Photo of a display at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center  in Wyoming.  (BLM)
A display at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Wyoming.  (BLM)

Pulling Together to Preserve History

By Mike Abel

Dust, heat, wind, cold . . . hardships, joys, triumphs, challenges . . . the adventure, the gamble, the seemingly endless march—all were experienced by travelers heading westward along the Oregon, Mormon, California, and Pony Express Trails, and all are part of a great story.  Many paths and many characters all converged on the east to west journey along the North Platte River at the site of present day Casper, Wyoming.  Here, over 160 years after the first organized Euro-American footsteps, the stories are still told, no longer by campfire and on horseback, but through the BLM’s National Historic Trails Interpretive Center (NHTIC).

Photo of an Old Oregon Trail marker.  (BLM/Bob Wick)
Old Oregon Trail marker.  (BLM/Bob Wick)
On the eastern edge of the Rockies, it is still many days journey to South Pass.  Where the tall and short grass prairies have been left far behind and high desert plant and animal communities abound, the river corridor is restricted to a mere one-half mile or less because of low mountains to the south and sand dunes and broken terrain to the north.  The westward trails, which had ranged up to several miles apart and in width in some areas, converge by the design of nature for the last crossing of the Platte.  The dry overland route to the Sweetwater and other drainages awaits many miles to the west and south. 

How did the early emigrants tackle the daunting task of moving West to begin new lives?  They formed partnerships, they banded together, and they became teams of many sizes and kinds, for they understood that working together ensured the best chances for success (and survival).  Teamwork is also the mainstay of the NHTIC.  Envisioned well over 20 years ago by trail and history enthusiasts from the local area, the NHTIC concept was born of an idea to honor this amazing part of American history.  As the concept grew, citizens formed the National Historic Trails Center Foundation to encourage support for accurately telling the stories of the mid-19th century pioneers traveling the trails across the state.  The nonprofit foundation, facing many obstacles on its own journey, joined with the city of Casper and the BLM in a unique partnership to make this dream a reality.

By architectural design and color, the center reflects the influence of the land, water, and sky.  It opened in 2002 on a high hill overlooking the Platte and the city.  At nearly 24,000 square feet, it offers a 100-seat theater and seven exhibit galleries describing the Native American presence, early European explorers, and the four major national historic trails, along with multimedia and interactive displays that bring the history of the West to life.  The connections to the journeys are accomplished by using stories from actual pioneer diaries.

This partnership is unique in that the city donated the land, the BLM built the building and staffs the facility, and the foundation raised funds for and owns and maintains the center’s exhibits and galleries.  Each partner contributed millions of dollars, and together, through cooperation and joint determination, they reached their goal of establishing the center, just as the pioneers reached their goal of crossing the river only a short distance and many years away.  The foundation’s executive director has an office in the center and focuses on fundraising and upkeep and planning for the exhibits.  The BLM staff offers visitor orientations, information, and a regular schedule of speakers, programs, historic reenactments, and other special events. 

The center hosts thousands of schoolchildren from all grade levels throughout the year.  A strong volunteer corps assists the staff with tours and provides the backbone for telling the stories of the pioneers as they recorded them.  The BLM also taps another important resource by employing youth, especially college students, to assist visitors and help them understand the cultural significance of the trails. 

The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, part of the National Landscape Conservation System, is a gateway to learning about the pioneers’ stories, the commitments they made that changed their lives forever, and their journeys across the country.  Visitors are awed by the actual sites and locations across Wyoming and the West where history was made and is still preserved, treasured, and enjoyed.  In Wyoming, the BLM, through the NLCS, offers unmatched beauty and unspoiled remnants of the historic trails of the greatest overland migration in this nation’s history. 

Mike Abel has been the Director of the BLM's National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper, Wyoming, since 2009.  He has worked for municipal and state governments in Wyoming and Iowa in recreation, education, resource protection, land management, and urban planning over the past 30 years.