Located at 5,150 feet above sea level, on the banks of the North Platte River on Wyoming’s high plains, Casper is the seat of Natrona County. The town began when the tracks of the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad arrived in June 1888, and was named for nearby Fort Casper, by then a ruin. The fort had been named for Lt. Caspar Collins, killed near the fort by Indians in 1865. The Army misspelled his first name when they renamed Platte Bridge Station not long after his death.
Soon after the railroad arrived the town became an important shipping point for cattle and wool. Its earliest buildings stood about at the intersection of what are now A and McKinley streets. However, as soon as the railroad’s land company began to plat residential and business sites, people in the nascent town packed up and moved about a mile west. By the fall of 1888, the center of town was the corner of Center and Second streets, where it remains today.
On April 9, 1889, residents asked the officials of Carbon County to allow the incorporation of the town of Casper. (Natrona County would not split off from Carbon County until the following year.) The request was approved, and on July 8, 1889, voters elected George Mitchell as mayor, and Robert White, Peter Demorest, Alexander McKinney and John Adams as councilmen.
Casper was home to three county courthouses. The first, on David Street, was wood frame covered with seam iron. It cost $477 in 1895. The second, built in 1908, stood in the middle of North Center Street at A Street. The present county building went up in 1940 on Center between A and B streets.
During its first years, Casper was a rough-and-tumble town. The west side of Center Street featured numerous saloons and the raucous culture that went with them. Early law enforcement tried to keep order among rowdy cowboys, celebrating sheepherders and ever-present prostitutes.
Still, town leaders quickly set about making changes to guarantee a stable and more permanent city. A proper town needed water, streets, schools, a fire department, a library and other amenities. On July 7, 1890, the town government moved into its first home, a two-story brick building on Center Street with a large central hall and a bell tower.
By the 20th century, an expansion of the town hall became necessary as the community and the volume of town business grew. Contractors completed a new building on May 29, 1919, on the northwest corner of Center and Eighth streets.
This two-story brick structure included a wing for the fire department. For many years, the fire department was an all-volunteer company. The first paid firefighter was hired in 1912 at a salary of $100 per month. In 1920, the city built a new station on the west side David Street, north of Midwest Avenue. Law enforcement also evolved during this period, with police officers eventually replacing the town marshal.
Water was a constant problem. At first, centrally located wells provided water to residents living close to downtown. Those living further out dug their own wells. Alkali and bacteria often made the water unpalatable or unsafe. Waterborne diseases took their toll on residents, especially children. Over time, these epidemics caused the town physician and marshal to force people to clean up their properties, improving sanitation and thus improving the water supply.
In Casper’s first two decades, most of its wealth still came from agriculture, primarily from sheep and cattle ranching. The most successful ranchers built fine houses in what is still called the mansion district, south of downtown.
In the first years of the 20th century, electricity and telephones became available in town. Dr. Frederic Salathe and banker and sheep man C. H. King worked together to build a power plant adjacent to the first oil refinery, and the first electric lights from the Casper Electric Company were lighted on June 12, 1900. Telephone service began on March 22, 1902, when Rocky Mountain Bell Telephone installed 49 telephones. By 1910, there were 300 telephones; by 1925, with phone service and population booming, there were 5,600.
The high numbers of illnesses and accidents made both a hospital and a cemetery necessary. Land for Highland Cemetery was set aside on the eastern edge of Casper. Just down the road, the Casper branch of the Wyoming State Hospital, located at Second and Conwell streets, opened in 1911. This later became the Memorial Hospital of Natrona County, and later still the Wyoming Medical Center.
Casper’s earliest newspaper was the Casper Weekly Mail, first published in 1888. Editors at this and other papers came and went fairly quickly. The Natrona Tribune, for example, went through nine editors between its premier issue on June 1, 1891, and 1897, when Alfred Mokler purchased and renamed it the Natrona County Tribune.
In the early years, readers could borrow books from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union library on Center Street. In 1905, town officials contacted industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie to ask for a donation for a town library. His $10,000 gift allowed them to build a library, first operated by the town and later by the county, at its present site at Second and Durbin streets.
The potential for oil drew prospectors as early as 1888, but it was only after pioneer oilmen Cy Iba and Mark Shannon developed the first producing oil wells in the Salt Creek Field, 40 miles to the north, that Casper acquired more of the trappings of a midwestern industrial city. Shannon formed the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Company, and in 1895 built a refinery near where Center Street crossed the railroad tracks. Oil was hauled to Casper in wagons with string teams of 12 to 18 mules.
That first refinery closed after Societé Belgo-Americain des Petroles du Wyoming acquired Shannon’s property. Belgo-American then merged with the Franco-Wyoming Oil Company. On June 11, 1912, this corporation opened a new refinery near the present intersection of Beverly and Fourth streets—well beyond the eastern edge of town at the time. That same year, the Midwest Oil Company opened a refinery on the west side of town along the North Platte River.
Casper boomed with the booming oil and refining businesses between 1910 and 1925. Workers and their families flocked in from around the nation and the world. Between 1910 and 1920, Casper’s population quadrupled—from 2,639 to 11,447. In the next decade, the population grew to 16,619—a growth of more than 600 percent in just 20 years.
Around 1916, with the oil business booming, the Sand Bar, a dodgy neighborhood just west of downtown, began to flourish. Its saloons, pool halls, cafes and brothels catered to Casper’s oilfield and refinery workers, freighters, sheepherders and cowboys. When Prohibition came to Wyoming in 1919, the Sand Bar’s saloons became speakeasies and went right on flourishing, often with local law enforcement looking the other way.
Election for county seat of Natrona County brings in 296 votes for Casper and 697 votes for Bessemer. Bessemer may have had as few as two dozen residents at the time, however. Organizing commissioners ruled the Bessemer vote fraudulent and awarded county seat status to Casper.
Burlington Railroad arrives in Casper, Wyo.
About the Author
Rebecca A. Hunt, Ph. D. is a historian teaching at the University of Colorado Denver, where she specializes in social history of the American West and public history. She writes on community, gender and ethnic history. Dr. Hunt was the historian on the award-winning documentary about Neal Forsling of Casper Mountain, A Woman to Match a Mountain (2008). Wyoming Medical Center, A Centennial History was published in January 2011. Her most recent book, Natrona County: People, Place and Time, published in October 2011 is available at the Fort Caspar Museum. She is working on a history of Forsling, a Casper woman homesteader, painter and author.