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Second Installment of J. W. Newell's Gripping Story of Adventure

Almost 30 years Ago Deals With Starting of River Travel in

Home-Made "Ship," Hear More Stories of Almost Certain Disaster Ahead

by J W Newell

From The Sheridan Post, 24 December 1922

Big Horn Canyon - 1 Big Horn Canyon - 2 Big Horn Canyon - 3 Big Horn Canyon - 4

(This is the second installment of the remarkable story of the successful trip of four Sheridan pioneers through the treacherous canyon of the Big Horn river of Wyoming, written by J W Newell, formerly editor of The Post, and one of the members of the party. The others were W G Griffen, James P and Thomas Robinson. In the opening installment, Mr Newell told of the preparations for the trip and the building of the boat. It is a tale full of exciting adventure and athrob with intimate detail of the life in the wilds -- Post Editor's Note.)

At last we were ready to "sail." All hands were piped on board and away we went at a rate of speed not exceeding two miles an hour. At many places we found the water so shallow that the old ship would not float. Then all hands went overboard, seized the gunwale or rope, carried and dragged it along into swimming water again. The course of the stream was tortuous, at many places very narrow and overhung with bush or obstructed by fallen trees, so that the ax had to be used to clear a way through.

At one place we rounded a long bend which required almost half a day's time and travel. A man working on the bank where we started "spoke" [to] us half a day later from the same position. At another place we encountered a tight barbed wire fence made hard and fast at both banks of the creek and extending below the surface of the water. The boat was too heavy to lift over or carry around, but the problem was finally solved by unloading the cargo, portaging it around through a gate a quarter of a mile from the creek, sinking the boat and dragging it under the fence beneath the water.

Most of the way down the banks are quite high and steep, so that we saw very little of the surrounding country, except where we camped for the night or climbed the banks for some other purpose. On one such occasion we found a large family living in a rude cabin such as most all early settlers occupied during the first years of their residence on the "claim." They had a large garden from which they supplied us with enough fresh vegetables to last several days.

Out of Shell Creek

The next event with which we are concerned here was our emergence from the mouth of Shell creek out upon the comparatively broad bosom of the Big Horn river. The stream appeared to between 100 and 200 yards wide, but very shallow, and this condition recurred at intervals all the way down to the canyon. Frequently we were obliged to get out and drag the boat over the sands.

Sheep Canyon is one of the noteworthy objects along the way. It is a narrow defile through which the waters flow with great rapidity, lashing themselves into a white foam over the rock bed. The walls are almost perpendicular on both sides, of vari-colored stone, laid tier upon tier in crescent shape, as if by the hand of a skillful mason. Doubtless this is owing to the grand upheaval which created the mountains, bent the strata of rock upward, leaving it in that position to cool.

Reach McDonald's Ferry

Further down the stream we came to McDonald's ferry, the only pace on the river at that time where a crossing could be effected without swimming or fording. Usually it was swimming, as fording was extremely dangerous on account of quicksand. The river has always been considered treacherous, and in those days before the building of bridges, it took its annual toll of human life, besides many hundred head of cattle and horses that either mired in the sands or were swept away by the swift current in time of high water.

As we approached the ferry a group of men came down to the bank and hailed us. They had heard through the newspapers that a party of Sheridan men were out on an excursion with its itinerary including a passage through Big Horn canyon in a boat, and they wanted to know if we were "it." With the very best of intentions they warned us to turn back and abandon the proposed passage in  a boat, and particularly such a boat as we had. They said it was too heavy and clumsy to be safely taken over the numerous rapids; that it would be dashed to pieces on the rocks and we all drowned before we had proceeded a mile. They repeated some of the stories we had heard before leaving home, and told of unearthly noises that were reported to have come out of the canyon on the wings of the wind -- howls and screams which made the hair stand on end -- and could have emanated from no human being or animal known to exist at that day and age of the world.

One of them was sure that some supernatural beings or forces which nothing human could withstand would be encountered in the depths of the canyon, and that if we persisted in going we would never be heard of again. He kindly volunteered to inform our folks at home of the day and date of our passing in case we never came out. Later we imagined we could explain the sounds that had been heard, if any, as being produced by perfectly natural causes.

Find Magic Cave

One day as we floated down the stream our olfactory nerves were assailed by something none of us were familiar with. As we drifted along the offensive odor grew stronger and made us aware of the fact that we were approaching an uncommon adventure. A gentle breeze was blowing up stream and brought the ever-increasing scent from below. Presently we passed entirely out of it without any apparent reason. Turning and paddling up stream a short distance we discovered a small opening on the left bank of the river which had not attracted our attention as we passed down. Fastening the boat we all got out to investigate. Through the opening in the bank flowed a tiny stream of dark colored water, and we soon convinced ourselves that this water  brought the offensive and unwelcome odor from the heart of the mountain above. After lighting candles with which we had provided ourselves, putting on rubber boots and leaving off our coats we entered the opening in the bank, which enlarged rapidly as we progressed, and we soon found ourselves in a spacious cavern, the walls of which glinted and glistened like gold in the light of our torches. Mr Griffen had taken his prospecting pick in with him and he attacked the walls with the vigor of a man expecting to achieve fabulous wealth in a few moments. Wallingford's "get rich quick" schemes were in the discard compared to the opportunity here presented. But the pick did not "ring true," and he soon discovered that the walls of the cave were composed of sulphur in almost a commercially pure state. The cave was perhaps 100 feet wide at the point where we were  -- about 300 feet from the opening -- and in the center was a large mound of dirt and stones which had apparently fallen from the top. While we were pursuing our investigations we were startled by a thundering crash, were bombarded with fragments of rock and dirt and spattered with mud. A mass had fallen from the roof which, in the light of our candles, could not be seen. Fearing that at any time another falling mass might bury us alive we beat a hasty retreat. The mystery was solved and we contented ourselves with carrying out armloads of specimens which were thrown on top of the tent on the deck.

That evening when we went into camp and put up the tent we discovered that it was eaten full of holes and practically worthless. Further investigation revealed the fact that the fronts and sleeves of our shirts were in the same condition. There is undoubtedly a mixture of iron in the composition of the walls and cap of the cave. A combination of iron and sulphur makes sulphuric acid, and that was what did the mischief.

Our next pace of interest was the mouth of the Shoshoni or Stinkingwater river, whose waters brought to us something akin to the offensive odor we had found at the cave, and which is brought down from the sulphur deposits in the vicinity of Cody, although there was no Cody at that time and the sulphur deposits had not been  developed as they have been since.

Nearing Head of Canyon

Only a short distance more and we would be at the head of the Big Horn canyon. It must be stated here that the canyon is 50 miles long, in some places walled on both sides to a height of many hundred feet, then a sloping bank will appear, first on one side, then on the other, with grass, trees and flowers growing in abundance to the rim rock. The walls are sometimes overhanging the stream, the cleavage being at right angles. A bird's-eye view would give it the appearance of a checkerboard sawn cornerwise and spread open on the lines of the squares. The upper half of the canyon which is in Wyoming, affords no passage or trail for man or beast, unless such a trail has been constructed since our visit. The lower half in Montana had a trail which went in over the top of the first range and wound along the sides of the canyon a distance of six miles before it got down to the level of the river at the mouth of Bull Elk Creek. The river emerges from the mountains, or did at that time, through a box canyon not more than half the average width of the stream both above and below. The development of the government irrigation plant at that point may have changed the condition then existing.

But I must get back to the head of the canyon, for we had not got through a similar box at the upper end when I digressed to give the reader a better idea of the place into which we were going.

(Another installment of this absorbing story will be published in The Post next Sunday.)

Big Horn Canyon - 1 Big Horn Canyon - 2 Big Horn Canyon - 3 Big Horn Canyon - 4

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