Facebook Twitter

Pioneering the Bear: Southeastern Idaho teems with early Mormon and emigrant history

SHARE Pioneering the Bear: Southeastern Idaho teems with early Mormon and emigrant history

MONTPELIER, Idaho — For centuries, the region where the Bear River wriggles north from the Uinta Mountains then turns south toward the Great Salt Lake has been a pathway and a crossroads.

Indians, trappers, explorers and emigrant wagon trains bound for Oregon and California passed this way. Today, the borders of Idaho, Wyoming and Utah meet here. Modern U.S. 30 makes a generally southeast to northwest diagonal slice through the landscape, following, with modern engineering variations, the Oregon Trail.

And for those interested in days of yore, this section of U.S. 30 makes a fine, and enlightening, day-trip (or longer).

Here, in the 19th century — as many a roadside historic marker records — Mormon pioneers established a few dozen hamlets. They settled in the Bear Lake Valley (Garden City, Paris, Montpelier, among others), along the Bear River (Cokeville, Georgetown and Soda Springs) and in the adjacent Portneuf Valley (Chesterfield, etc.).

A tall placard beside a park in Georgetown, Idaho, records that the spot was originally known as Twin Creeks. Mormon leader Brigham Young wanted to send families north from Salt Lake City, so "Joseph C. Rich surveyed the site in 1871. In 1872, the new settlement was named Georgetown in honor of George Q. Cannon."

Notes another sign, in Cokeville, Wyo.: "The Mormon Church sent the first permanent settlers to the area in 1874 to found a community. Sylvanus Collett and Robert Gee arrived with their families at the Smith's Fork River, soon to be followed by the John Bourne family."

When Mormon settlers — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — proposed the massive State of Deseret in 1849, much of the area was included, for the proposed state's boundaries reached north to an unsurveyed border with the Territory of Oregon, which then included most of Idaho.

Maps of Deseret, which stretched from the Rocky Mountains in modern-day Colorado to the Sierras in California, show a bump north to the area of the Oregon Trail. The borderline flattened when Congress created Utah Territory in 1850.

Ultimately, territorial and state lines didn't matter much to Brigham Young and his followers. The State of Deseret was an idea. The mountain and valley province they proceeded to settle proved vast, as well, over time.

"Utah Territory, let it be remembered, did not contain all of the Mormon immigrants," historian Gustive O. Larson wrote in his 1947 book "Prelude to the Kingdom." "More than half of Idaho's population in 1890 were Latter-day Saints."

In fact, several towns have their own Daughters of Utah Pioneers relic hall, as is the case in Utah itself, often housed in an antique church building, such as a bishop's tithing office.

Montpelier, at the top of Bear Lake, settled in 1864 by Mormon pioneers led by Charles C. Rich, once had just such a hall. Today the DUP's collection is arrayed on the lower level of the Idaho community's National Oregon/California Trail Center.

In one corner a pioneer-style bed is covered with a pioneer-era quilt, a rocking chair nearby. Framed photographs of patriarchs like Brigham Young look on. The collection includes housewares, clothing, tools, books and keepsakes. On the same level of the museum are displays about the area's history, including its ties to the Oregon Trail (of course) and the railroads that succeeded the route.

Artwork notably includes an encyclopedic series of paintings about places along the Oregon Trail by Gary Stone, as well as a Western painting by renowned LDS artist Minerva Teichert, an area native. There are also photo and quilt displays. A docent-led "trek" through the emigrant experience and artifacts is one of the trail center's special attractions.

Markers and exhibits are sprinkled all along U.S. 30. They remember the arduous wagon train climb, and descent, over Big Hill, southeast of Montpelier, the settlement of various town sites, and the stories of emigrants and explorers, with quotes from their diaries and journals.

Migrating Western settlers, the modern placards note, were fascinated by scores of springs in the vicinity of today's Soda Springs. The natural fountains were big and little, rotten-egg smelly or enticingly bubbly, and thus called "beer springs" and "soda springs."

"Gladly would I have spent some time in this most interesting valley, but my companions, less enthusiastic than I, insisted on pushing on," Oregon-bound emigrant F.A. Wislizenus wrote in July 1839.

Government pathfinder John C. Fremont was another enthusiast of this stretch along the Bear River, where he camped near surging Steamboat Springs, now drowned by a reservoir. He found the area "altogether a place of very great interest, and a traveler for the first time in a volcanic region remains in a constant excitement, and at every step is something remarkable and new."

Soda Springs is today a highway, railroad, ranching and mining center, and in its very midst is another wonder: Captive Geyser, a nature-fed but man-made phenomenon that spouts, due to a timer, on the hour, every hour of every day.

It was created three-quarters of a century ago, when Soda Springs entrepreneurs proposed a drilling project in search of a hot-water source for a swimming pool and resort. Instead, 315 feet down on Nov. 28, 1937, they tapped mineral water unsuitable for their purposes. When the drill-bit was removed, "the ground shook as if it were about to split open and a roaring geyser of more than 70 feet streamed upward from the valve," a display's text reports.

Captive Geyser, surrounded by a rust-colored, mineral-built dome and powered by carbon dioxide gas in a subterranean chamber, isn't the tourist haven Soda Springs hoped for. The little park and its exhibits, though, make a great rest stop — and the geyser itself is nothing if not dependable — more faithful than Yellowstone's Old Faithful itself.

Other springs dot the area, some offering a taste of their contents, and nearby roadside exhibits outline both human and geologic history.

For instance, west of Soda Springs, at Soda Point, aka volcanic Sheep Rock, the Bear River makes a graceful turn south toward Utah, and the viewpoint right above the stream is quite breathtaking.

Here the Oregon Trail bent northwest, toward the valley of the Portneuf River. And 16 miles north of U.S. 30 is another Mormon landmark, the frozen-in-time ghost town of Chesterfield, Idaho. Landowners and the Chesterfield Foundation have set about preserving what's left, from individual houses and stores to the trim 1892 LDS meetinghouse and a nearby amusement hall.

Dry farms and ranches still thrive all around the town, which sat smack on the old Oregon Trail, little used after the railroad came through. Many structures, such as schools, are gone, but Chesterfield's scattered buildings are open to visitors from Memorial Day through Labor Day each year.

Besides its Mormon roots, Chesterfield is prized by preservationists because it is a time-capsule village, retaining the agrarian appearance of a town from just before and just after the turn of the 20th century. As such, it is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Mormon pioneers settled this area along the Oregon Trail in the 1880s," laying out a traditional Mormon town grid with 10-acre blocks, one marker notes. "The town was named Chesterfield because it reminded some of the countryside around Chesterfield, England, and to honor the settlement's founder, Chester Call."

By 1900, the community had 418 residents, but an agricultural decline in the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s depleted the settlement.

During Chesterfield's heyday, it still served the occasional trekker, notes a DUP marker beside the brick meetinghouse.

"After the arrival of the first settlers of Chesterfield in 1875, covered wagon trains continued to use the old Oregon Trail …, which passed this point." Usually tired and sometimes ill, "travelers arrived here from early spring to late autumn. Local pioneers fed the hungry, nursed the sick, replenished their supplies and exchanged fresh horses for weak or lame ones."

The town and its pleasant rural views may now be slightly off the beaten track, but the location, like many others along or near U.S. 30, at the top of the would-be State of Deseret, are wonderful reminders of times long past.