Patricia Craig Johnson --- Searching for My Ancestors --- Sharing My Life Stories

Total Pageviews

Thursday, September 15, 2011

To Laramie via the Overland Stage Trail with Jack Slade and Mark Twain

On September 13, 2011, I was invited to speak to the fine folks at the Laramie Wyoming Genealogical Society. I was to be there by 7pm. Naturally, being a compulsively early person, I started out at 3 in the afternoon. I have tried to change that part of me, but after all these years it just is not going to happen. My latest thoughts are “Why worry about it? Just live with it.”

It was a perfectly gorgeous Colorado September afternoon. The weather forecast included scattered showers, but all I saw were the beautiful clouds and deep blue sky. I decided to drive Highway 287 from Fort Collins to Laramie. For some unknown reason it is one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the country. Highway crosses are apparent so often all the way to Laramie. But it is also one of the most awe inspiring stretches of highway. The beauty is breathtaking.

The far western, north/south street in Fort Collins is Overland Trail Road. This street actually follows this famous route that was one of the major ways to get from east to west in the 1850/1860’s. It drops down to where the stagecoaches crossed the Cache la Poudre River and climbs slightly up to enter the little town of La Porte. The street weaves along the lay of the land just as it did so long ago. I never drive it without imagining the stage coaches rocking side to side and the drivers cracking the whip, urging the horses to get going.

Can you tell it’s one of my favorite streets?

At La Porte I headed north on Highway 287 as it follows the Overland Stage Trail, but sometimes is not as true as Overland Trail Road. Still, it is easy to imagine the stagecoaches and horses and armed guards and weary passengers waiting for the next stage stop. These stage stops were built about ten miles apart. Just a blink of the eye as we drive at 65 miles per hour, but in the 1850/1860’s those ten miles must have felt like forever.

The scenery on this part of Highway 287 is hard to describe. It is so many things. It is wide, huge, clear, mountains in the distance, prairie, red soil, pine trees, rock formations and steep hills as I climbed from 5000 feet in Fort Collins to 7500 feet in Laramie.

But today, I couldn’t help dwelling on the scene as I imagine it appeared in the 1850/1860’s. Perhaps I just was in that kind of mood. I turned the radio on, but turned it off as it didn’t fit with the mental picture I had in my head. It was interrupting the scene.

Soon I was climbing the steep hill at Virginia Dale, Colorado. This is near the Wyoming border and is the location of one of the stage stops. Virginia was the wife of the notorious Jack Slade and Jack managed this stage stop for awhile. The fact that he named the stage stop in her honor tells me he had a very tiny soft spot in his heart --- although he could shoot a man for looking at him wrong, and never blink an eye. He would definitely be considered a dangerous socio path today. But there is something about Americans that like to revere the bad guys, that is if they never have to meet them face to face. Jack Slade was hired by Ben Holliday to tame the crime and attacks on the stage coaches, and he succeeded. The robbers and gunmen decided to move on to easier pickings and The Overland Stage Company had few cases of robberies and murders after Jack Slade finished his job. It obviously became too tame for Jack Slade and he moved on as well.

Finally I crossed the Colorado/Wyoming State Line and the vista changed to high and vast prairie with the Medicine Bow Mountains in the far distance. I came to Tie Siding, Wyoming which is the remnant of a town built just for the gathering of railroad ties to help move the Union Pacific Railroad westward. It is a gas station and café and antique store now.

Now I could see Laramie in the far distance and immediately went to the Church building where I was scheduled to speak. I went in and the office lady showed me where it would be, so I felt prepared for tonight. Hmmmm it was only 4:30. Sometimes this early stuff is for the birds! I decided to find the Laramie Public Library and spend some time there. Maybe they would have a city directory with my dad’s name in it. We lived in Laramie in 1944/1945. But alas, I guess they didn’t visit those folks that were just in town for a defense job and not like the “regular” folks. Besides, my dad would have just been a kid then so probably didn’t even look like a head of household.

But I DID find an interesting book about the Overland Stage Trail. It had many first person accounts of the days and happenings. I became really engrossed in the book as I had been thinking about the Overland Stage Trail all afternoon. And then Mark Twain entered the picture. I laughed to myself as I read of Mark Twain meeting Jack Slade. It can be found in “Roughin It” but I will give you the general idea. I am sure Mark Twain won’t mind me taking literary license here.

Mark Twain described the morning he was eating breakfast in a stage station with other stagecoach passengers and noticed a very well dressed and attractive man sitting at the head of the table. Mark Twain was impressed with the gentlemanly demeanor of the man. The group was busy eating and joking, which I am sure was easy to do with Mark Twain in the crowd. Then Mark Twain heard one of the other passengers refer to the gentleman as ”Slade”.

Mark Twain gulped as he swallowed his coffee and suddenly saw a different picture and acquired a different mental state, like sheer terror. Not wanting to tip his hand Mark Twain continued his conversation with Slade as normally as possible. Jack Slade seemed to take a liking to Mark Twain and when Mark emptied his coffee cup Jack Slade offered to give him what was in HIS cup. Mark Twain politely declined the offer. He was frantically wondering to himself if Jack may change his mood in the middle of pouring the coffee and decide to shoot instead. But Jack Slade insisted, so finally Mark accepted the favor, not wanting to ire the famous bad guy. Jack watched closely as Mark drank the hot coffee down in almost one gulp. Mark Twain didn't want to offend by drinking too fast, or drinking too slow. Eventually, Mark Twain walked away in one piece, and Jack Slade walked away not shooting anyone that morning. I chuckled as I pictured the scene and I could feel the terror Mark Twain felt. He had come face to face with a situation completely out of his control and had to just grit his teeth and hope for the best. He had a wonderful way of writing emotion so perfectly, especially if he could do it and be funny at the same time.

So in the end, being an early bird is not so bad. It can actually be quite fun. I left the Library in a happy mood and a smile on my face. It was a nice experience and the prelude to a wonderful evening with the nicest and friendliest folks around. I had a great time visiting and sharing one member’s 90th birthday party. Oh, and the program went real well too.

PS The photos from top to bottom are: A historical picture of the Trail; The Trail in Northern Colorado; The Trail at the Wyoming border; The Trail as it enters the High Plains of Wyoming


No comments: