By 1922, Standard Oil of Indiana owned a controlling interest in the Midwest Refinery. That year it was the largest refinery, by volume of its gasoline production, in the world.
In 1922, Texaco began building a refinery on the river three miles east of town, and in the following year the White Eagle refinery—later owners included Little America and Sinclair oil companies—was constructed next to Texaco. The town of Evansville, now a Casper suburb, grew up near the refinery.
The Great Depression came early to Wyoming, with agricultural prices plunging immediately after World War I and oil prices falling after the mid 1920s. Casper was already suffering hard times when the Depression spread nationwide after the stock market crash of 1929.
New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and the Public Works Administration brought some welcome low-paying jobs, but only with World War II did things really begin to improve. The biggest boost came as construction of the Casper Army Air Field west of town—more than 400 buildings were built in three and a half months—provided work for hundreds. The Army Air Corps trained about 16,000 soldiers at the field, mostly bomber crews and pilots, before it closed in March 1945.
After the war, the GI Bill helped veterans pursue college degrees and buy homes. For Casper this meant new homes funded by Veteran’s Administration loans and a college that would provide the first two years of higher education. Casper Junior College opened in September 1945, on the third floor of Natrona County High School.
In the fall of 1955, the rapidly expanding two-year school, now called Casper College, moved to its present location on the hills south of downtown. The University of Wyoming started offering some four-year and a few master’s degrees on the Casper College campus beginning in the mid-1970s. The college currently enrolls around 4,000 students with a faculty of about 250.
Population pressures from the postwar baby boom, and from an oil business again growing in the 1950s brought new subdivisions to the north, west, and south of town. New businesses joined older ones, and eager businessmen took chances on the boom. Tom Stroock, John Wold and Dave True in oil and gas, Fred Goodstein in real estate and Neil McMurry in construction were just a few who turned the new frontier of opportunities into fortunes. Other businessmen developed shopping areas like Sunrise and Westridge shopping centers.
Kelly Walsh high school opened in 1965; the school district built more elementary and junior high schools as Casper continued to grow. People watched movies at the America and Rialto theaters downtown, as they had for decades. Shows broadcast by television stations KTWO and KSPR entertained them as did popular music on radio stations KTWO, KVOC and KATI. Each year the Casper Troopers Drum and Bugle Corps performed for local and national audiences. The Casper Morning Star and the Casper Tribune-Herald joined in 1965 to form the Casper Star-Tribune, which became the largest newspaper in the state and the only one distributed statewide.
As the 1970s dawned, the U.S. Census reported 39,361 residents in Casper. The energy boom of the 1970s boosted the 1980 census to 51,016, but a steep fall in oil prices shortly afterward led a number of national oil companies to close their Casper offices, and many houses and storefronts stood empty. The population fell to 46,742 by 1990.
Eastridge Mall opened in 1982 at what was the east end of East Second Street, pulling the town eastward, drawing retail customers from all over central Wyoming and at the same time harming many downtown businesses. After nearly 20 years, the downtown is again thriving. Most commercial growth continues east, however, with a two-mile extension of East Second Street now serving new medical, automotive and big-box retail businesses.
The Texaco refinery closed in 1982. Sinclair Oil continues to operate a small refinery east of Evansville, on the river next to the old Texaco site. The Amoco Refinery—successor of the early Midwest and Standard Oil refineries—closed in 1991, dealing a severe blow to Casper. These pressures forced some diversity on the local economy, but it was a 1990s boom in coalbed methane drilling in northeastern Wyoming that revitalized Casper’s drilling-services businesses. Slowly, the population began to grow again, to 49,654 by 2000, and 55,316 by 2010.
Casper continues as a retail, medical and energy-industry service hub for the surrounding region and for much of Wyoming, and has continued to grow and diversify in the 21st century. Interstate 25 and the Casper/Natrona County International Airport are the town’s major connections to the outside world.
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- __________. A Window to the World: The First 100 Years of the Natrona County Public Library. Casper: Natrona County Public Library, 2010.
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- Platte Crossing. Casper: The City of Casper, 1997.
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The image of Center Street about 1938 is from Wyoming Tales and Trails. Used with thanks.
The photos of Casper’s second city hall and of the oil tank fire are both from the Chuck Morrison Collection, Casper College Western History Center. Used with thanks.
The photo of Casper today is by Tom Rea.
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.