Inside a rocking, bucking covered wagon, children giggle as they sit teetering on crates and barrels while experiencing a simulated pioneer crossing of the North Platte River near Casper, Wyo. (pop. 49,644).
“That was awesome!” an 8-year-old girl exclaims minutes later as the replica wagon churns to a stop. “Can we do it again?” asks another child.
The bumpy wagon crossing is no theme park ride, however, for a class of third-graders from Casper’s Paradise Valley Elementary School. The students are visiting the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center and learning about the courage, challenges and heartaches of early pioneers who crossed the vast Great Plains and formidable Rocky Mountains in search of gold, farmland and religious freedom.
From the 1840s until completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, an estimated 400,000 people risked death and disease to make the arduous summer-long journey. As a result of the mass migration, 12 states west of the Mississippi River joined the Union from 1840 to 1890, including Wyoming.
The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center opened in 2002 in Casper on land considered the crossroads of the early West because the three most significant migratory trailsthe Oregon, California and Mormonran parallel through the area and spawned the nearby Montana-bound Bozeman Trail before diverging in different directions.
For the first 500 miles of their trek, pioneers generally followed the North Platte River through present-day Nebraska and Wyoming. But at the crossroads, where Casper later was established in 1889, they were forced to leave the security of the riverbank, journeying to South Pass on the Continental Divide before heading northwest toward present-day Oregon, west to Sacramento and California’s goldfields, or southwest to the Great Salt Lake Valley.
“If they stayed with the river, they would end up turning south,” explains Reid Miller, 58, an interpretive specialist at the center. “So this point was the last place where they could safely cross to the north side of the river, then strike out into the Rocky Mountains. It was the point where wagons were repaired, supplies assessed and trading posts sprang up.”
Today, much of the trails’ physical evidence is eroded, but public lands in Wyoming are among the few places where the National Historic Trails can be experienced in a setting relatively unchanged since the 1800s. Fifty miles southwest of the center, deep wagon ruts scar the wide-open landscape, and Independence Rock bears the names of pioneers whose carvings let family and friends know they had made it that far.
The trails center, which lies about a half-mile north of the North Platte River, serves as an educational testament to the historic migration, thanks to a partnership among the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the city of Casper and the National Historic Trails Center Foundation. Interpreters tell the dramatic stories of the westward movement using the words that pioneers scribbled in journals, diaries and letters, complemented by audiovisual displays, life-size dioramas and interactive exhibits, such as the simulated river crossing.
“Kids think it’s real. They think they’re going to get wet,” says volunteer Ardene Mullison, 78, who operates the wagon ride.
Paradise Valley teacher Christine Horkan brings her third-graders each year to climb aboard a Wells Fargo stagecoach, heft a miner’s pack and attempt to pull a 100-pound handcart. “In the classroom, history can seem so abstract. But at the trails center, the students really visualize the pioneer experience,” Horkan says.
Beyond students, families and history buffs, the center frequently is visited by people such as Jan Schuman, whose great-great-uncle traveled the Oregon Trail in the mid-1850s, eventually settling in northern California. “It’s special to know that my family is part of the trail’s history,” says Schuman, 66, of Colorado Springs, Colo.
Miller says direct descendants of pioneers, adventurers and gold seekers are frequent guests. “They remind us that this is a dynamic story about real people who experienced both triumph and tragedy,” he says. “This is a time in history that forever changed the future for these families, as well as the face of our nation.”