Finding Toltec: A Case Study in Geohistory

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Tami Morse and Tamsen Hert
University of Wyoming Libraries
Dept. 3334, 1000 E. University Ave.
Laramie, WY 82071

tmorsemc@uwyo.edu
thert@uwyo.edu

As librarians it is not unusual to find ourselves involved in many organizations. In 2009, Tami Hert became head of a newly created library department within the University of Wyoming Libraries—Emmett D. Chisum Special Collections. At the same time, as part of the service requirement in library faculty positions, she was president of the Albany County Historical Society. At one of the meetings that spring, a member asked if she would be interested in visiting with a friend who had a diary about a trip to Yellowstone.

In June, before Special Collections was a functioning department, Mary Bahmer came to visit, diary in hand. It was her goal to trace the route her great aunt, Etta Bross, made with her Methodist minister husband, Frank Bross, in 1906. Mary hoped to get the diary published but wanted to visit the areas described in the diary. Most of the route from Casper to Yellowstone was easy traveling. However, the 1906 trip headed directly north from Laramie, to Glenrock, Wyoming, a fairly rugged route that crosses the Laramie Mountains and follows old stage roads for only part of the way. No current state highway follows this route though it is the most direct route north. The entire diary is a compelling story of a four-month adventure from Laramie, Wyoming to Yellowstone National Park and the return trip via Lander, Wyoming. Tami Hert continued working with Mary on the possibility of publishing the diary. In 2012 though, it was time to make the trip through northern Albany County. Tami Hert invited Tami Morse to help find the route and make the journey with them.

Our search for the route to Glenrock started with a close reading of the diary itself. Noting the landmarks Etta Bross named in the diary, we listed them in the order the travelers reached them. Many of the towns she mentioned still exist today. Many of the physical landmarks retained their names over the 106 years since the Brosses made their journey. Some places were not so easily identified, so we compared the names in the diary with current landmarks named similarly: we matched Stony Point, for example, to Point of Rocks in the La Prele River valley.

The main sources for information on the present-day locations of the diary landmarks were the 2006 and 2011 editions of the De Lorme atlas for the state of Wyoming, and the 2008 Wyoming Road and Recreation Atlas from Benchmark. Most of the towns and landmarks we located lay along the route of the Union Pacific Railroad and on the Fetterman Road, a north-south route through central Albany County which is still used today. The Hebard Historic Map Collection contains some maps from the period of the trip, so we pulled them to confirm what we found in the modern maps. The historic maps showed us one unexpected feature: the railroad ran along a different route. The Bross’ first stops were at towns or stations along the rail route, which were likely at different sites than where they stand now. The maps from the Hebard Collection were drawn a few years prior to the 1906 trip, but were the closest contemporary sources available. We considered them to be our best source for landmark locations. The time difference would prove to be significant, as we discovered later in our research.

As a final check before setting out on the road, we pulled the USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps that covered our proposed route. These sheets gave us a more detailed idea of the terrain we would be crossing, better locations for some of the more obscure landmarks, and a clearer sense of the route, especially in some remote parts of the county where dirt roads crisscross in a confusing maze. We took copies of the topos with us on our trip; while we hoped to use the GPS features on our smartphones, we felt it would be unwise to completely rely on electronics on the backroads of rural Wyoming. We also took a copy of the diary, to follow as we retraced the trip. We drove our proposed route on a beautiful dry day in June 2012. (See Figure 1) Tami Morse retraced the trip in October, 2013, after we were able to refine some of our conclusions based on additional research.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The diary describes the events of the trip, some quite exciting, but it also contains rich descriptions of the land through which they traveled. As we followed the old railroad grade, then the Fetterman Road as it exists today, it became clear that the landscape we were seeing didn’t always match the landscape Etta Bross described. This was especially true in the early stages of the trip. The diary mentions coming to a river and crossing a bridge, then taking a wrong turn toward McGill Ranch and having to cross country back toward Boswell Springs. We assumed the river referred to was the Laramie River, but our route stayed on the same side of the Laramie as Boswell Springs – no need to cross a bridge. We assumed that the railroad route was correct, so the diary must have been referring to a different river. Our best guess was Rock Creek, since we needed to pass through the town of Rock River to reach the Fetterman Road, crossing over Rock Creek in the process.

Other landmarks proved elusive, too. Point of Rocks was too far along the route to correspond to Stony Point, but we did find a prominent rocky hill, unnamed on current maps, that lies in the right location. Many of the ranches the Brosses stopped at no longer exist – in fact, some of them were abandoned at the time of their trip, to their consternation. The roads in the La Prele River valley were tangled and confusing, and even the Brosses got lost. They made quite a bit of this portion of the trip cross-country, and left only descriptions of dry creek beds, natural cuts, and rugged terrain to guide us. They appeared to move from one ranch, Brockway’s Ranch, well east of the valley, to another, the O.S. Ranch, quite a bit west of the valley, by following creek beds and bushwhacking across rocky flats. We were never able to pin down this part of the route completely.

The most intriguing lost landmark, though, was a town called Toltec. Toltec appears as a ghost town on current maps, but they locate it in the canyon of the North Laramie River well away from any reasonable travel route. The diarists reach “Gillispies at Toltec” a few hours after leaving Boswell Springs, and they describe it lying in a valley in the foothills of the Laramie Mountains. There’s a store at Toltec, where Frank buys a bridle and quirt for a new horse they purchased along the way, so Toltec seems to be a significant waypoint along the Fetterman Road. We found no sign of it along the road, though.

Once we returned from our trip, we took stock of what we had found. Our first question was, what route did the Union Pacific Railroad actually take at the time of the 1906 trip? Maps earlier than the trip showed the route winding west then back east. Maps drawn later than the trip show a more direct north-south route, the one the railroad still follows. The first two stops on the Bross’ trip, Howell and Bosler, are towns along the current rail route, but there are signs of an earlier site for Howell along the old route. The rail grade was also moved across the river, the old route running west of the Laramie River and the new route running east of it. The Brosses traveled to the Laramie River, then to Boswell Springs west of the river. If they followed the older rail grade west of the river, there was no need to cross a bridge over the Laramie.

The railroad appears to have been rerouted very near to the time of the trip. The map held in the Hebard Collection closest to the time of the trip is dated 1892. Clearly, this was too early to help our research. We needed to find maps closer to the actual year of the trip, 1906. Searches at both the Wyoming State Archives and the map collection at the Laramie Plains Museum yielded a General Land Office map of Albany County in 1900. This map showed both routes, the new one and the old one. (See Figure 2) A few later maps depict only the newer route. It seems likely that the route was changed in 1900, so the diarists followed the route east of the Laramie River.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Some of the lost landmarks now fell into place. The bridge crossed was likely the McGill Bridge, still shown on contemporary maps. Beyond the McGill Bridge, the roads divide into one of those confusing tangles, and at this point the Brosses lost their way. They followed a road toward McGill Ranch, called Kite Ranch on modern maps, then had to cut west to find Boswell Springs.

But this changed the earlier part of the route. Early plats of Albany County show a road between Laramie and Fort Fetterman (near present day Douglas) that runs along the rail grade, then turns more directly north. This road eventually crosses the McGill Bridge. This is probably the actual route the Brosses followed in 1906. We overlooked it in our first mapping, because it bypasses some of the towns they mentioned as stops along their way, and it doesn’t connect to the existing Fetterman Road. This original road can still be identified on current maps. In 2013, we were able to find the point where the old road diverged from the present-day highway. Traces on the land can still be seen, but most of the original road is no longer passable.

The town of Toltec turned into an even more elaborate puzzle. (See Figure 3) As mentioned above, a ghost town named Toltec appears on current maps of the area, well east of Fetterman Road near the North Laramie River. In 2013 we followed the side road from Fetterman Road to the vicinity of the Toltec ghost town; it lies on private land now, so we couldn’t reach the town itself. The Brosses were driving a heavily laden wagon pulled by a single horse (they acquired a second horse on their trip, used only for riding.) Our side trip to Toltec ghost town confirmed that the terrain was too rugged for such a rig to make the trip as easily as they did in the diary story. Toltec ghost town is also in the wrong location, several days’ drive (by horse wagon) from Boswell Springs. The terrain between Fetterman Road and the ghost town also didn’t match any description given in the very descriptive diary. Clearly, this was not our town.

hert_fig_3

In late 2012, the University of Wyoming Libraries acquired a rare postal route map of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming dated 1903. Our mysterious Toltec appears on this map, as a post office located north of the still existing town of Garrett. The location of Toltec Post Office matches that of the ghost town, but the fact that Toltec was a post office proved to be an important clue.

As we dug further into the story in the diary and the historical geography around it, we found plats which showed us the original trace of the road from Laramie to Fort Fetterman at the Wyoming State Archives. There was also a treasure trove of extensive records from the local history projects undertaken by the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression. These projects included written narrative histories of many of the towns in Wyoming, and also of its post offices. We located a list of the postmasters of Toltec Post Office, which existed from 1891 to 1933. We also found a short narrative titled “A Peripatetic Postoffice,” which informed us that Toltec Post Office actually moved every time it changed postmasters; instead of the postmaster moving to the post office, the post office moved to the postmaster’s home ranch!

With the list of Toltec postmasters and knowing “Toltec” was located at their ranches, we turned to records of the ranches in Albany County to try to narrow our search. Several more possible locations presented themselves: Matheson Ranch, along Hay Creek, south of the ghost town but still too far east of Fetterman Road; Newell Ranch, along Cottonwood Creek, further south and closer to the road; and a ranch called on some maps Bar M Ranch and on others the 30 Mile Ranch, on the Fetterman Road at the mouth of Hay Draw. 30 Mile Ranch is mentioned in the diary as one of their intended stopping points; apparently it was off the main route some distance, and they missed the road that would have taken them there. The diary also mentions Mr. Laughlin, whom they visited on their way to 30 Mile Ranch after leaving Toltec; Lemuel Laughlin was the postmaster of Toltec Post Office from 1899 to 1905 or 1906. “A Peripatetic Postoffice” mentions that L. L. Laughlin moved Toltec to the Bar M Ranch, and that a Mr. Mattheson or Mathewson took over as postmaster at around the time of the diary trip. The location of the Bross’ Toltec seems to narrow down to somewhere near the Bar M Ranch.

But the Brosses stopped at “Gillispies at Toltec.” Who is Gillispie?

As we traced the movement of the Toltec Post Office, we found another clue: a Toltec Live Stock Company existed around this same period. The Company was actively buying up smaller ranches and homesteads in north central Albany County. The manager of the company for a time was none other than Lemuel Laughlin. With our focus shifted to ranches along the route, we re-examined a map we had found at the Laramie Plains Museum: an undated map of Albany County, showing the county divided into townships, ranges and sections and listing the owners of each section. On this map, Toltec Post Office is shown at the ranch of Neil Matheson, who is listed as its postmaster. That dates the map to 1906 or 1907, since Mr. Matheson served as postmaster for only a year. The map also shows a ranch owned by one Alex Gillespie, near the Fetterman Road and right next door to a parcel owned by the Toltec Livestock Company. The Company would eventually acquire Alex Gillespie’s ranch, but it still existed in 1906 when the Brosses passed through.

We have found several references to Toltec in the Laramie newspapers from this period. One story refers to the “Toltec precinct,” making it seem as if this was a significant area but widely dispersed. There was also a Toltec election district listed in the 1910 census. Toltec may refer more to an area than a pinpointed place, with a post office and a store serving as a gathering point for the ranchers in the area. Our best guess based on our research is that the Toltec store that supplied the Brosses was situated on the Gillespie ranch. (See Figure 4)

Figure 4

Figure 4

Research on the route continues as part of the design for the published version of the diary. Scouring the Laramie newspapers from 1904-1906 provided insights into the communities as well as the activities of Frank and Etta Bross. An enticing article appeared March 10, 1905 titled “New Map of Albany County.” According to the article, Charles Bellamy has “completed a very comprehensive map of Albany County” which shows “the location of all the ranches, the county roads, the owners of the lands, and has an index containing the names of over three hundred ranch men of the county.” We believe this is the map we were thrilled to find at the Laramie Plains Museum. Conversations with museum volunteers indicate that they are unsure of the date of the map but it is signed with Bellamy’s name. While we may not have found Toltec, we may have helped date a significant, local map.

A 1905 county assessment also provided demographic information for the area. From this we learned that the Toltec District had a population of 272. Other districts the Brosses passed through were Garrett with a population of 33 and Rock Creek, with 288. Laramie’s population at this time was 7601.

Have we found Toltec? Not exactly. But putting the pieces together using the historic resources available, coupled with newer maps and modern technology, we are pretty close. There are still individuals we wish to visit and/or tour the area with. It has certainly been an adventure and we are still searching for Toltec.

References

  • Bellamy, Charles. Albany County, Wyo. 1905?
  • Bross, Etta M. Diary, privately owned.
  • Benchmark Maps. Wyoming Road & Recreation Atlas, 2008.
  • De Lorme. Wyoming Atlas & Gazetteer, 2006 and 2011.
  • Owen, W. O. “A Portion of the Laramie to Fetterman Road,” Albany County plat book, 1890? Microfilm, Wyoming State Archives.
  • U.S. Post Office Dept. Post Route Map of the States of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, 1903.
  • “A Peripatetic Postoffice”, WPA file 1159 – Albany County towns – Toltec, Wyoming State Archives

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