Fremont County, Wyoming

Coal, oil and railroad ties

The construction of the Chicago and North Western Railroad brought other developments as well. Coal was mined in small quantities for many years near present-day Hudson. With a railroad to buy significant quantities of coal, several large mining operations began. The opportunity for employment in those mines attracted many immigrants from southeastern Europe. By 1922, however, the railroad was converting its coal-fired locomotives to oil and within a short time the Hudson coal mines lost their biggest source of revenue.

Oil seeps had been known in the Lander area since the fur-trade era of the early 1800s, and the first oil well in Wyoming territory was drilled near the Little Popo Agie southeast of Lander in 1884. The arrival of the railroad finally made it possible to transport that oil to distant markets and justified exploration for additional oil fields across the county.

The railroad needed ties for the tracks throughout the C&NW system, and the timber for such ties was available in the Dubois area. The Wyoming Tie & Timber Company came into existence to produce those ties. The tie industry had a significant economic impact in both the Dubois and Riverton areas. Large numbers of Scandinavians came to Fremont County to work as tie hacks.

Uranium boom and bust

The first use of atomic weapons ended World War II in 1945, but within a short time the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a race to develop more and more powerful nuclear weapons. Those weapons created a demand for uranium, and prospectors fanned out across the western states to meet the demand.

Main Street in Lander, looking west, 1940s. Riverton Museum.In Wyoming, J. David Love, an employee of the United States Geological Survey, made the first major uranium discovery in 1951 at Pumpkin Buttes in Campbell County. But the uranium bug hit Fremont County, too, and in September of 1953 a momentous find was made in the desolate Gas Hills of eastern Fremont County, about 45 miles east of Riverton.

Neil McNeice, a Riverton machine shop operator, and his wife Maxine, a school nurse, hunted antelope in the Gas Hills. On this particular trip, they brought a geiger counter that Maxine gave Neil as a Christmas present. They had been studying government-issued publications about uranium geology and while they searched for antelope they also looked for indications of uranium mineralization.

They saw something interesting on a Saturday afternoon and checked it with the geiger counter. What they found led to the discovery of a claim that eventually became one of the richest mines in the state. That mine became known as the "Lucky Mc" mine.

Maxine and Neil McNeice at the site of their uranium discovery in the Gas Hills east of Riverton, 1953. Riverton Museum.With their partner Lowell Morfeld and his wife Mary, the McNeices began staking a series of claims. They recorded those claims at the Fremont County courthouse in Lander, and word spread quickly. Prospectors from near and far descended on the Gas Hills to get a piece of the action. As production of uranium oxide began, the impacts were felt in both Lander and Riverton--especially Riverton.

What had been a town of about 2,000 residents supported primarily by area farmers soon became inundated with khaki-clad geologists, mining engineers and heavy equipment salesmen. The coffee shop in Riverton's Teton Hotel was filled with men trading information, lies and hot rumors of uranium activity. A stock exchange handling shares in local uranium companies operated on the hotel's mezzanine. Many Riverton residents drove the 40 miles to the Gas Hills daily to operate ore-mining machinery and mills that converted the ore into uranium oxide, or yellowcake.

Up on the Sweetwater River, where only a handful of cattle ranchers had lived, uranium discoveries led to the birth of the town of Jeffrey City, which quickly swelled into a community of 4,000 people.

The product of this new industry was used not only by the government for weapons but also by public utilities that began building nuclear power plants in the 1950s and ‘60s to meet the growing demand for electricity across the country.

But in March 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant south of Harrisburg, Pa., suffered the worst accident in commercial U. S. nuclear power plant history, when a partial meltdown of the core resulted in the release of small amounts of radioactive gases and contaminated water. Across the nation public attitudes about nuclear power changed. The market for yellowcake shrank. Through the early 1980s, mining companies laid off workers.

By the end of the 1980s, all of Fremont County's uranium mines had closed. Residents of Jeffrey City moved away to take jobs in other places and that town was virtually deserted and has not recovered. Riverton had become enough of a commercial center for west central Wyoming that it weathered the "bust" more effectively.

Iron ore

In 1962, meanwhile, U.S. Steel developed an iron-ore mine near Atlantic City. A mill at the mine site processed the ore and pelletized it for shipment by rail over a new railroad line south to Winton on the Union Pacific near Rock Springs, and from there to the company’s Geneva smelter in Provo, Utah. Most of the mine’s workers lived in Lander and commuted daily to the mine. But with the bottom falling out of the domestic steel industry, U.S. Steel closed the mine in 1983, and later the railroad line was removed.

Timber and natural gas

In the 1980s sawmills in both Dubois and Riverton closed, bringing an end to the county’s timber industry. The impact of that development was especially devastating to the Dubois community.

But at the same time drilling for natural gas in northeastern Fremont County began identifying huge new reserves. Technological improvements made it possible to drill to depths previously beyond reach. Soon the little-used roads surrounding Lost Cabin and Lysite were buzzing with activity and enormous drill rigs studded the skyline. But production has not reached its full potential in the early 2000s because a nationwide glut of natural gas has driven prices down to the point where production companies are limiting their development of additional resources.

A changing economy

As the county’s extractive industries declined in the late 20th century, county leaders promoted the development of tourism. But agriculture (including both livestock production and irrigated farming) remained dominant in the local economies.

The decline of extractive activity has also affected the Wind River Reservation. As revenue from their oil and gas properties has dwindled, the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes have turned to casino-style gambling for revenue. In doing so, the tribes have asserted their sovereignty and their unwillingness to be governed by state and federal statutes.

The tribes have also caused significant concern among non-Indian residents of the county by claiming some jurisdiction over non-tribal lands. The claim is based on the fact that much of Fremont County is completely surrounded by tribal lands and therefore should be considered as “Indian Country.” State, county and local governments have opposed those moves and many of the issues will undoubtedly be decided by the highest courts in the nation at a future date.

At the beginning of the 21st century Riverton has become Fremont County’s largest community with a population of well over 10,000 people in the city and the area immediately around it. Commercial activity in Riverton attracts people from all over the county and even from surrounding areas. Lander remains the county seat and boasts a population of more than 7,000. About 25,000 people live on the Wind River Reservation. The communities of Dubois, Hudson, Pavillion and Shoshone remain vital with their schools as the biggest unifying factors.

Resources

  • Donahue, Jim, ed. “Administrative History of Fremont County.” Wyoming Blue Book, Guide to the County Archives of Wyoming, Vol. V, part I. Pp. 223-227. Cheyenne: Wyoming State Archives, 1991.
  • Jost, Loren. Fremont County, Wyoming: a Pictorial History. Virginia Beach, Va.: Donning and Company Publishers, 1996.

For Further Reading

See also the Wind River Mountaineer, published quarterly since 1985 by the Fremont County museum system. The magazine includes articles and photographs about the history of Fremont County and surrounding areas. Current and back issues are available in Fremont County libraries, or may be purchased at any of the three Fremont County museums. A complete index is in process but is not yet available. Subscriptions may be obtained by contacting the Wind River Mountaineer, 700 East Park Avenue, Riverton, Wyoming  82501.

Illustrations

The photo of the Wind River a few miles below Dubois is by Craig Gaebel, from Panoramio. Used with thanks.

The 1892 photo of Chief Washakie and dancers at Fort Washakie is from the National Archives, American Indian Select List number 73, via Treasurenet. Used with thanks.

The rest of the photos are from the excellent collections at the Riverton Museum. Used with thanks.

fremontrotator.jpg

Key Dates

May 6, 1884

Fremont County government organized.

Date: 1884-05-06

The upper Wind River below Dubois, in Fremont County. Craig Gaebel.

Fremont County
quick facts

Land Area

9,183 square miles, 2nd largest in Wyoming

Land Ownership
in Fremont County

Owner Acres Percent
US Government    
Forest Service 980,028 16.54
Bureau of Land Mgmt. 2,104,640 35.50
Bureau of Reclamation 125,632 2.12
Wyoming    
State Lands Comm. 268,552 4.53
Recreation Comm. 639 .01
Game & Fish 48,181 .81
Local Government/Other 1,579,491 26.64
Total Public Lands 5,108,063 86.16
Private Lands 820,819 13.84
Surface Water 53,459 .90
Total Area 5,928,882 100

Fremont County Population

40,123 (2010 U.S. Census)
40,579 (2011 State Estimate)

City, Town and
Census-designated Places

Town Population
Lander (county seat) 7,487
Dubois 971
Pavillion 231
Riverton 10,615
Shoshoni 649

Employment by sector
(2009 state figures)

Sector Population
Farm 1,481
Forestry, Fishing & Related 216
Mining 1,117
Construction 1,724
Utilities 78
Manufacturing 549
Wholesale Trade 416
Retail Trade 2,631
Information 301
Education Services & Health Care D
Arts/Entertainment/Recreation 418
Accommodations & Food Service 1,613
Management of Companies 37
Finance & Insurance 733
Real Estate, Rentals & Leasing 1,192
Professional, Scientific & Technical 899
Administration & Waste Services 526
Other Services except Public Admin. 1,384
Fed, state, local gov't 6,047
Total 24,752

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, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/almanac/Page135_183.pdf ; Wyoming DEA summary of decennial U. S. Census data, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/demog_data/cntycity_hist.htm; Wyoming DEA Employment, Income, and Gross Domestic Product Report, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/i&e/Inc_Emp_Report09.pdf; 2010 Census Summary Report for Wyoming, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/
demog_data/pop2010/2010_Census_Summary.pdf
; 2011 county population estimates, http://eadiv.state.wy.us/pop/CO-11est.pdf.

About the Author

Loren Jost, author of Fremont County, Wyoming: A Pictorial History (Donning Publishers, 1996), worked for many years at the Riverton, Wyo. Ranger, and now directs the Riverton Museum.

Field Trips