Summer Trip to the American West: Westward Expansion and the American Frontier
This past summer, 13 SFL students and 6 chaperones journeyed out to the American West. The goal was not only to educate themselves about the American Frontier, but to at last see the sites the history books have described and experience them in person. The company trekked from Colorado Springs, Colorado, through Wyoming and South Dakota, north, to Helena, Montana. During the two-week journey, the group studied engineering feats, battle sites, geological features, and much more. Professor Patrick Allitt and JPL Martian Geologist Kirsten Siebach accompanied the group in their quest, and taught the group about the history and geology of the area, respectively.
Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine Tour
Shortly after landing in Colorado Springs, the group met the man who was to be their bus driver for the two weeks (in theory), and drove to a small town 9,494 feet up in the Rocky Mountains, called Cripple Creek. Up the road from Cripple Creek is a mine known as the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine. The Mollie Kathleen gold mine is one of the most prominent examples of an underground mine. It has a shaft that was dug 1,000 feet into the ground, as deep as the Empire State building is tall, and it was one of three mines in the world with vertical gold ore veins. However, since 1961, it has been shut down due to the low price of gold ($14 an ounce in 1961). The remnants of mining still live on in an active gold mine, the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine, just south of it.
Garden of the Gods
Despite the name, SFL failed to find any gods in the garden when we visited. Maybe gardening is just not their thing. The Garden of the Gods consists of a very scenic walk through unique and some of the most beautiful geological formations on the continent. 500 million years ago, this site was formed during the mountain building events of the Rocky Mountains. The sandstone, limestone, and other rock that was deposited horizontally was rotated vertically when the Pacific tectonic plate collided with the American Continental Plate. Some of the rocks appear very red, and this is due to iron content. Even a very small percentage of iron in rocks makes them appear red or pink.
Colorado Railroad Museum/Georgetown Railroad Loop/Lebanon Mine
Most people probably do not know that arguably, the single most important engineering advancement to Westward Expansion was the locomotive. There are many many examples of why this was so. One such example is in the state of New Mexico. Albuquerque had the railroad come through it before the capital, Santa Fe, did, and today Albuquerque has a population almost 9 times that of Santa Fe’s. In addition, one of the reasons that the Union won the Civil War was because the Union’s railway system was much more advanced and pervasive than the Confederate’s. The Colorado Railroad Museum has many tributes to these incredible machines. The better side of 15 trains are featured at the museum, many of which still run.
After the Railroad Museum, the SFL squad drove up to Silver Plume, Colorado where they rode on a still functional steam locomotive. Like most older steam locomotives, it could only climb at a grade of 2%, so there were a multitude of extensive switchbacks. The railway was mostly used to collect the silver found in the Lebanon Silver Mine and send it down to Denver. The Lebanon Mine produced 5.7 billion dollars of silver in today’s dollar, and is not still functional.
SFL Exclusive High-Intensive High-elevation Conditioning Workout/Training
Even though many may think SFL is completely academic, this is untrue. In order to get into prime shape, many SFLers proceeded to participate in a high-elevation conditioning workout. In reality, the bus broke down, and we were stranded up 9,178 feet up in the Rocky Mountains. So we decided to do a workout. The workout consisted of pull-ups, running, frisbee, weight training, and other exercises. Since it took a few hours for the bus to be fixed, we all got a healthy workout.
Cheyenne Frontier Days (Rodeo)
The biggest Rodeo in the world, Cheyenne Frontier Days, is also more than just a rodeo. There were many places dedicated to showing the history of the cowboy. Outside the stadium where the rodeo was held were many chuckwagons lined up and set up just like the cowboys would’ve had them. In addition, the Rodeo doubled as a sort of County Fair, complete with deep-fried everything you would ever want (and some you don’t).
Oregon Trail Monument
The Oregon Trail Monument outside Douglas, Wyoming may not seem like much just by looking at the site. The wagon trail carved into the soft igneous rock is something that people can easily glaze their eyes over. However, it is the history of the Oregon Trail that is most marvelous. In the early 1800s people in the Eastern U.S. started to hear rumours of a fertile valley on the West Coast called the Willamette Valley. The Oregon trail was important because it was the route most settlers took to get to Oregon. The part of the Oregon trail in Wyoming, however, is especially important. This is due to the discovery of South Pass. Before the discovery of South Pass, the trail ran through Loveland Pass in Colorado which was at an elevation of 11,990 feet. In contrast South Pass was at an elevation of only 7,000 feet. In many ways, the reason that Wyoming’s population grew at all was because of South Pass.
As a fort that few people have not heard about, Fort Caspar was far from what people usually think of when they hear the word ‘fort’. Short for fortress, people usually think of big stone or wood walls with towers and buildings inside. Fort Caspar was a collection of wooden building with a wood wall on but one side, the south side, of the fort. Fort Caspar was constructed for one important, central reason: to protect the telegraph. Since the telegraph was brought in 1861, the Native Americans who were not friendly with the white men tried to dismantle it forcing the U.S. to deploy more soldiers to protect it. For this reason, the fort contained many replacement parts for the telegraph.
The Black Hills may not look like much of a mountain range; its highest peak is barely 7,000 feet. Formed 50 million years ago, the Black Hills used to be 7,500 feet taller than they are now, but due to erosion, they are much smaller and less prominent. The Hills are made of mostly granite risen from 8-12 miles underground. This granite is unique due to tdo its relatively large crystals of mica. In addition, the Black Hills are home to Jewel Cave and Mount Rushmore as well as Custer State Park. We stopped at all of these places on the journey.
South Dakota Minuteman Missile Site
In the early 20th Century, the idea of using nuclear fission as a weapon of mass destruction was being flirted with. Due to the immigration of German Jews during the Holocaust, America received an early lead in the race to develop nuclear weapons. In the 1940s, American Generals had been planning an invasion of Japan that would have taken 3-5 years and up to a million lives. Due to the use of nuclear weapons, this was avoided. This specific site was a part of the United States’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile defence that had the potential to kill the whole Soviet population five times over. It was decommissioned in the post-Cold war era. However, its relatives live on in nearby states such as Nebraska and North Dakota.
Little Bighorn Battlefield
Most people do not know that General Custer, the leader of the American forces at Little Bighorn, was an incredibly reckless and incompetent military leader. In battles preceeding Little Bighorn, he had 11 horses shot out from under him. He bragged that he was a great general because he charged into the heat of battle recklessly. However, in reality, he was an extremely lucky person. His incompetence, however, was too much for luck to overcome, and he was killed on this site in 1876. This embarrassing defeat of the Americans provoked them to start an all-out campaign, and they forced all Native Americans onto reservations in the years to come.
Old Trail Town
Old Trail Town, found in Cody, Wyoming is more or less an accurate representation of what a real western town would have looked like. Complete with a cemetery, large collection of wagons, a saloon, and much more, this site is not just your average museum.
Yellowstone National Park
Discovered by fur trappers, this 8,983.18 square kilometer plot of land is one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse places on Earth. The park was part of the Louisiana Purchase, but it was never really explored until after the Civil War. Many people, including John Muir and Jay Cook, wanted the United States to make Yellowstone a National Park. However, the decision was controversial because it was inhabited by Shoshone Indians.
The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
You see it in the pictures all the time. It’s the stereotypical image of the park that people always think of when they think ‘Yellowstone’. But it is truly amazing to be inside of it. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was formed much in the same way that the Arizona Grand Canyon was formed. It was a result of water erosion. The yellow colour of the rocks are not a result of the presence of sulphur, but of different oxidations of iron.
Gates of the Mountains
When Lewis and Clark passed through this area of the Missouri River, they noticed something remarkable about the rock formations on the sides of the river. When they moved through the river, it appeared that there were opening gates of rock. Lewis wrote in his journal,
“this evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the hight of 1200 feet. … the river appears to have forced its way through this immense body of solid rock for the distance of 5-3/4 Miles … I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”
This series of images shows the incredible opening of the gates of the mountains.