Wyoming’s gold rush started 150 years ago after soldiers at Fort Bridger discovered gold at the foot of the Wind River Mountains. They filed a claim, the Cariso Lode, in the spring of 1867.
When they returned a year later, they weren’t alone.
It seems the soldiers had loose lips, South Pass City State Historic Site Superintendent Joe Ellis said.
“So it was a classic gold rush,” he said. “They turned around and there was nobody, and then, all of the sudden, there were thousands of people here.”
Three mining towns bloomed that year, among them Atlantic City and the largest, South Pass City – where the soldiers discovered the gold and 2,000 people settled by the end of 1868.
Both towns will celebrate their 150th anniversaries this week.
Atlantic City’s 150th celebration today and Friday and South Pass City State Historic Site’s annual Gold Rush Days on Saturday and Sunday will feature tours, historical demonstrations, gold panning, music and activities for all ages.
More than a century of booms and busts left South Pass City a ghost town, and Atlantic City’s year-round population is about 30. But visitors can experience Wyoming’s gold rush heritage and its significance for the state’s mineral industry economy today.
The Cariso Lode was Wyoming’s first mining claim, and the name of the mine later was changed to Carissa. Many miners who left South Pass City later went to work in coal mines at Rock Springs, Evanston and Sheridan, Ellis said.
“A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of our industrial history in Wyoming starts here at South Pass City,” Ellis said. “You’d think that it was coal or gas that started it, but it was actually gold mining.”
Atlantic City claims the title of Wyoming’s boom-bust capital, according to the Atlantic City Historical Society. The gold booms that started 150 years ago ended in World War II, when the metal was deemed nonstrategic and the mines were closed. Atlantic City was a ghost town by the 1950s, according to society’s walking tour brochure and map. The 1960s brought an iron ore boom, but U.S. Steel closed the mine in the early 1980s.
The town’s notable early residents include Finn Burnett, who stayed in a boarding house during the first boom and met his wife, Eliza McCarthy, who served meals there. They became former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson’s great-grandparents, according to a blog by Bob Townsend, a board member for the Atlantic City Historical Society.
Atlantic City’s 150th birthday celebration features tours through the town’s historic buildings and sites, the cemetery and local fauna as well as duck races, craft vendors, games, a photo booth and a “barroom decathlon” at Miner’s Grubstake, Restaurant, Bar and General Store, according to a press release from the historical society.
Visitors can visit and watch a presentation about the history of Atlantic City in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. The log church built in 1912 still hosts services on Sundays, Townsend said.
The site is also part of a walking tour featuring 27 historic buildings and sites including schoolhouses, businesses and homes, some dating back to the original gold rush.
“There is a lot to see and the history spans a long time,” Townsend said.
Visitors can view an assayer’s cabin from the first gold rush. The Giessler Store and Post Office built in the early 1890s is now a steakhouse called the Atlantic City Mercantile and on the National Register of Historic Places, he said.
Also on the register is a log bed and breakfast called the Miner’s Delight Inn, which was built in 1904 as the Carpenter Hotel. Clarence and Nellie Carpenter arrived in Atlantic City in 1890 after trying to reach the West Coast through a Red Desert shortcut, according to the historical society. Their young daughter, Ellen, ran the hotel until 1961. The business expanded during a small boom in the 1930s, and her all-you-can-eat meals gained a large following, according to the brochure.
Hyde’s Hall was another mercantile store during the gold rush. The upper level of the stone building, which dates to 1869, was one of the state’s best dance halls, where it’s said Calamity Jane worked as a dance hall girl. The upper level has been destroyed by an earthquake.
“So all that’s left is the one story with no roof,” Townsend said. “But it’s a real eye-catching monument to the old days of the town.”
Visitors will also encounter old schoolhouses, including one that was used up to the mid-century and topped by an old school bell.
Cemetery tours will be led by Barbara Townsend, who spent hundreds of hours researching to find names of 60 people buried in unmarked graves among the 20 headstones.
The town’s two restaurants will be open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. both days, along with lunch wagon trucks offering street tacos, shaved ice and water. People can visit Atlantic City Historical Society’s booth for questions and copies of town’s 150th anniversary book, “Atlantic City, Wyoming, Voices from a Powerful Place.”
It’s an apt title, given the town’s following is much larger than its population, Townsend said. The first 500 copies of the book sold out a month after launching last November, he said. The historical society’s membership is more than twice the town’s year-round population and includes past residents along with others who’ve just stopped through, he said.
“The place is powerful,” Townsend said. “Once you’re here and you get hooked on the place and the people, you just want to keep coming back.”
South Pass City
South Pass’ Gold Rush Days traditions include historic mining demos, Pony Express deliveries, stage coach rides and vintage baseball games. One of the most popular activities there is anvil blasting, with gunpowder blasts that send anvils sparking and flying up to 200 feet in the air.
“It was an equivalent to fireworks is what it was,” Ellis, the state historic site superintendent, said. To mark this year’s anniversary, visitors can watch modern fireworks and a concert with Wyoming native Chancey Williams and his Younger Brothers Band.
Visitors can tour the Carissa Mine and 29 original town buildings. Most of the objects exhibited in the buildings are original to them, he said.
“It definitely is a snapshot of what life was like in the late 19th century,” Ellis said.
Donna Robeson was born in one of the old mining houses and on Saturday will tell stories in her former home about growing up in town among a mining family and grandparents who helped found South Pass City.
The mine that started with the Cariso Lode claim 150 years ago operated through 1956. Owners sold it to the state in 1968, so the South Pass Historic Site is celebrating 50 years, Ellis said.
Special events continue this summer with the opening of an 1869 mine tunnel that was sealed for a century, Ellis said. The hillside tunnel from the first corporate mining in Wyoming opens Sept. 1, along with five miles of interpretive trails featuring exhibits of mining equipment — some 150 years old that people can see working, Ellis said.
The Carissa mill building near the mine shows the tenacity of those who started Wyoming’s mining heritage, Ellis said.
Massive pieces of equipment inside the 22,000-square foot timber structure once crushed ore. The equipment would arrive on the Union Pacific Railroad at Point of Rocks, and horse-drawn teams would haul it 80 miles through the Red Desert to South Pass City, he said.
“So there’s just this incredible tenacity and you see that when you see the scale in these structures and the size of these machines,” Ellis said. “It always strikes me that here are these people that were willing to do an amazing thing in order to make a living out here in the middle of nowhere.”
“There’s an incredible tenacity in the people that lived in both of these communities.”