BIG HORN CANYON HERETOFORE
SUPPOSED TO BE IMPASSABLE
Is Traversed by a Party of Four Men in a Flat Boat;
Many Dangers Encountered, and Some Narrow Escapes;
A Popular Theory Exploded
From the Sheridan Post, 14 September 1893
For some years past, in fact ever since this country became known to and settled by white people, an impression has prevailed, created, no doubt, by the reports of prospectors and hunters who have visited portions of it in quest of gold or game that it would be utterly impossible for a human being to pass through the canyon of the Big Horn river, 48 miles in length, either by land or water. During this time several attempts have been made to go through in boats, but up to the one of which we write, all have terminated in disaster and defeat.
However, a party of B. & M. surveyors, headed by Engineer Gillette, ran a line through there last winter, when the river was partially frozen over, the ice affording them the means of passing through the boxed portions and the banks along the water’s edge allowing them to avoid the numerous rapids.
Prompted partly by a spirit of adventure and partly from a desire to explode, if possible, the popular theory that the canyon was impassable, to everything except birds and fishes, a party consisting of Judge J. P. Robinson, his brother, Judge T. M. Robinson of Fort Collins, Colorado, County Treasurer Geo. W. Griffen and the editor of the Post was organized for the purpose of making the attempt. In the face of many discouragements and friendly warnings the party, having provided itself with an ample store of provisions, guns, ammunitions, etc., started on the journey August 10th, with the expectation of returning in three weeks. The route mapped out was via Bald Mountain down Beaver creek to Shell creek by wagon, down Shell creek and the Big Horn to old Fort C. F. Smith by boat, and from there home by wagon.
We had scarcely left Sheridan three miles behind us when one hind wheel came off the wagon, and this was repeated before reaching Dayton. Here the kindly services of the village blacksmith were invoked, who with cold chisel and hammer securely riveted the burr to the end of the spindle. The smithy remarked with a grin as he finished the job that “the man who gets that off will have a heap of [fun].” On the following day a wheel was broken down on the other wagon while in the Tongue river basin. Another vehicle was borrowed from Wm Burgess, who was camped at the cabins, and on Saturday evening the 12th, the last of the party arrived at Bald Mountain, without further mishap.
Bald Mountain city is composed of 21 log houses and a number of tents, has two or three stores, a postoffice and a saloon. It is beautifully located in a large park, surrounded by heavy pine timber, and has a stream of water flowing through the center of Main street from west to east. We visited the mining claim of J. M. Colerider, and found him hard at work with pick and shovel in a prospect hole about 12 feet deep. Ben Schneider was found manufacturing some sluice boxes needed in his mining operations. He took the trouble to dig and wash a pan of dirt in our presence, and triumphantly exhibited to our astonished eyes a return of not less that four cents. He undoubtedly has a very rich claim, but says there are many acres of land in the camp that are nearly, if not quite as good. Then we visited the claims of the Fortunatus Mining & Milling Co., where one of the amalgamators was at work and the other being set up and put in running order. The readers of the Post have been told all that is yet known of the results of their operations, so they need not be repeated.
Here we met the Sommers-Felker-Leaverton-Willits-Mills-Calomy party, on their way from the Little Horn country to the Big Horn Hot Springs, and spent the evening pleasantly visiting their hospitable camp.
Leaving Bald Mountain on the 13th we proceeded down the southwestern slope of the range over one of the most [perilous] mountain trails that a loaded wagon could possibly pass over. By means of ropes, poles, rough-locks and dragging trees the bottom was finally reached in safety and after a hard days travel we rested at night six miles from the starting place of the morning.
When part way down the hill we overtook our friends of the evening before, who had met with a very annoying though not serious accident. Their four-horse supply wagon had turned over on the side of a hill, and horses, wagon and supplies had rolled over three or four times until reaching the bottom, not less than 100 feet below. Strange as it may appear and fortunate as it certainly was, no damage was sustained beyond some slight breakage of the “furniture.”
On the morning of the 14th at Hend’s ranch we loaded the lumber of which we were told to build our boat, it having been previously sent down from a saw mill on the mountain, and drove down Beaver creek, passing the new ranch of A. J. Robinson, now of Big Goose, J. C. Patterson, formerly of Prairie Dog, at the mouth of Beaver creek, and arrived at the end of our wagon journey, at J. W. Price’s ranch of Shell creek at noon. During this half day’s travel the writer accidentally got one foot run over by the wagon wheel, and was a cripple for several days.
Mr. Price kindly supplied us with the necessary tools, and our ship carpenters, Messrs. J. P. Robinson and Geo. Griffen at once commenced the construction of the craft which, though rough and ungarnished with paint or varnish, was remarkably substantial, and destined to be the first to bear human freight safely through the famous canyon of the Big Horn river. It was completed and launched before night, and was similar in construction to what is known as a punt, being four feet wide, fourteen feet long and fourteen inches deep. The sides were 2x12 plank with both ends turned up like a sled runner, and a 2x4 laid flat and spiked to the top, projecting over two inches on the outside. The bottom was of inch boards double, one course running crosswise and the other lengthwise. Across the middle was built a deck on which our bedding, tent and guns were loaded, and under which our provisions and cooking utensils were stored.
With two men in each end, each armed with a pike pole, the boat was pushed out into the stream about 9 a.m. on the morning of the 15th, and our long journey by water was begun.
The tortuous winding of the stream increased the distance necessarily to be traveled by about four fold, so that while traveling at the rate of three to four miles per hour, we were twenty four hours running time in reaching the mouth of the creek, which by the wagon road was said to be only twenty miles. At the ranch of Dave Nall we laid in a supply of vegetables, paying five cents a pound for potatoes, three and a half for turnips, onions, cabbage, etc., this being about the only place on Shell creek below Mr. Price’s ranch where they have raised anything this year.
Reaching the Big Horn river on the morning of the 17th, our speed was somewhat accelerated by the force of the current, and we floated down to the Sheep mountain cut before nightfall.
The Sheep mountains are a narrow, low, barren range of rocks, running parallel with the Big Horns, and through which the river runs in a box canyon, not over 100 feet wide, and whose walls rise almost perpendicularly on both sides to the height of several hundred feet. In passing through this we discovered warm springs of mineral water flowing in from the eastern bank. Our artist, Mr. Griffen, here produced his camera and took several views of the canyon and the springs, after which we floated down past the old McDonald ferry, camped for the night and caught some 6½ pound catfish and 4 pound pike.
On the 19th, in passing through a small cut between McDonald’s Ferry and Lovel’s ranch we found cold springs coming in from the west side whose waters are so strongly impregnated with sulphur that they have the color of lubricating oil, and do not mingle readily with the water in the river. Upon investigating the source of these waters we discovered that they flowed from the mouth of a great cave opening out partly below and partly above the surface of the water in the river. Into this sulphurous [cavern] we penetrated a distance 325 yards, part of the time wading in the water and part of the time climbing over mud banks, fallen rocks and decomposed matter. Several very nice specimens of crystallization, and some samples of almost pure native sulphur were brought away as trophies, and are now on exhibition at this office.
On the 20th we entered the Big Horn canyon and reached the mouth of Porcupine creek, having seen a few mountain sheep, caught some fine trout and pike and done some unsuccessful hunting. [Remaining] here one day we explored the Porcupine canyon, which is more familiarly known to old inhabitants as the Devil’s canyon, but finding no game and few fish moved on. The next morning a fine, fat young mountain sheep came rolling down the side of the canyon at the crack of Mr. J. P. Robinson’s rifle, and the party landed at the first favorable opportunity and prepared a feast.
Just before landing we witnessed an exhibition of climbing by mountain sheep that astonished even the members of our party who have been familiar with these animals for years. Having cornered a dozen in a pocket where we supposed it impossible for anything without wings to escape us, we were about to help ourselves to several pairs of massive horns when the whole band scampered up the side of the almost perpendicular cliffs as though it were but a favorite [pastime] for them. Up they went, leaping from rock to rock, sometimes 20 to 30 feet at a bound, until they were within perhaps a hundred feet of the top, several thousand feet above us. So far were they that unless they were moving they could not be distinguished from the rocks upon which they stood, without the use of field glasses, and beyond the reach of our rifles. So far as we know they still carry the cumbersome head ornaments which we coveted.
On the 23rd we made camp at the mouth of Dry Head, a stream putting in from the north. During this day’s travel we had encountered several rapids, which, though not dangerous, were gradually becoming longer and more turbulent, and began to remind us of the object of our journey. At one place a huge round-topped boulder lurked just beneath the surface of the water, unobserved until too late to avoid it. Our boat struck it fair on the bow, shot half its length up over it, nearly balanced on the rock and spun around like a top. This very sudden and unexpected change of motion nearly sent all hands and cargo overboard, where a desperate struggle for life would have ensued; but our lucky star was in the ascendancy, and with a little rocking of the boat it slipped off into the current again without having received any injury.
Just opposite our landing place stood a fine young specimen of mountain sheep, very much undisturbed by our presence. Having plenty of meat, the thought occurred to us to do something which has probably never before been accomplished. A landing was made, the camera unpacked, and that sheep’s photograph is one of the trophies we have of the expedition.
We remained in this camp, hunting, fishing and sight seeing until the morning of the 26th, when we moved down to the mouth of Elk creek. From the effects of a water spout a long way up the river, the water had become as muddy as the Missouri, making our progress doubly dangerous. Caution, rather than experience being our stock in trade, we unloaded and carried our cargo around several of the most dangerous rapids, so that thus lightened, with two men on shore at the end of a 100-foot rope made fast to the boat, the other two guided it safely among the rocks and out into the placid waters below.
During our stay at this camp we explored the country pretty thoroughly, discovering an old miner’s camp, where a ditch half a mile long has been made for sluicing purposes, several large caves high up in the walls, and one of the greatest natural curiosities in the shape of a flowing spring. Several thousand feet above the river and a mile or two up Elk creek canyon, is an overhanging ledge of rock some 60 feet wide. From near the middle of this ledge on the under side flows a large stream of clear, pure water, falling 30 or 40 feet to the ground below. The background is covered with a green velvety moss resembling the plush used in upholstery, and this moss is covered with a green ragged-leaved vine. From several small openings along the upper side of the back-ground flow other streams down over moss covered terraces, the whole making a very beautiful but indescribable picture. Our artist took several negatives from different positions, and hopes to reproduce it for the benefit of those who cannot see it in its natural state.
On either side of the mouth of this stream, and extending back into the mountains for a mile, is a wide level prairie of several hundred acres in extent, which could all be irrigated, and will some day make a fine ranch when the Crow Indian reservation is opened to settlement.
Leaving this camp on the 28th we dropped down to the mouth of Black canyon, within about six miles of the Big Horn canyon, during which the experiences of the previous run were repeated, with but slight variations. This we found to be the most interesting portion of the canyon, and as we yet had some days to spend before meeting the team at Ft. Smith, we decided to spend them here. Towards evening Mr. Griffen brought in a fresh deer, and Mr. T. M. Robinson a fine string of trout. The following six days were spent in hunting, fishing and sight-seeing, exploring caves, taking views of mountain scenery, etc.
What a heaven this canyon would have been for the Cliff Dwellers of former ages! Caves of every imaginable size and description abound, where a large number of this comparatively modern race of people might have been born, lived and died in perfect security; but very few of them were accessible to us with the means at hand. One very large cave was explored to a distance of three or four hundred yards, and some fine specimens, rivaling those taken from the famous Wind cave of South Dakota rewarded our trouble. Another of smaller dimensions has at some time sheltered human beings when pursued by [enemies] or wild animals. Across the mouth there yet remains a barricade built of logs and stones, behind which somebody has taken refuge.
Night in the Big Horn canyon is also a very interesting season. During the day time the wind seldom blows, but at night, in our experience, it never failed; some times being strong enough to capsize our wedge tent. These nocturnal zephyrs, coming always up the canyon with greater or less force, whistling and howling through the castellated crags far above, and mingled with the roar of the waters as they rush madly over the rapids below, create an infinite variety of sounds, [sometimes] so soft and soothing as to lull the traveler into a condition of half sleep, half wakefulness, then suddenly changing cause him to bolt upright in his bed and listen intently, thinking he hears human voice in excited converse, the cackling of barnyard fowls, the tinkling of bells, the fighting of cats, and often a distant scream, sometimes blood-curdling, sometimes as pitiful and despairing as the wail of a lost soul. Now thoroughly aroused the would-be sleeper, realizing where he is and the cause of the sounds, falls back in bed and usually sleeps soundly until morning.
Monday morning, September 4th, our time having expired and our provisions being completely exhausted with the exception of salt, coffee and dried meat, we once more loaded our effects into the boat and started on the final voyage. And it came near being our “final voyage” in more respects than one. Two weeks time had elapsed since we entered the canyon and during this time the water in the river had fallen more than a foot. Each rapid we approached seemed to be uglier than the one just passed, the jagged points of the rocks appearing above the water in great numbers, and over which it lashed itself into a perfect frenzy, and the great white-capped breakers rolled from four to six feet high. By the liberal use of our rope and careful steering the last rapid was half passed when, through a misunderstanding of signals, we struck the last formidable rock in the rapids, the upper side of the boat was sucked under by the current and we were “swamped,” but fortunately in only three feet of water. The cargo was hastily passed from hand to hand until landed on the shore, some of it dry and some of it thoroughly water-soaked. Everything was saved however, and after a couple hours of hard work the boat was pried out from between the rocks, raised and reloaded.
Half a mile further down we emerged from the mouth of the canyon, and for the first time in two weeks were able to look around us in other directions than straight up.
Arriving at our destination, old Ft. C. F. Smith, at the crossing of the Bozeman trail, and finding no team waiting for us, we drank a cup of coffee, ate some dried meat and went to bed. About 9 o’clock in the evening the team, driven by G. F. McLaughlin and F. R. Gump, arrived. Leaving our boat at the mercy of the waves or the Crow Indians, we pulled out on the morning of the 5th for Sheridan. Our Jehu pounded his faithful animals on the back, and the old wagon lumbered over the stones at such a furious pace that we all sighed once more for the comparative safety of the most turbulent rapids in the canyon. But we reached home all the sooner, where we received the congratulations of many friends upon the success of our trip.
In conclusion we will say that the trip can be safely and pleasantly made by anybody, properly outfitted, with the exercise of due caution, and is one well worth making. Had this article not already stretched out beyond reasonable bounds, we might enlarge upon the beauties of the scenery in the canyon. We believe the canyon as a route for the B. & M. railroad from Sheridan to the Yellowstone national park is practicable. If the road is built it will be forever known as the great scenic route to the Pacific coast, and as such will be the most attractive for tourists. Hoping that all our readers may at some time in the near future have the pleasure of viewing the beauties of the scenery from an observation car on a B. & M. train, we drop the subject for the present.
For more on the Newell & Company's trip down the Big Horn,
go to Sheridan Men Win Gamble by J. W. Newell
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