Evolution of Roads Across Southern Wyoming
By Kris A. White
Roads across Wyoming grew out of the necessity of connecting the West Coast to the rest of the country some 150 years ago. From Overland trails to Interstate 80, travelers passed through Wyoming going elsewhere. More than 8,000 travelers a day in 1991 zipped along on Interstate 80, at 65-plus miles per hour, only stopping along the 402 Wyoming miles when they needed food or gas.
Cities, highways, and events sprouted from these travelers. The state has partially built its economy on transporting people and their goods through the state as the emigration moved west. Wyoming captured only a handful of residents from the passing crowd. The railroad, government, state, city and private businesses actively promoted the state. The early guides and modern maps they made illustrate the evolution of the cities strung along these routes and the changing needs of its residents and travelers. To follow this evolution, this paper traces the history of roads across southern Wyoming, concentrating on the transcontinental highway and its influence on five towns from the east to the west border: Pine Bluffs, Bosler, Medicine Bow, Green River and Evanston.
If the "first transcontinental highway in Wyoming was the Oregon Trail over South Pass," it was the most difficult highway, without accurate maps and with poor guides. The overland traffic developed trails along rivers and known routes connecting fort to fort. Some followed Indian trails where they could find wood, water and grass. Others tracked previous expeditions. The United States Army built military roads, followed by the overland stage, the Pony Express and, finally, the telegraph. The construction of roads was politically justified in the name of national defense, but the roads served to create access to the frontier for settlers. But "Wyoming was a place of passage, a kind of alkali hell to be got through. You can still read the signs of the getting through, all these years later...All you left in Wyoming was your name."
The transcontinental railroad, like the Pony Express and the telegraph, grew from the need during the Civil War to connect the East with the new state of California. The railroad made mass transportation across the country possible for the first time, opening the West for people and products. The Union Pacific Railroad arrived at what became Wyoming's eastern border in 1867 and crossed the state the next year, leaving budding towns along its route. President Abraham Lincoln, in signing the Pacific Railway Acts, created this connection of East and West by rail. All of the major southern Wyoming towns share a railroad origin.
After the turn of the century, the use of automobiles had grown much faster than local roads could support. A "good-roads movement" evolved to try to overcome such problems. The groups, however, consisted of regional proponents of specific projects with limited interests in a national road network.
Work was usually done locally, when a citizen committee or a handful of county workers would drive a few miles to replace a culvert or washout. Farmers' efforts kept the road open but had little effect on building a better path. In addition, directness was seldom a priority--what mattered was the road went through the town in question. Some went from place to place like ivy on a wall, seldom in a straight line and with no intention of traversing the shortest distance. Travelers complained that the marked road sometimes took them around three sides of a section in order to pass through some town, when the same distance could have been covered by a straight line.
The American Automobile Association had suggested a transcontinental highway in 1902, but a coast to coast route of paved highways was seen as a huge undertaking when there was not a mile of paved rural road. In Wyoming, the National Good Roads Association met in Rawlins in 1905. The railroads and Department of Agriculture supported the national association whose mission was to teach the science of building roads and advise people of the necessity of good roads for commercial growth. The national association visited at the request of Gov. B. B. Brooks. Participants included engineers with suggestions for the "road problem and who are prepared to give many good suggestions about the matter that is paramount in importance in Carbon County." As a result of the Rawlins meeting, the association succeeded in organizing in every county of southern Wyoming. Supporters hoped to secure legislation and position themselves to receive federal funds for road improvement, but little was appropriated early in the century.
At least as important to improving the quality the road was the need to map them properly. At first, advise from someone with personal experience was necessary. Auto enthusiasts like Payson W. Spaulding shared their adventures as they pooled their efforts to develop the route across southern Wyoming. Spaulding, who owned the first automobile in Evanston, drove from Evanston to Cheyenne and back in 1906 to show the route was possible.
But personal directions soon gave way to more sophisticated guides. to travel on the very primitive "highways." The early guides and photographs illustrate the lack of improvement and the difficulties of even local travel. A 1911 highway guide, sponsored by W. E. Dinneen's garage in Cheyenne, spelled out landmarks that motorists used to keep on the road from Laramie to Cheyenne:
Mile 25.1 Cross road. Sherman Monument on right
Mile 25.3 Cross road
Mile 25.4 Road joins from right
Mile 26.2 Keep right hand road
Mile 30.1 Bad rock
Mile 30.4 Cross road
Mile 30.9 Buford station, cross road, keep straight ahead along RR
Mile 36.5 Bad bridge
Mile 39 Granite Canyon station, keep right up over hill
Mile 40 Cross RR track. Keep left side of track to Cheyenne.
The first road map across southern Wyoming urged travelers to use the "Good Roads Route" proposed in 1912 at the Douglas "State Highway Convention." On the national level, an all-weather transcontinental route remained a top priority for automobile enthusiasts.
Such proposals were not new. Carl Fisher promoted the idea of maintenance and government financing of the first automobile road from New York to California early in the century. He called it the "Coast to Coast Rock Highway" and sought fellow enthusiasts to help promote his vision. Soon, he met Henry B. Joy, the president of the Packard Motor Car Company, who also believed a cross-country route was possible. Joy suggested that their proposed new road be called the "Lincoln Highway."
When Fisher's plan for a transcontinental highway appeared in the newspapers in 1912, the promoters did not announce the route. Consequently, many communities vied for a location on the road. When the official incorporation papers were signed in 1913 for the Lincoln Highway Association, the road still had no determined route and the rivalry between the states and among communities grew. Joy, working with the directors of the Association of which he was president, finally ignored the pressures by states and chose a route that was as direct as terrain would allow. At the same time, A. L. Westgard crossed the country on his second pathfinding trip for AAA. He followed the Overland Trail, later to be the main stem of the new Lincoln Highway.
In 1913, 150 automobiles made the trip across the continent. At the time, paved roads existed only in cities and, despite the growing proliferation of guidebooks and maps, the travelers had difficulty finding their way for lack of road signs. Gov. Joseph M. Carey designated the Lincoln Highway the Wyoming State Highway, from Nebraska to Utah on Dec. 23, 1914, when it really was not much of a road. Small signs went up to help travelers stay on the route.
Travel guides and maps continued to evolve to meet the expanding needs of travelers. Many pamphlets, blue books, and local guides unfolded the route with all its difficulties and lack of improvements in tenth-of-a-mile intervals. Gulf Oil invented the free gas-station road map in 1913. It and other regional maps showed the quickest, most direct routes or the attractions along alternate routes.
Travelers and Lincoln Highway promoters pushed for improvements because they were anxious to finish the route before the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. The Lincoln Highway Association published a guide for tourists en route to the exposition. It would be the first of many association-sponsored aids to travelers along the route. Henry Joy made the trip in 1915 and found the road "informal" at best. "The Lincoln Highway was no highway in the spring of 1915. Instead of being a competed highway to the fair, it was a mudhole that extended from Illinois to Wyoming." The route, though generally marked, had lost its improvements to the spring rains. Because of Joy's position as an automobile company official, his influence was crucial to a successful transcontinental route. Route promoters gradually gained support of other automobile manufacturers for the Lincoln Highway project (with the exception of Henry Ford who felt private industry should not have to build public roads).
Road-building and marking was interrupted by American involvement in World War I. State and local efforts continued but federal resources went to the war effort.
After World War I, army officials recognized the importance of a transcontinental automobile route to the national defense. Consequently, on July 7, 1919, eight months after the armistice was signed ending the war, the Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy left "zero milestone" on the Lincoln Highway in Washington, D. C. Led by Harry C. Ostermann, the field secretary of the Lincoln Highway Association, the expedition was organized to test moving military material by road across the United States. The army convoy consisted of a dozen trucks while Ostermann drove at the head in a white Packard touring car with the Lincoln Highway insignia attached to it. While the army's motive was to test the defense possibilities, Ostermann's goal was to promote use of the Lincoln Highway. He knew that if the military saw the necessity for such a road, it could fund and build improvements as well as further establish the highway's route.
The expedition turned out to be a 62-day, 2,310-mile ordeal. As young Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote of the trip years later: "The trip had been difficult, tiring and fun. I think that every officer on the convoy had recommended in his report that efforts should be made to get our people interested in producing better roads." During the trip, the army had to build bridges, as well as to repair trucks and tires, damaged by the adverse road conditions.
After World War I, more affordable cars made travel possible for a broader audience. But locals, tourist and road associations could not promote building roads like the military which could argue the benefits to the national defense. States and many counties and cities established highway departments charged with improving roads. By 1924, even with meager funding, a graded and gaveled Lincoln Highway was four-fifths complete.
Two years later, in 1926, "National Highways" were designated. A national commission clarified all major routes by numbering the east-west roads in numbers ending in zeros and north-south in fives. The "Lincoln Highway" was designated U. S. Highway 30. The location on these routes helped stabilize towns and determined their survival by connecting them to the new flow of tourists.
National highway status for the road passing through town, combined with the proliferation of maps and guidebooks, boosted the economies of many Wyoming towns. The 1937 map's reverse side noted each Wyoming county and its resources. The WPA Writer's Program guide in 1941 provided greater detail of the history and sites along U.S. Highway 30 and other major Wyoming roads, as well as the areas beyond the main routes.
The maps and guides of the 1950s and 1960s centered on accommodations, camping, motels, cafes and prices. The State Farm Road Atlas in 1950, copyrighted by Rand McNally, included a guide to lodging prices, motor and fish and game laws, and city populations.
Tourism continued to grow in the next decades, but much of the travel was through the state. In 1944 Congress authorized construction of the National System of Interstate Highways, but did not fund it. Because of the fractured highway politics, it wasn't until 1956 that the Interstate Highway Act was passed, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, who remembered the Army convoy across the continent in 1919. But even before the interstate system was completed across the state, a Wyoming study in 1960 showed that of out-of-state travelers, "only 29.1 percent considered some part of Wyoming to be a major destination for their trip."
Including the "brief" visitors, tourists spent an estimated $48 million in Wyoming in 1948. The figure rose to $107 million in 1963, $313 million in 1974 and $345 million in 1975. By the 1970s, tourism was second only to the minerals industry in its impact on the state's economy. A 1969 study showed that just 18 percent of I-80 travelers had a Wyoming destination.
Towns fought to be on the interstate as they did during the designation of the Lincoln Highway. The current maps detail events, parks and historic sites and recreation rather than towns or counties. The towns became less important to the travelers because the accommodations were more generic, franchised, and signed at the exits.
The roads no longer drive down main street or billboards invite you to support the local cafe. The road markers had replaced areas guidebooks as far as the basic directions. Now guides entice you off the interstate, into towns and parks. These illustrate the changes influencing the towns across southern Wyoming and the nation.
The remainder of this paper will describe how significant these roads were to five Wyoming towns, one from each of the five counties that stretch across the state. The towns are Pine Bluffs, Bosler, Medicine Bow, Green River and Evanston.
Pine Bluffs was the railroad's first stop in Wyoming's present borders, and like many end-of-the-rails towns, the railroad station gave it birth as a white settlement. The survey for this route, by Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, did not follow the more northerly Oregon Trail, but instead went directly west from Nebraska and south to be closer to Denver. This route took advantage of Wyoming coal supplies and shortened the distance. After its start as a railroad station, Pine Bluffs received a second boost as a watering hole for cattle on the Texas Trail. At the peak of the cattle drives in 1871, 6,000 cattle passed through Pine Bluffs on the trail. Later, many cattle were loaded on rail cars at Pine Bluffs for shipment to market.
The "good roads movement" route in 1912 by-passed Pine Bluffs, not considering roads east of Cheyenne. However, the 1924 Lincoln Highway guide noted that the town had a good gravel road and a population of 600, two hotels, three garages, two banks, the UP, 29 general business places, express company, telephone company, one newspaper, a Commercial Club and a free campground with water, lights and fuel. 16
The Lincoln Highway also passed through Egbert, Burns, and Hillsdale, east of Pine Bluffs, but U. S. Highway 30 later bypassed them to the south. Without it, they failed to grow as quickly as towns along the main roads. Pine Bluffs sat solidly on all three highways and survived. By 1941 the WPA guide described it as having a population of 700:
Pine Bluffs...with its storage tanks, smudged coal chute, and houses grouped in a neat grove of trees, is set against a background of yellow-gray bluffs, bristling with stubby green spires of small pines. this was once the center of a vast hunting area, tribes. Many skirmishes between hunting parties took place in this vicinity. Fields of grain and certified seed potatoes alternate in summer with wide reaches of dry dust-gray, short grass, flecked with small islands of yellow rabbit brush and vivid green weeds.
Pine Bluffs had evolved from a railroad station into a small agricultural community on US Highway 30 by summer of 1970 when journalist Bill Moyers traveled through. His purpose was to find how this small town of 1000 people had attracted and kept a "modern country doctor." His interviews with people reflected the problems of the late 1960s and 1970s, but he concluded his observations with a comment on how Wyomingites felt about the traffic going through on the highway:
Many people in Wyoming refuse to boast about the grandeur of the state. They do not want to encourage a migration of newcomers. Privately they express relief that the population in 1970 is smaller than it was ten years ago. They want to keep the mountains and prairies and rivers as fee as possible of the excrescence of urban progress. Tourists are welcome because they come and go, gracing the state with their money and their departure. I hardly blame the natives. I even hope they succeed.
People are welcome to pass on by this small town, but it seems to prosper with not only the wheat and potato fields, but also with the history of its location on the Texas Trail. In a 1984 historical tour guide, it was listed as having been "a favorite camping site between Colorado and Laramie," but it did not warrant further mention on the map of historic places.
By 1991, Pine Bluffs was listed as "a small agricultural and transportation center on Wyoming's eastern border." It boasted a potato chip factory and "sights" located "right next to the tourist information center at the I-80 rest area (Indian Teepees)." The attractions include the Texas Trail Museum Complex, monument and park, the University of Wyoming Archaeological Dig and Education Center; Indian Teepees; and Trail Days events and other recreation.
Now, tourist centers across the state have a handsome color brochure titled "Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, Frontier Crossroads." Within are listed the history, attractions, and hardy greeting to "the westbound travelers" while "the eastbound traveler is provided a pause and a hearty Western invitation to return." From the US Highway 30 days when people passed through the town to the Rest Area Information Center asking the traveler to exit I-80 and spend some time and some money , the roads have brought industry and opportunity. They also brought tourism to Pine Bluffs, besides connecting it to its neighbors and its markets, which help benefit the town's economy.
In 1912, the "Good Roads route" followed the railroad right-of-way. It went east from Cheyenne to Ozone and Sherman to Tie Siding, then swung north to Red Buttes, Laramie, and Bosler, before it headed west to Lookout. The Lincoln Highway shortened the route, eliminating the smaller railroad stations, missing Tie Siding and Red Buttes, turning northwest from Buford to Laramie and north to Bosler.
Bosler, north of Laramie on the road west, old U. S. Highway 30, began as a railroad shipping station and a cattle town. Bosler's development took many side tracks, but nothing except the highway gave it a sustaining boom. The town suffered through several busts, such as the big land promotion in 1908 which depended on an irrigation project that never materialized. Other somewhat successful projects kept agriculture going until the drought of the 1930s. Surviving the demise of crop agriculture, it remained a railroad and a cattle town
The post office moved from Two Rivers in 1908 and both were named after a local rancher, James Williamson Bosler, who had been in the area since the 1880s. In 1924, the Lincoln Highway Association travel guide described Bosler as being on a "good gravel" road with a population of 75, one hotel and one garage. "One railroad crossing at grade, not protected. One Railroad, 3 general business places, express company, telephone, one newspaper, two public schools. Good hunting and fishing. Camp site."
Frank Bosler, Jr., described the town in a 1976 interview:
In the 1920s, Bosler was a fair sized community. The Lincoln Highway crossed the tracks then. I remember the town on the west side of the track. Then the highway was changed in 1925 and the town moved over to the east side. It took quite a number of years, about ten, for the town to move... During the good water years, 1900-1930, the town flourished. Moisture was best then but Cooper Lake dried up in 1933.
The town "enjoyed a brief fling of highway business in the 1930s as auto travel increased and Bosler had a good position on the main route east and west." The 1941 guide, listed a growing population of 264, and explained that Bosler "bears the name of the former owner of the Diamond Ranch. The Diamond for some time was headquarters of Tom Horn, who was charged with being paid by the big cattle interests to keep the range clear of sheep." Ranching was still strong in the area, but shipping by railroad slowed and ceased in 1973, when the Union Pacific closed its facilities.
Through the 1960s, the highway sustained the town with motels, gas stations, and tourist shops. Town residents expected that the proposed interstate route would pass nearby. Hearings on the interstate's location, starting in 1956, made it clear that it might not occur. The U. S. Bureau of Public Roads proposed a shorter route through Elk Mountain to Walcott because "the direct line will better serve considerable population." The State Highway Commission pointed out that the U.S. Highway 30 route "served nearly five times as much population as the proposed location." The debate received considerable press attention and the towns threatened with being bypassed gained support from organizations, towns and politicians. Gov. Joe Hickey opposed the bypass. He suggested that the State Highway Commission agreed to the route only because it was "pushed down their throats, by threatening to cut off federal money." In the end, fear of losing federal highway dollar outweighed the survival of towns to be bypassed. Even Gus Fleischli, Jr., from Cheyenne supported the decision as president of the U. S. Highway 30 Association. He said the association fought to have the state make the decision for the route. Nonetheless, he told a reporter that to "keep our tourist business on a sound and long-term basis...[W]e people who depend on the highway and tourists for our livelihood will stand united for the continuation of the Interstate system and what it will mean to our whole state economy."
Interstate 80 opened in 1972, leaving Bosler to shrink to a school, post office and gas station. The loss of highway traffic drained Bosler's lifeblood. The recent Southern Wyoming Loop Tours only mentions Bosler Junction because of the Sybille Wildlife Research and Visitors Center. Bosler became a new Wyoming ghost town.
Medicine Bow's history resembles that of Bosler's. It started as a railroad station and cattle town, but later, it was made famous by Owen Wister's novel, The Virginian. Wister's diary and novel paint a portrait of Medicine Bow. His diary entries for July 1885 comment on Medicine Bow:
Medicine Bow--Got here at 5:30 this evening, July 219th after 19 hours of driving and a night in the mountains. We're expecting by midnight train some trout and bass for stocking. This place is called a town. Town will do very well until the language stretches itself and takes in a new word that fits. Medicine Bow, Wyoming consists of:
1 Depot house and baggage room
1 Coal shooter
1 Water tank
2 Eating houses
1 Billiard Hall
8 Gents and Ladies walks, where standing on the seat ceases to be a luxury and becomes a necessity
2 Tool houses
1 Feed stable
5 Too late for classification
29 Buildings in all
...I have walked nearly two acres in order to carefully ascertain the exact details of this town and I feel assured my returns are correct...
I slept from ten to twelve thirty on the counter of the store at Medicine Bow and then the train came in bringing the lawyer and the fish--and after much business talk and lifting tin cans we started off across the plains at two o'clock....
The description of Medicine Bow in the novel repeats the inventory of 29 buildings, the town being called a "town" for lack of a better word, but mostly it serves as a backdrop for incidents such as having to sleep on the store counter because of the shortage of beds. In the novel, Wister wrote: "Medicine Bow seemed a lonely spot...Town, as they called it, pleased me the less, the longer I saw it.. Now what I had seen of town was to my newly arrived eyes, altogether horrible." Wister's diaries show that the town was the first western railroad town he had seen and he was intrigued by it. Regardless of the somewhat uncomplimentary depiction of the place, Wister made it a symbol of the western town and put Medicine Bow on the map.
A generation later, the 1924 Lincoln Highway guide listed Medicine Bow with a population of 300. The town had two hotels, two garages, two banks, Union Pacific railroad express company, one telephone company, free camping and good trout fishing. It further noted:
The Virginian Hotel takes its name from Owen Wister's novel of that name, the manuscript having been written here. Road marked at this point for Yellowstone park. Good roads are reported. Inquire at hotel for road conditions. Fifty miles to the northeast lies Laramie Peak, (11,000 feet) and 20 miles to the southwest is Elk Mountain, (11,162 feet) which can be seen from the highway all the way to Fort Fred Steele.
The guide noted that residents were proud of the new graded gravel road to Rawlins. The association noted its role in the construction:
As part of this project, an 80-foot reinforced concrete bridge was constructed over the Medicine Bow River and the 20-foot bridge over Sand Creek. Toward the road construction in Carbon County, the Association contributed $5,000 from the fund of $50,000 placed at the disposal of the organization by the Willys-Overland Company to assist in improvement work in the West. Work competed at the total cost of over $115,000 between Medicine Bow and Rawlins in 1923, provides a boulevard the entire distance between these two points.
Below this description rests was the advertisement for the Virginian Hotel, offering free road information.
Fourteen years later, another Highway 30 guide painted a more dramatic picture:
As cities go, Medicine Bow is not important. Yet whenever boys and girls read story-books written in the English language, they know of this mountain city.... Why? It was here that Owen Wister records meeting his incomparable cowboy, the Virginian. It was here that the same Virginian fought the frontier duel with Trampas; it was here that he wed his school-teacher love. The water tank is still here, here too is the corral, here too is the hotel. The tenderfoot would not longer, however, have to submit his tender features to the chilling waters of the town pump nor would he need to enjoy the doubtful luxury of the public towel. A telephone keeps everyone in touch with everyone else, electric lights have replaced candles, and endless ribbons of concrete and asphalt have taken the place of the endless trail.
By 1941 the town was "a supply center for livestock-raising and oil-drilling interests" with a population of 264. The Virginian Hotel and Owen Wister are mentioned, with the addition of side trips to the left for a magnesium sulfate and bentonite deposit and an oil well, to the right for the Petrified Forest and the Epsom Salt Beds, then on through Hanna, Coyote Springs, and Parco to Rawlins.
Medicine Bow fared well on US Highway 30, but barely managed to survive the bust of being bypassed by the Interstate in 1972. The heavily traveled highway 287 north to Casper helped. So did advertising by local merchants.
The prospects of being stranded in either Rawlins or Laramie with hundreds of truckers and motorists waiting for the interstate to open frequently brings "visitors" to Medicine Bow. U. S. 30 is usually clear of snow and dry when the Interstate is locked in raging blizzards. Visitors may be created by the closed highway, but their impression of Wyoming is colored. An article in the Denver Post said, "Don't believe all the chamber of commerce blurbs about Big, Beautiful Wyoming. I've just returned. If seeing is believing, Wyoming is a frigid, airplane-propelled -fanned, grayish-white fog which envelops your car and moves right along as you strain to see the next couple of yellow paint stripes on Interstate 80."
If winter weather is not a consideration, however, the 1985 map from the Wyoming Travel Commission gives the traveler a choice of routes from Laramie to Rawlins. The I-80 segment is 90 miles and called the "Overland Trail" route. US 30-287 route is 112 miles and called the "Virginian Territory" option. Wyoming 130 is scenic "Mountain Country" route of 115 miles through the Snowy Range at 10,800 feet, closed in winter months west of Centennial. Or Wyoming 230 on the Rivers Road is 158 miles through small towns like Saratoga, Woods Landing, Mountain Home and Encampment. Even with these options, the main traffic flow is straight through southern Wyoming. Comparing maps from 1960 and 1977, the major traffic flow pattern remains the same from the U. S. Highway years to Interstate system, it just increased in numbers. More people pass through southern Wyoming every day on the Interstate 80.
Despite the drop in highway travelers, Medicine Bow boomed in the late 1970s from increased coal production at nearby mines to the west and the uranium deposits north of the town. The 1991 Rand McNally Road Atlas listed a population of 853. The Virginian Hotel, the Union Pacific Depot museum and the Owen Wister log cabin moved in from Jackson Hole show the town still capitalizes on Owen Wister's story and the town's picturesque cowboy image to aid its survival before and after being bypassed by the road....
Green River, west of the continental divide, differs from the other towns in not having a characteristic railroad origin. Early residents plotted a town site, north of where the Overland stage route crossed the Green River, before the railroad arrived. "Settlement did not begin until July 1868, when some men who hoped to profit by the boom the railroad was likely to bring, laid out a town; by September, 2000 people occupied the site. When the Union Pacific arrived, however, its builders gave the speculators no attention, but bridged the river and moved on as fast as possible."
The railroad deserted the town only to return when it realized its good location as a division point. Green River became well known as the starting point for the 1869 exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers led by Major John Wesley Powell.
Green River's scenic rock formations and river country made it a popular, but remote, place to camp. With the help of the Willys-Overland Trust Fund which donated $20,000 matched by many other funds, the good roads movement was able to improve the highway through Carbon and Sweetwater counties, some of the worst sections of road across Wyoming.
The Lincoln Highway travelers found a town of 2140, the Sweetwater county seat, and division headquarters for the railroad. In 1924 Green River had four hotels, garages, auto supplies, tires, electricity and water, two banks, 15 businesses, one newspaper and two telephone companies. "The campsite at Green River is particularly beautiful. It is just west of the town, on the new route of the Lincoln Highway."
In later years it billed itself the hub of the Wyoming Route on US Highway 30; south to Flaming Gorge Project, Utah Highway 42 and 44; to Colorado Highway 40; north to Wind River Mountains and Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks; and west to the dividing highway northwest to Idaho, along the old Oregon Trail, and southwest to Utah. Green River offered wildlife, hunting and fishing, and rockhounding just off the main roads.
Through the years, highway traffic helped stabilize the town's economy. Interstate 80 continues the future of Green River (population 14,000 in 1985) as a "prosperous trona-mining and transportation town that straddles the river of the same name. Interstate 80 cuts a swath just north of town, plunging through tunnels beneath memorable badlands topography. The large UP Railroad yard slices the town in half. Rundown buildings crowd the railroad tracks, but elsewhere, Green River appears vibrant."
The busiest automated traffic counter on the interstate in Wyoming is at Green River. In 1992 an average of 13,557 vehicles passed through on I-80 every day. The interstate carries truckers across the state, tourists to recreation areas, and miners to the trona plants. Green River's growth has been shaped by its historic location on several major routes.
Evanston, on the Utah-Wyoming border, is the seat for Uinta County. The town's history follows that of Green River in many ways. The first settler, Harvey Booth, arrived in November, 1868, before the railroad. By December Evanston had a hotel, saloon and restaurant waiting for the railroad workers. The good roads route in 1912 passed through Evanston after a northern swing through Moxa, Nutrie, Opal and Cumberland carrying traffic to Utah.
By the indication of the Lincoln Highway guide, Evanston prospered through the 1910s and 1920s, even with a gravel road. The road made a jog across the Bear River, across the tracks, along Front Street two blocks before it turned on 11th Street and out of town to Salt Lake City. The road passed next to the Evanston Hotel, the Trans-continental garage, and Payson W. Spaulding's office. Its population had grown to 3,479 by 1924, with a new $12,000 high school, flour mill, ice storage plant, and a new $200,000 Federal building. It had coal fields, oil men, and the State Hospital (then referred to as the "State Insane Asylum.") The Chamber of Commerce brochure advertised:
Beautiful Evanston...Most Typical Western City in Wyoming... Whether the explorer came on foot or with a pack train; whether the pioneer came by ox team on the old Mormon trail or by the old wood-burning railroad train; whether the tourist comes on a modern Union Pacific Streamliner, by airplane or drives his own car over the Lincoln Highway, he finds Evanston always on the "main line" and a good place to stop.
Evanston served not only as the gateway to Utah, but to Yellowstone park and points north in Wyoming. At the time of the Writer's Project in 1941, the population of Evanston had almost doubled and the guide referred to it as the center for farming and dairying.
The transition from highway to Interstate did not have the impact on Evanston some residents feared. In 1970, a study of I-80 impact on Evanston and southern Wyoming concluded that "I-80 has contributed and will continue to contribute to the level of economic activity in Evanston." The town had to use all of its other resources, but its "economy depends upon natural gas and oil wells, ranching, transportation, and the state hospital. It is a typical small town, with a mixture of prosperity and difficulty." Evanston is a railroad town that continues to grow beside the roads distributing its goods and funneling traffic. It has hugged the transportation lifeline and changed with its needs.
The author, a native of eastern Idaho, served as consultant to the American Heritage Center when the center moved from the upper floors of Coe Library to its current building on the east campus of the University of Wyoming. She holds a degree in library science and once owned a bookstore in her native state. She also has worked at the Pacific Northwest Collection, Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, and at the Oregon Historical Society.