Project stands as reminder of legacy

Kevin McNiven sat casually astride his horse, his leg draped around the saddle's horn as he listened to tributes paid to the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers, many of whom died in the bitter Wyoming winter weather of 1856.

Brother McNiven, of the Wind River Branch, Riverton Wyoming Stake, was among hundreds gathered at Rock Creek, about 65 miles southwest of Riverton, for the dedication of a monument to 15 members of the Willie Handcart Company who died here, 13 of whom are buried in a common grave. President Gordon B. Hinckley, first counselor in the First Presidency, was the main speaker and offered the dedicatory prayer during the July 23 service. (Please see accompanying article on this page.)Flanking both ends of the stand during the dedication service were two horsemen, one being Brother McNiven. During President Hinckley's address and dedicatory prayer, Brother McNiven sat quietly on "Maverick," his horse. After the closing prayer was offered, he gazed over the Rock Creek site, his cowboy hat pulled low, his eyes filled with tears.

Brother McNiven's response could well represent the feelings of many members of the Riverton Wyoming Stake who have worked tirelessly since 1991 to do the temple work for the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers - and to dedicate four monuments to them. This fourth and final dedication brought to a close what stake members have been calling the "Willie Project." (Please see Church News, Oct. 19, 1991, and Aug. 22, 1992.)

The evening before the dedication of the Rock Creek site, the Church News met with stake Pres. Robert Scott Lorimer in the high council room of the stake center in Riverton. The room had been converted into somewhat of a visitors center for people to see the binders containing 40,000 pages of history and temple work information for the handcart pioneers and their rescuers. Also spread throughout the room were materials related to the "Willie Project," such as bronze monument markers - those that were flawed and unusable - and a piece of wood from an original handcart.

During the interview, Pres. Lorimer's voice cracked with emotion several times. He said doing the temple work and erecting the monuments "changed us. It's left us different people. Our stake has learned that the only difference between faith and knowledge is responsibility and accountability."

In a one-year period - July 1991 to September 1992 - members here researched and did the temple work for 10,000 people - including the family members and descendants of the handcart pioneers.

"Our stake was just on fire," Pres. Lorimer said. "It was an exciting time. Everybody was busy doing good stuff. It was great."

During this time, the "Willie Project" - funded entirely by stake members - was expanded to making bronze monuments for three of the sites of the Willie and Martin Handcart companies - at Martin's Cove, Willie Rescue Site and Rocky Ridge. The fourth site at Rock Creek already had a monument, which had never been dedicated as the land was under private ownership.

The plaques at Martin's Cove and Rocky Ridge weigh 85 pounds each, while the one at Willie Rescue Site weighs 120 pounds. Pres. Lorimer spoke of the process of making bronze plaques, a task requiring 92 steps. "If you goof up one step, you start all over," he noted.

He described how the fingers of stake members became raw while gluing plastic letters in the molds for the plaques. "It's been an incredible experience for us," Pres. Lorimer added.

Plans began to be laid for dedication of the Rock Creek monument when the Church purchased the property in 1992. A challenge faced in preparing to honor the pioneers was the fact that in 1906 miners came through and dredged Rock Creek and left ugly scars.

To clean up the area for the dedication, stake members came out in large numbers this summer. Youth and adults leveled tailings left by the miners, reseeded and watered the area and dug out beaver dams.

Probably the most touching project occurred just two weeks before the dedication service. This summer, a young priest, George Broce, was killed in an accident. In his memory, his priesthood quorum erected a flag pole just north of the Rock Creek monument.

During the dedication service, President Hinckley referred to the flag pole. "On that staff flies the flag of the United States of America and the flag of the state of Wyoming. The presence of that flag pole here is another indication of keeping a sacred trust to those who have passed beyond."

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