Thursday, March 16, 2017

1917 The Year that made Casper what it is. Or maybe it didn't. Or maybe it did.

I have no before and after pictures for Casper that would cleanly show what the town looked like in January, 1916 and then later looked like in December, 1917.  Indeed, while there are a couple of "birdseye" photos below, they aren't quite right.  If I did have such a photograph, it would be quite the contrast.

Casper is named after Fort Caspar (yes, they are spelled differently), that being the name for Platte Bridge Station following the battlefield death of Caspar Collins in what is now Mills, Wyoming.  Ft. Caspar borders Casper, and it might now be in it, but if so it only became part of Casper relatively recently.  Interestingly enough, it's only one of at least three forts or posts, or stations, that were in the immediate area in the 1860s, although its the only one that's remembered much. The others, Richard's Bridge (in Evansville) and a telegraph station, were much smaller, so perhaps that's fair enough.

Casper was founded in 1888.  It was founded by two men anticipating the arrival of the railroad.  The man who gets credit for being first, John Merritt, was a Canadian. The second man, C. W. Eads, ironically is the only one whose name is preserved, sort of, in the town as there's a portion of it, once an unincorporated neighbor of Casper's but now part of the town, called Eadsville.  Only one week later the town had 100 residents who were there when the first passenger train of the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad stopped.

So it was a railroad stop in Central Wyoming, in the heart of cattle country.  Oddly, right from the start, it tended to look towards oil for its future, but it was a cowtown at first.

Casper Wyoming, 1893.  A few buildings, a few residents, wide streets, and a lot of mud.

And cattle got it rolling.  In a good location to support a growing cattle industry the town steadily expanded on the broad plain south of the North Platte River, safely, more or less, out of the broad flood plain of that river, which deluged annually, and which created an enormous swamp on the town's border in early spring that dried to become a large sandbar after the flood receded.  

As a cowtown, it would be the jumping off spot for the Invasion of 1892, when large cattlemen would come to Central Wyoming with Texas gunmen in an attempt to address control of the range forever. Pulling in on the single railroad in a darkened train, it didn't take Casperites long to speculate what was occurring, and Casperites were amongst the first to react, trailing the invading party as it procedd north into Johnson County.

Casper in 1903, the year of my grandfather's birth in Dyersville Iowa..  A very small town still, the railroad's path for the then single railroad is still there, but is now a rails to trail trail.

 Where the railroad, or at least that first railroad, once ran.

While people like to look back on their city fondly, it wasn't a nice town.  Owen Wister, author of the Virginian, who placed one of the central events of that novel, the Goose Egg Ranch dance baby switching (a fictional event so vivid that people claimed ancestors to have been in it, for years, even though it never happened), just outside of town, he himself described Casper as follows:
June 13: In Casper. Hotel food vile. Town of Casper, vile.

 Casper in 1909.  In color, it doesn't look so bleak. Take that, Owen.

And then came World War One.

By 1914 Casper was a well established, very small, town that served the sheep and cattle industries, major Wyoming industries.  In 1910 its population stood at 2,639.  Newspapers that I've been running for the return of Wyoming Guardsmen show, if it hasn't already been shown, that  Casper was not one of the towns where there was a Guard officer for recruiting, which would suggest, perhaps, that the town lacked a National Guard unit.  Any local men wanting to serve, if that's correct, would have had to have opted for Douglas or Lander, and a train ride.  Having said that, by the 1930s small Glenrock had a National Guard unit, so there could have been one.

Casper was basically a railhead for cattle and sheep shipping which was centrally located in central Wyoming.  And those industries all boomed during World War One. But what massively impacted things was oil. And in two forms. The Big Muddy oilfield near Midwest Wyoming, but in Natrona County, really started producing and, right behind that, the third refinery to be established in Casper, but the first one to be successful, became successful.

That changed everything.

Casper, supposedly in 1918, but already inaccurate at the time of this depiction.  The town's growth had exploded, a second railroad had come in, and the Sandbar was developed.

Oil had been a factor in Casper's economy since the 1890s.  Early Natrona County newspapers are full of speculation about the success of oil rigs that were just rigging up here and there around the county.  The first producing well came in, in Midwest Wyoming, in 1889 and wells dating back nearly that far are still in production there today. The first refinery started production on March 5, 1895, refining Salt Creek crude for the railroad, which it bordered. It was built by the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Company in what is now downtown Casper.  It was the first refinery in the state.  Hauling the oil form Midwest for the small refinery was a round trip tour of ten days.

In 1903 the entire shooting match, field and refinery, was bought by the  Societé Belgo-American des Pétroles du Wyoming, giving Casper perhaps the most exotically named refinery in the state's history.  The rifinery declined in condition however and by the late first decade of the century it was drawing complaints from residents.  It's legacy lingers on, a little, however, in that even though it would soon close in those years oil from it was found to be present in bothersome quantities downtown within the last decade.

In 1910 the Franco Wyoming Oil Company bought the refinery and tore it down, tore it down, and built a new one.  About the same time, the Midwest Oil Company built a refinery near the railhead of Casper and put in a pipeline, cutting transmission time from the field down massively.  

The change in the town's fortunes were strongly indicated when, in 1913, Standard Oil bought over 80 acres near Casper for a refinery of its own.  It was operating by 1914 and dwarfed the Midwest refinery.  Focused on gasoline, it was, for a time, the largest gasoline producing refinery in the world.  It was located just to the West of Casper, within walking distance (as all these refineries were) of Casperites.  With the Standard Refinery the evolution from a cowtown to an oiltown was well on its way.  Following at this time the Burlington Northern's new rail line was put in, running north of Casper but sought of the North Platte, thereby (temporarily) squeezing Casper in between two railroads.  The BN ran up to, and into, the Standard Oil Refinery.

In 1905, moreover, the United States government dammed the North Platte in Fremont Canyon, some 40 or so miles up river from Casper.  By the winter of 1916 the North Platte had been fully tamed with memories of annual flooding remaining, but only memories..  The river no longer flooded right up to the town, and the sandbar area was owned but not developed. By that time, it was a camping spot for sheepherders on their annual trips with their bands of sheep into Casper, which remained a major agricultural railhead.  That changed in late 1916 when an enterprising individual bought the entire sandbar for $1.00 and subdivided it. Soon thereafter he sold it to a developer for over $12,000.  He was able to do that as housing had become so tight with a flood of construction and oil workers having come into town. Downtown Casper, in turn reached for the sky, literally, with "skyscrapers" comeing up for the first time, including the one I work in, the  Consolidated Royalty Building, then the Oil Exchange Building, was will celebrate its centennial (well, it won't celebrate it, it'll be ignored) this year.  Major buildings were going up, oil was going out, and money was coming in.

Consolidated Royalty Building, where I work, which was built as the Oil Exchange Building in the late summer of 1917.

So, in the 1917 and 1918 time frame, Casper changed.  Large buildings came up, more solid ones appeared everywhere.  Houses, many still remaining, were constructed by new and old residents, including some mansions that remain.  Oilmen, sheepmen, and cattlemen, all contributed to the boom, as did those who serviced those industries.  By 1920 the towns population was 11,447.  By some accounts by the late 1920s the town had grown to over 26,000 residents, before the population fell back down to about 19,000 in an oil crash.

St. Anthony's Catholic Church.

First Presbyterian Church.

 St. Mark's Episcopal Church.  All three of the churches depicted above have roots that predate the World War One boom, with First Presbyterian, founded in 1913, being the youngest congregation, but all three of these churches were built as part of the boom.

And vice in, in a major way, as well. The sandbar would become the Sandbar, a mixture of business (some of whose buildings are still there) small houses, and shacks. Pretty quickly it became a major relight district that would exist all the way until the 1970s until it was finally put out of business.  Estimates hold that at one time up to 2,000 prostitutes plied their trade in the Sandbar in spite of ongoing major efforts to shut it down, although that seems like it's based on inaccurate recollections and the real number would have been more like 300 or so.  Still, quite a number.. Even when I was a kid, the Sandbar was pretty darned seedy and more than a little scary.

Natrona County High School, completed in 1923 and replacing a smaller structure on the same site, part of the collateral impact of the boom.

Well, the Sandbar is gone, a successful termination thanks to urban renewal in the 1970s, and while oddly romantically remembered by some, it was, as Wister noted, "vile".  The Standard Oil Refinery, which was the big one of that era, is gone as well, and a town that once had three major oil refineries is down to just one.  But oil remains the engine that drives the town to this day.  Oil refining is a shadow of what it once had been in Natrona County, and indeed that's true all over the state.  Wyoming retains a number of refineries, but gone are the days when nearly ever town had one.  Indeed, it seems odd to think of Laramie Wyoming, our "college town", having once had a fairly substantial refinery (or that it once had very large stockyards).

While refining may have fallen off, oil exploration remains a major factor in Wyoming's economy and the economic driver of a lot of towns.  It has been that way since the early 1900s.  And it remains that way in Central Wyoming today.  Casper has grown considerably since 1910, but when oil is down, the town definitely feels it.  The entire state does.

Anyhow, this blog has been focusing on the early part of the 20th Century throughout its existence and its been hard focusing on the 1917 period recently.  What huge changes Casper say in that period.  From 1910 to the mid 1920s the town went from a small town to a small city, from under 2600 people to up to about 26,000. Everyone was new in town, and everything, almost, was new.  It must have been a shock for the early residents.  And for people like we've been focusing on, men who went off to the Mexican border and then to France, their town must have been nearly unrecognizable when they returned.


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