Dubois Museum tour brings history alive and accessible with driving tour up Union Pass
On a sunny Tuesday in August, a line of cars made their way up Union Pass Road, bumping through hairpin turns bordered by tall pine trees. Lupine and fireweed flowers turned the roadsides purple and pink, and the cars made way for the occasional biker and wandering cow.
Each summer, the Dubois Museum puts on six educational outings to different local landmarks and scenic stops. The adventure treks help visitors and locals alike learn about the ecology, geology, past and present of the area.
The museum’s site manager Johanna Thompson said the six tours that take place in the summer are always fully booked with a long waiting list. The tours are usually about 15 people. Often, the museum ends up repeating their programs to meet the high demand.
“If we have like a solid twenty people or even fifteen people on the waitlist that definitely still could have gone… if we can work it in we try to do a second trek – even though there’s six, a lot of times we end up doing twelve,” she said.
This summer’s trek up to Union Pass was the first time the museum has organized a trip up to the location. Union Pass offers rich place-based history lessons and panoramic views of the Absarokas, Winds, and Teton Mountain ranges.
In one of the trucks, staff from the museum pointed out where one could walk to find an old tie-hack cabin or see tie flumes – clues to a piece of the road’s history. The road was built for the now-defunct tie hack industry, where people cut timber to make railroad ties by hand from the 1860s until the early 1940s.
Local Dubois historian Steve Banks is leading the tour and said Wyoming played a big role in building the transcontinental railroad.
“In the spring, when the river crested and went down, they [workers] would kick all of those ties into the river and float them down to Riverton,” said Banks.
Museum staff member Andrea Billingsley said while there’s still logging taking place in the area, the road is now mostly used for ATV-ing, snowmobiling, and recreating.
“It's more of a scenic drive than anything else – a lot of people fish up here. Some people run cattle loose up here and collect them up in the fall. Wildflowers are absolutely beautiful up here,” she said.
Billingsley said the museum tours are a great chance for people to be curious about where they are and get to know their surroundings more deeply.
“Everybody wants to know what's far away but not what's right underneath their nose,” she said.
At the top of the pass about thirty miles west of Dubois, twenty or so people clambered out of their cars wearing sunhats and bear spray. The elevation is just over 9,200 feet, and the group was largely in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. They mingled and chatted about their families, looked at flowers and rocks on the ground around them, and compared notes on the quality of their well water.
The group walked a short distance towards a circle of interpretive plaques about Union Pass. There, Banks pointed out Three Waters Mountain. The area is what’s called a triple divide, where water can flow into the Mississippi, Columbia, or Colorado Rivers.
“The big square one that looks kind of like a loaf of bread on the right – and then the bigger one on the left. It's right over in that area there where the waters separate because, by that time when you get between those two mountains, you're on the other side of the [Continental] Divide,” he pointed out.
Banks explained that Union Pass’s location and the ability to move between three major water drainages was beneficial for anyone navigating the landscape. He said the pass was historically used by many different Native American tribes as well as fur trappers and groups of mountain men, like the Astor Expedition, in the early and mid-1800s.
“The mountain Crow are the ones who have established themselves in this country here. That's where most of the names come from. The Shoshone have their own names, and they don’t necessarily mean the same thing as it does in Crow. So, the Yellowstone River was called the Elk River for a long time – that's a Crow thing,” he said.
Banks shared that the pass was given the name “Union Pass” by U.S. Army Captain William F. Raynolds in 1860, just before the start of the Civil War. One person on the trek asked whether the name of the pass was related to the area’s three different water drainages or the state of the country at that time.
“If you can figure that question out, you're gonna probably make a few hundred thousand dollars,” said Banks. “Because that’s one of the big discussions of the whole thing. What was the union that he was talking about?”
The group walked up a short hill to get a better view of the mountains. Robin Spradlin was with her husband Dave. Her husband is a regular on the treks but Spradlin isn’t always able to go.
“Most of them are really long walks and I can’t do it, but he’ll go and then take me on the side-by-side later, if possible. He goes on almost all of them – they’re incredibly informative and interesting,” she said.
The two have lived in Dubois for four years and Spradlin said the area is heaven on earth.
“Look at this! It's incredible. I wish we could have gotten here 20 years ago,” she said.
Also along for the trek was Jane Meiter, the museum’s collections manager. She said the driving format of today’s tour makes sure a wide range of people can come on the trek.
“The good thing about these driving treks is that they give people who wouldn’t usually be able to go on our walking treks, which are a couple miles plus – so this group of people are maybe less physically able, but it’s nice because they’re able to come out,” she said.
To the collections manager, getting outside is a great way to learn about the area’s past and present – and one the museum is excited to offer.
“The landscape is so integral to what the history itself is – so I think that there’s something that’s really visceral to connect you to the history that isn’t just ‘I’m looking at text in the museum.’ There’s a deeper level to it that’s really awesome to be able to give that opportunity to people,” she said.
For Meiter, landscapes can spark curiosity no matter what your age is. And sometimes – an amazing view really is only a short drive away.