Niobrara County, Wyoming

Niobrara, the smallest of Wyoming’s 23 counties, is bordered on the north by Weston County, on the east by Nebraska and South Dakota, on the south by Goshen and Platte counties, and on the west by Converse County. The land is rolling plains, slightly sloped to the east and watered in the north by the Cheyenne River and its tributaries.

The land in what’s now Niobrara County was once roamed by tribes of the northern plains, including the Crow, Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Pawnee. A treaty signed at Fort Laramie in 1868 set aside land north of the North Platte River and east of the Bighorns for the Indians. Gold was soon discovered in the Black Hills of Dakota and Wyoming territories, however, and when the tribes refused to sell their land the government ordered them to leave it. The result was the so-called Great Sioux War of 1876, which included Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn. The following year, the tribes were moved onto reservations in Montana, the Dakotas and Nebraska.

NIobrara County's courthouse, (rear) and Carnegie Library, about 1920. Wyoming Tales and Trails.Meanwhile, the gold rush to the Black Hills was at its peak. A road opened to transport miners, stagecoach passengers and freight between Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, and the mines near Deadwood, Dakota Territory. The route passed through what’s now Niobrara County. Before 1876, white travelers were subject to Indian attacks, and road agents preyed on the gold shipments and the stage passengers.

Niobrara County includes the towns of Lusk, Manville and Van Tassell, and census-designated place Lance Creek. The county’s population was counted at 6,321 in 1920, the first federal census after it was fully organized in 1913. In 1940 the population peaked at 5,988, and since then has declined steadily to 2,484 as of the 2010 census.

Early white settlement

By 1876, meanwhile, a stage station with a stone barn had been established at Running Water, where the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage road crossed the Niobrara River. French trappers had known that stream since the early days of the fur trade as l’Eau Qui Court, a name Anglos translated as Running Water.

In the early 1880s, miners prospected in the area for gold, silver and copper. Soon there were three settlements—Running Water and two mining camps, Silver Cliff and New Rochelle. Frank Lusk, a local rancher, gave land for a townsite, a post office was established, and the three settlements were consolidated into the town of Lusk.

In 1886, the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad, building west from Chadron, Neb., crossed the state line and reached Lusk.

The trains brought workers and miners, and copper deposits were developed into mines. Homesteaders began arriving as well. Manville, Wyo., named for a prominent cattleman, was established 10 miles further west along the railroad line. For the next 20 years, the population and economy grew around Manville due to increased mining and dry farming.

The two communities were included in Converse County when it was established in 1888 with a county seat at Douglas, 45 miles west of Manville.

Dinosaurs

The eastern part of Converse County—what’s now Niobrara county—proved rich ground, meanwhile, for pioneer fossil hunters beginning in the late 1880s. John Bell Hatcher, collecting fossils for O.C. Marsh of Yale University, discovered part of a dinosaur horn in rocks of the Cretaceous Lance Formation, northwest of Lusk, in 1887. Marsh was then two decades into his fierce competition with paleontologist E. D. Cope of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. Their competition eventually ruined both men, financially and professionally, but it resulted in the discovery and description for science of more than 1,400 species of previously unknown, extinct vertebrates, including hundreds of species of dinosaurs.

Marsh sent Hatcher back to Lance Creek in the summer of 1889, and between then and 1892 Hatcher found parts of more than 50 skeletons of the Ceratopsia, the horned dinosaurs of which Triceratops is most familiar, including more than 30 of the enormous skulls.

In 1895, a party of fossil hunters from the University of Kansas traveled by wagon and train from Lawrence, Kan., to Wyoming to hunt dinosaurs in the same Lance Formation. Their trophy was a Triceratops skull that’s still on display today at the university’s natural history museum in Lawrence.

And in 1908, one of the most famous dinosaur fossils ever found – a fossil Trachodon, a duck-billed dinosaur with most of its skeleton, some of its muscles and much of its skin preserved -- was found in the same Lance Formation by George Sternberg, hunting dinosaurs with his father Charles Sternberg, and his brothers Charles and Levi. The so-called mummy dinosaur is still on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

A new county

By 1910, homesteaders, probably tired of making the trip to Douglas to do county business, began advocating for a new county in the eastern part of Converse County.

Residents around Manville were opposed to the new county; those living in the eastern section, including Lusk, were in favor. The creation and subsequent organization of a new county became the subject of a spirited debate that lasted more than a year.

Opponents of the new county said the population was too small and taxable wealth insufficient to withstand the new tax burden a new county would impose. Advocates, however, argued that the population and taxable wealth were increasing and new businesses and industries were expanding the economy of the area.

By early 1911, petitions both for and against the creation of Niobrara County circulated. The local newspapers, the Manville Register and the Lusk Herald, waged an editorial battle. On Jan. 19, 1911, the petitions were waiting for the state Legislature in Cheyenne. Residents Harry C. Snyder, Thomas Bell, George Voorhees and Russell Thorp made the trip to Cheyenne to appeal on the proposed county’s behalf. Snyder, a lawyer from Lusk, pushed for the new county to be named for the same stream where the stage station had first been located, better known now by its Indian name, Niobrara.

On Feb. 14, 1911, both houses of the Legislature approved creation of the county—a move that still would have to be confirmed by local voters. Two days later, residents of Lusk, the most populated town in the area at 414 residents and therefore the likely county seat, held a victory celebration. All the while, however, Manville and Keeline citizens formulated a plan to stop organization of the county, or at least to deprive Lusk the honor of being chosen as the county seat. At the time, Manville had a population of 133 and Keeline, named for 4J Ranch owner George A. Keeline by rancher Addison A. Spaugh, was still being established.

Niobrara County couldn’t be formally approved until the November 1912 general election. Citizens of Manville and Keeline hoped that delaying key elements of the organization would give them time to gather a sufficient number of anti-county voters to stop the process. They circulated a petition to try to prevent Gov. Joseph M. Carey from appointing commissioners who would be in charge of organizational matters until after the election. But on March 22, 1911, Gov. Carey appointed three.

During their first meeting on March 30, 1911, the men set May 2, 1911, as the date for voters to approve or veto formation of the county. Because voters in and around Lusk outnumbered those in the western parts of the county by more than two to one, it seemed likely that Lusk would be the county seat. Still, organized opposition to the very existence of the county continued. Clubs for and against the county were formed, rallies fired up county residents, and newspapers continued their battles.

Finally, 626 residents voted to approve the county and 203 voted against it. Lusk received the most votes—625—to become the county seat. A primary election for new county officers was set for August 1912. At the general election three months later Thomas Bell, E.A. Cook and R.F. Burhoop were chosen as county commissioners, and voters also chose a county clerk, sheriff, county attorney, schools superintendent, coroner, surveyor and justice of the peace.

On Jan. 1, 1913, the commissioners took office and elected Thomas Bell chairman, and the following week accepted oaths of office from the new county officers.

During its first years, the residents of Niobrara County struggled with finances, but no enormous tax burden materialized, largely because new oil discoveries in the late 19-teens gave the local economy a sudden upswing.

Hard times and Prohibition

Though people with jobs in the oil fields and refineries prospered in the 1920s, farmers and ranchers, their families and their bankers had a much tougher time. Falling crop and livestock prices after World War I plunged Wyoming agriculture into a depression nearly 10 years before the stock market crash of 1929 brought on the Great Depression nationwide.

Prohibition offered some workers and small ranchers a way to make extra money. Out of desperation, many turned to making moonshine whiskey, and some stories point to Niobrara County as the origin of some of Wyoming’s finest moonshine.

The railroad

Industry in Niobrara County, meanwhile, extends as far back as the Texas cattle drives that began bringing herds into Wyoming in the late 1870s. Transporting the western beef to eastern markets was a major railroad business, and in April 1886 the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad began building westward from Chadron, Neb., to take advantage of the increasing herds in Wyoming Territory.

After the FE&MV reached Lusk, a tributary rail line, the Wyoming Central Railway Co., was surveyed to Manville. Railroad organizers built a water tank and a stockyard with loading chutes directly opposite the tracks. Settlers and emigrants entered the area almost as soon as the railroad began construction. In 1887, the Wyoming Lumber Company opened a sawmill in Manville.

In the early 1900s, homesteaders began using dry farming, combining drought-resistant crops with good surface conditions to preserve the scant moisture. In what soon became Niobrara County they raised wheat, oats, potatoes and small fruits.

By 1915, according to a history of Wyoming published three years later, Niobrara’s population stood at 3,488 and the property assessed at $6,463,414. In 1916, the state auditor’s report cited 30,000 head of cattle, 51,452 sheep and 8,803 horses in Niobrara County. The combined value totaled nearly $2 million.

Oil and gas

Indians had known of the existence of oil in the area, and white settlers made their discovery in the early 1900s. The Union Oil Company of California drilled at Harney Creek, several miles northwest of Manville, in 1911, but the well was dry. They kept drilling and eventually struck oil at Buck Creek, which became the discovery well for the East Lance Creek Field and sparked the first Lance Creek oil boom.

Oil was discovered 20 miles north of Lusk at the community of Lance Creek in 1917. Dr. J.E. Hawthorne of Lusk had begun exploration in 1912, but his funds ran out before he could drill deep enough to hit oil. California oil magnate Henry Allen Rispin continued Hawthorne’s work, but he and several others abandoned the effort before finding success. The Ohio Oil Company struck oil sand on March 13, 1918, and soon drilling produced a well that flowed at a rate of 1,500 barrels per day.

Key Dates

February 14, 1911

Niobrara County created.

Date: 1911-02-14

Niobrara County library and courthouse, 2005. Geoff Dobson, Wyoming Tales and Trails

Niobrara County
quick facts

Land Area

2,626 square miles, 16th largest in Wyoming

Land Ownership
in Niobrara County

Owner Acres Percent
US Government    
Forest Service 832 .05
Bureau of Land Mgmt. 124,245 7.41
Wyoming    
State Lands Comm. 166,819 9.97
Local Government/Other 3,824 .22
Total Public Lands 295,720 17.68
Private Lands 1,377,240 82.32
Surface Water 1,338 .08
Total Area 1,672,960 100

Niobrara County Population

2,484 (2010 U.S. Census)
2,491 (2011 State Estimate)

City, Town and
Census-designated Places

Town Population
Lusk (county seat) 1,567
Manville 95
Van Tassell 15

Employment by sector
(2009 state figures)

Sector Population
Farm 262
Forestry, Fishing & Related (D)
Mining 99
Construction 88
Utilities (D)
Manufacturing (D)
Wholesale Trade (D)
Retail Trade (D)
Transportation & Warehousing 97
Information (D)
Educational (L)
Health Care & Social Assistance 84
Arts/Entertainment/Recreation (D)
Accommodations & Food Service (D)
Management of Companies (D)
Finance & Insurance (D)
Real Estate, Rentals & Leasing (D)
Professional, Scientific & Technical 65
Administration & Waste Services 25
Other Services except Public Admin. 94
Fed, state, local gov't 455
Total 1,830

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

Nicole Lebsack grew up in Newcastle and attended the University of Wyoming. She recently graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a master’s degree in journalism with an emphasis in news editing/design and works at the Wyoming TribuneEagle. Her articles and page designs have appeared in the News Letter Journal and Columbia Missourian newspapers.

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