This month I'd like to share with you a source I've come to enjoy as much for recreation as research. It's the Wyoming Newspapers project (newspapers.wyo.gov) and unlike similar online services, this one is free. One of several searchable online database projects from the Wyoming State Library (WSL) it competes with Wyoming Inventors, Wyoming Legislation and Wyoming Places for most compelling content. Dozens of newspapers from several decades are available in searchable PDF format. As you’d expect from the era, the ads are a hoot and the editorials, inflammatory. In the style of the day there's plenty of yellow journalism and spurious headlines. What today we'd call Clickbait.
For quite a while I just had fun poking around aimlessly. But then I started following Laramie’s city council notes for the years 1898-1904.
A little background. In our day job, Gina and I work with a wide variety of businesses making up marketing programs, developing web sites, and writing copy. To me, the most interesting groups we work with usually have something to do with the nuts and bolts of the real world, or maybe it's better to say, the world's foundation. The utility companies, the freight distributors, and the economic development associations. During the past 25 years, it's sometimes been surprising to see how the world actually works, and more, to see how that reality is communicated to the public through the media. (Read: not always so accurately.)
So I when I noticed the City Council debating over bids to supply the city with arc lamps, I was hooked.
Arc lamps were in use in Wyoming as early as February, 1884 (in Cheyenne) and it's something you rarely see in movies or read about in traditional westerns. The bid to put up the first poles was won by the Brush-Swan Electric Light Company. (More at BlackHillsCorp.com).
The lamps were placed on corners and above intersections and gave off intense white light due to high voltage electric arcs jumping through air between carbon electrodes. Usually powered by relatively small steam powered dynamos, arc lamps were the first practical public lighting in the West. By the turn of the century, their use was already in decline, though many small towns were just getting into the act.
I won’t try to recreate the entire saga here, but if you search by city (Laramie) and paper (Daily Boomerang) and look for “arc lamps,” you’ll see what I mean.
Step back more than a century. The excitement of new technologies and the progress of economies struggled with petty regulations and unfortunate infighting. (Sounds like our world today, doesn’t it?) Such was life on the Wyoming frontier.
Toss in a good character, a decent subplot or two, and you'd have a crackling fun story grounded in oft-ignored history.
Then, like now, a hero wasn't as often the guy with the gun, but the person who could keep the lights on through whatever silly obstacles stood in his or her way.