"On hallowed ground made sacred by the sacrifices of those who have gone before us," President Gordon B. Hinckley May 3 dedicated a new visitors center to the memory of the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers of 1856.

The outdoor dedicatory service of the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center was held at the Sun Ranch in central Wyoming, about 21/2 miles from Martin's Cove in the Sweetwater Mountains. It was here that the ill-fated Martin company sought refuge from early winter storms 141 years ago. More than 200 perished that year in the two handcart companies, along with those of the Hunt and Hodgett wagon trains, which on the high plains of Wyoming were mixed in with the Martin handcart pioneers.An estimated 10,000 persons attended the 11 a.m. dedicatory service, held against a backdrop of Devil's Gate, one of the prominent landmarks on the Mormon/Oregon/California trails.

President Hinckley was accompanied to Wyoming by his wife, Marjorie, who also spoke at the dedicatory ceremony.

In his remarks, President Hinckley said, "I hope we will never forget [the sacrifice of the handcart pioneers]. I hope in this Church we will never lose sight of the tremendous legacy which we have of faith and vision, and strength and courage, to make this long journey.

"The story of their suffering and their heroism . . . is an epic in the history of America," declared the prophet. "There is nothing else to compare with it."

President Hinckley said he first visited Mormon pioneer trail sites in 1937, and photographed them "as nearly as I could from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City. Since that time I have never lost my interest in this area.

"The memories of our forebears are deeply and indelibly etched, and this ground must forever hold for us a feeling of great sanctity, a spiritual feeling if you please.

"Legion are the stories of the suffering of those who lived and died on this long journey. They traveled from Liverpool. They traveled from Boston and New York. They went through New Orleans and came up the [Mississippi] river, then up the Missouri, and then they came west. They suffered untold suffering."

President Hinckley said that today "we live in a better time. This is a new season. There is greater understanding and respect. This once small Church has grown into a mighty congregation of nearly 10 million people scattered across the earth. Today there is more of tolerance, forbearance and love, respect and appreciation. We are grateful, solemnly grateful."

As President Hinckley concluded his remarks, he said, "We hope that a spirit of peace and reverence and sacred remembrance will hover over this whole area as a beneficent cloud on a hot summer day, and that those who here perished will not have died in vain."

In his dedicatory prayer, President Hinckley again mentioned the suffering of the handcart pioneers: "We remember all who traveled this way and suffered so much. Their pain was immeasurable. Hundreds died and were buried along this trail of tears. Their rescue was nothing short of heroic.

"Their measure of sacrifice was greater than any of us can understand. Those who walked this way long ago came to know the sacrifices of Thy Son in a unique and wonderful way," declared President Hinckley.

One of the thousands attending the dedicatory ceremony was Elvin Francis Webster, 77, of Cedar City, Utah. His grandfather, Francis Webster, was a handcart pioneer, whom President Hinckley referred to in his talk. "He was a well-to-do man," said the prophet, "but he discovered that if he would give what he had to buy a wagon and teams and so on, and use a handcart instead, it would make it possible for 11 other families to come West."

President Hinckley quoted Webster as saying, " `We learned to know God on that trail. We became acquainted with Him.' "

In her remarks, Sister Hinckley said coming to Martin's Cove "has been a moving experience for me. I think I will be a better person, at least I will try to be a better person, because of the experience that we have had since we came to this wonderful place.

"It doesn't matter whether your ancestors came across the plains or whether they came into the Church yesterday, this heritage belongs to all of us. How grateful we are for it."

Before the dedicatory ceremony, President and Sister Hinckley visited the cove, riding in small six-wheel all-terrain vehicles, along a new path largely constructed in 6,000 hours of volunteer labor by members of the Riverton, Casper and Rock Springs stakes. Five years ago, President Hinckley dedicated a monument at the cove.

In the chilly morning wind May 3, he and Sister Hinckley stopped at the monument. He was reflective, and when asked how he felt about returning to Martin's Cove, he replied, "subdued."

President and Sister Hinckley then went to the visitors center, which is the remodeled Sun Ranch headquarters. There, President Hinckley spoke with members of the Sun family. Under an agreement with the family, the Church has purchased about a third of the 12,000-acre deeded land. This includes access to Martin's Cove, which is on Bureau of Land Management land, and most of the Sweetwater Valley owned by the Sun family. Leases on the remaining land will be acquired at a later date, pursuant to the agreement. The total ranch includes more than 80,000 acres of public land.

"Please know of our very, very deep appreciation to the Sun family," President Hinckley told members of the family, which have owned the ranch for four generations. Tom De Beau Soliel (Sun) was the original owner. He arrived in the Sweetwater Valley in 1860, only four years after the handcart pioneers passed through the area.

"We make a pledge to you," President Hinckley told family members, "that we will take care of [the property]. This historic building will become the visitors center which will be visited by many thousands of people."

President Hinckley then presented copies of the Sun family history to family members. Receiving copies were John Hugh Sun and Adelaide Reinholtz, grandchildren of the original owner; and to Dennis Sun, a great-grandson who represented his deceased father, George. A fourth grandchild of the original owner, Bernard, was not present at the dedicatory service but received a copy of the family history the next day.

After the presentation, President and Sister Hinckley walked through the visitors center. Included in one room is a listing of the more than 1,000 who made the trek across the plains with the Willie and Martin handcart companies and the Hunt and Hodgett wagon trains. The names of those who died along the way are highlighted. Stopping to look over the list, they found Sister Hinckley's ancestors, the Gobles, who were members of the Hunt wagon company.

Following the dedicatory service, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held by the Bureau of Land Management near the beginning of Martin's Cove, and the trail to the 6,100-foot elevation cove was officially opened. Thousands made the trek up the trail into the cove.

President Hinckley, in his dedicatory speech of the visitors center, referred to visitors hiking to the cove:

"I make a plea," he said. "Go in a spirit of reverence and respect, and know that you are walking on hallowed ground."