Showdown on Teton Pass: The night Jackson citizens set out to take matters into it their own hands…and the governor blinked

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – We sure like to have our fun in winter. You have to, really. It’s a long season that tends to isolate the valley from the outside world and, back in the day, made hermits out of a lot of folks toughing it out in their cabins.

In recognition of the new event series (Brews and Banter*) sponsored by Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, this week’s Hole History looks at winter in Jackson. While the monthly series this January focuses on winter sports, Buckrail dug up an interesting gem from 1940 that displays Jackson’s independent, outlaw spirit. It’s a classic.

The Pass comes of age

Horse-drawn freighters was the way people and stuff got into the valley from Victor from 1900-1930. (“This Was Jackson’s Hole,” Fern K. Nelson)

The 1920s brought a transition from primarily horse-drawn wagons and sleighs over Teton Pass to automobiles. The Oregon Shortline Railroad head in Victor was still the predominant departure and arrival point for access to Jackson Hole from all points in the country. Once there, it was a 26-mile ride over the “Big Bump” into Jackson’s Hole.

By the mid-1930s, residents were clamoring for year-round access in and out of the valley during winter. As snowplow equipment and technology improved, it was soon possible to clear Teton Pass of snow. In 1937, Teton Pass was kept open all winter with residents of Jackson Hole even kicking in a “dual taxation” fund of their own of $600-800 a year to supplement the state’s budget to keep the plows running.

Then, in January 1940, the State Highway Department suddenly decided it was too costly to keep the pass open all winter. A letter from district highway engineer William Sutton of Rock Springs declared the state would no longer plow Teton Pass beginning in the new year. Reaction from JH was swift and savage.

Sometimes, no amount of plowing could keep Teton Pass open. (JHHSM)

Citizens objected to the notion that the state did not have the money to keep the pass open. After all, of the State Highway Department’s annual $18,000,000 budget, a mere $1,300 was all it took to keep Teton Pass open during the winter of 1938-39. In addition, the decision appeared political in nature. News that the state decided Togwotee Pass would be plowed all winter long for the first time ever didn’t sit well with many residents.

The Jackson’s Hole Courier called Togwotee a road “three times as long as Teton Pass road and felt by many locals to be far less usable and of little distinct benefit to Jackson Hole.” It was 217 miles to nearest railhead in Lander heading over Togwotee, whereas only 26 miles separated Jackson from the world via Teton Pass.

Jackson’s Hole Courier – Jan 4, 1940.pdf

A front-page story in the January 4, 1940 Courier included phrases like, “Residents at fever pitch,” and “Feeling boiled high.” Hundreds of pleas were sent to Governor Nels Smith. Mayor Harold Clissold wrote and telephoned state highway engineer RJ Templeton and Governor Smith himself. William L Simpson of Cheyenne, along with his son, Milward Simpson of Jackson/Cody, personally met with the governor as well.

It was no use. The state would not budge.

Storm brews

Jackson looking southeast in 1940. (William P. Sanborn)

Meanwhile, private citizens were trying to figure out a way to plow the road themselves. Ross Deke, a road committee member, offered his own heavy-duty GMC truck. Another offered a plow blade. Several businessmen in the community also made tentative offers to help. If all failed, the town would use its puny street plow to head up the pass and do what it could.

Then, on January 9, 1940, some 200 residents of Jackson calling themselves a “borrowing delegation” made a march past several saloons on their way to storm the state highway department’s facility and demand the night watchman let them in. They were going to commandeer state plows and clear the pass themselves. After all, was the equipment not property of taxpaying citizens?

The gambit worked. When Gov. Smith learned what was happening he ordered state plow drivers to man their machines and do the work rather than risk private citizens behind the wheel causing potential damage to equipment. A long-range solution was also worked out, and in a matter of days the January 11, 1940 the Courier headline read: “Gov. Smith Intercedes in Teton Pass Opening.”

Jackson’s Hole Courier – Jan 11, 1940

Column from Courier’s Jan. 11, 1940 edition. (Jackson’s Hole Courier)

What should have resulted in punishment from Cheyenne for the attempted pirating of state equipment, was in actuality a concession of Jackson Hole’s unique brand of passion. Judging from news stories in publications as far away as Salt Lake and Idaho Falls, public sentiment was with the vigilante actions of Jackson’s citizens.

Arrangements were made to keep Teton Pass open all winter provided winter storms were “light” in nature. Whatever the rest of the season brought for snowfall, state highway plow drivers did, indeed, consider it “light” and kept the pass open for the remainder of 1940 and ever since.

*Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum presents “Brews and Banter” on the last Thursday of the month.

The program kicks off TONIGHT at 7pm on January 25 with the theme of “Winter Sports in Jackson Hole.” Panelists include Rod Newcomb, Peter Ashley, Jeff Crabtree, Donna Clark, and Angus Thuermer. In addition, the JHHSM will be showing 1940s (and earlier!) film footage of skiing at Snow King, the Cutter Races, and snow plane races on Jackson Lake. These oral and visual histories will bring retro skiing to life! Come by 225 N Cache Street to join in the fun.

Thursday’s event is free and open to the public. The evening is generously sponsored by Roadhouse Brewing. The first 40 attendees will receive one free beer.

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