Settlement of the Upper Green River Basin followed directly upon the heels of construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Manufactured goods and other imported items could only be transported from the rail head via horse-drawn freight wagons to ranches, settlements and newly formed towns in this remote region. The New Fork Wagon Road is a main Southwestern Wyoming Expansion-Era wagon road largely overlooked by historians. This paper introduces the New Fork Wagon Road, the stops along its route, and some of the local color associated with the Wagon Road, to historians interested in Wyoming's Expansion-Era past.
An abstract submitted for consideration within the Russ Tanner Symposium on SW Wyoming at the 1999 Society for historical Archaeology meetings in Salt Lake City, UT.
The year 1869 saw the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and southwestern Wyoming was changed forever. Euroamerican settlers took possession of a land that previously was home to the Shoshoni and Ute. Trapped by the Mountain Men and struggled through by the Emigrants in the early nineteenth century, the high, arid deserts of southern Wyoming now became home to a few hearty settlers, miners and woodsmen. Where once only Indian Trails marked the easiest passage, soon indelible two-tracks and wagon ruts were cut into fragile desert soils. If the Transcontinental Railroad was the backbone of Western Expansion, the wagon roads carrying people, freight and manifest destiny were the arms and legs.
While other expansion era wagon roads have received attention by modern historians and archaeologists such as The Opal Wagon Road, the Point of Rocks/South Pass City route, Carter to Cumberland Road or Bryan to South Pass City, to mention a few, the road from Rock Springs to New Fork appears forgotten to historians, but not to those whose ancestors freighted on it, who relied on manufactured goods, foodstuffs and mail hauled along it, whose lives were changed by it. The New Fork Wagon Road (48SU1408) was first recorded during archaeological inventory ancillary to a BLM Spring Development project (Vlcek, 1995) located in the sagebrush steppes some four miles south of the historic New Fork townsite. I noticed the apparent association of a series of historic artifacts with an abandoned two-track in my project area. Examination of 1894 GLO Plat maps at BLM identified the subject two-track as the "Road to New Fork" coursing south-southeasterly from John Vible's (1888) store, a structure still standing. Additional archival, informant and records checks by the author confirmed the historic nature of the route. Here is its story:
The Rock Springs to New Fork Wagon Road is a late nineteenth-early twentieth century wagon road that serviced the ranches and rural population of northern Sweetwater and eastern Sublette Counties. The wagon road provided access from the Union Pacific railhead and trade center at Rock Springs, Wyoming and was used to haul freight, mail and passengers to destinations like Farson and the historic town of New Fork (Faren Faler, 1976). The New Fork Wagon Road linked a series of sparse settlements that favored the eastern side of the upper Green River valley. It had a sister, The Opal Wagon Road (Rosenberg, 1990, p 50-55), which left the tracks of the Oregon Short Line at Opal, Wy. and coursed northward along the western bank of the Green River to supply the settlements of the western valley. The New Fork Wagon Road owed its early existence to two immigrant Danes, John Vible and Louis Broderson, who singlehandedly established a town and helped settle a frontier.
The upper Green River Valley saw its first settler, John, "Sheep" Smith in 1860; by the late 1870's several families had established themselves along the main tributaries of the Green River flowing eastward from the Wyoming Range. With names like McNinch, Twitchel, Jones and Mickleson; Miller, Budd, McKay, Swain and Abner Luman, these cattlemen and ranchers established ambitious homesteads and extensive stock raising operations on LaBarge Creek, North and South Piney Creeks and other well watered natural grassy bottom land in the valley. Virtually all manufactured goods, mail, staples used by, and food and families from Europe needed by these settlers was freighted in, in exchange for the products of their labor: cattle, sheep, timber, homespun, hide and fur. Wagon Roads were the lifeline enabling a precarious existence in the frontier of Wyoming Territory.
Two enterprising Danes from politically troubled Schleswig-Holstein, John Vible and Louis Broderson, came to the upper Green in 1887 and staked out a homestead on the New Fork of the Green River in 1888. Their partnership consisted of the Vible Store, constructed in 1888 and an 1889 homestead. Both structures are still standing and in excellent condition. John Vible ran the store; Louis Broderson was in charge of their cattle operation (Broderson, 1976). They chose their settlement carefully, strategically stationing themselves near the Lander Trail, an Oregon Trail variant that enjoyed post-emigration wagon traffic and well watered, level ground in a "relatively" snow-resistant portion of the valley. The store became a success, albeit minor at first, initially relying on trade more with the Shoshone and other American Indians who placed their winter tipis on the banks of the New Fork and Green Rivers nearby. (V. Faler Interview; Orcutt, nd). Shoshone and Bannock Indians would trade furs and tanned hides at the store, and John Vible said they, unlike some "white" customers, didn't welch on a debt (Broderson, 1976 p 40-44). The store also benefitted from the still continuing emigrant and other wagon traffic coursing east/west along the "Lander Trail", located only five miles south of the Vible Store.
Wyoming achieved statehood in 1890, and the Vible Store became a regional Post Office in 1891. During the 1890's, New Fork, as the area was called, became a hub of regional commerce, rivaling Dan Budd's Big Piney store. The early 1890's were years of the American Indian Ghost Dance Revitalist Movement, and disenfranchised and newly land-impoverished local Indians were rumored to be planning to make a "statement" at New Fork (op. cit, p 49). While nothing became of the rumored attack, the year 1890 is commemorated at the Tolar Rock Art Site along the Union Pacific main line in impressive, some say weeping detail (Tanner and Vlcek, 1995). In 1892, the Indians captured a young freighter named Vint Faler and his brother Arthur in the Hoback country as they tried to recover horses stolen by the Indians, but that is another story... (V. Faler, nd). My point here is to emphasize the economic importance of trade among Native Americans and the newly arrived Europeans, whose very survival sometimes depended upon Indian help and trade.
The Vible Store was linked to the Union Pacific Railroad supply centers at Rock Springs and Green River City by the New Fork Wagon Road. While all manufactured goods were shipped to the upper Green along such freight roads, the importance of the transport and sale of "store-bought food" (Broderson, 1976, p.51) to secure the survival of local inhabitants should not be diminished. Wild game occasionally provided meat for the table, but in the "agriculturally challenged" lands of the New Fork at 7200 ft. above sea level, human life was reduced to the bare essentials: eating, shelter and not freezing to death in the winter. That the Vible Store sold much food is documented in John Vible's store journal (Museum of the Mountain Man, 1998). One 1890 ledger entry is demonstrative: 16 lb. Sugar, $2.00; 2 lb. powder, $1.20; 6 lb. Lard, $.75; a bottle of Vinegar @ $.20; corn meal, Dry Apples, Coffee (1 lb @ $.35), Sardines, oatmeal, beans (10 lb. @ $.80), mustard sold for a buck a lb. in 1890; salt was cheap at $.15 for 5 lb., rice, tomatoes, onions, candy ($.20/lb.) and cinnamon ($.40/lb) were purchased. (By the way, an 1890 ledger entry indicates that 10 boxes of cigarettes sold for $22.50, or $2.25 a box, about the same price as today).
The Vible Store, and the community of New Fork flourished in the early 1900's, though Louis Broderson sold out to John Vible ca. 1910. Tragically however, a 1915 scarlet fever and diphtheria epidemic hit New Fork, and most of the remaining Vible/Broderson families died. Only John Vible's wife and youngest son survived. The store was closed and the Post Office moved to Boulder, Wy. to the north. The Vible Store would reopen later, under the management of John Terkleson and later still, McFadden of Rock Springs, due to New Fork's strategic location. A new automobile, the Overland, was sold from the New Fork Store, and enjoyed extended use when a passable gravel road was constructed from Farson in the 1930's (Broderson, 1976; Rosenberg, 1986; Museum of the Mountain Man, 1998; Sommers, nd).
The Vible Store was linked to the greater country by three main Freight roads: the one to the railhead at Rock Springs where the Wyoming Mercantile Co. might enjoy business, but occasionally, the old Lander Road (still known by this name in 1999) to Lander/Ft. Washakie and the Opal Wagon Road. Area freighters known to make the trip included Vible and Broderson, but also commercial freighters including Ed Steele, Vint and Art Faler, Nels Jorgenson, and later Farson's Dick Fiscus (Broderson, 1971; Smith, per. comm.). In the early Twentieth Century, many Sublette County ranchers would make an annual supply run to Rock Springs to prepare for the upcoming winter, using the New Fork Road. Mail was predominantly carried by the Opal Wagon Road in the nineteenth century, but as settlements grew along the New Fork Wagon Road (e.g. Leckie, 1897, The Wells, 1898, Farson 1904-05), so did Post Offices. Development frequently followed mail routes.
The Rock Springs/New Fork Wagon Road coursed over some 80 miles of empty, desolate Wyoming sagebrush uplands. Water was an essential, though only occasional acquaintance, so any water source along the route was life saving, if not for people, surely for the stock pulling the freight load. Stops along the Wagon Road were established where water was available (otherwise, why stop?) and these became critical. Once leaving Rock Springs, the first "major" stop was Fourteen Mile Hill (at the base of White Mountain), which has a reliable spring (with a 6,000 year antiquity). After 1910, the wagon road veered to Reliance, a coal mine developed at this time. Next, The Wells provided essential water in the dry Rock Springs uplift. A reliable well was constructed here in 1901-04 by Paul Zembo (Sommers, 1998a) and the Wells became regionally important. Here, the wagon road split, with one variant following Washington Draw; another to John Hay's ranch (Broderson, 1976 p. 92-3).
The wagon road worked its way northward towards what became Eden and Farson and followed the Big Sandy River past the old Francis Place - a stage stop near the Sublette Cutoff (Smith per. comm.). Here, buildings provided shelter for freighters. Some fifteen miles northward, a major wagon road junction was attained at Ten Trees on the Big Sandy River. This important expansion-era historical site has been largely overlooked by modern researchers. Ten Trees was a campsite and trail crossroads with northerly traces leading to New Fork (and later, Pinedale) and easterly routes going to the communities of Big Sandy and Leckie (Bardin, per. com.). At Ten Trees, water and fuel were abundant; that would not be the case to the north.
Once the Big Sandy was abandoned, water was scarce. Overnight stops at places like Long Draw, The Mud Holes and Sand Springs (where the New Fork Wagon Road intersects the Emigration-Era Lander Trail) offer historic period archaeological potential yet realized. (Sand Springs was a critical water source during the 1850's and 1860's, as it is the only permanent water on the emigrant trail in the 20+ mile stretch between Muddy Creek and the New Fork River proper). North of Sand Springs, the newly discovered campsites of Two Elk Spring (48SU1407) and Grouse Spring (48SU1406) record freighter traffic (Vlcek, 1995). From these watering holes, the New Fork settlement proper could be reached in a few hours time.
Archaeological investigations at Two Elk Spring and Grouse Spring are to date limited to surficial investigations. Indeed, the distribution of late-nineteenth century/early twentieth century artifacts associated with a long-abandoned two-track led the author to first identify, then to confirm the location of the wagon road trace. Of particular note were several older cartridges of unusual caliber that caught my attention:
Recovered were both black powder and smokeless varieties. Two main manufacturers are represented, Winchester Repeating Arms Co. and the Union Metallic Cartridge Co. (before the merger with Remington in 1902). (The WRA Co. stands for Winchester Repeating Arms Company; UMC or UMC Co for the Union Metallic Company).
Cartridges found associated with the Grouse Springs site (SU1406) include:
A fairly rare W.R.A. Co. W.C.F. .45-75 This Winchester cartridge was used in rifles manufactured between 1876-1897, and was only chambered for the Winchester Model 1876. The cartridge was made obsolete when the rifle was replaced in 1886 by the Model of the same name (Barnes, et. al. 1966, p.18-20). In The Danes of New Fork (1971, p 51), it is reported that both John Vible and Louis Broderson both owned Winchester Model 1886's chambered for the .45-70 cartridge.
Two W.R.A. Co. .30 U.S.C. cartridges: These are Winchester cartridges for rifles chambered for .30-40 Krags and were first issued in 1892. The .30-40 Krag was a popular load in the West around the turn of the century and continues in popularity into modern times. (Teddy Roosevelt's soldiers charging up San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War carried .30-40 Krags).
A U.M.C. S H .38-55 (cartridge introduced in 1886 by Winchester); this Union Metallic Company cartridge was chambered in rifles such as the Winchester model 1894. The S H refers to "Solid Head", a primer type that was am improvement over earlier, thinner brass primers (Irv Parke, per comm).
A complete, un-fired round, with cartridge lacking any head stamp, probably an early .38 caliber pistol cartridge. The .38 WCF first came out in 1879, with a 170 grain bullet; the .38 S&W in 1878 with a 145 grain bullet. Numerous other .38 caliber cartridges were introduced between the 1870's into the 1890's. Sometimes, cartridges lacking head stamping were European brass imported to the United States, then loaded or sold here, but not by major ammunition manufacturers (Parke, Per comm). This .38 may be of European origin.
Cartridges found at the Two-Elk site (SU1407) include:
A W.R.A. Co. W.C.F. .45-90 (Winchester Repeating Arms. Company) This Winchester cartridge was first introduced in 1876 (for the Model 1876?) and was popularized in 1886 with the introduction of the Winchester Model 86. The .45-90 could carry a 300 grain bullet. Recent information (Faler, var.) Indicates that Vint Faler was given a .45-90 by Mountain Man Jim Baker by Baggs, Wy.
A W.R.A. Co. W.C.F. .25-35 Guns of this caliber were manufactured between 1895-1945, when Winchester discontinued the manufacture of both the rifle and the cartridge. No rifles have been made chambered for this cartridge since World War II (Berge, 1980, p.230).
A W.R.A. Co. .30 U.S.C. This is another .30-40 Krag ca. 1892, noteworthy because the primer is intact but the bullet is missing. A crack along the long neck of the cartridge may suggest that the bullet was manually removed and the powder used as an igniter, perhaps in aiding to start a fire.
A UMC .44 X.L. (Union Metallic Company, prior to merger with Remington, 1867-1902). This is a post-Civil War cartridge with E L meaning Extra Long, which could be chambered in either a pistol or a rifle. The .44 cartridge recovered is reported to have carried a paper bullet (Parke, per. comm.).
The cartridges located along the Wagon Road span the half century of the post Civil War Nineteenth century and the early decades of the Twentieth Century. It is recognized that older guns and cartridges could be (and are) used well into more modern times, but the period of use most suggested by the cartridges spans some 50 years between the 1870s and the 1920s (Vlcek, 1995 p 7-8). This is consistent with the life of the New Fork Wagon Road, which was replaced by the Pinedale to Rock Springs Road improved and graveled about 1935 (Smith, 1998). Also of note is than no Remington-U.M.C. cartridges (indicating manufacture subsequent to the 1902 merger) were recovered. The author suggests that the cartridges recovered from the Wagon Road "fit" nicely with the period of actual use of the wagon road. The advent of the automobile made rough wagon roads unsuitable; the advent of modern smokeless powders and cartridges (such as the .270, .30-06, .300 Magnum, .25-06 and others) likewise made the old ammunition obsolete.
In addition to cartridges, purple bottle glass sherds, an iron wagon yoke fragment, nondescript rusted metal, some crockery sherds perhaps from a cider or other jug and other metal debris was noted, but no temporally diagnostic artifacts were recorded.
Gardner and Johnson (1991, p. 1, 14) conducted historic period investigations for the Wyoming Highway Department in the area in 1991 and their report mentions the wagon road. However their work was centered on the Pinedale/Rock Springs Road (48SU1281), a paved road dating to the post WW II era that served motorized vehicles and which ultimately became U.S. Highway 189/191. The New Fork Wagon Road is a much different historic route, established for and taking into consideration the use and needs of horse-drawn wagons, not motorized vehicles.
Vint Faler ranched on Pole Creek above the Vible Store and hauled supplies between Rock Springs and the Pinedale area beginning in the 1890's (V. Faler, 1956; Ralph Faler, per comm). Vint was an important freighter who lived a long time in the area and his family retains much documentation concerning his freighter days. Historic stops and localities frequented by Vint include Fourteenmile Ranch, The Wells (also called 27 mile), Farson, Ten Trees, Long Draw, the Mud Holes, Sand Springs (also an emigrant camp on the Lander Trail), the Joe Glaze Ranch, and (later), Boulder and Pinedale (Worl, 1976; Faler, various).
Freighters like Vint Faler would hitch up as many as 18 horses to haul five wagons along the route, as is depicted in early photographs. Multiple teams of horses were needed to haul the several freight wagons and its "Cooster". The requirements of multiple team freighting required specialized tack and rigging-the Jerk line attached to the left, or "Jockey" horse in front who was in turn connected to his teammate via a Jockey Bar. The Jerk Line controlled the entire string via a hard pull, turning the string left, or a "Jerk", which threw the jockey horse right, initiating a right turn. The wheel team were the strongest horses; next were the pointers. These two teams were harnessed to the lead (heaviest) wagon's tongue. The lazy board, specialized trail wagon tongues, the 'bitch and finger' links, and other equipment were all needed to successfully engage in horse-drawn freighting. (F. Faler, 1976). Freighters needed to know how to handle multiple teams and complex rigging. And deal with everything, sometimes in the middle of a winter storm, or when a wagon tipped over.
The trip from Rock Springs to Pinedale, presumably laden with sometimes 20,000 lbs of supplies (Worl, 1976) and an occasional passenger, could take nine days. The return trip, with a reduced load, could be made in as little as five days (Phil Marincic, per comm). Overnight campsites such as The Wells were run by Paul Zembo and later, Andrew Smail (Sommers, 1976), who in 1904 charged freight wagon trains $.10 a head for watering horses. The location, accessibility and control of water along the wagon road played a critical role in the development of such freight roads in arid southwestern Wyoming.
The two spring sites recorded as 48SU1406 and SU1407 must have functioned as water sources for the horses used to haul wagons along the route. Traveling the three to four miles south from the trade center at the town of New Fork would provide sufficient time for a thirsty wagon driver to finish off a bottle of liquid refreshment, perhaps purchased at Frank Seapolt's Saloon, constructed at New Fork in 1908 (Rosenberg, 1990, p 97). Watering the horses at Grouse Springs or Two Elk Springs might also result in the discard of an empty bottle, perhaps superseded by a shot at this now convenient target. Alternately, a freight wagon train traveling north from Sand Springs might happen upon an antelope (or other game) watering at these springs and provide a welcome protein source with a major rest stop an hour or so ahead. Both (admittedly invented) scenarios may help explain the location and distribution of historic period artifacts located along 48SU1408 at SU1406 and 1407 (Vlcek, 1995). Such sites as these are largely unrecognized (and unrecorded) yet important elements of the historic period archaeological record needing greater attention in the future.
NATIONAL REGISTER EVALUATION: The Rock Springs to New Fork Wagon Road is historically significant for a number of reasons, referencing a number of important historic themes including Transportation, Colonization, Homesteading and early Commerce and Communication.
The establishment of ranches and small towns throughout rural Wyoming meant long distances had to be traveled to get supplies, mail and people to remote locales. Horse-drawn wagons provided the only practical means of transport linking most of Wyoming with railheads, and by extension, the industrial centers of the East. This vital link was essential if rural Wyoming was to flourish, both by receiving machinery, manufactured goods and industrial products, as well as shipping out raw materials (wool and timber, for example), mail communications and news. An entire bridge horse freighted by Dick Fiscus in 1911 that spanned the Green River at the Sommers Ranch was the impetus for a road construction project that helped further open up the country (Sommers, 1998). Gardner and Johnson (1991, P. 10) discuss the rivalry between the towns of New Fork and (later to become) Pinedale to obtain the trade of the ranches of the Upper Green. Good roads were essential if rural Wyoming was to prosper; indeed, in this harsh land, sometimes to survive.
The Rock Springs to New Fork Wagon Road was a vital link in this exchange system. The fact that the Valhalla Dance Hall at New Fork (constructed in 1909 and still standing) became a popular social center (Rosenberg, 1986, Item 8, page 1) underscores how commercial and social interests intermingle and become mutually supportive. One would trade at the New Fork Store, exchange news and gossip, learn of a dance on Saturday night, attend, and interact with diverse of the residents of the upper Green. The road was the link that made the other aspects of rural Wyoming life bearable or even possible. As such it played a critical role in southwestern Wyoming's early history and is significant in this regard. The New Fork Wagon Road (like its western counterpart, the Opal Wagon Road) is a regionally significant expansion-era wagon and freight road listed as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places by BLM and SHPO (Vlcek, 1995). It also serves as a romantic symbol of a horse-drawn Wyoming that is still kept alive on many working ranches in the area, but is increasingly threatened by industrial development.
Wagon Roads such as these are easy targets for the bulldozer as energy-extraction requires more and more of rural Wyoming's open land to access well pads and for pipeline routes. The role of preserving and interpreting this element of our past falls naturally to area museums and county historical societies, whose very nature and clientele best remember and appreciate local history. In Sublette County, Pinedale's Museum of the Mountain Man displays an amazing array of artifacts from the New Fork townsite, the Vible Store, and the Vible/Broderson families. This is an example of a local museum doing what it does best, preserving, interpreting and demonstrating pride in its past. Do locals and visitors care? Ask 85 year old Melva Smith, whose father hauled freight on the route as she recalls memories brought to life by faded photographs; ask Ralph Faler, Sr. of Pinedale, whose great uncle Vint Faler is still remembered as a key freighter; ask Merly Morris, ranch hand and wagon boss who mastered the skills of directing and controlling teams of 10 to 20 horses pulling multiple freight wagons loaded with goods, and you will receive a resounding, YES! This is the romance of the West that easterners love. It behooves us historians, archaeologists, museum staff and land managers working in the region to ensure that the romance presented is historically accurate, recorded, interpreted and preserved to be truly appreciated.
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