Laramie, Wyoming
Chapters  1 2 3 4

150 Years of Laramie, Wyoming

Two perspectives of a historic railroad town

By Katie Jackson

read more
The original Dale Creek Crossing wooden bridge under construction above Dale Creek near Laramie, Wyoming

May 4, 1868

I felt it before I heard it. The faint tremble in the ground bringing my neighbors out of their tents was subtler than the rumble of a stagecoach or wagon train. But the noise, when it finally came, could drown out the sound of 1,000 stampedes. I was expecting a whistle. It was more like a deafening cacophony of iron.

The original Dale Creek Crossing wooden bridge under construction above Dale Creek near Laramie, Wyoming

The arrival of the steam train in Laramie, Wyoming, wasn’t the only excitement that week. Everyone—from the Fort Sanders soldiers to the Irish construction workers and Civil War veterans laying the Union Pacific tracks and even the prostitutes entertaining the gamblers—was being vocal about the town election.

“Town” was generous given we were still pretty much a tent city. There was no school for the kids; church only occurred when a traveling preacher came to town (and we found enough crates to sit on), and our newly elected mayor? He had about as much control over the community as he did the weather.

Summer of 1868

People stand outside Keystone Hall circa 1868 in the historic Laramie, WY tent city

I read it before I believed it. According to the railroad’s newspaper, The Frontier Index, Laramie was growing exponentially. People were flocking to the “halfway town between Salt Lake and Omaha.” In reality, people were gradually coming—Laramie was now at the end of the tracks—and they weren’t the kind of characters you’d want to meet on the dusty, wheel-trodden road we called main street. They were the kind you’d see holding up a train, robbing a bank and eventually, hanging from a noose.

People stand outside Keystone Hall circa 1868 in the historic Laramie, WY tent city

Our local government officials, unable to maintain law and order, were resigning like flies. I was thankful for my job in timbering. It got me out of town and provided ample job security since Union Pacific desperately needed wood for ties and bridges. More passenger trains were arriving every week, and with them came more permanent residents. In fact, the word going around Ivinson’s general store was that we’d have a school by the end of the year. Childless, I was more concerned with getting a prison. Where else were we going to put the thugs that the vigilantes (my sheep and cattle ranching friends moonlighting as rogue deputies) were rounding up by the minute?

May 4, 2018

A woman waves from a red stagecoach with yellow wheels in Albany County, Wyoming

We heard them before we saw them. Climbing out of our SUV in the parking lot, we were immediately welcomed by a surprising cadence: the beating of Native American drums. I’d read that Laramie’s 150th anniversary kick-off celebration—held at Wyoming Territorial Prison—involved living history, but I wasn’t sure what it would look, or in this case, sound like.

“Dad, can we get in line for the horses?” seven-year-old Ava asked.

I didn’t expect the prison to have lines—or be teeming with kids—but it made sense when a local said the celebration was so important that all public school students and city employees had the day off. While Ava and her mom rode in a stagecoach, I introduced nine-year-old Miles to the art of blacksmithing while we watched the blacksmith wield the forging tools over the hot fire.

A woman waves from a red stagecoach with yellow wheels in Albany County, Wyoming

Around us, more enthusiastic residents of Laramie-past, aka historians in period clothing, were practicing trick roping, riding early 20th century bicycles and demonstrating how to lay railroad tracks. Of course, there were also the drummers.

Besides reenactors and permanent museum exhibits—the prison had a room entirely devoted to its most infamous convict, Butch Cassidy—there were several films playing. I recognized the old Western movies my dad grew up on and the Netflix series Hell on Wheels. Between the PBS documentary End of Tracks and the TV series The Laramie Show, we got a pretty vivid picture of what Laramie looked like at the beginning of its timeline.  

“Dad, can we get in line for food?” Miles asked after I told him to save some of the free popcorn for the rest of the crowd. I seized the opportunity to trick him into thinking we’d have to eat in the prison’s mess hall. He didn’t fall for it—he’d already seen the food trucks parked outside.

May 5, 2018

A man holds a rifle in front of a black stagecoach outside of the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site in Laramie, Wyoming

The day after the kick-off party, we began making the rounds of Laramie’s other museums—all 12 advertised free special events and exhibits for the 150th anniversary. Laramie’s train museum was hosting a model train show, so we started at the Historic Laramie Union Pacific Train Depot. Although it had been decades since the last passengers bought tickets, and decades since the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places, it was so well preserved that it seemed like someone had just hit the “pause” button. We enjoyed perusing the impressively detailed model trains and wished we could stay in town for the art show running May 6–9.

“Can we play outside?” the kids asked when they’d gotten their model train fix. I answered, “Race you to the steam locomotive!”

My wife and I wanted to see the retired, and from the looks of it, painstakingly restored, trains on display in the adjacent park. There was also Laramie’s rail yard to check out.

A man holds a rifle in front of a black stagecoach outside of the Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site in Laramie, Wyoming

Today, Laramie is known as a college town. Its founders, who fought so hard to get the town’s first brick and mortar school established, would be proud that it is now home to the University of Wyoming. In the late 19th century, Laramie was famous for playing a significant part in the country’s first transcontinental railroad. But from where we were standing—high up on a pedestrian bridge spanning the tracks—the rail yard looked all but deserted. With our bird’s-eye view of the depot, the people and the tracks, the only thing missing from the scene was a moving train, but we didn’t have to wait too long.

We felt it before we heard it.

And when we finally heard it, it was all we heard. The rush of more than 100 tons of steel and iron barreling beneath the bridge we were standing on froze us in our tracks. It was a day we’d remember, but surely, just another day in Laramie.

Plan your adventure in historic Laramie, Wyoming.