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Industry, Politics and Power: the Union Pacific in Wyoming

The construction of the Union Pacific in 1868 gave rise to the towns, geography of settlement and the economy of new Wyoming Territory in 1869. Obstacles to construction were both physical and financial, and the railroad overcame them with sometimes slapdash results—hastily laid track and rickety bridges, watered stock and Congressional corruption. But the Union Pacific contributed enormously to Wyoming’s growth and development, made its modern economy possible and continues today as an economic power in the state.

The Wyoming Sheep Business

Wyoming’s sheep business never had the fame or cachet of Wyoming’s cattle business, but at the turn of the last century sheep raising was more widespread and probably more lucrative. Cattlemen, however, reacted violently to sheepmen’s entry onto the public range, and for a time deadly raids by cattlemen on flocks, sheepdogs and sheepherders were chronic. A gradual decline in wool and lamb prices since the 1920s has left only about a twentieth as many sheep on Wyoming ranges now as there were in 1909.

The Wyoming Cattle Boom, 1868-1886

Grass was free and profits enormous in the cattle business in Wyoming Territory — for a while. The business dates to the 1850s, but the boom came after the Union Pacific Railroad connected Wyoming ranges to eastern markets. For a time it seemed as if every investor got rich. Finally, a weakening market and the overstocked range could not withstand two years of drought followed by a terrible winter. The big boom busted, following an economic pattern repeated many times since in an economy still based heavily on natural resources.

A Kid in Hell on Wheels: Laramie as the Railroad Arrived

Billy Owen never saw a railroad until he was eight years old. His mother had told him about railroads. But in his mind as he traveled east by wagon train across Wyoming in the spring of 1868, he had imagined railroad wheels that looked something like wagon wheels. They rolled in grooves. Each groove was made by two rails. That meant it took four rails, as he imagined it, to make a track.

Boom, Bust and After: Life in the Salt Creek Oil Field

Prospectors first struck oil in the Salt Creek Oil Field in northern Natrona County, Wyo. late in the 1880s. The first gusher came in in 1908. The subsequent boom lasted until the late 1920s, peaking in 1923, when the field produced more than 35 million barrels of oil. Tom Wall, who went to work in the field in 1917, stayed for decades and in the 1970s wrote out his memories of life in the oil patch through boom and bust. After 125 years and thanks to new technologies, the Salt Creek Field continues to produce today.

The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920: The law that changed Wyoming’s economic destiny

The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 established the modern system by which oil and coal companies may lease federal land. This system has proven enormously beneficial to Wyoming’s state coffers since it was first enacted nearly 100 years ago. How this all came about is a story of early oil producers looking for a way around a presidential order and a highly contentious Supreme Court case, all with lucrative results for the state of Wyoming—and a stabilizing result for the industry.

J. B. Okie, Sheep King of Central Wyoming

The vivid, charismatic J. B. Okie raised sheep near Badwater Creek at the turn of the last century, and was so successful he was called “Sheep King.” A businessman with great vision, he soon owned half a dozen stores in small towns in central Wyoming, and eventually an equal number in Mexico. Lost Cabin, Wyo., named for the legendary Lost Cabin Mine, was his base. Okie built an opulent mansion there, a big bunkhouse for employees, bungalows for guests, an office building, a roller rink, a golf course and an aviary full of birds of paradise (left), cockatoos and macaws.

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Encyclopedia | Cheyenne’s M.H. “Bud” Robineau scrambled to put together the deals enabling construction during World War II of an airplane-fuel plant next to the Frontier Refinery he owned. Help from U.S. Sen. Joseph O’Mahoney proved crucial in cutting wartime red tape. The plant came online in 1944 and continued to produce high-octane fuel after the war.
Encyclopedia | From 1893-1913, the Tongue River Tie Flume carried 2 million railroad ties from the Bighorn Mountains to the Burlington Railroad. Ties moved at high speed down 38 miles of flumes across trestles and through tunnels in canyon walls. Workers’ camps were large mountain villages with schools and blacksmith shops.
Encyclopedia | If wells are the hearts, pipelines are the arteries of the oil business. Since the first line was laid 45 miles from the Salt Creek Field to Casper refineries in 1911, the pipeline business has grown steadily in Wyoming, transporting our hydrocarbons to local and world markets.
Encyclopedia | The highly controversial ETSI coal slurry pipeline, proposed in the 1970s to move millions of tons coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to power plants Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, was never built, due to falling 1980s energy prices and stiff opposition from railroad companies.
Encyclopedia | Rural electrification brought welcome changes to farms and ranches throughout Wyoming in the 1930s and 1940s, despite numerous early challenges—including opposition from existing utilities— that threatened to thwart the effort.
Encyclopedia | Natrona County’s Salt Creek Field is best known of Wyoming’s early oil fields, but five others—two in Park County and one each in Hot Springs, Niobrara and Converse counties—played important roles in the state’s 20th century transformation from an agricultural to an industrial economy.
Oral Histories | Harold Van Buskirk, born in 1897, worked in a grocery store in his youth in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin.
Encyclopedia | Since it first entered the state in 1890, the Burlington Railroad has helped connect Wyoming with the world. Burlington officials were drawn here by Wyoming’s marketable natural resources and by its geography: Wyoming offered the best routes for transcontinental lines from the Midwest and South to the Pacific Northwest.

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