The UP Railroad
The railroad continued to shape the physical as well as the economic contours of the community through the first quarter of the 20th century. In 1897, the UP, in partnership with Pacific Fruit Company, developed an icing station between the tracks and the Bear River southeast of downtown. Water was diverted from the river into two large shallow ponds from which ice blocks were harvested in the winter and stored in long wooden storage buildings at trackside. In the summer, the ice blocks were dropped into the ends of the railroad cars traveling from California to eastern markets to keep produce cool. The ice plant operated for nearly 20 years before electric refrigeration made it obsolete.
In 1912 and 1913, the Union Pacific constructed a 65,000-square-foot, 28-stall brick roundhouse to accommodate its larger steam locomotives. On its 27-acre complex northwest of downtown, the company also built a 17,000-square-foot brick machine shop and several ancillary buildings, including a brick power house with generators to supply electricity to the complex and a wooden office building. For nearly 60 years, the lives of Evanston's residents were governed by the rhythms of the steam whistle at the roundhouse complex, which sounded daily at 7 a.m., noon and 4 p.m.
The Lincoln Highway
The expansion of the roundhouse operations coincided with the establishment of the country's first transcontinental automobile route, the Lincoln Highway. The road passed through the heart of downtown and added “highway town” to Evanston's identity.
Increasing automobile traffic along the route prompted the creation of a tourist camp on the eastern edge of town adjacent to the county fairgrounds. Garages, service stations and eventually motels also sprang up to accommodate motorists. The Downs Opera House on Front Street was converted to the Transcontinental Garage in 1913. The building remained in operation as an automobile garage until the early 2000s.
The first significant economic shock to Evanston came suddenly in 1925, when UP executives announced that they planned to eliminate Evanston as a locomotive service and crew change point. The news was devastating to a community where a quarter of the population depended on a UP paycheck. A delegation of determined city officials and businessmen traveled to Omaha to plead with railroad administrators to reconsider their decision. Surprisingly, the company did so.
In 1926, the roundhouse complex reopened as the Evanston Reclamation, Repair and Manufacturing Plant. At its peak during the war years, the Reclamation Plant employed more than 200 people—a significant number for a town of 3,600 residents. In the 1950s, however, employment slowly dropped as diesel-electric power began to replace steam in the railroad's locomotives. By 1971, when the plant finally closed, the labor force had dwindled to about 50.
Every sector of Evanston's economy felt the impact of the Depression during the 1930s. The UP cut worker hours, and automobile traffic on U.S. Highway 30, the old Lincoln Highway, dropped sharply. In 1936, a group of ranchers and business leaders in Evanston decided to create an annual event that would help boost tourism.
They launched Evanston's Cowboy Days, a three-day event over Labor Day weekend culminating in a parade and a rodeo held at the county fairgrounds. By the 1950s, the rodeo was a professional event, billed as the “Biggest Little Rodeo in the World.” Cowboy Days drew hundreds of people to Evanston, especially from the Wasatch Front area of Utah, and helped create the image of Evanston as a get-away destination -- an image captured in Evanston's current motto, “Fresh Air, Freedom and Fun.”
Through the first seven decades of the 20th century, Evanston's population and economic structure remained fairly stable, growing slowly from 2,600 in 1910 to 3,600 in 1940 to 4,400 in 1970. By that time, another economic force was about to change the face of the community -- a boom in oil and gas drilling and production prompted by the oil embargo of 1973.
Boom and Bust
By the late 1970s, the full-scale oil boom that engulfed all of Uinta County was beginning to transform Evanston physically, economically, socially and culturally. Thousands of construction and oil-rig workers came to town in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The 1980 census counted 8,300 people in Evanston, nearly doubling the 1970 population of 4,400.
The workers were paid well; many of them were single young men who spent their money in local bars. One of the busiest places during the boom was the Whirl Inn on U.S. Highway 30 west of downtown, which quickly became known as the “Whirl Inn and Stagger Out.”
In addition to skilled and unskilled laborers, the boom attracted engineers, attorneys, physicians, teachers and other white-collar workers to the area. Evanston was transformed in a few short years from a quiet, stable, homogeneous community to a busy town with a socially and culturally diverse population.
While the boom swelled Evanston's tax base and revenues, the skyrocketing population created major problems in public safety and health, housing, roads and schools. The community's leaders recognized this as an opportunity to use revenues—and the considerable resources of the oil companies in the community like Amoco and Chevron—to develop infrastructure. Some 36 companies, all major players in the industry, formed the Overthrust Industry Association in 1981, named for the Overthrust Belt, the geological formation where the oil lay.
The association functioned as a nonprofit corporation, providing grants to municipalities as well as the county. With this support, the city of Evanston was able to complete a wastewater treatment plant, a general hospital, four schools, a city hall, and a recreation center by the mid-1980s.
Between 1970 and 1983, the city limits increased from 2.5 to 9 square miles. Although the frenetic activity of the early 1980s had calmed down considerably by the end of the decade, Evanston's population remained substantially above its historic levels, reaching 11,000 by 1990.
By the mid-1980s, as the boom began to recede, many of the established businesses downtown closed their doors, including Blyth & Fargo, which had operated for 107 years. Many buildings wore garish signs of temporary businesses or were boarded up. Determined to counteract the decline of the downtown, a coalition of Evanston natives and newcomers formed the Evanston Urban Renewal Agency. Its mission was the preservation and economic revitalization of downtown, and one of its first projects was placing the downtown district on the National Register of Historic Places.
About the Author
Barbara Allen Bogart, Ph. D., has worked as a historian and oral historian in Wyoming since 1991. She served on the staff of the Wyoming State Museum, has worked as a consultant for several Wyoming museums and historical societies, and was director of the Uinta County Museum from 2003 to 2009. She is the author of Images of America: Evanston (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing Co., 2009) as well as In Place: Stories of Landscape and Identity from the American West (Glendo, Wyo: High Plains Press, 1995).