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.
Business & Industry
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Business & Industry
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.
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.
A late-1960s Atomic Energy Commission plan to extract Wyoming natural gas with five underground nuclear explosions won strong initial support from the oil and gas industry and the federal government. Finally, however, the idea stalled, thanks to the emergence of more information on possible dangers, to Washington politics, and especially to intense local opposition in Sublette County, Wyo., where the devices were slated to be detonated.
Natural gas has been flowing from the Jonah Field and Pinedale Anticline in western Wyoming since the early 1990s, bringing with it substantial profits, tax revenues, prosperity, social change, air pollution, and declines in local mule-deer populations. The story goes to the heart of Wyoming’s oil and gas culture, and raises important questions about energy production’s long-term costs and benefits.
Accidents and disasters have plagued Wyoming coal mines since territorial times. In 1886, legislators created the office of the state mine inspector to help improve safety. Still, explosions and cave-ins killed hundreds of miners in the following decades. The worst accidents happened in Hanna in 1903 and near Kemmerer in 1923. Lawmakers continued to increase safety measures and eventually expanded the duties of the state mine inspector. Modern strip mining is far safer.
In 1843, explorer John C. Frémont reported coal in what’s now southwest Wyoming. In the 1860s, the route of the new transcontinental railroad across Wyoming was chosen partly to access abundant coal deposits for fuel for the locomotives. Coal mining boomed, labor strife increased and Wyoming’s coal industry thrived despite worker strikes and a number of horrific mine accidents. Today, the state produces 40 percent of the nation’s coal, most of it from huge strip mines in the Powder River Basin in northeast Wyoming, for rail shipment to electric power plants in 34 states.
After the Burlington Railroad reached Sheridan, Wyo. in 1892, coal camps—company towns for miners and their families—were established next to a series of mines north of the town. The mines served local and regional markets as well as the railroad. By 1910, a total of around 10,000 people lived in these camps—Dietz, Kooi, Monarch, Acme and Carneyville, later renamed Kleenburn—more than lived in Sheridan. A busy electric railway ran the 15 miles from town to the camps and back. Most of the miners were immigrants, more than half of them Polish, and their descendants still play vital roles in Sheridan County today.
Guernsey Dam on the North Platte River lies between historic Fort Laramie and Laramie peak and just a few miles from some deep, sandstone ruts on the historic Oregon Trail. The dam was completed in 1927, for hydropower and flood control. In 1934, crews from the Civilian Conservation Corps located camps near the reservoir. With design help from the National Park Service, they built the handsome stone-and-timber shelters and buildings at Guernsey State Park, in what became a showplace of state park design.