Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Traveling the Oregon Trail Backwards, Part 2

Spending the night in historical buildings is not without its adventures, as I learned when I retraced the Oregon Trail backwards in an epic road trip. I covered the part of the trip from Washington state to Union, Oregon in last month’s post. This month we’ll continue into Wyoming. My traveling companions were a female relative, her two sons and my younger daughter. 

This post is brought to you by Janalyn Voigt.

We needed to reach Saratoga, Wyoming, before bed time to check into the Hotel Wolf. The hotel opened on New Years Eve, 1893 with a masquerade gala. One hundred and twenty years later, this bonafide Wild West hotel still welcomes guests.

Baker City, Oregon

We stopped for breakfast in Baker City Oregon, a city platted in 1865. We found a corner coffee shop for a quick breakfast just down the street from the Grand Geiser Hotel, a stunning piece of historical architecture that stands as a monument to the opulence of the gold mining era in America. We had a lot on the day's agenda but couldn’t resist a glance inside. Rich paneling gleamed in the lobby, and the stained-glass skylight drew the eye upward.
Geiser Grand Hotel, Baker City, Oregon, ca. 1889
Image by Ambercarben (Own work); CC BY-SA 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center

After giving the Geiser Grand its due, we moved on to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon, where displays like the one pictured below bring the Oregon Trail to life. 
Oregon Trail Interpretive Center Display, Baker City, Oregon.
Image by Bureau of Land Management CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons 
At the Oregon Trail Interpretive Cener I walked on the Oregon Trail for the first time, putting my feet in ruts made long ago. After sitting in the car for so long, the children had to be reined in, but they too expressed their awe at walking in the footsteps of history. As I navigated sagebrush, endured searing heat, and watched for rattlesnakes, the hardships endured by the brave souls who journeyed westward in a bygone era came suddenly to life. A lighter trail ran alongside the deeper ruts, puzzling me until I realized that those traveling with the wagon trains would not want to stumble along in the ruts breathing dust but would have traveled at a safe distance alongside. The realization brought a lump to my throat. How many mothers watched their young ones from this trail, ready to call them back if they ventured close to danger? More than one toddler died on the Oregon Trail when crushed beneath wagon wheels or trampled by oxen. Riding wasn’t much safer. A child could fall from a wagon and be crushed instantly.

Oregon Trail Ruts

Oregon Trail ruts in Baker County, Oregon. Image by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives [Attribution] via Wikimedia Commons

Three Island Crossing

We’d spent more time than planned at the interpretive center, so we satisfied ourselves with what we could see from the car window of Three Island Crossing, one of the most notorious river fords on the Oregon Trail. Despite the name, only two of the three islands at this location were used to cross the Snake River. Gazing at the sparkling blue waters flowing in the river channels, I could only admire the fortitude of anyone who would attempt to cross them. 

Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding were the first European-American women to cross the Rocky Mountains alongside their husbands, missionaries Marcus Whitmam and Henry Spalding. In a letter dated August 13th 1836, Narcissa described her experience at Three Island Crossing: "We have come fifteen miles and have had the worst route in all the journey for the cart. We might have had a better one but for being misled by some of the company who started out before the leaders. It was two o'clock before we came into camp. 

They were preparing to cross Snake River. The river is divided by two islands into three branches, and is fordable. The packs are placed upon the tops of the highest horses and in this way we crossed without wetting. Two of the tallest horses were selected to carry Mrs. Spalding and myself over. Mr. McLeod gave me his and rode mine. The last branch we rode as much as half a mile in crossing and against the current too, which made it hard for the horses, the water being up to their sides. Husband had considerable difficulty in 1852 crossing the cart. Both cart and mules were turned upside down in the river and entangled in the harness. The mules would have been drowned but for a desperate struggle to get them ashore. Then after putting two of the strongest horses before the cart, and two men swimming behind to steady it, they succeeded in getting it across. 

I once thought that crossing streams would be the most dreaded part of the journey. I can now cross the most difficult stream without the least fear. There is one manner of crossing which husband has tried but I have not, neither do I wish to. Take an elk skin and stretch it over you, spreading yourself out as much as possible, then let the Indian women carefully put you on the water and with a cord in the mouth they will swim and draw you over." 
Three Island Crossing 
Image by BLMIdaho CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons 
Hotel Wolf, Saratoga 

Hotel Wolf, Saratoga

Hotel Wolf, Saratoga Wyoming - Image used by kind permission of the Hotel Wolf.
We reached the town of Saratoga late that night and did our best to be quiet on the way to our room in the Hotel Wolf. White curtains billowed at a window left open in the hallway, and the night wind tasted of sagebrush. As I crossed the threshold into the suite we'd reserved, I had the strangest sensation of stepping into the past. No television, mini-frig, or other modern amenities greeted us. The bathroom was small with vintage fixtures, while the beds dwarfed us. I had to step onto a footstool to climb into the magnificent carved wooden bed. It felt like returning to the simplicity of childhood. After the long drive, I fell into a profound sleep. Did I dream of oxen stumping along a trail, of a mother calling her child away from harm, of wagons overturning in a river channel? I will never know. 

Next month, the journey continues with a different kind of hotel adventure and my impressions of Fort Laramie. Check back on the 8th of December for the next installment.

About the Author

My father instilled a love of literature in me at an early age by reading chapters from "The Wizard of Oz," "Robinson Crusoe" and other classics. When I grew older, and he stopped reading bedtime stories, I put myself to sleep with tales I "wrote" in my head. My sixth-grade teacher noticed my storytelling ability and influenced me to become a writer.

I'm what is known as a multi-genre author, but I like to think of myself as a storyteller. The same elements appear in all my novels in proportions dictated by their genre: romance, mystery, adventure, history, and whimsy.

Epic Fantasy: DawnSinger and Wayfarer are the first two novels in the epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven. The final books in the series, Sojourner and DawnKing, are under contract with my publisher.

Historical Fiction: Hills of Nevermore, first installment in Montana Gold, set during Montana's gold rush in the days of vigilante justice, will release in 2017.

Romantic Suspense/Mystery: Deceptive Tide (Islands of Intrigue-San Juans) will release in November 2016. This title is romantic suspense, but I am also moving into writing mystery novels written in the classic style of Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt.

Sign up at http://janalynvoigt.com to be notified when these titles release and for book extras and reader bonuses.


  1. Another fascinating post with great pictures. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I'm so glad you're enjoying my posts. I appreciate your commenting to let me know.

  3. Thanks for sharing the pictures with your post. They added a lot and I love learning about cover wagon trails and all families endured.

    1. You're welcome, Marilyn. I'm with you. I love learning about such fascinating topics.