(Off I-90 Between Sundance, Wy, and Spearfish,SD)
By Samuel Western
Beulah, Wyoming—The Vore Buffalo Jump near here is primal, rough and endowed with all the ambiance of open pit iron mine. On a November day at the site there is no sound except the whine of rubber on Interstate 90 a mere 100 yards away.
A sign warns: Please do not tease the rattlesnakes.
Not your normal tourist welcome message perhaps. But for all its lack of charm, the Vore Buffalo Jump is an utterly remarkable place.
For anyone traveling in the Black Hills or visiting Devils Tower in northeast Wyoming, in fact, this amazing and little-known place is worth a short detour. Hotels and B&B’s are plentiful in nearby Sundance, Wyoming, and Spearfish, South Dakota.
Here in Beulah there is even a bar & grill, the Buffalo Jump Saloon and Steak House that features grass-fed, grain-finished buffalo t-bone and rib-eye raised not far away at the Catron Ranch. As you eat, buffalo skulls gaze down on you from knotty pine walls.
The 18,000 acre Catron Ranch, on the banks of the Little Missouri in Camp Crook, South Dakota, also offers buffalo hunts. So far, however, it does not involve driving the buffalo over a cliff into a giant sinkhole.
The Vore Buffalo Jump is a sinkhole: a geological phenomenon created by acidic water that, rising up from the deep, eats away at layers of gypsum below the surface of the prairie. Over the centuries, the space created by the dissolving gypsum becomes a cavern or cave. If the “roof” of the cavern is close enough to the surface, it collapses, creating a cone-shaped hole in the earth.
Hundreds of sinkholes dot the Rocky Mountains. For 300 years, Plains Indians used them extensively to trap buffalo.
The Vore, however, is the Fort Knox of buffalo traps – or jumps – as they are called.
At the bottom of the Vore sinkhole lies the most complete archeological record of any North American epoch, a concentrated lens on sweeping changes in Native American civilizations. It contains the bones of 20,000 buffalo and the tools of buffalo harvest: knives, arrowheads, spear points, wolf skulls, all beautifully preserved in layers of clay and red dirt. For 300 years, it was the well of protein for at least seven tribes.
“It’s not just a pile of bones, it’s a history book,” says Gene Gade, director the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation.
In its current form, the Vore Buffalo site is a hole two hundred feet wide and 85 feet deep. At the top, the owners have erected a makeshift fence of posts connected with nylon rope to protect visitors from taking a tumble, although such a fall would hardly be fatal. A footpath curls down around to the bottom.
At the base of the pit is a lot of disturbed red earth and a rectangular hole covered with sheets of corrugated steel, a door of sorts bolted shut with chains and padlocks.
The Vore Buffalo Jump has a sporadic history of excavation. “I never went down there when I was a kid,” said Ted Vore, whose family originally owned the land for generations. “It was a brush hole filled with rattlesnakes.”
(By the way, it turns out that rattlesnake population was considerably over-estimated. The reptiles are only the occasional visitor).
As an archeological site, it wasn’t discovered until 1970 when a survey crew for Interstate – 90 discovered the sinkhole directly in the intended path of the new road. Curious about the stability of rock below the sinkhole, the engineers drilled a series of holes. They found bones. Lots of bones.
Enter researchers George Frison and Charles Reher from the University of Wyoming. In the summers of 1971 and 1972, they – mostly Reher – dug at Vore, confirming it as one of the most significant Plains Indian archeological site ever found.
“I was amazed at how well-preserved the bones were,” said Reher. “I couldn’t find the bottom of the darned thing. We kept digging and digging. I still remember being way down in that hole, looking up a square of sky above me and all the silhouettes of those bones sticking out the wall like rebar.”
The archeologists schlepped samples back to Laramie. Then, for various reasons – mostly financial – the digging stopped. The archeologists backfilled their diggings to protect the site.
Site work at Vore remained the back burner of the archeological stove, despite the fact that in 1989 the Vore family donated the site to the University of Wyoming.
The site was nearly forgotten. By the time Gade moved to Sundance in 1988, he spent days just trying to find the sinkhole.
When he found it, Gade took an immediate interest in the site. His passion for Vore coincided with a shift in the administrative universe. University of Wyoming dithered so long in developing Vore they lost title to the property.
In donating the site to the University of Wyoming, the Vore family mandated that the buffalo jump had to be transformed into a permanent education center, open to the public, within 12 years of the signing of the deed.
The university failed to make the deadline.
“We had to put that language in the contract,” said Vore. “My father was extremely pleased that UW took the site. But he wanted a research center, not a tourist trap. ‘May they never sell a rubber tomahawk,’ he said to us kids.”
The university relinquished the buffalo jump and the Vore family who immediately gave it to Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation.
Slowly, the foundation began restoring the site: improved trails, interpretive signs, a paved parking lot, a small but handsome log-cabin interpretive center. They resumed excavating in a modest fashion. A rectangular excavation, roughly 6 ft. by 15 ft. gives visitors a glimpse of the treasures that lie below.
The Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation has big plans. They have hired New Mexico architect Dennis Holloway to design an interpretive and research center at the site. What they envision, says Gade, is a research laboratory and a living history tipi village that would wrap around the north rim of the sinkhole. Excavations would continue under a permanent structure, permitting visitors to watch as the dig expands while protecting site from weather and vandalism.
Money, naturally, is the issue. They need $12.5 million. The Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation is slowing building up its war chest.
You couldn’t get better location than beside I-90. The site, rustic as it is, gets 10,000 visitors per year.
Even though the site closes each fall, people still pull in the parking lot and walk down into the sinkhole. My interview with Vore kept getting interrupted as people showed up. Vore didn’t seem to mind, acting like the place was still open, “c’mon in, folks,” he said, and then he looked at me. “It’s like this every time, no matter the season. I come down here to do a little work on the place and I end talking to people. I won’t get out of here for two hours, I almost guarantee that.”
The Vore Buffalo Jump website: http://www.vorebuffalojump.org/