Casper, Wyoming: Historic Part of Mormon Pioneer Trail
Contributed By By Julie Dockstader Heaps, Church News correspondent
A few miles southwest of this central Wyoming city, on Highway 220, is a unique geographical formation called the Red Buttes. The red hue is so striking that people passing by often reach for cameras.
But only those familiar with the history of Martin’s Cove Historic Site, some 60 miles down the road, will know the legacy of suffering, faith, and fortitude that occurred in the shadow of this small, sloping mountain. Nearly 157 years ago, scouts from the rescue party sent by Brigham Young to find the Martin and Willie handcart companies discovered a starving and freezing group of Mormon immigrants huddled below the Red Buttes near the last crossing of the Platte River.
“The weather, at night particularly, had been very cold since we stopped here on the evening of the 23rd, with six to eight and more deaths every twenty-four hours,” handcart pioneer Josiah Rogerson later wrote.
Led by the scouts, these faithful pioneers, part of Martin’s company, forged on—one step at a time—to a small cove just south of Devil’s Gate and Independence Rock. There, they awaited the rescue wagons.
Their stories of faith live on today. For members of the Casper Wyoming Stake, the handcart pioneers are considered family.
“In a way, we almost became adopted by that group of pioneers, or we adopted them. They became part of our lives,” said Bishop Bill Athey of the Casper 8th Ward. “It became a sense that they are family. They are my ancestors because of the gospel. They’re family because of the way we think of them.”
While Pioneer Day celebrations were going on in the Salt Lake Valley last month, the Church News visited with members in Casper about the legacy of the handcart pioneers and their influence in the lives of Latter-day Saints here in this city of more than 55,000. Over and over, the phrase “We’re family” was repeated.
It’s a pretty big family now. A half century ago, there were but two or three branches and one meetinghouse, on Poplar Street. Longtime resident Elder Joseph B. Warr, former stake president and current stake patriarch, who also serves at Martin’s Cove Historic Site with his wife, Sister Jan Warr, spoke of the history of the city he adopted in 1961.
“It started out with dirt streets and now it’s a two-Walmart town,” he said, smiling. “It means something to me that there are eight wards in Casper, and that’s not counting Glenrock and Douglas Wards. I’m glad I was part of it.”
Today, the Casper stake has 12 units, including branches in Lusk and at Martin’s Cove, with nearly 5,100 members. Some 400 youth are growing up within sight of one of the most well-known portions of the Mormon Pioneer Trail.
“There’s always that closeness to them,” Casper Stake President Millard L. Smathers said, referring to those early Church immigrants. “You’re often out playing or exploring, whatever. You’re crossing the Oregon Trail [which intersects the Mormon Trail here]. Whether you go east or west, you’re always touching it some way. It’s always been part of my life, especially growing up here.”
Continuing, the stake president, who joined the Church as a teenager while playing Church basketball with a friend, explained that because of the proximity to the cove, members here often have opportunities to serve. For example, the stake was recently asked to build rickshaws for visitors who can’t walk the two miles from the visitors’ center to the cove.
In 1997, in preparation for the dedication of the visitors’ center, members of the Casper stake joined with the Riverton and Rock Springs stakes to construct the path—a project totaling 6,000 hours.
That association not only strengthens the testimonies of members but has also led to convert baptisms—some of which are done in the Sweetwater River. Sixteen-year-old Karli Gardiner of the Casper 8th Ward participated in this summer’s stake trek at the cove, something she has done in the past. But this year, she was surprised to see a childhood friend.
“I’ve known him since the 6th grade,” she said. “Whenever the Church would come up, he would laugh.”
But during the trek, to which he had been invited, the boy began to take part in discussions. Then when President Smathers addressed the gathering, Karli related, something happened. Her friend began to cry.
“He realized this was the truth. I realized that being a good example and bringing friends to Church activities can really impact a person.”
Such experiences are common throughout the stake, said President Smathers. “Since May 2011 the stake has grown from 4,500-plus to almost 5,100. We had around 50 converts last year.”
The pioneer spirit of faith, unity, and reaching out is felt here. Bishop Athey, who was reared in West Virginia, moved here just before New Year’s 1995, with his wife, Pam, and their five boys.
“I jokingly say the 4th Ward [where they lived at the time] surrounded my boys and I saw them again after they came home from their missions,” he said. He added that one of his greatest wishes as a bishop is “the 8th Ward be known as the people who wrap their arms around you.”
This is important for a community of people from varied backgrounds. Casper is home to district offices for oil companies and technical companies, as well as longtime ranchers and miners. The regional hospital here draws physicians from throughout the country.
Many come looking for jobs—and end up staying to rear children. Janee Probst and her husband, Terry, are one such family. Two years ago, after a military career that led them to Oregon, North Carolina, Illinois, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Italy, they found themselves in Casper.
Sister Probst said she was used to more metropolitan areas where residents generally are less trusting. In Wyoming, she said, “people were so friendly. Walking down the street, somebody would start a conversation with us.”
Now in the Casper 8th Ward, the Probst family has also lived in the 1st and 3rd Wards. “In each of the wards, the bishops have been the first to come up and talk to us.”
When their well quit working, she said, members opened their homes for showers and laundry.
For David and Joy Gallup of the 8th Ward, the caring has included dinners and childcare—and more. “My little boy was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 when he was three years old,” Sister Gallup related. “It was prayers that got us through that. It’s strengthened my testimony of prayers.
“We’re all just one big family,” she added.
From the days when Brigham Young sent a rescue party to the Red Buttes and established a Mormon ferry at the Platte River, members here have been watching out for one another.
When asked what he sees as the future of the Church in Casper, Elder Warr put it simply: “Nothing but up.”
Note: Some historical information for this article was taken from the following: Church News, May 10, 1997, issue; Ensign, August 1997; http://history.lds.org/overlandtravels (Rogerson, Josiah); www.lds.org/library/pio_sto/