Preserving history in Burlington Part 2: The Bridger Trail

A historical site can be found not too far from Burlington known as the Bridger Trail. There are remnants of a trail where travelers made their way to western Montana to search for gold.

Mayor Jerry George of Burlington has been a social studies teacher and the caretaker for the Burlington Cemetery for 29 years. He is interested in seeing history preserved.

The sources that George refers to for the Bridger Trail are James Lowe’s “The Bridger Trail: Jim Bridger’s Route to the Gold Mines of Montana” and “The Bridger Trail: An Alternative Route to the Gold Fields of Montana Territory in 1864.”

There were two choices when travelling to Montana in 1864. The first choice was to cross the continental divide at South Pass, then re-cross it into Montana from Idaho. The other choice was to take Bozeman’s trail through the Powder River country and try their luck against the Lakota Sioux. George said that one route was difficult, but the second would quickly prove to be deadly.

Jim Bridger, for whom the trail would be named, proposed a third solution. “In 1864 nearly 25 percent of Montana’s gold miners, traveled through the center of the Big Horn Basin, following a trail laid out by Jim Bridger,” said George. “In that year nearly 700 wagons, 2,500 men, women and children, and thousands of animals (horses, mules, steers and milk cows) would traverse the area from Worland, through Otto and Burlington, and on to the Penrose area east of Powell.”

The travelers came through between the end of May and the middle of September in 10 wagon trains.

“After crossing the Big Horns up Bridger Creek, the travelers worked their way northwest to the Big Horn River near present-day Kirby. After crossing the river, the trail followed the river northward until near present-day Manderson. One train reported 500 elk grazing on the flat near the mouth of a creek they named Elk Creek. From there, Bridger led the immigrants away from the river and through the badlands to a grove of cottonwood trees on the Greybull River where the original town of Otto would be established 22 years later. Another day’s travel up the Greybull River found the settlers in the Avent or Mormon Bend area just west of present-day Burlington,” said George.

From there, the travelers made their way northward, past the western edge of Bridger Butte, and down the Devil’s Backbone into a maze of badlands. They crossed three creeks, hoping to find water. One creek was named Dry Creek. They found a major challenge crossing between Sweet Betsy Hill between what would become known as the Whistle and Coon Creeks.

The trains arrived at the Stinking Water, which is now known as the Shoshone River, in the Penrose area. “The first trains to cross through the area found feed for their animals at Penrose, but later trains had to move down the Shoshone River toward Lovell to find grass their animals desperately needed.”

Travelers carved their signatures in the sandstone cliffs near present day Cowley. Those marks have since been weathered away with time.

While the Bridger trail promised safe travels from the Sioux, it was not Indian-free. “Bridger’s first train that summer woke in the morning, while camped by the Big Horn River near present-day Kirby, startled to find a large encampment of Indians less than a mile away,” said George.

The Indians turned out to be Shoshone, who were friendly. Among them was Chief Washakie. “It is not known for sure, but Bridger may have led his immigrants through the Otto-Burlington-Penrose area, over hunting trails well-known to the Shoshone,” said George.

A mystery along the Bridger trail in the Burlington area is remnants of a grave. Old timers claim there are two graves. The identity or identities of the buried are unknown.

George said the Bridger Trail was only used in 1964. “The U.S. government made sure no immigrants used either the Bozeman or Bridger Trails in 1865, then it invested in forts along the Bozeman Trail in 1866.”

In 1869, the transcontinental railroad came. Afterwards, the trail was left obsolete.