Sublette County, Wyoming

Some of the earliest Sublette County cattle ranches still operate today with fifth or sixth generations running the businesses. Haying and feeding is mechanized, and cattle are shipped in semi trucks, but cowboys on horseback moving herds are still a common sight. This is particularly true on the Green River drift–the stock trail used since 1896 to move cattle from spring range in the southern end of the county to summer range on the U.S. Forest Service allotment in the upper Green River Valley and back again in the fall to the ranchers’ home places for winter.

Creation of the County

When Wyoming Territory was created in 1868, its Legislative Assembly established four large counties stretching north-south from border to border. The Green River country that would later become Sublette County was initially divided between Carter County and an unorganized strip of land along the territory’s western border. This strip subsequently became Uinta County, the borders shifted and Carter County’s name was changed to Sweetwater. In 1884, Fremont County was carved out of a portion of Sweetwater County. Citizens in the upper Green River country had to travel to the distant county seats of either Evanston (Uinta County) or Lander (Fremont County) or after 1911, when part of Uinta County became Lincoln County, to Kemmerer, its county seat.

Then in 1921, Wyoming Rep. P.W. Jenkins of Cora introduced House Bill 17 to create the county of Sublette. It included the portion of Fremont County on the west side of the Wind River Mountains and the eastern portion of Lincoln County, but not Kemmerer. Supporting Jenkins was Rep. Oscar Beck of Big Piney, representing Lincoln County. The Wyoming Legislature passed the bill in February 1921; it was signed by Governor Robert Carey and sent home with representatives Jenkins and Beck for local ratification. Jenkins named the bill in honor of fur trapper and trader William Sublette, one of three brothers active in the fur trade in early 19th century Wyoming.

In a hotly contested local election in June 1921, Pinedale won the county seat designation by a mere six votes. Big Piney and Daniel were also on the ballot. The county numbers on Wyoming’s license plates are based on the assessed valuation of each county in 1928, when the numbers were first assigned. Sublette was designated 23–last in the state. Since 2000 and the recent natural-gas boom in the county, it has vied for number one in assessed valuation, taking turns with coal-rich Campbell County.

Tourism

Tourism has been an economic venture in Sublette County since territorial years. One of Wyoming’s first dude ranches was established by Billy Wells in 1887 in the upper Green River Valley. Paying guests–dudes—from the East or Europe came west for the mountain experience. Big game hunting in the fall was especially popular with guests who endured long, difficult trips to get there.

Other dude ranches included a hunting lodge built by B. F. Bondurant about 1904 in the northern end of what would become Sublette County. The Z Bar U and the Box R Ranch and others opened in the Hoback area northwest of Bondurant and in the upper Green River Valley. Visitors often needed references to be accepted as guests. Activities included riding, swimming, fishing, mountain climbing, dances and a rodeo. Pack trips into the mountains were also offered.

The Great Depression, better roads and the popularity of the automobile brought dude ranching’s decline. Tourism became big business in Wyoming after World War II, but dude ranching accounted for a much smaller portion of revenue. A few successful dude ranches still operate in Wyoming and Sublette County, but the industry never regained the popularity it enjoyed in the 1920s.

Area chambers of commerce have worked diligently since the 1930s to bring in tourists, and tourism remains important in Sublette County, particularly in the northern end, close to the mountains, lakes and streams.

Tie-hacks, mostly from Sweden, Norway, Finland and Austria, were also called river rats and and were paid well for their dangerous  work. They are shown here with pike poles, moving ties down the Green River in the 1890s. Bill and Carrie Budd photo, Thelma Budd collection.

Logging

A new industry–the production of railroad ties--was brought to the area when the transcontinental railroad was built across southern Wyoming in 1867-1868. Two important factors enabled this industry: large stands of lodgepole pines in the mountains and many “drivable” streams and rivers for floating ties to the Green River City, where the Union Pacific crossed the Green River. Ties were cut for the initial railroad construction, but eventually an enduring replacement industry developed and lasted into World War II.

Ties were hand-hewn by skilled “tie-hacks” from Sweden, Norway, Finland and Austria. The hewn ties were delivered to market by huge drives when the ties were floated down the Green River and its tributaries with help from the tie‑hacks. These “river rats” often rode the logs down the stream, and were paid well for their dangerous, backbreaking labor.

Centers of such activities included the Kendall tie camp on the upper Green River, organized in 1896, and big enough for its own post office by 1899. Supplying the tie camps with food and equipment brought more business to the area.

Operations spread southward in the 20th century to the North and South Cottonwood Creek drainages in the Wyoming Range northwest of Big Piney. The tie industry flourished on the Cottonwoods throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Timber work moved north from there to North and South Horse Creeks in the 1930s.

Ties were cut along both creeks and on Dry Beaver Creek near Daniel, where portable sawmills were in use by the late 1930s. Gradually, portable sawmills, chainsaws, tractors, road, and haul trucks replaced the broadax and tie drives. The era ended in 1940 when the Union Pacific stopped accepting hand-hewn, river-driven ties because they were too uneven and their quality inconsistent. Additionally, the railroad no longer wanted water-soaked timber as it was too hard to treat it effectively with preservative.

Oil and Gas

In the winter of 1938, a Wyoming Petroleum Corporation well near Big Piney, Wyo. blew out for two months and became coated in about 700 tons of ice before workers shut it in. Bill Williams collection, courtesy of Jonita Sommers.Oil was reported by emigrants in the 1840s who used it to grease their wagon wheels. Drilling for oil and natural gas in Sublette County, though, had a slow start. The first drilling took place in 1907 close to the future location of Calpet, near the southern border of the county in what became the La Barge Oil Field. One of the chief drawbacks to development was the field’s location--35 miles by wagon road from Opal, the nearest railhead. A road also reached the field from Kemmerer, but was poorly maintained. Neither one was worth much for transporting heavy drilling equipment. Early oil men, including W.D. Newlon—often called “the father of the La Barge Field,”—went broke through losses on these investments. Newlon’s rig burned before his first well was completed. Even so, he returned and drilled the first producing well in the area at Gobbler’s Knob in September 1923. Other successes soon followed, and Newlon formed several oil companies including the La Barge Oil Company and the Wyoming Oil Reserve Company.

The town of Tulsa, Wyo., was developed in the early 1920s—probably with hopes it would rival its Oklahoma namesake. Tulsa soon had a post office, a hotel, garage and grocery stores. La Barge, Wyo., was founded two miles west around the same time with town lots advertised at astronomical prices. But by 1928, the La Barge townsite was a ghost town, casualty of an economic downturn, and the remaining buildings were moved to Tulsa. In the 1930s, the name Tulsa was changed to La Barge to avoid mail confusion. It remains La Barge today, located just over the line into Lincoln County, but owes its existence to Sublette County oil fields. Decade after decade, La Barge continues to endure the booms and busts of the oil and gas industry.

In 1926, the California Petroleum Corporation bought out Beneficial Oil and most of Newlon’s interest and built the Calpet Camp in Sublette County about three miles west of present-day La Barge. Calpet grew quickly with a cookhouse, houses, recreation hall, machine shops and a school all constructed in short order. In 1927, the company built a small refinery, which furnished electric power for Calpet and gasoline for local use. Workers and their families stayed in Calpet until 1956 when the refinery closed.

A pipeline from La Barge to Opal brought a major improvement in transporting oil. In 1928, workers suffered through a tough winter, digging the line by hand with only shovels, for the Midwest Pipeline Company. The line began operation in January 1929, ending the previous era of trucking crude. Heater stations were maintained, and the line was patrolled daily. By that year, the La Barge Field boasted 80 to 100 wells producing 2,000 barrels of crude oil daily.

Exploration led to other discoveries nearby, including the Dry Piney Field eight miles to the northwest. By 1938, 20 wells had been drilled in that area, but only one small oil well and a gas well were producing.

The La Barge Field was gradually expanded northward when the Tiptop Unit was developed in 1948. In 1953, a four-inch, 11-mile pipeline was laid from Tiptop and Hogsback to the La Barge Field. By 1960, the Hogsback Unit was included in the field.

Key Dates

June 28, 1921

Pinedale wins election for county seat of Sublette County by six votes.

Date: 1921-06-28

Marbleton, 1941. Wyoming Tales and Trails.

Sublette County
quick facts

Land Area

4,934 square miles, 6th largest in Wyoming

Land Ownership
in Sublette County

Owner Acres Percent
BLM 1,266,048 40
USFS 1,169,408 30
Bureau of Reclamation 4,480  
State of Wyoming 123,779 4
Other public lands 4,954  
Private lands 589,174 18
Surface water 33,971 1
Total Area 3,191,814 100

Sublette County Population

10,247 (2010 U.S. Census)

Incorporated Towns

Town Population
Pinedale (county seat) 2,030
Marbleton 1,094
Big Piney 552

Unincorporated Communities

Community  
Bondurant  
Cora  
Boulder  
Daniel  

Employment by sector
(2008 state figures)

Sector Population
Agriculture 434
Mining 2,182
Construction 994
Health care ND
Food & lodging 562
Government & military 1,015
Other sectors 3,110
Total 8,297

ND=not disclosed to avoid disclosure of confidential information, 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_Report08.pdf

About the Author

Ann Chambers Noble and her husband, David, live with their children in Cora on their cattle ranch. Ann is also the owner of the historic Chambers House Bed and Breakfast in Pinedale. Ann is a writer and historian, with a B.A. in history from Bowdoin College and a M.A. in history from the University of Utah. She is the author of the award winning Pinedale, Wyoming; A Centennial History, 1904 – 2004 and Hurry McMurry; W. N. “Neil” McMurry, Wyoming Entrepreneur.

Field Trips