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The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper celebrates its 20th anniversary

National Historic Trails Interpretive Center Foundation

The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper is wrapping up its 20th anniversary this year. Since August 2002, approximately 600,000 people have visited, learning about the history and impact of the California, Oregon, Pony Express, and Mormon Pioneer trails. There are also exhibits on the Bozeman and Bridger trails. All of these trails shaped Wyoming and the West that were traversed by countless pioneers, miners, prospectors and their families in the 19th century.

“The seed of the trail center I think, was planted in 1982 when the Oregon California Trails Association was established,” said Reid Miller, an interpreter with the Center who’s been with it since its opening. “That organization has, as its charter, the preservation and protection and education of the public about the significance of the Oregon Trail and the California Trail, the two major emigrant trails that came through the trans Mississippi West, and that group of folks included some prominent citizens in Wyoming, and they picked up on the resolution by the Oregon California Trails Association to try to establish a permanent home for the interpretation of the story of the great western migrations."

The center is a public-private partnership initiative between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the nonprofit National Historic Trails Center Foundation, and the City of Casper. Fundraising began in the early 1990s, with the BLM later coming on as a partner to the city and foundation. The city also donated 11 acres of land for the center to be constructed on, which is located near the Ford Wyoming Center and overlooks Casper. The total cost to make the Trails Center a reality was around $10 million.

“We interpret for trails that are today designated as National Historic Trails, and they saw different subcultures of the nation's population travel through the trans Mississippi West here in the mid-1800s,” he said. “We do have permanent exhibits here thanks to our foundation that interpret each of those four trails and really demonstrate how they're connected throughout the mid 19th century.”

Educational programs for all ages are offered throughout the year. These include trail treks during the summer, which explore parts of the preserved trails around Casper more in depth and hands-on history program offerings for youth and school groups.

The BLM currently manages over 400 miles of these trails throughout the state. They also own and maintain the physical building the center is housed in while the nonprofit foundation owns and maintains the exhibits and equipment, such as the projectors for audiovisual components, that are an integral part of the interpretive experience.

“There is a significant expense and effort that goes into maintaining the permanent exhibits here and also producing temporary exhibits,” Miller said. “One example is the projectors that are used to display the feature film presentation here. There are six projectors on a mezzanine above the theater floor, and we're on the third generation of projectors. So, we've worn out two generations of projectors, and the foundation has replaced those as they need to be replaced. So, that's just one example of significant ongoing expense.”

An audiovisual presentation on westward migration is shown to visitors about the conditions that were encountered by emigrants along the California, Oregon, and Mormon Pioneer trails at the National Historic Trails Center.
Robert Wick
BLM Wyoming
An audiovisual presentation on westward migration is shown to visitors about the conditions that were encountered by emigrants along the California, Oregon, and Mormon Pioneer trails at the National Historic Trails Center.

Other ongoing expenses include spotlights and track lighting that are used to illuminate exhibits. These costs have been reduced however, with the introduction of LED lights from incandescent ones. The building’s heating and cooling system has also been replaced since its opening.

In addition to maintaining their facilities and permanent exhibits and creating new temporary ones so that they can continue to educate future generations, there are some expansion plans in the works so that more program offerings can be provided to the public.

“We have just recently completed a comprehensive landscape plan for the Trail Center grounds that will include eventual placement of new outdoor exhibits, and something we've all been wanting for years here, and that's an outdoor amphitheater,” Miller said. “So, we are looking forward to incrementally improving the grounds here at the Trail Center and also enhancing the parking for recreational vehicles.”

Robert Wick
BLM Wyoming

About 20,000 visitors pass through each year, with some years experiencing upwards of 30,000 people. Unlike some museums and attractions during the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic, visitation remained strong overall.

“We see ourselves as the realization and the continuation of efforts that began early in the 20th century to preserve the trails of westward migration and to tell the story of the folks who actually emigrated through the trans Mississippi West,” Miller said. “One way we characterize the consequence of that period is to remind folks that between 1840 and 1890, when Wyoming was established as the 44th state, during that 50 year period leading up to 1890, there were 12 states that joined the republic from west of the Mississippi River, and that's profound in the history of our nation, that's a very significant consequence. One way to think about that is, if you were born after 1958 [or] 1959, there have not been any states added to the republic since 1959. So that's a good way to view this chapter in our history, that it was a relatively very rapid movement of folks to the far west and not without consequence.”

These consequences and effects on Indigenous communities are also stories they want to tell with more compassion and respect in the coming years.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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