Big Horn County, Wyoming

By mid-July 1900, more than 400 settlers had arrived, pitched tents and planted gardens. Soon after, they began digging the canal. The small community of Byron followed in October. At that time, 40 houses were being built there.

In 1899 Abraham Owen Woodruff had been appointed by church authorities in Salt Lake City as supervisor of the Mormon colonies. At the end of the canal-building and growing season of 1900, the Sidon Canal settlers needed cash, and Woodruff negotiated a grading contract on their behalf for 27 miles of the Burlington Railroad branch from Toluca, Mont., through Frannie Junction, Wyo., to Cody.

The Burlington Railroad

The earliest railroad connection affecting the Bighorn Basin had been established six years before when the Burlington ran its line to Billings, Mont., in 1894. This made it possible for residents of the northern basin to ship their merchandise—mostly cattle at that time—by a shorter, more easily traveled route than the one through mountain passes and over rocky land.

When the railroad line was extended into northern Wyoming with the Toluca-Cody branch in 1901, a trip to Billings was no longer necessary. However, this was not the major line needed to open up the main part of the basin to commerce by rail.

Work did not begin until Oct. 3, 1905, on a line that extended south from Frannie Junction along the Bighorn River through all of present-day Big Horn County. This line halted at Kirby, Wyo., just a few miles north of Thermopolis. A freight terminal was placed eight miles north of the town of Basin, and this location became the site of the town of Greybull.

Sugar beets

Now farmers and ranchers could easily ship their goods to market. This was especially important for sugar beet growers, who previously hauled their crops to Cody or to Frannie Junction or, before the Toluca line, all the way to Billings to the Great Western Sugar Company.

The first carload of sugar beets was shipped out of Powell, Wyo., then still in Big Horn County, on Oct. 14, 1909. The Great Western Sugar Company built a processing plant in Lovell in 1916, ensuring a solid market for locally grown sugar beets. In Calendar of Change, Big Horn Basin historian Paul Frison notes a steady increase in freight, mostly farm products, including some from other states, and explains that the number of carloads peaked between 1930 and 1940.


The Bonanza oil reserves, despite the early excitement they generated, had at first proven shallow and not worth extensive exploration. Later, starting in 1951, the Bonanza Field produced 603,686 barrels, and at the end of 1956 there were 40 wells, which produced more than 5,000,000 barrels that year alone.

Near Byron a small oil seep was known to exist, and in 1905 natural gas was discovered escaping from a fence hole on the farm of Edward E. Jones. The commercial possibilities of natural gas were not yet known, which explains why this gas was ignited and left to burn.

Jones became interested in oil exploration, however, and drilling began in 1906 near the natural gas site. Continued exploration for the next five to six years turned up large amounts of natural gas and a number of shallow oil wells that refilled when pumped dry. This indicated the presence of a larger reservoir in the area and spurred further exploration.

From approximately 1907 on, oil fields were discovered and wells were drilled at the Torchlight Dome Oil Field near Greybull; at Grass Creek northwest of Thermopolis; in Elk Basin in present-day Park County; and in the Oregon Basin southeast of Cody.

Refineries followed, with pipelines built to Cowley, Greybull, Lovell and, in Hot Springs County, Thermopolis. Along with the railroad lines through these communities, the thriving oil industry boosted the economy of the whole area.

Nearly a decade after the railroad line terminated at Kirby, Wyo., on June 14, 1914, a railroad connection was completed all the way through the Bighorn Basin via the Wind River Canyon, finally establishing service between Billings and Denver. The first highway through the south end of the basin opened for traffic in early 1924, also via the Wind River Canyon. Thus, easier access to the Bighorn Basin, so long isolated by its mountainous borders, was finally ensured.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, agriculture remained important in the Bighorn Basin, exceeding even oil and gas in gross revenues and generating more than $30 million in 1950. Sheep and cattle accounted for more than 50 percent of this amount. Crops, including sugar beets and dry beans, were also an important part of the balance.

In 1950, oil and gas produced more than $13 million for the basin as a whole.

Other important resources include coal, sulfur, shale, and bentonite. Bentonite is a fine clay used primarily in oil drilling to flush cuttings out of the hole as the well is being drilled, though it has many other uses as well. From 1951 to 1956, at least 466,000 tons of bentonite were processed in the Magnet Cove Barium Corporation's mill near Greybull. Magnet Cove, now M-I Swaco, is still operating near Greybull.

Lovell became an important site for shale mining and processing, and bentonite is now an important component of the Lovell area economy. This includes the mining and/or processing activities of Bentonite Performance Minerals; Wyo-Ben, Inc.; Colloid Environmental Technology; and GK Construction. In addition, the sugar beet processing plant, now known as the Western Sugar Cooperative, is still operating today in Lovell.

At the north end of the basin, the Yellowtail Dam in Montana was completed in 1967. This project flooded the Bighorn Canyon, providing power, bringing more water for irrigation and creating opportunities for boating and fishing. The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area was designated in 1968 and now draws more than 200,000 visitors annually.

World-class trout fishing on the Bighorn River and the scenic beauty of much of Big Horn County continue to attract tourists. These revenues, along with manufacturing and various associated wholesale and retail activities, help support and diversify the county's economy.


Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

  • Davis, John W. Goodbye, Judge Lynch: The End of a Lawless Era in Wyoming's Big Horn Basin. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005, 128-129; 168-170.
  • Donahue, James, ed., Wyoming Blue Book: Guide to the County Archives of Wyoming, Vol. V, Part I. Centennial Edition. Cheyenne, Wyo.: Wyoming State Archives, Department of Commerce, 1991, 106-109.
  • Frison, Paul. Calendar of Change. Worland, Wyo.: Serlkay, Inc., 1975, 195.
  • Trenholm, Virginia Cole, ed., Wyoming Blue Book, Vol. III. First Edition. Cheyenne, Wyo.: Wyoming State Archives and Historical Department, 1974, 352.
  • Wasden, David J. From Beaver to Oil: A Century in the Development of Wyoming's Big Horn Basin. Cheyenne, Wyo.: Pioneer Printing & Stationery Co., 1973.
  • Woods, Lawrence M. Wyoming's Big Horn Basin to 1901: A Late Frontier. Spokane, Wash.: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1997.
  • Division of Business and Economic Research, College of Commerce and Industry, University of Wyoming. A Study of the Resources, People, and Economy of the Big Horn Basin, Wyoming. rev. ed. By F.K Harmston, R.E. Lund, A.J. Shopin, Gene Palmour, Gene, and R.D. Smith. Cheyenne, Wyo.: Wyoming Natural Resource Board, 1959.


The photo of the rocky butte in the Bighorn Mountains of eastern Big Horn County was taken along U.S. Highway 14 east of Shell, Wyo., by Willidar. From Panoramio. Used with thanks.

The photos of the Big Horn County Courthouse, the store in Hyattville and the sugar factory in Lovell are from the Wyoming State Archives. Used with permission and thanks.

The photo of Greybull is from Wyoming Tales and Trails. Used with thanks.

The photo of the red and white cliffs above the Bighorn River is from the National Park Service. Used with thanks.

Big Horn County
quick facts

Land Area

3,137 square miles, 13th largest in Wyoming

Land Ownership
in Big Horn County

Owner Acres Percent
US Government    
National Park Service 15,603 .77
Forest Service 351,168 17.37
Bureau of Land Mgmt. 1,159,878 57.37
Bureau of Reclamation 20.307 1.00
State Lands Comm. 75,990 3.76
Recreation Comm. 200 .01
Game & Fish 7,746 .38
Local Government/Other 9,505 .46
Total Public Lands 1,640,398 81.14
Private Lands 381,362 18.86
Surface Water 14,061 .70
Total Area 2,021,760 100

Big Horn County Population

11,668 (2010 U.S. Census)
11,759 (2011 State Estimate)

City, Town and
Census-designated Places

Town Population
Basin (county seat) 1,285
Burlington 288
Byron 593
Cowley 655
Deaver 178
Frannie (pt.) 138
Greybull 1,847
Lovell 2,360
Manderson 114

Employment by sector
(2009 state figures)

Sector Population
Farm 750
Forestry, Fishing & Related (D)
Mining 589
Construction 488
Utilities 30
Manufacturing 253
Wholesale Trade 174
Retail Trade (D)
Transportation & Warehousing 163
Information 125
Educational (D)
Health Care & Social Assistance (D)
Arts/Entertainment/Recreation 64
Accommodations & Food Service 263
Management of Companies (D)
Finance & Insurance 228
Real Estate, Rentals & Leasing 175
Professional, Scientific & Technical (D)
Administration & Waste Services 287
Other Services except Public Admin. 298
Fed, state, local gov't 1,580
Total 6,597

D=not disclosed to avoid disclosure of confidential information, but estimates included in totals.
L=less than 10 jobs, but estimates included in totals.

Sources: Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis Equality State Almanac, County Profiles, ; Wyoming DEA summary of decennial U. S. Census data,; Wyoming DEA Employment, Income, and Gross Domestic Product Report,; 2010 Census Summary Report for Wyoming,
; 2011 county population estimates,

About the Author

Rebecca Hein is the author of more than 80 published articles, mostly about cello playing and its relation to a variety of subjects from marriage to taxes. Her book, A Case of Brilliance, is a memoir about the discovery that her two children are profoundly gifted. She is the former principal cellist of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra, and wrote arts columns for the Casper Star-Tribune from 2000-2006. She blogs about writing at and about the special needs of gifted children at

Field Trips