Cheyenne’s population of 60,000 more than doubles during its 10-day Frontier Days rodeo, which took place a week after I arrived. As it happened, I rode into town a day after the city’s celebration of 150 years of Wyoming statehood in conjunction with the four-year restoration of its gilded domed statehouse. The crowds were gone, so I dodged a bullet. I was here to follow the stage out of town, but first, to take a looksee.
Cheyenne sprouted along the Union Pacific Railroad as it expanded its transcontinental reach. The Romanesque circa-1887 depot is a testament to that history, and a resulting National Historic Landmark. Striding around the Depot Plaza are eight-foot-high concrete cowboy boots painted by local artists to depict regional and state history. An objective, I understand, is to embark on a scavenger hunt to locate all 17 or so oversized boots stepping around the city. My visit to the Old West Museum provided me with an appreciation of the rugged rodeo riders who consider being battered and bruised a badge of honor. It’s sort of my feeling after another cross-country ride, especially as I age.
My iron horse would have to do in lieu of the cowpoke transportation around here. My purpose was to follow one of the more storied stage routes, the Cheyenne to Black Hills Stage Line. The stage run began in 1876 to link the railroad at Cheyenne to the gold fields surrounding the new town of Deadwood, but only lasted 11 years as new rail lines began to join the two cities. The 300-mile trip was made in 50 hours. Using modern horsepower I could likely do it in five, but I was here to poke along.
Rocky outcroppings define the landscape north of Cheyenne, especially at Register Cliff where Oregon Trail pioneers inscribed their signatures into the bleached limestone. Approaching Fort Laramie I encountered a bowstring-style iron truss bridge spanning the North Platte River built in 1875. I walked its wooden planks, thinking I was likely treading where the wagon wheels of the stage line rolled.
The Oregon, Mormon and Bozeman Trails, the Overland Stage, the Cheyenne to Black Hills Line and the Pony Express made Fort Laramie a busy outpost on the frontier. Fort Laramie began as a fur trading post established by William Sublette’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1834. It became a military garrison between 1849 and 1885, and a major staging area for conflicts and treaties with the Plains Indians.
Actors in period costumes strolled the grounds. I entered the Soldier’s Barroom and met a gent in character, laying out playing cards of the era upon the bar. I sidled up for a sarsaparilla, and we got to talking about the West’s adventurous opportunists, Jim Bridger, Chief Red Cloud and John “Portuguese” Phillips, the last of whom burst into the officers’ quarters on Christmas Eve in 1866 after riding four days through a blizzard to tell of the Fetterman Massacre at Fort Phil Kearney, where 83 men were slaughtered by the Sioux and Cheyenne. History comes alive here.
Rawhide Buttes Station north of Fort Laramie was the next stage stop. Although I was content to stop between gas fill-ups on a long haul, the stage paused every 10 miles or so to change horses and feed the passengers. Then, with a crack of the whip, they were off once again. Dime novelist Edward L. Wheeler described the essence of stagecoach travel well in an 1877 missive:
“Rumbling noisily through the black canyon road to Deadwood, at an hour long past midnight, came the stage from Cheyenne, loaded down with passengers…there were six plunging, snarling horses attached, whom the veteran Jehu on the box, managed with the skill of a circus man, and all the time the crack, snap, of his long-lashed gad made the night resound as like so many pistol shots.”
I crossed into Niobrara County on U.S. Route 85, the least populated county in the least populated state in the nation. I approached Lusk, population 1,567. Where did all these folks come from? Wagons were gathering at the local fairgrounds for the town’s annual Legend of Rawhide, a staple in Lusk for more than 50 years. Corn hole tournaments and a team-driving contest amused the locals during the pageant. Their Pioneer Museum has on display one of the two existing original Concord coaches of the 30 used on the Cheyenne to Black Hills Line. The other resides in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, an affiliation of the Smithsonian. William Cody used it in his Wild West Show.
Not far out of Lusk I encountered historical signage for the stage line’s Hat Creek Station, where it’s said Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill bedded down. Also among those of note who traveled along the stage road was Martha “Calamity” Jane Cannary, once a bullwhacker disguised as a male, although she was mostly a drifter known for her tall tales and delusional relationship with Wild Bill Hickok.
Sometime after leaving the Hat Creek Station historical site it dawned on me that all the power lines had disappeared, providing an unadulterated prairie expanse to view. The only ranches were miles down dusty side roads. No vehicles were in sight for miles ahead or behind, just me and the breezes rippling the prairie grassland and softly patting my cheeks behind the windscreen, bringing fragrant aromas of sage and lupine. The air was so pristine not even bugs splatted the windshield. One archivist of the stage journey described the scene this way: “There is something on the Plains that cannot be found elsewhere, something which can be felt better than described, something you must go there to find.” These are reasons why I wear an open-face helmet while on tour.
Some 60 miles later Newcastle intruded on my highway reverie. Another stage station is preserved here, the Jenney Stockade Cabin, dating from 1875. Motorcycle traffic picked up as I closed in on the Black Hills. Riders I talked to were coming from Devils Tower and Custer. Eighteen miles from Newcastle is Four Corners, site of at least one stage robbery in 1878. Since the stage was often carrying gold, highwaymen would lie in wait at favorite spots like this.
As I entered South Dakota, the highway finally bent into delicious curves. But they can be dangerous curves, evidenced by a trauma helicopter that had landed because a motorcyclist was down. Roadside memorials of white crosses are prevalent throughout the Black Hills. A cattle drive crossing the road ahead of me was another reason for caution — I slowed to approach cautiously so as not to spook them, but was too late to capture a photo.
Lead (pronounced Leed) was named for the heavy ore deposits in the area. One of the largest gold mining pits in the Western Hemisphere is on view here. Noted author and humorist Ambrose Bierce managed one of the placer mining companies. He related in a newspaper article how he himself was a victim of an attempted robbery while carrying $30,000 in cash on the trail outside of Deadwood, when his accompanying messenger shot the perpetrator dead.
Numerous notorious characters got themselves shot dead just up the road in Deadwood, and I trudged the hills of Mt. Moriah Cemetery, where lie the remains of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. The rest of Deadwood is a tourist scene I just as well avoided. You can’t even park on historic Main Street. The whole town has been described as illegal anyway since it lies within the territory granted to Native Americans in the 1868 Treaty of Laramie. One can blame Custer, who led an expedition that discovered gold here in 1874. Disputes over these Black Hills are ever ongoing, and have reached the Supreme Court on several occasions. Regardless, Deadwood became the end of the line for the stage. Mail from Cheyenne was delivered and gold from the mines transferred to strong boxes and the cycle repeated itself for the return trip.
On the northern fringe of Deadwood I encountered a scene from the movie “Dances With Wolves” at an interpretive center called Tatanka, where giant bronze sculptures of bison pursued by Indians are gathered on a hillside overlooking an expansive view of the valley below. Indeed, it was Kevin Costner who commissioned this artwork and financed the center. It’s a fitting tribute to Native American culture, and a fitting end to my ride along the stage route to Deadwood.