Of mountain men and miners

Before we leave Jackson, let me just show you how lovely the mountains looked this morning.  Lying in bed and having this view while a fire blazes away was a real treat. No moose sighting this morning, but enjoy the mountains one last time.

We cleared out of the rarified air of Jackson and headed south, reaching the town of Pinedale for breakfast.  It’s a nice small town, with no Orvis or Eddie Bauer store in sight. The main reason for our stop here was to visit the Museum of the Mountain Man, located right in town.

Why were there Mountain Men? Well, there was a lot of money to made in the beaver trade, so until 1840, when silk hats came into vogue, there were hundreds of solitary souls out in the wilds of places like Wyoming trapping beavers and processing their skins. Imagine – a fashion trend in Europe actually helped settle the American West.

The trappers had a unique and dangerous way of life, subject to hostile Indians, hostile mammals and hostile nature. But during and after their time, they created legends that live on and helped define the American view of the wilderness. Following them came the pioneers, eager for some of the riches that the Mountain Men had found.

Properly informed about this important era in our history, we headed across more hills and plains to the town of Rock Springs, in the high alpine desert of Sweetwater County. The town was started to service the Union Pacific with coal, and that’s where miners enter the picture again.  The coal mines in Rock Springs fed the railroads, and their output was very important.

When a labor dispute threatened production and the miners went on strike in 1875, the railroad brought in Chinese workers to break the strike. Needless to say, they were not popular, and one contentious moment in 1885 led to a massacre of about 50 Chinese.  While the nation was mostly shocked, life went on as before in Rock Springs – just with no Chinese workers.

Ironically, this is a town that prides itself on having many different nationalities represented in its population of 27,000.  “All nationalities are welcome,” a sign at the entrance to the town declares.

We went to the Rock Springs Historical Museum, and had the pleasure of meeting its director, Bob Nelson.  A Chicago-area native, Bob embraced our world view and we were great buddies in about 5 minutes.  In addition to hearing about the next 10 things to see and places to eat along our route, Bob gave us the real skinny on local attitudes past and present.  A funny guy, he is just like all museum people we know, with the added benefit of knowing Butch Cassidy’s sister, as Butch (Robert Leroy Parker) spent some time here before he became a real bad boy. Not every town can claim that.

Here’s an interesting factoid: Butch Cassidy’s great-grandfather, Thomas Parker, was English, and at one point entered into a business enterprise with John Dickens, father of Charles. The enterprise failed, and both men were thrown into debtors’ prison. Thomas’s son, Robert, (Butch’s grandfather) grew up homeless and on the street as a result.  His descendants believe that he was the inspiration for the character of Oliver Twist.

Bob’s museum was a Richardson-designed building, the original city hall, complete with town jail.  It now has some municipal offices, but it is mostly given over to the museum.  One great story about the jail is that Dick Cheney spent a night inside a cell there after he was arrested for drunk driving as a youth.  Unfortunately, he got sprung.

Lots of colorful stuff and another homage to the folks who made the mines work. We are spending the night here and made it a point to find Chinese restaurant as a small form of recompense. We do what we can.

2 thoughts on “Of mountain men and miners

  1. When you get to do your tour de France, remind me tell you of the Chinese graveyards.Around Picardy, they’re the resting places of Chinese miners who were ‘enlisted’ for their tunneling skills. Thy helped build the labyrinth of trenches where ‘us v them’ could pop up and take shots.

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