In Jackson Hole’s early years following Pete and Millie Karns’ arrival in 1884, different settlements popped up throughout the scenic valley. Kelly was one of these and, for many years, it rivaled Jackson as the largest settlement in the valley. All of this changed in 1927.
Two years earlier, wet spring conditions caused a huge landslide to slough off the north face of Sheep Mountain and form a natural dam across the Gros Ventre River. The aptly named “Lower Slide Lake” was formed behind the displaced mountainside. Kelly sat just downstream, on the stair-stepped sagebrush flats below the river’s exit from the Gros Ventre Mountains. The dam seemed impregnable as the natural reservoir filled behind it.
Heavy snowfall in 1927 and another wet spring, however, filled the new lake to its limit. Water began spilling over the dam, and as dead trees and other debris began drifting past Kelly in May of 1923, local residents sounded the alarm. The quick thinking of these individuals ensured that most residents were evacuated as the dam partially broke and water inundated their town. Six people perished in the flood, and only the Kelly church and schoolhouse were left standing after the waters subsided. The effects of the flood were felt as far downstream as Wilson and South Park. The vivid scarring on Sheep Mountain is still visible today, and Lower Slide Lake endures as well.
The flood not only changed the landscape, but the population distribution of the valley as well; Jackson was firmly established as the largest of the communities, and Kelly today is a shadow of its former self. What Kelly lacks in population and niceties found in a larger town, it makes up for in solitude, space, and extraordinary views of the Teton and Gros Ventre Ranges. The community is divided between the north and south banks of the Gros Ventre River, with the bulk of the development on the north bank, at the elbow of Antelope Flats Road. A connection to the valley’s frontier past is perhaps most visible amongst these homes, which include modest cattle and horse ranching operations as well as newer, more modern homes and even a few historical sites. Across the river, to the south, are a few truly secluded and beautiful locations.
With its own elementary school, Kelly offers a unique chance for a family to connect with some of Wyoming’s true western spirit. Being close enough to Jackson to afford access to the town’s amenities makes Kelly convenient; the untrammelled view of the Grand Tetons and the bugle of elk from the refuge just a few miles south make Kelly special.