It's easy, Joe Ellis assures me as the warm morning sun glints off Willow Creek's waters. But gazing through the gin-clear waters at the pebbled creek bottom, I'm not so sure I'll be good at panning for gold.
Filling his pan with dirt, Ellis, superintendent of South Pass City State Historic Site, scoops a pan-full of water from the creek and rhythmically sloshes the sediment back and forth. While loose dirt swirls into solution and then slops over the rim and back into the creek, heavier sediments snag on the circular ridges that ring the pan.
Several more times Ellis fills his pan with water, washes the slurry around, then pauses to poke through the remains for flakes of "flower gold" that might have been deposited along the pan's ridges.
But that was only one pan. During the 1867 gold rush that swarmed this valley nestled at the southern tip of Wyoming's Wind River Range, miners might dip their pans into the willow-lined creek's waters 1,000 times a day in search of gold. Other, more industrious miners turned to shovels, dynamite and sweat to burrow like ants into the hillsides surrounding South Pass in their chase after the mother lode.
Those were heady days, when more than 1,000 folks – mostly miners, but also some saloon keepers, butchers and even a few ladies of the night – filled the tight valley rimmed by sagebrush hillsides broken here and there by aspen and conifers. By 1868, the lure of an overnight fortune saw 300 buildings rise in South Pass City. Two years later, Ester Morris became the nation's first female judge when she was appointed justice of the peace for the town. Equality might have come to Wyoming, but the focus in South Pass remained a fevered hunt for overnight wealth.
Though the boom eventually busted, these days the town site is in surprisingly good condition, with 20 of the original buildings restored and open for tours. Strolling the wooden boardwalks along South Pass Avenue, I wander into the South Pass Hotel. On the main floor, I find the original front desk, complete with bell, register book and massive Detroit Safe Co. safe. Behind the lobby is the three-table dining room, across from which is the residence of owner Janet Sherlock, still holding much of her original furniture. Following a tight, creaky staircase upstairs I come upon the "bridal suite" with its pot-bellied stove off a hallway it shares with eight tiny rooms with beds holding rag stuffed mattresses. Outback of the hotel stands the outhouse. Neighboring buildings include the South Pass News office, a school house still holding books, desks and blackboards and the Exchange Saloon, which started life in 1869 as a bank before turning into a watering hole the following year where miners could either toast their finds or drown their sorrows.
Of course, during the gold rush some miners were more successful than others. The Carissa Gold Mine, for instance, produced as much as 180,000 ounces of gold during its lengthy run. But the first boom was short-lived. By 1872 the paucity of gold strikes had shrunk the town's population to only a few hundred. Subsequent booms, albeit smaller, reappeared during the first half of the 20th century.
Signs of the miners' efforts are plentiful. Some of their cabins still stand; there is quite a bit of rusted mining equipment left behind, even tunnels sunk into hillsides. The once-mighty Carissa Mine is being restored, an arduous project that should be finished late in 2008. The Gold Mining Interpretive Center near the junction of Price Street and South Pass Avenue is housed in a building that once was a mercantile. Inside, exhibits explain the process of mining, display the equipment assayers used to determine the value of ore and even depict a mine shaft and the hand-bored holes into which dynamite was placed.
These days, with gold prices on the north side of $600 an ounce, gold panning is still in vogue in the area surrounding the historic site. Within the site, you can't actually root through Willow Creek's streambed, but you can use its waters to sift through dirt brought in from a nearby site.
With each 5-pound bag of dirt advertising a 60 percent chance of containing some gold, I'm feeling pretty lucky as I dump some into the pan and dip it into the creek. But my technique is atrocious. First I fail to tip the pan sharply enough to slosh any water out. Then I go overboard and watch as too much slurry dumps into the creek. Several more times I dip, slosh and poke.
Nothing. Fortunately, at the general store I find a frosty sarsaparilla to wash away the disappointment.