What is it in us that leads us to abhor development and extraction in the mountains while finding the relics of it not only fascinating but also sacred? Is it pure hypocrisy? Or is it that we admire the hard men and women of the past for their mettle even if we do not today agree with their ways? After all, many a profit-seeking miner climbed with just work boots and a pick axe what today many would only dare with the safety of made-in-(insert Asian or Central American country of choice) gear bought on sale at REI. And there are no purists here; we are all guilty to some degree.
Among the Ghosts
Out at Kirwin, one climbs among ghosts.
Really. Well, almost.
Kirwin is an abandoned mining town high and deep in Wyoming's Absaroka Range, a mountain fastness whose wildness and ruggedness are rivaled by few others in the United States. Because it is a long and somewhat rough drive up to Kirwin (about 35 miles, the majority of it unpaved, with rocky sections and stream crossings), the trail system is not that heavily used and the mountaintops, even though there are no technical-only summits in the area, see even less traffic. As of July 2010, I do not believe a single peak in the area housed a summit register, and many, even some of the named ones, did not even have cairns. Here, the mountains are for wanderers, for explorers, for seekers of solitude.
Thus it is only a slight stretch to say that out at Kirwin, one climbs among ghosts.
Boom, Bust, Disaster, and Restoration
Prospectors had their eyes on the Kirwin area well before the mining district and townsite were ever established. In 1870, a group led by a man named Kuyendall entered the area of the Wood River looking for ore. They were driven off by U.S. soldiers, though, as the region was off limits to white prospectors due to an existing treaty with the Indians.
But after circumstances changed, a series of events that would change Kirwin forever occurred:
A man named Henry Schnitzel prospected the area in 1881; Schnitzel many years later would own much of the property in and around Kirwin.
In 1885, William Kirwin and Harry Adams found gold on Spar Mountain while they were out hunting deer.
1891 saw the establishment of the Wood River Mining District. The rush was on.
Overall, though, Kirwin never really panned out (lame pun intended). The mines did not produce that much, and people invested way more capital and energy they ever got in return. And the harsh, avalanche-prone winters and the failure to attract a rail line ultimately doomed the town.
Following is a history of Kirwin, in timeline fashion, after the establishment of the mining district and documenting major players and episodes.
1894-- Foundation of the Shoshone River Mining Company. C.L. Tewksbury was the manager and would own a store, later to be destroyed by an avalanche. Tewksbury would also own a mine.
1897-- The first ore shipment, hauled by mules.
1899-- Henry Schnitzel, P.W. Gates, T.J. Greer, and Ernest May formed the Galena Ridge Mining Corporation. Buying land along the Wood River, the men also established the Antlers Land and Cattle Company as a base of operations. Galena Ridge is a named feature in the Kirwin area, and mining structures exist on its southern side to this day.
1904-- Incorporation of the Shoshone Mining and Development Company.
1904-1907-- This was the heyday of Kirwin. At one point, there were 38 buildings and over 200 people. The town had many of the usual feature of the Old West-- hotel, boardinghouse, general stores, sawmill, post office, etc.-- but, perhaps surprisingly, never had any saloons or brothels (maybe that's why people eventually left). Kirwin did have a "Luceil the Palmist," but she was sent packing when it was learned that her services exceeded mere fortune telling; it seems she did a little more than just promise happy endings. There was never a cemetery, either. Every day of the week except Wednesday, a stagecoach ran to or from Kirwin or Meeteetse; the latter town is still inhabited today and is about 35 road miles from Kirwin.
1905-- An explosion in the Bryan Mine killed miner William Chubb.
1907-- Nine days of heavy snowfall triggered a massive avalanche down Brown Mountain on February 5. This avalanche destroyed a cabin and cost three people-- John Reynolds and Mr. and Mrs. Charley Brunell-- their lives. Tewksbury lost his store as it was swept into the Wood River by another avalanche. That spring, most residents left Kirwin.
1914-- Tewksbury closed his mine but through 1922 continued to operate a store in the summers.
1917-- Despite high metal prices due to World War 1, efforts to reorganize and revitalize the mining operations failed.
1922-- A Mr. Winkley of Dubois drove the first automobile to Kirwin.
1925-- Schnitzel made a last serious attempt to revive the mining operations but failed. Within five years, he owned most of the property in and around Kirwin.
1931-- Schnitzel's widow sold the property to Carl Dunrud. Six miles below Kirwin, he built the Double D Dude Ranch.
1934-- Amelia Earhart, whose husband was a friend of Dunrud, asked Dunrud to build her a cabin near the Double D. Dunrud agreed but never finished the work after Earhart's disappearance during her infamous round-the-world flight attempt.
1940s-- Charlie Wolf, who had a patented claim, built the Wolf Mine shaft house. The reinforced structure remains today and is one of the most interesting buildings at the townsite.
1957-- Texan Duke Wilson bought Dunrud's properties.
1962-- The American Metals Climax Mining Company (AMAX) bought the Kirwin properties from Wilson, with plans to mine a rich copper deposit beneath Spar Mountain. Dropping prices and high start-up costs did not justify the effort, though, and the plans were scrapped. Today, old mining roads scar the lower flanks of Spar Mountain and are an eyesore to many lovers of the mountains. One can only imagine how it would look had the mining plans proceeded.
1992-- AMAX sold Kirwin to the King Mellon Foundation and Conservation Fund, which then donated the land to the public. Kirwin went under the management of Shoshone National Forest and remains so to this day.
1999-- Work to stabilize and restore the Kirwin buildings began.
Today-- Visitors can enjoy touring the old townsite in the shadows of the high mountains. Interpretive signs help tell the story. Modern construction features take away some of the "authenticity," but the upside is that the structures are safe to enter, far safer than the structures in many ghost towns are. While the area is no secret, the long, rough drive in keeps it from being crowded. If there are ten vehicles present, it's a busy day, and that's only likely to happen on a nice weekend.
Almost all of the above information comes from USFS interpretive signs at Kirwin; although I have changed wording and structure to avoid the appearance of outright copying, the information is in the public domain and thus legal to publish verbatim.
It is illegal to disturb or remove artifacts, wood, or other objects from the townsite.
Now, instead of being ravaged for profit, the mountains here are sources of discovery and inspiration.
At road's end, one must park and make a choice.
A spur to the left makes a bridged crossing of the Wood River and then enters the Kirwin townsite. But keeping straight takes one to a gate. Beyond is the wilderness.
Not politically-- all of the upper Wood River valley was left out from the human carvings that delineated the boundaries of the Washakie Wilderness.
But spiritually and geographically, yes. The area is closed to motorized vehicles, day hikers are few, and the country is open and wild. Once prime grizzly habitat, the area is seeing growing grizzly presence now that the sweet slide back to something primeval has begun. In all likelihood, climbers will see more bears, bighorns, elk, moose, and deer than they will see humans once beyond the gates blocking the wheel.
Cross those gates and cross the boundary between the familiar and the wild. Trails lead to three named passes-- East Fork, Bear Creek, and Greybull (one of the most spectacular non-mountaintop settings in Greater Yellowstone)-- and to three unnamed passes at the heads of Smugglers Gulch, Cascade Gulch, and Horse Creek. There is also a Dunrud Pass out there, likely the pass not far south of Dunrud Peak, but it is not marked on maps and the trail that once led to it now seems to be all but gone.
From the passes, peaks both named and unnamed are accessible, usually by Class 2 routes but occasionally by Class 3 or harder.
I could go on and list all the peaks accessible from the various passes, but it might look like a shameless plug for my pages and those by my friend musicman82. Anyone interested in the peaks that do not already have links in this article can easily find information on them by going to the parent page and then viewing the attached mountain pages. However, it does seem that the pages musicman82 and I have put up are the only useful sources for Kirwin-area peaks on the Internet; locals may decry that, but I daresay that these peaks, which are not the types that make the standard tick lists, will not suffer because of it.
The gate is the edge of the flat world. Here there be mountains, not trophies. Now walk with the ghosts and listen for their whispers.