell creek. Mr Price was formerly a resident of the Banner neighborhood in this county.
At this point, we unloaded our possessions, discharged the driver and team with specific instructions to meet us at old Fort Smith on the Big Horn river, six miles below the mouth of the canyon at the expiration of 30 days. If we got through the canyon all right he was to bring us back to Sheridan. If he did not find us at the appointed time and place he was to search the banks of the river for certain objects which we were to set afloat in case of disaster or of being marooned on one of the desolate and barren islands of which we had heard so much before embarking on the adventure.
Built Boat at Ranch
Now the task of building the boat confronted us. The material consisted of rough green pine lumber and the kit of tools comprised an ax, a saw and a hammer. With the material and tools at our command we could only build one certain style of boat -- a punt -- a flat-bottomed affair with square ends, 16 feet long, five feet beam and 12 inches deep, with a gunwale of 2 x 4 [?] running all the way around. Across the middle was a deck five feet square, upon which to load our supplies, which left room in each end for two men. It was finished one evening and placed in the water to soak and tighten the cracks. The first man out next morning rushed back into the tent and reported the boat missing, but upon investigation it was found at the bottom of the creek. It had leaked full and sunk. The work of raising, emptying, re-caulking the cracks with burlap and white lead occupied another day.
On the afternoon of this day, while the boat was being repaired, the Judge went hunting in the hope of getting a deer or other game animal. While slowly making his way through a heavy windfall he sighted a small band of elk feeding in an open space, a sort of basin where water had stood and green feed was abundant, and which was partly surrounded by a dense growth of willows and quaking aspens. To arrive within shooting distance it was necessary to make a long detour and approach the quarry from behind the natural screen of bushes. The band of elk was composed of several cows, a calf or two and a large bull with wide, spreading antlers. When the Judge had reached an advantageous position and was enjoying a brief breathing spell as well as admiring the sleek and beautiful animals in their wild and native haunts, the bull suddenly threw up his head and bugled a shrill note of warning. At the same instant a large cougar or mountain lion as they are known here, sprang from the cover of the bushes upon the back of a cow elk, fastened his teeth in her neck and dragged her to the ground. The other members of the band immediately took refuge in flight, but the bull would not abandon one of his harem in such dire distress, and with a mighty bound he caught the lion on his antlers and tossed it high in the air. When it fell to the ground, stunned and bleeding from its wounds, it recovered sufficiently to exert its remaining strength in a savage spring at the bull, who caught it on his antlers and again tossed it high over his back.
Stamps Lion to Death
When it came down the second time in a limp and almost lifeless condition the bull was instantly upon it with front feet and sharp hoofs and soon had it trampled into a shapeless mass. Then with a bugle call to his companions he trotted away into the forest. So amazed and interested in the outcome of the spectacular contest had been the Judge that he had forgotten the object of his presence there and allowed the game to escape without firing a shot. He was a true sportsman, and it is doubtful that he would have harmed the bull after witnessing its noble defense of its mate.
Night comes earlier in a forest than it does on the prairies, and it was fast approaching, with the hunter far from camp. He had traveled much farther than he thought. His homeward route lay through a rough country with numerous high and rocky ridges to climb and deep gulches to cross, and a windfall to crawl through. A person who has never seen a windfall in a forest cannot realize how difficult it is to get through or over. Years ago the timber was killed by fire. As the years passed the roots of the trees have rotted and the trunks been blown down by the winds, falling in every direction in such a tangled mass that passage through one is very slow and in many cases impossible in daylight. To attempt it on a dark night would be the height of folly, so our hunter built a fire, sat down with his back to a tree and passed the night in company of the carcass of the dead lion. In the meantime, the other members of the party had kept a beacon light burning, fired guns at intervals, and were preparing to institute a search when the tall, gaunt form of the Judge was seen approaching camp at a round pace.
On that night the boat had behaved a little better. It did not fill more than half full and remained on the surface of the water. Another going over sufficed to make it navigable, but it never did quit leaking and had to be bailed out frequently during the entire voyage.
(To be continued in next Sunday's issue of The Post.)
Last Updated April 2005
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