Hot Springs County, Wyoming

Hot Springs County is located in the southwest corner of the Bighorn Basin. Much of the county is mountainous, with the Owl Creek Mountains on the south and the Absaroka Range on the west. The northeastern part of the county opens into the Bighorn Basin. The Wind River, which enters rugged Wind River Canyon under its own name, becomes the Bighorn River when it emerges into the basin. The stream is the largest passing through Hot Springs County. Important tributaries are Owl Creek, Bridger Creek, Grass Creek and Kirby Creek.

The Owl Creek Mountains are made of warped and uplifted sedimentary rocks while the Absarokas are the remnants of a chain of extinct volcanoes. They were active in the Eocene, or roughly 45 million years ago. The Absaroka peak Washakie Needles, elevation, 12,518 feet, is the highest point in the county.

Outcrops of rocks near the Owl Creek Mountains from the Jurassic age, roughly 145 million years ago, bear fossils of dinosaurs, some of which are on display in the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyo. Younger rocks in the Absaroka range have many fossils of extinct mammal species such as the titanothere, a rhino-like creature with many short protuberances on its forehead and snout.

Several large hot springs rise near the mouth of Wind River Canyon and flow into the Bighorn River. These springs are similar to those in Yellowstone but are not caused by the same process. The Yellowstone thermal features come from heat sources relatively close to the surface; these hot springs result from structural geology that allows water to percolate deep in the earth, absorb heat, and then return to the surface through fractures. The five most abundant compounds dissolved in the hot water are bicarbonate, sulfate, chloride, sodium and silica, all present in concentrations of parts per million.

Prehistory

Many areas of Hot Springs County show evidence of prehistoric occupation, such as the petroglyphs incised or pecked onto weathered sandstone rocks with flint tools. Archaeologists attribute many of these petroglyphs to the ancestors of Shoshone people who live in Wyoming now, and believe that they probably had to do with visions, spirit power and vision quests.

The images represent humans, animals or creatures assumed to be spirits. Legend Rock, a cliff located in the central part of the county, displays some of the most spectacular such carvings in Wyoming. Bloody Hand Cave, near the mouth of Wind River Canyon, also has pictures and carvings.

Thermopolis and the hot springs

The large hot springs near present-day Thermopolis were sacred to the Shoshone people who recognized their therapeutic properties and thought of them as inhabited by spirits. These springs were one of the first attractions bringing white settlers to the future Hot Springs County; fur trapper Daniel Potts described them in a letter back home to Pennsylvania as early as 1826.

Later, after the Shoshone Reservation was established in the Wind River Valley in 1868, the hot springs were on the reservation. This meant that white settlers could not formally claim the land or erect permanent structures. It did not prevent numerous squatters from living near the springs in tents and dugouts, however, either to soak in the springs themselves or to sell food and lodging to others.

Looking south from Round Top, across Thermopolis and up Wind River Canyon. Jonathan Green photo.

Thermopolis began in the 1880s near the mouth of Owl Creek, just outside the reservation boundaries of the time and downstream from the town's present-day site. It provided better quarters for visitors than the pole-and-brush "Hotel de Sagebrush" near the hot springs, and offered stores and other businesses to serve the ranchers and homesteaders on Owl Creek and along the river.

Just across the Bighorn River from Thermopolis was the town of Andersonville, where outlaws like Jim McCloud; Harry Longabaugh, known as the Sundance Kid; and Robert Leroy Parker, known as Butch Cassidy, appear to have visited regularly.

The fugitives probably chose the isolated area to thwart pursuers. Before the Burlington Railroad, building down from Montana, reached Thermopolis in 1910, people gained access to the area only by wagon roads over mountains from central or eastern Wyoming, or down from Montana. The first telephone went into service at Thermopolis in 1903, and the Western Union Telegraph Company arrived in 1907.

The “Gift” of the Waters

Each year the town of Thermopolis holds a pageant called "The Gift of the Waters" to portray the transfer of the springs from Shoshone ownership to the state of Wyoming. A member of the Shoshone tribe reads from a 1925 script: "I, Washakie, freely give to the Great White Father these waters beloved of my people. . . ."

Washakie, who died in 1899, was in fact chief of the Eastern Shoshone tribe for many decades before that. But what actually happened was a little more complicated. In 1896, Indian Inspector James McLaughlin of the Indian Service, a predecessor to today’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, came to the Shoshone Reservation, which since 1878 had included the Northern Arapaho tribe as well. (The name was changed to the Wind River Reservation in the 1930s.) McLaughlin came to negotiate an agreement with the tribes for the transfer of the springs to the federal government.

Wind River Canyon, looking north. 1940s postcard.McLaughlin had been authorized to spend as much as $1.25 per acre, but he purchased 100 square miles of reservation land surrounding the springs for only $60,000, or about 94 cents an acre. Settlement and disturbance of the area around the hot springs had driven away game, decreasing the land's value to the tribes. The money and goods from this sale, elders hoped, would help the tribes in their transition to reservation life. There is no mention in any of the records kept of the 1896 negotiations that Washakie made a speech like the one in the pageant.

After this deal had been reached, the U.S. Senate decided not to accept the land. Wyoming Congressman Frank Mondell proposed a new arrangement in which the federal government would make the payments on the property, but the square mile containing the springs would be given to the state and the remaining 99 square miles would be opened for settlement.

In 1897, Congress passed Mondell’s plan. Almost immediately, Hot Springs State Park opened and the town of Thermopolis was moved by its residents to the newly opened public land by the park. The water from the springs was piped into bath houses. Visitation increased, in spite of the difficulties of access to the area from other parts of the state.

In 1910, the Burlington Railroad reached Thermopolis from the north. The first train, reported the Thermopolis Record, "included sixty or more people, and several dray loads of baggage and express were sent out...Quite a large number of people were on hand to see the train service started." The "Railroad Days" celebration began shortly afterward with horse races and other competitions that drew large crowds from the surrounding towns.

In 1911, the Burlington completed its line through Wind River Canyon to the south. This gave the entire Bighorn Basin much better connections with the rest of Wyoming. The resulting growth of Thermopolis, Worland and other towns led to the creation of Hot Springs, Washakie and Park counties out of parts of the original Big Horn County. On Feb. 9, 1911, the Legislature approved establishment of Hot Springs County with Thermopolis as county seat. County government was organized in January 1913.

The former Washakie Hotel, near the hot springs at Thermopolis, around 1920. Wyoming State Archives.

Agriculture

Aside from the welcoming mineral waters, Hot Springs County’s mountains and arid plains seemed inhospitable for settlers. The daughter of Jess Hiram, a 1908 settler, told local historian Dorothy Milek of her father's first reaction on arriving at his uncle’s ranch on Owl Creek from Missouri. She said, "Dad got up, looked outside, turned to Uncle Hiram and said 'I just want to know—what did you do that you had to come here to hide. No one would live here if they didn't have to!'"

In spite of the hostile terrain, settlement began early. The first cabin in the Bighorn Basin was built by John Woodruff who trailed his cattle to a homestead on Owl Creek, the largest Bighorn tributary, in 1878. Other early cattle ranchers were Capt. R. A. Torrey, who started the Embar Ranch; Vincent Hayes, who started the Hayes ranch; and John McCoy with the Keystone Ranch. Much of this early settlement was along Owl Creek.

One of the first sheep ranchers in the area was Lucy Morrison, the "Sheep Queen," whose range in the 1880s was largely outside the basin, but extended to Kirby Creek north of Thermopolis. Sheepman Dave Dickie settled on Grass Creek in 1896 after armed cattle ranchers in present-day Washakie County prevented him from trailing sheep farther north to Canada.

After the winter of 1886-87, which decimated many large cattle ranches in Wyoming Territory, some of the Hot Springs County ranches closed down while others changed their operations to breed fewer but higher-priced cattle.

Farming also began several years prior to the creation of the future county. By 1900, ranchers were using ditches from Owl Creek to irrigate hay and alfalfa crops for livestock feed. However, because of high elevations and unsuitable land conditions, farming proved difficult for most and was never as significant here as in other parts of the Bighorn Basin.

State bath house, Thermopolis, ca. 1918. Wyoming Tales and Trails.

Hot Springs County
quick facts

Land Area

2,004 square miles, 23rd largest in Wyoming (Wyoming's smallest county)

Land Ownership in
Hot Springs County

Owner Acres Percent
US Government    
Forest Service 54,400 4.20
Bureau of Land Mgmt. 502,528 38.83
Wyoming    
State Lands Comm. 88,195 6.82
Recreation Comm. 1,069 .08
Game & Fish 12 0
Local Government/Other 243,918 18.85
Total Public Lands 890,122 68.78
Private Lands 403,958 31.22
Surface Water 1,485 .11
Total Area 1,294,080 100

Hot Springs County Population

4,812 (2010 U.S. Census)
4,799 (2011 State Estimate)

City, Town and
Census-designated Places

Town Population
Thermopolis (county seat) 3,009
East Thermopolis 254
Kirby 92

Employment by sector
(2009 state figures)

Sector Population
Farm 188
Forestry, Fishing & Related (D)
Mining (D)
Construction 167
Utilities (D)
Manufacturing 98
Wholesale Trade (D)
Retail Trade 282
Transportation & Warehousing 107
Information 49
Educational 18
Health Care & Social Assistance 366
Arts/Entertainment/Recreation 94
Accommodations & Food Service 314
Management of Companies (D)
Finance & Insurance 128
Real Estate, Rentals & Leasing 108
Professional, Scientific & Technical 116
Administration & Waste Services (D)
Other Services except Public Admin. 209
Fed, state, local gov't 617
Total 3,304

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

Annette Hein is a geology student at Casper College and lives near Casper, Wyo. She recently took third place in the essay competition New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology sponsored by the University of Chicago. Her writing has appeared in the Casper Star-Tribune and Casper Journal.

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