A History of Powell, Wyoming

In honor of the incorporation of Powell Wyoming on May 10, 1910, here is a brief history and glance at the city. The history of Powell, Wyoming is long and storied. The Powell area was first discovered by white men in the early 1800s, prior to that, it was home to the Crow, Blackfeet, and Shoshone nations. John Colter, a frontiersman, made the first documented trip into the area in the early 1800s when he was returning to a trading post on the Yellowstone River from Native American winter camps.

In the late 1870s, the first reported herd of cattle moved into Powell Valley from Oregon, and in 1888 the U.S. Senate had the United States Geological Survey study the feasibility of irrigating arid lands using dams, canals, and hydraulic works. The Powell area joined the development with the Shoshone Project and Buffalo Bill Dam on the Shoshone River in 1904, which was one of the first three projects authorized by the United States Bureau of Reclamation. This project allowed Camp Colter to be set up near the present townsite, which served as headquarters and a tent camp for the men working on both the Shoshone and Garland Canal projects. In 1908 water from the Garland canal was made available to settlers in the area. Homesteading began and agriculture became the driving economic force with the availability of water for the land.

With the completion of these projects, the camp became the logical site for a town. However, because the name Colter had already been used for a railroad siding, a search began to name the new town. The name Powell came from Major John Wesley Powell, early day explorer, conservationist, and head of the Reclamation/Geodetic Service at the time of consideration of the Shoshone Project; however, Major Powell never explored the Powell Flats given his name.

The first town lots for Powell were put on the auction block in May 1909 and the town grew. The first action to incorporate the town came in 1909 and it was incorporated into Big Horn County in 1910. In 1911, Powell became part of the newly organized Park County. Since that time, more land has been irrigated for farming, cattle ranching followed, and an oil industry boomed and declined in Elk Basin. Agricultural products from the Shoshone Irrigation Project are widely distributed, and Powell became a business community of approximately 6,000 serving a large agricultural area. The City of Powell is located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, 75 miles east of Yellowstone National Park and 98 miles south of Billings, Montana. Lying between the Big Horn Mountains on the east and the Absaroka Range on the west.

The Shoshone Irrigation project is a driving force of this region of Wyoming, including Powell. Pictured here are some images from the United States Bureau of Reclamation of the project and the region. The first image is from a sugar beet farm near Powell in 1949. The beet farmer stands in his crop, which is irrigated by water from the Shoshone Irrigation project.

Image from the Bureau of Reclamation – Heart Mountain Division (Includes Powell And Edward Boehm Unit), ca. 1949. Joseph C. O’Mahoney papers, Collection #275, Box 390, Folder 12, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The second image below depicts a Model T on Cody Road in Shoshone Canyon on its way to Yellowstone. The photograph was taken by A.G. Lucier in 1926. The image of the beet field and that of Shoshone Canyon depict the final products of these water projects that allowed the Powell area, and the City of Powell, to prosper. A.G. Lucier took many photos of the Shoshone River projects, including the dam, the reservoir, and the power plant. These images can be found in the W.D. Johnston papers and the Joseph C. OMahoney papers at the American Heritage Center.

Model T on Cody Road heading to Yellowstone, passing the Shoshone Irrigation Project. Photo taken in 1926 by A.G. Lucier.
W.D. Johnston papers, Collection #11314 , Box 3, Folder 5, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Other collections that promote the history of Powell include the Ludwig & Svenson Studio photographs, the Hugo G. Janssen photographs, and the Wyoming Pioneers Oral History Project. Depicted below are a few images from these collections in celebration of Powell, Wyoming.

Powell High School men’s basketball team taken at the Ludwig & Svenson Studio in Laramie in 1922.
Ludwig & Svenson Studio Photographs, Collection #167, Box 34, Negative Number 9473, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Shoshone Dam and Reservoir, as well as Cody Road off to the side. Photo taken by A.G. Lucier in 1926.
W.D. Johnston papers, Collection #11314, Box 3, Folder 5, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
Unidentified men’s group in Cowley or Powell. Do you know what the meeting is about?
Hugo G. Janssen Photographs, Collection #11712, Box 2, Folder 4, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Post contributed by AHC Archives Intern Brittany Heye.


Source consulted: https://cityofpowell.com/about-powell/

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