November 2001 – Sweetwater, Part II – Wyoming Ghost Towns …
Part II, Sweetwater Mining District:Of Lewiston, Gillespie Place & Stone Circles
Known as a “tipi ring” locally, no one knows a stone circle’s purpose.
On a barren, windswept hill high above central Wyoming’s Sweetwater River lies a lonely stone circle that has observed human activities, perhaps for millennia.
Walking slowly around its perimeter while gazing at the horizon, the unobstructed 360°-view reveals the site’s importance as a strategic vantage point. Below lies the American West’s most historic transportation corridor, and through countless centuries those using the stones above watched for travelers on the trails below.
First to arrive were Native Americans, who constructed the circle and chipped surrounding rock to create ancient spear points that still litter the site. For untold generations this place was theirs, but in the 1840s new explorers arrived. On the hill, Indians watching for buffalo noted passing wagon trains.
In what must have seemed an instant, white men had arrived along the river. And in time the land was theirs, as was the transportation corridor which became known as the Oregon, Mormon, Emigrant or Pony Express trails.
Now there was no turning back. Soon increasing numbers of eastern settlers would obscure the ancient ways and on the Sweetwater, flint gathering gave way to a gold rush.
To the stone circle’s east lie remnants of these early mining endeavors. Among foothills that reach for miles to the nearby Rocky Mountain’s crest, the land is dotted with abandoned settlements that housed and entertained 19th-century prospectors before the mineral boom moved elsewhere.
Gustin general store, in Lewiston. The town was founded in 1878.
Within the southern Sweetwater Mining District, the now-forgotten towns of Lewiston and Gillespie Place tell the early prospector’s tale. And as I viewed their ruins last weekend the past with all its controversies came to life.
Comparing both, Lewiston was and is larger with several structures still standing although these are widely separated and sometimes hidden among rocky sagebrush hills. Prominent however is the old false-fronted Gustin general store which, unfortunately, is deteriorating quickly.
Other remains include the “Helen G.” stamp mill, whose superstructure was reportedly displayed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair before it shipped out to Lewiston. The mill’s foundation “is still visible on the south side of the road directly across from the Lewiston townsite,” according to a Bureau of Land Management archeological study of the area.
From my visits there I’m 99% sure of the mill’s location. As always though, modern explorers must thoroughly search for such remains. Binoculars, plus a full day, are recommended.
I suggest a telescopic aid because, as mentioned, the terrain is hilly, with distant low areas often hiding old buildings. Nevertheless, if you’re a rusty can or old bottle kicker there’s plenty to view while cruising the extensive sage.
In fact, it was on one of these long treks that I accidentally discovered Gillespie Place, about two miles east of the “Helen G.” Unlike Lewiston, the town reportedly got its start in the late 1890s as of all things a health spa. That’s according to local BLM Archeologist Craig Bromley who says an east coast woman entrepreneur named Gillespie thought the site’s naturally occurring radium-laced spring was medicinal.
A Model-T fender along the Oregon Trail at Gillespie Place. Two structures are visible in the background.
To exploit this she and two daughters built a general store and several residences, and set up shop. The town flourished probably until the 1920s or 1930s when radium’s dangers became increasingly apparent.
About three structures still stand and, like Lewiston, the Oregon Trail goes right through town. Additionally, Radium Springs continues to flow near several ruins that feature scattered Model-T car parts fenders, doors and the like.
Akin to Lewiston, such artifacts offer much to discover. From them it is easy to see that the two communities were once quite lively and thus dominated district events. But as the BLM points out, the towns did not completely eclipse every area settlement.
For example, the BLM’s archeo-study says that when the nearby “Hidden Hand” mine produced sizable gold strikes, “a post office was created there… and several tent cabins were built even though Lewiston was less than one mile to the north.”
Like Gillespie Place the entrepreneurial spirit created intense community rivalries as well as new rival communities. But while this enthusiasm helped extract gold and enticed tourists, unbridled hucksterism also caused irreparable damage.
As a humorous for-instance, the BLM study describes a local “mining shark” who “salted” or faked gold deposits in 1901 to entice eastern investments. The scheme failed, and “due to these and many other drawbacks, Lewiston languished with the rest of the South Pass mining region over the next decade.”
The study adds that the Lewiston region experienced periodic resurgence but “no production figures have been found after the 1930s.” Since then the southern Sweetwater district, like it’s northern counterpart at South Pass City, has receded with only small independent mining concerns taking chances.
For the most part, only occasional hunters or history buffs venture into this remote area. So today, as stone circles stand guard, the Lewiston district joins them in history. Just the wind testifies to either’s existence.
Two miles east of Lewiston, Mormon pilgrims visit “Wiley’s Handcart Site”, where 77 LDS emigrants died in 1858. Thirteen are buried here.
If you wish to explore these sites I won’t get you lost with complicated directions. The towns are in very remote areas, so your best bet is to access topozone.com and type in “Lewiston”, “WY”, and “Fremont” in the site, state and county search blocks respectively.
Once on the map, look about 2 miles northeast for “Radium Springs.” That’s Gillespie Place.
If you go, I would recommend a high centered vehicle. A small two-wheel drive truck will do in dry weather, but the trail IS bumpy, so beware and have fun. As for stone circles, if you hike long enough you’ll probably find one. The circle in the story’s all mine until someone else sees it.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.