Sunday, July 5, 2015

"From 0 TO 80 In a Few Weeks: Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming" by Steve Kohlhagen

If you go out and hop into your friendly neighborhood time machine in order to check out Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming in April of 1867, you will find............Well, you will find nothing.

Prairie dogs? Sure. Buffalo? Sure. Plains Indians? Sure. Plains? Sure. But settlers? None. Zero. Zilch. A few brave souls or miners riding by now and then, for sure. But no sign of anything approaching a town or a settlement. Maybe a cattle rancher dropping by for a speculative visit in case the rumors of the coming railroad were true.

And the rumors were true.

On July 5, 1867 a surveying party set up camp and established a land office at what would later become Cheyenne. They platted a town to serve the coming Union Pacific Railroad stop. And presto! Out of prairie dog villages, a boom town!

The first house was built. Then the first two story house was built, both that very month. When the railroad actually arrived four months later, on November 13, there were already 4,000 residents and a nearly two month old newspaper, The Cheyenne Leader. By all accounts, these 4,000 or so fortune seekers, saloon owners, "girls" and their employers, and gamblers were all "the scum of society."

Nevertheless, the citizens held a meeting on September 27 and decided to elect an (uninvited) delegate to Congress, which they did on October 8 (more than a month before the railroad would actually arrive). The settlers were excited about the coming cattle boom, but in no way were they ready to let any grass grow under their feet! When the first winter arrived 6,000 people had set up shop in "The Sodom of the West."

By January 1868, it was time to deal with the worst of the scum, and the town's vigilantes came into full swing, warning citizens explicitly to "Beware of the Vigilance Committee." At the end of 1868, by which time the railroad had reached westward to what would be Laramie, the town had three newspapers and three banks. Population estimates exceeding 50,000 were being thrown around. This was clearly too high, but the picture is clear. A more reliable estimate held that by 1871 an estimated 60,000 cattle were grazing within 100 miles of the town, where, a mere four years earlier, only antelope, buffalo, and prairie dogs had more or less quietly roamed the plains (see for some fascinating pictures of this thriving town in 1868 and 1869.)

The same amazing story then moved 50 miles west. On to what was to become Laramie.

The land agent for the Union Pacific Railroad arrived at that spot in April, 1868 to find a tent city of 200 people anticipating his arrival. These hardy souls were already camped out in wagons, tents, sod-roofed dugouts, and railroad-tie cabins.

In the first week, four hundred town lots were sold. In the first two weeks, 500 "businesses" arrived.

On May 9, the final track was laid and on May 10, the first train arrived to find a thriving shack and tent city of 2,000 people, the vast majority of whom were described as "rakes," three card monte dealers, poker players, gamblers, their "shrill voiced painted consorts," and other "dregs." Various descriptions suggest that there were no churches, but there were already 23 saloons, and, in addition, several "hog ranches" and "parlor houses." The ratio of men to women was reportedly 6:1. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I'm guessing that there were very few housewives and schoolmarms among those 300 females.

By October, the population had soared to 5,000 in five months (amusingly, the 2010 census shows fewer than 31,000), and the good citizens, like their neighboring community of Cheyenne, 10 months older and 50 miles to the east, had had enough of their roaring carnival. On October 28, 1868 the "Vigilance Committee" arrested the three half brothers who had been terrifying what passed for the law abiding citizens. The three were arrested in their Bucket of Blood Saloon, and the citizens of the thriving five month old town awoke the next morning to the sight of them, and several of their comrades, hanging from various buildings on the public streets.

In a few short months, Laramie and Cheyenne had arrived as full-blown Western towns.

And---you guessed it (drum rolls to a shameful self-promotion)---both towns star in Chief of Thieves:

Where They Bury You, Chief of Thieves, Sunstone Press, is now available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.


  1. I do love how history can lead to some amazing stories, both fiction and non-fiction. I've always enjoyed Cheyenne and Laramie, but somehow Colorado keeps calling me back. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

  2. I bet you would love being in them both more today than when they were celebrating their 6 month birthdays!! Like you, I'm safely ensconced in Colorado. Thanks for the comment. swk