Fort Laramie
Park History, 1834-1977
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The epic history of Fort Laramie from 1834, the heyday of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, to 1890, the end of the Indian wars, is well known. After the Army auctioned off its abandoned buildings in April, 1890 the Fort soon took on the appearance of a quaint country village, with a few dwellings of remarkable architecture which were the adopted homes of civilians left over from Army days, surrounded by a number of impressive ruins. The principal residents were ex-sutler and rancher John Hunton and his wife Blanche, who owned the ancient Sutler's Store and Officers' Row, including the famous Old Bedlam; Mary and Joe Wilde, owners of the Commissary Storehouse and the Cavalry Barracks which became hotel, saloon, and dance-hall; and Harriet Sandercock, widow of Thomas Sandercock, and their descendants, who controlled a corner of the parade ground area, including an officer's quarters, guard-house, and the site of the 1849 trading post, Fort John. These are the individuals to whom posterity must be grateful for their effective, albeit haphazard, preservation of those buildings that did survive. [1]

We are concerned here with neither the epic history of the military post nor the small local happenings there after its abandonment. We are concerned here with a story never before told in any comprehensive way, yet it is a story of interest to all Americans who appreciate the historic shrines that remind them of their unique heritage of freedom. It is the story of a few dedicated men who, against great odds, succeeded in saving for posterity the priceless physical remains of the once great Fort which Hunton, Wilde, and the Sandercocks had retained for whatever personal reasons.

The "odds against" were the steady deterioration of these buildings with the inexorable passage of time, the successive land-owners' reluctance to sell, and the unavoidable but heart-breaking delays by the State of Wyoming in finding a formula for acquisition. The "odds in favor" were a gradual awareness of Fort Laramie's significance by the public and corresponding interest in its preservation, coupled with persistent efforts by a handful of Fort Laramie champions who recognized that the Fort could be saved only if it could be acquired by some kind of philanthropic foundation or a Government agency with the capability of restoring and preserving it. Another plus was the fact that the buildings that did manage to survive all hazards for almost half a century — stripping for salvage, neglect, misuse, fire, vandalism — until such an agency did arrive, providentially, on the scene, were among the most important, historically.

When the Army abandoned Fort Laramie, and for two and a half decades thereafter, there is not the slightest evidence of thinking on the part of anyone that a mistake had been made, that Fort Laramie should not be abandoned, but preserved as a historic shrine. Newspapers and other known and accessible sources have been searched in vain for such evidence prior to 1915. On the contrary, by 1915 most of the Fort building had disappeared because of a deliberate policy by Hunton and Wilde to raise cash by selling off such buildings for their salvage value, and there is no evidence of any public or private outcry at this exploitation of buildings deemed otherwise worthless. The lumber-hungry homesteaders who bought them managed to remove almost all the frame buildings and strip most of the lime-concrete buildings. In 1915 there were only 22 pre-1890 structures still standing, compared to over 60 identified on the last official Fort ground plan. Of these 22, there were 14 relatively intact, and 8 consisting of lime-concrete ruins. Of the intact 14, it is evident that 12 were thus preserved because they served the utilitarian purposes of their owners. Of only 2 — Old Bedlam and the Sutler's Store — can it be said that they were preserved, by John Hunton, for reasons of personal sentiment alone. [2]

This is not to condemn Hunton or anyone else for not coming up with the radical idea of preservation by a public agency. The hard frontier times precluded the possibility that any state or local agency could achieve such a purpose, and the United States Government had not yet begun to evolve a philosophy of historic site preservation. Nevertheless, it is of interest to ascertain just when the germ of the idea of actual physical preservation of the Fort in perpetuity first appeared, in contrast to mere sentimentality and memorialization. Exactly when was the fatalistic acceptance of Fort Laramie's eventual extinction reversed in favor of an active campaign to preserve and restore it?

The pivotal moment seems to have been on June 17, 1915 when dedication services were held near the Sutler's Store for a large concrete obelisk marker with an imbedded marble plate inscription which reads: FORT LARAMIE A MILITARY POST ON THE OREGON TRAIL, JUNE 16, 1849 - MARCH 2, 1890. THIS MONUMENT IS ERECTED BY THE STATE OF WYOMING AND A FEW INTERESTED RESIDENTS. [3] The historic occasion is recorded for posterity in the Torrington Telegram dated Thursday, June 17, 1915:


Thursday of this week was a history making epoch in this valley and it will long be remembered because of granite markers dotting the course of the Oregon Trail, that were publicly unveiled that day, with music by the Torrington band, and addresses by Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard, the state regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Ex-Governor Joseph M. Carey, Hon. Ed. L. Patrick, and Mr. Bartlette, of Cheyenne.

. . . There was a large crowd at Fort Laramie for the opening exercises, and the place was an ideal one for the program.

This was the principal marker among the three that were to be unveiled that day, and the principal addresses were delivered at that point. . .

Dr. Hebard is a talented lady, and because of her interest in Old Fort Laramie had a paper touching on the importance of Fort Laramie on the Oregon Trail. . .

Ex-Governor Carey spoke on the "Pioneer" and because of his acquaintance with the men who wrested these broad acres from the Indians, he gave us an account of the men and the work of those early days that was beyond anything ever written. . .

The flag was drawn from the marker by Mrs. Hunton who is a daughter of the American Revolution. . .

There were twenty or more cars at Fort Laramie by the time the speaking began, and the program lasted well up to the dinner hour. The shady quarters about the Joe Wilde home, and the running streams of water were too inducive of comfort for the voyageurs to leave before dinner. . . and those who did not have dinner baskets were fed at the Wilde table. [4]

On that memorable day who came up with the preservation idea? Not John Hunton, whose lengthy correspondence betrays no concern how the buildings would be protected beyond his own time. [5] On the contrary, his evident co-sponsorship of the marker bespoke awareness that in the course of time all the buildings would disintegrate and vanish. Not Dr. Hebard who, while speaking of the Fort's history in glowing terms, did not even hint at the desirability of preservation. [6] Nor was it the Honorable Joseph Carey, the impassioned orator. No, the revolutionary idea was born in the head of a member of the audience that day, one James Johnston, editor of the Torrington Telegram who went straight to his desk to pen the earliest documentable record of an outright plea for the preservation of Fort Laramie. This was an editorial which appeared in the same issue reporting the dedication:


Few people realize the importance of Fort Laramie as a historic spot in Wyoming, and to think that the site of the first fort in the State lies within the borders of our county ought to arouse the patriotism of the present generation to restore the works and make it into a beautiful summer resort.

There are a dozen or more buildings intact, and can be put in shape for use at very little cost. The hospital commands a beautiful sight of the valley, and the dormitory for the privates is now the beautiful home of Mr. and Mrs. Joe Wilde. . .

. . . The Oregon Trail marker [of 1915] is by far the the best one put up on the trail. . . Close to this is the old trading post — the very building where the white man obtained his supplies, and the Indian bartered his wares.

The home of Mr. and Mrs. John Hunton is in the row of buildings bordering on the Laramie River front, the end of which now terminates with the Bedlam house made famous by the writings of Captain Charles King.

. . . This is the ideal spot for a summer home, or for a picnicking place during the summer months. It is a convenient distance from Torrington, Guernsey and Wheatland and because of the fame of Old Fort Laramie it would be a popular place for gatherings and chautauquas as well.

Because it was inconceivable in pre-World War I times that any government — federal, state, or local — would undertake to preserve an old fort solely as a historical park, for its own sake, all early clarion calls for preservation of Fort Laramie, like Johnston's, revolved around various possibilities of pragmatic or utilitarian uses of the Fort structures, with their preservation only incidental. Even though such uses, had they been adopted, would have seriously impaired the authentic character of the military post, we accept these earnest proposals as evidence of a genuine desire to save the Fort, by whatever means. Johnston's notion was a nebulous one which of course bore no fruit, and we can smile today at the naivete of "restoring the works at very little cost." Nevertheless an inspired idea was born and would be echoed thereafter with increasing insistence until the dream would become a reality.

Another idea for preservation was voiced the following year in the Guernsey Gazette by editor George Houser. This time preservation was to be achieved by "setting aside the Old Fort as a training school for American soldiers," a thought springing from the spirit of preparedness engendered by the ominous gathering clouds of World War I. On July 4, 1916 there was a patriotic picnic at the site, "not only to give old-timers a chance to meet, but to talk over the possibility of getting the Government to establish a military school at the Old Fort." There was baseball and wrestling matches, but the main event was speech-making: "Two Mighty Good Addresses." Judge Winter of Converse County, "one of the brainy orators of the State," presented to "a vast audience" masterly arguments for Government ownership of Fort Laramie. The remarks of ex-Governor Carey were also full of "words of burning patriotism." In reporting the event the editor remarked that, "every available effort is being made for the purchase and preservation of the Old Fort, with everything pointing to success." [7] Just who was making what kind of an effort is not revealed. Though we suspect that Wyoming Congressmen approached the War Department with this proposal, it obviously fell on deaf ears. Its merit lay not in its practicality but in its publicity, nurturing the more mature concept of Fort preservation by a U. S. Government agency of some kind, compared to the Torrington editor's thought of a local recreational facility.

While the imaginative and energetic Houser himself was evidently the prime promoter of the military school idea as well as the historic picnic, he reveals that the originator of the military school concept was Will M. Maupin, then editor of the Midwest Magazine published at York, Nebraska. Houser confessed that Maupin's idea "is so sensible and contains so much in favor of practical preparedness that we give it in full to our readers":

When Uncle Sam decided to abandon Old Fort Laramie he committed a grave blunder. When he permitted that historic old post to be sold and its many splendid buildings to go to wrack and ruin, he committed a crime.

There is just one way for Uncle Sam to rectify that blunder and atone for that crime — re-purchase the old reservation and there, in the very heart of the republic, establish a great military school, a second West Point. Scores of reasons could be brought forward. . . Physically there is a splendid stream of pure water flowing through the old reservation. . . all ready to furnish the power that could generate enough electricity to supply a great Commonwealth. . . The vast stretch of country adjacent would afford ample training for young soldiers. . .

In case this republic should go to war. . . it would be the great middle west that would supply the most and best men. . . And here in the great middle west is the place to establish a great military training school. . . The first step is to re-purchase the old reservation and make it a government park. After the old buildings have been restored as nearly as possible, the work of building the military school should begin. . . [8]

Maupin's concept of keeping a restored Fort separate from any new buildings is unique among early vocal Fort Laramie preservationists. In a 1945 interview by the writer, Mr. Maupin claimed some credit for the establishment of Fort Laramie National Monument for, he asserted, he was "always editorializing" in favor of the preservation of that place. He visited the Fort frequently, the first time in 1914 to attend a dance at Wilde's place. It is of interest to note that Maupin became the first Custodian of neighboring Scotts Bluff National Monument when that area was established in 1919. This was his reward for recommending the establishment of that Oregon Trail landmark as a National Park. [9]

Another Nebraskan, A. E. Sheldon, Superintendent of the Nebraska State Historical Society for many years, claims to have plumped for the preservation of the Fort even earlier than Maupin did. In a letter of 1935 to the Historical Landmarks Commission of Wyoming he states: ". . . 25 years ago I wrote and spoke in favor of acquiring and holding this notable historical site where I have camped many times, sometimes for two or three weeks." That would seem to cast him in the role of preservation advocate as early as 1910, but this writer has been unable to verify this claim in any publications or in the Sheldon correspondence in the Society collection in Lincoln. [10]

During this period another notion of what to do with Fort Laramie was born in the head of the Right Reverend Nathaniel S. Thomas, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Wyoming. This was to be a church-sponsored school "where boys could live in a church atmosphere" which would somehow be provided by "this former Post, the most historic in the United States." The proposal, which preoccupied the Bishop from 1915 to 1919, involved an estimated cost of $130,000 for the purchase of the Fort and adjacent agricultural lands, and "remodeling of the Fort buildings." The discloser of the Thomas proposal writes: "To the Bishop's credit, I believe, he planned to restore Old Fort Laramie. He had a sense of history and his vision was an early one concerning what could — and ought — to be done with the then ramshackle buildings." We concede the Bishop's awe of Fort Laramie, "with all its history and romance," but we cannot discern evidence that he had meaningful restoration in mind, as distinct from conversion to alien purposes. In any event his dream was not revealed publicly at the time so could have had no impact on public thinking. [11]

A development proposal of a more practical nature that did receive full publicity is revealed in the Guernsey Gazette for August 31, 1917:

Old Fort Laramie, where the soldiers were stationed in the old Indian days of the long ago, is to become a mecca for tourists. Mr. Joseph Wilde has disposed of a half-interest in the old fort to Mr. Carlson, a contractor who put in the big tunnel on the Government ditch, and the new firm are contemplating many improvements on the buildings and grounds. They will put in a store and a hotel and will be equipped to take care of the trade in good shape.

As the tourist travel increases in the state the old fort has become a mecca for tourists and Mr. Wilde has been bothered considerable in trying to provide accommodations to the visitor. . .

A few of the contemplated improvements are: an auto road through the grounds, general merchandise store, gas station, new foundations and concrete floor on the old Cavalry Barracks porch, the old dance hall will be repaired and redecorated, and many other improvements made.

The ruins of the old frontier fort is well advertised all over the United States from its historical importance and will become a popular place for Eastern tourists. The new firm is bound to be successful in their new venture.

While the Carlson project to develop tourist facilities scarcely constituted historic preservation, it did mean that somebody intended to make an effort to keep certain buildings in good useable condition, in this case primarily the Barracks and the Commissary Storehouse, the main buildings in the Wilde plot. That the venture fizzled may be deduced from the fact that in 1919 Carlson sold to Paul McDonald who fronted for H. S. Clarke, an Omaha banker, who was more interested in playing the role of gentleman rancher than he was in catering to tourists. He made certain changes in the Barracks but apparently for his own benefit and that of his tenants, not the public. Thus, the actual extent of an early tourist boom at this "mecca", if there really was one, cannot be determined from this or any other known sources. [12]

Despite the scarcity of eye-witness accounts, there is little doubt that after World War I there were numerous impromptu visits to the Fort by first-generation automobile tourists who braved the bad roads of the period to behold its faded glory, and then doubtless to push on with their primitive gas-buggies to admire the rumored wonders of Yellowstone Park. Though Wyoming's tourist industry was then but a fragile bud, it was being nurtured by Nebraska and Wyoming communities who were not averse to an influx of Eastern dollars. In 1920 disjointed segments of roads north of the North Platte, rather inaccurately dubbed "the North Platte Valley Highway," was designated a state road, eligible to receive federal aid, and there is the first known reference to the idea of capitalizing on the Old Oregon Trail by affixing its name to "a national highway." To promote it the "North Platte Valley Highway Association" came into being in 1922. [13]

Ezra Meeker, the apostle of Oregon Trail monuments and markers, who had made his first covered wagon memorial trek in 1906, turned up again in his old prairie schooner in 1920 to reawaken interest in the old Trail. Due in part to his influence Nebraska could now number over 50 such granite monuments, and the Nebraska Highway Department was giving the North Platte Valley Highway high priority. Talk of new or improved road construction was in the Wyoming air also, and Fort Laramie and Yellowstone Park were conspicuous among visible attractions that helped to initiate a vigorous road improvement program. [14] Because of the decrepit condition of the Fort there was growing awareness that something would have to be done, sooner or later, if this promising tourist attraction was not to be lost.

Stock in Old Fort Laramie perked up perceptibly in 1923 when two dynamic promoters appeared on the scene, a newspaperman who would strongly reinforce George Houser's long lone campaign, and a developer who for the first time would attempt direct action as well as talk. For some years the Lingle Guide-Review had recognized the interest of the town of Fort Laramie with a "Fort Laramie Department" and the editor of this weekly did his bit to come out foursquare for history, admonishing once in a banner headline that "Fort Laramie People Should See to It that the Old Fort is Preserved as a Historic Spot." However, journalistic tub-thumping on behalf of the Old Fort would reach its crescendo in the short-lived Fort Laramie Scout, inaugurated in late 1923 and combined with the Goshen County News at Torrington in 1927. The proprietor of this free-wheeling periodical was L. G. (Pat) Flannery, who had occupied the old officer's quarters adjacent to the "Hunton House" at the Fort in 1919, becoming a confidante of the old man. This was the origin of Flannery's perennial agitation for preservation, which at times took on the aspect of a one-man crusade. [15]

The developer in question was Thomas Waters of Omaha, district freight representative of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In September of 1923 the Guide-Review had come up with a new suggestion, that "Fort Laramie is ideally suited for a dude ranch, which would attract many tourists on account of its historic appeal." The same article referred to "Harry Clark," also of Omaha, as the owner of the fort, but as we have seen what this party had an interest in was that portion of the Fort that had been held first by Wilde, the Cavalry Barracks area, not the more famous Officers Row of the parade ground, featuring the Sutler's Store and Old Bedlam. [16] It was Waters who acquired an interest in this most significant and crucial section of the Fort from John Hunton in 1920, though Hunton continued to live on the premises until 1923, when he moved to Torrington. [17] Although this absentee landlord conducted a ranch, of sorts, on adjoining land, his true objective was first revealed in the Gering Midwest, quoted in the Guernsey Gazette for October 26, 1923:

Thomas Waters, well known in western railroad circles, has an ambitious plan that contemplates making the site of old Fort Laramie one of the greatest summer resorts in the West. . . He has purchased a considerable portion of the old reservation together with the buildings thereon, and is now organizing a stock company for the purpose of improving the grounds, adding thereto and making a summer resort that will have a special appeal to our tourists, especially those who are interested in historic events and spots.

He plans the erection of a number of summer cottages, the establishment of a hotel and cafe big enough to take care of a big transient patronage, and the construction of a golf links that will be a big drawing card.

Mr. Waters was quoted further to the effect that "all these things will take time and money, but the plans are well formulated and some progress has already been made." Whatever one may think of the Waters plan to convert Fort Laramie into a pleasure resort, complete with lost golf balls, one must give him credit for his pre-vision of future U. S. Highway 26: "What we should be doing is turning the tide of tourist traffic through Gering, Scottsbluff and Mitchell, into old Fort Laramie with all its associations and memories, and thence on into Yellowstone Park." [18]

Evidently Waters was notable to sell enough shares in his Fort Laramie enterprise to put his plans into effect right away, and there was a lull on the old Fort front in 1924 when attention was focussed on the Guernsey Dam project. In 1925 a scheme of a different sort was concocted. In February of that year Houser called attention to a bill before the U. S. Congress offered by the Hon. Addison Smith of Idaho (House Joint Resolution 328) to designate as "The Old Oregon Trail" a system of federal highways between Council Bluffs, Iowa and Independence, Missouri to Seaside, Oregon and Olympia, Washington. Houser admonished "all Oregon Trail enthusiasts along the route to join in furthering the project." In a later issue he reported that, "a movement is on foot in which a number of Wyoming towns are interested in having a portion of old Fort Laramie set aside as a national monument for future generations. This movement is the result of a stir to have the old Oregon Trail made into a national highway." [19]

Houser's plea is the first recorded instance of Fort Laramie being associated with the magical term, "national monument," the official designation of "objects of historic and scientific interest" set aside by Presidential Proclamation by authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906. However, this term was not employed by the Wyoming State Legislature when it attempted to beef up prospects for the Smith bill with a petition to Congress, inspired by resolutions received from the Travis Post No. 5 of the American Legion, Department of Wyoming, and the Lions Club, both of Torrington. The language of the twin resolutions reveals for the first time an impressive depth of pro-preservation sentiment valley-wide, going well beyond the immediate vicinity of Guernsey and Fort Laramie:

WHEREAS, Old Fort Laramie is, from a historical stand point, one of the most important points in the West, and

WHEREAS, this property is now in private ownership and the buildings are rapidly falling into decay and will be in a state of ruin beyond repair, and

WHEREAS, the North Platte Valley Highway which passes this fort is the most direct route from the East to the Yellowstone National Park and is used by thousands of tourists each year, and

WHEREAS, numerous civic and patriotic organizations have joined in a request urging the Federal Government to re-purchase this property with the view of re-establishing, restoring, preserving and perpetuating to posterity this historical monument of pioneer days and making it accessible to visitors,

NOW THEREFORE, Be it Resolved, etc.

House Joint Memorial No. 4 was introduced by the Uinta and Goshen County delegations, with an amendment adding Fort Bridger for consideration, and referred to the Committee on Memorials. After some jockeying over fine distinctions of terminology, and debates about adding other sites to the list, the final bill, "Memorializing the Congress of the United States to set aside Old Fort Laramie and Old Fort Bridger and Independence Rock as Historic Reserves," was passed and approved February 25, 1925. [20]

Representative Addison Smith's final version of his bill, for the designation of an Oregon Trail Highway from Kansas City, Kansas to Vancouver, Washington, "which shall follow the Trail as closely as economic and topographic conditions permit," got nowhere in Congress for reasons which are abundantly evident in a fascinating printed report on hearings before the Committee on Roads. It is fascinating because of the wealth of emigrant journals that are quoted at length to prove just which side of the Platte this or that emigrant party travelled, and the florid oratory of Congressional champions. (Willis Hawley, representative from Oregon whose parents were covered wagon emigrants, speaks of the Trail, "as a living thing, breathing of heroic self-sacrifice and devotion to duty. It is the trail which leads to the rainbow's end, the trail of all trails, your trail and mine.") However, discord prevailed among witnesses, not only as to the exact route of the Trail, but also just exactly what did constitute "the Oregon Trail," and whether to recognize such variants as the Mormon Trail and Pike's Peak Trail, not to mention the far more heavily travelled emigrant road to California, and the overarching question of the constitutionality of Congress getting into the business of interpreting fine points of American history. Though Fort Laramie was frequently mentioned in the hearings as one of the crown jewels of the Oregon and all other trails, there appears to have been no discussion of its preservation. [21]

While State and Federal legislators and learned historians eulogized the distant Fort in abstract terms, the Fort itself was in mortal jeopardy. An article in the Guernsey Gazette for April 3, 1925 reveals that at that time the Fort narrowly escaped destruction from fire, at the same time dramatically demonstrating the dedication of local citizens in going to the rescue:

Mr. Cummings, dragline operator, discovered a blaze as he was returning from work, about 11:30 P.M., and roused the Latta Bros., who live on the place. The fire, of unknown origin, supposedly started in a pile of hay. A strong northwest wind was blowing and swept the flames through the corrals, burning fences, feedlots and everything in its path until it reached what is said to have been the old bakery, the extreme southeastern building of the group, which has been used for many years as a stable and blacksmith shop. There was barely time to save the livestock sheltered there. Roof, windows, woodwork and everything inflammable was destroyed, leaving only the stark, lime-concrete walls of the ancient structure.

The alarm was spread, and throughout the night men from town worked with the ranchers to save the other buildings. Lines of men carried water from the river to wet the walls and ground about surrounding structures, and the ceaseless guard against sparks continued until daylight. Mrs. Latta kept the watchers supplied with sandwiches and coffee.

Had the wind changed all the old Fort buildings would have been in great danger. [22]

While the immediate neighbors of Old Fort Laramie were obviously sold on the idea of saving it, there was a need to bring its desperate plight to the attention of a wider audience. The year 1926 must be viewed as a climax year in the process of focussing state-wide public opinion on the dire need to save Fort Laramie soon, if it was to be saved at all, and there is reason to believe that it was this Fort Laramie campaign which was the primary factor in the creation of the Historical Landmarks Commission of Wyoming the following year. Editors Flannery of the Scout and Houser of the Gazette were movers and shakers as well as reporters of events, and it was at this time that they enlisted other potent allies in the cause.

Early that year, following the fiasco of the Oregon Trail Highway proposal, Wyoming's then House Representative, Charles E. Winter, made an effort "to get favorable action for preservation of two forts as national monuments that were the gateway to the West — Laramie and Bridger." Judge Winter, the same fiery Fort Laramie orator of 1916, was also known as "the Bard of Wyoming," and a western novelist of some repute, as well as a jurist. In his efforts he enlisted the aid of General Charles King, famous novelist of western garrison life, then 85 and a military instructor at a college at Ripon, Wisconsin. But it appears that Winter lacked either the savvy or the clout to sell fellow Congressmen on the salvation of abandoned Wyoming forts. Information on the precise nature of his legislative proposal is lacking — it evidently never reached any Committee for a hearing — but his efforts were diluted by a project that appears to have had higher priority with him, a bill to provide for the erection of a monument to Sacajawea of Lewis and Clark fame, on the Fort Washakie Reservation near Lander, "in the 6th judicial district where Mr. Winter served as judge for seven years." [23]

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Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003