No Room at the Inn: Owen Wister Encounters Wyoming, July – August 1885

Portrait of Owen Wister taken in Yellowstone National Park, 1890s. Box 7, folder 4, Owen Wister papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In July 1885, Owen Wister visited Medicine Bow in Wyoming Territory as part of his tour of the region, only to discover there were no rooms available in town to sleep. Instead of moving on when he arrived on July 19, Wister decided to stay, and ended up sleeping on the general store’s counter for the night. In his journal entry for July 21, he wrote, “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…” The lawyer was his traveling companion, and the fish their dinner.

Wister then continued his tour, having noted earlier in his journal that calling Medicine Bow a town was being generous. He even went so far as to create a town inventory, which consisted mostly of what he termed “shanties” and something else he slated as “too late for classification.”

From Medicine Bow, Wister and his companion set out across the plains, camping out at various points. They encountered, and hunted, all types of animals, which were usually eaten or fashioned into mementoes. Wister notes that he was not feeling well over the course of this trip but felt better by the first of August, when they made camp on Upper Deer Creek in what would soon become Converse County. They were joined by nearby rancher Frank Wolcott, later of Johnson County War notoriety, and his wife. Although Wolcott proved a boon companion, Wister had a different opinion of the wife, noting in his diary, “Mrs. Wolcott has the Puritan virtues and she congealed early…It’s a bad thing to have no humour – and she hasn’t a grain.” By August 14, Wister was off again, continuing his travels and falling in love with the West.

Owen Wister was a famous writer and historian. He is credited as the “father” of western fiction. His most notable titles are The Virginian: A Horseman of the High Plains and a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. He was born July 14, 1860, to Sarah Butler and Owen Jones Wister in Germantown, a neighborhood in the northwestern part of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Young Owen spent his youth traveling through Europe with his parents, learning French, and developing a love for music. He attended Harvard University and graduated summa cum laude in 1882 before traveling back to Europe to study music.

His adventures were cut short when Owen Sr. told him to come home to be a banker. Owen hated banking and convinced his father to let him return to Harvard, this time to the law school. He graduated in 1888 and was admitted to the bar in 1890.  During his law school years, Wister took his first trip West, to Wyoming, as a restorative for a near nervous breakdown. It was also the birth of his appreciation for the region that would inspire his writing for the remainder of his life. He would make fifteen trips out west from 1885 to 1900 and would keep meticulous notes of each that would help him write his western stories.

Manuscript of first page of The Virginian written by Owen Wister.
Box 3, folder 19, Owen Wister papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In 1902, what is considered the first western, The Virginian, was published. Set in Wyoming Territory in the 1880s, it is about a cowboy who falls in love with a Vermont schoolteacher and the cowboy’s search for justice set against the backdrop of the Johnson County War. Wister wrote the book in Wyoming, where he often spent the summers to improve his health. He wrote most of the story in his cabin near Jackson, Wyoming, as well as various other locations scattered around the state.

The 1885 trip described in part above played a large role in the creation of The Virginian. During Wister’s travels he discovered a range of characters and events that later became part of the novel, as well as short stories. The Virginian includes a section in which the story follows a rustler’s trail from Casper through the Teton Range and into Idaho, closely mirroring some of Wister’s 1885 trip through the region. During his Wyoming stays Wister also spent a lot of time camping and hunting in both Yellowstone National Park and Jackson, which also inspired the novel’s storylines.

Owen Wister with a hunting party in camp at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, 1887.
Box 7, folder 4, Owen Wister papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Wister continued to travel back and forth from the East to the western plains, writing and capturing the essence of the West in short stories, at times bringing his family and friends to see the beauty of the West. His love letters to the region in the form of his writings and stories led him to become the father of western fiction and encouraged the image of a wild and untamed West.

To discover more about Owen Wister, his writings, and his trips out West and to Wyoming, please visit the American Heritage Center’s digital materials website. There you can view many photographs, as well as Wister’s journals and notebooks that have been digitized.

Post contributed by AHC Archives Intern Brittany Heye.



Vannoy, Cynthia. “Owen Wister’s Wyoming.” True West Magazine. March 30, 2018.

Nesbitt, John D. “Owen Wister: Inventor of the Good-Guy Cowboy.” November 8, 2014.

Posted in 19th century, Authors and literature, Book history, Uncategorized, Western fiction, Western history, Wyoming history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Sampling Space: Roald Fryxell and NASA’s Apollo Program

On July 16, 1969, just after half past nine in the morning, a Saturn V rocket was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was powering the Apollo 11 mission, destined for the moon.

It was a heady time for the American space program. The space race against the Soviet Union was raging, and Apollo 11 had the goal of putting the first men on the moon. When the lunar module Eagle landed four days later, on July 20, Americans heaved a collective sigh of relief. There was jubilation when astronaut Neil Armstrong announced, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Eagle had touched down on smooth, relatively level terrain, known as the Sea of Tranquility. Even more exciting was Armstrong’s first step out of the spacecraft, onto the moon. He remarked, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” and quickly noted that the surface was “fine and powdery.” That was news to scientists back on earth. One of those scientists was Roald Fryxell.

Fryxell was born February 18, 1934, in Moline, Illinois. He completed his undergraduate degree in geology at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1956. He went on to do graduate studies at Washington State University and received a Ph.D. degree in geology from the University of Idaho in 1971.

Roald Fryxell, 1967. 
Box 49, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Fryxell’s expertise was geochronology – the branch of geology focused on dating rock formations and geological events. He was part of NASA’s Preliminary Examination Team (PET) that was tasked with studying core samples of the moon.

While the astronauts were out of the Eagle and on the lunar surface only a little more than 2 hours, they spent part of that time using a drive-tube core sampler designed by Fryxell. With it, they collected samples three quarters of an inch in diameter and about one foot in length. When the astronauts returned to earth on July 24, Fryxell and the PET team were waiting in NASA’s Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The Apollo 11 mission had collected some 50 pounds of lunar soil and rock samples.

The collection of lunar samples represented a unique scientific resource. The samples had to be carefully maintained to prevent deterioration of the material. Specially built apparatus were constructed to house the moon soil and rocks. They included enclosed chambers with nitrogen piped in to ensure that specimens weren’t degraded or contaminated by exposure to air.

NASA scientists examining a lunar sample returned by the Apollo missions.
Box 44, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The analyses Fryxell and the PET team conducted were groundbreaking. Fryxell described the lunar drive tube core samples as “potentially the most informative samples brought to earth during the Apollo Program.” The cores shed light on the history of the moon, as well as the earth and sun. They provided evidence of the moon’s bombardment by meteors and of the flux of cosmic rays and small particles related to solar winds.

Handling the crumbly core material was tricky. Fryxell worked long hours under difficult conditions. In some cases, he patiently took each core sample apart, grain by grain. It was awkward, challenging work, made more difficult by the need to work within a nitrogen-filled glove box. In other cases, it was important to retain the stratified core layers undisturbed. Fryxell developed new techniques for treating the samples in order to retain their structural integrity. He paid close attention to the subtle layering in the samples. Layers indicated changes in the moon’s surface over time. And core sample material from the deepest part of the lunar drive tube core also provided the tantalizing prospect of offering signs of water or lunar organisms.

Apollo 14 lunar core sample, April 10, 1972. 
Box 44, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Fryxell and the NASA team discovered that some of the lunar samples were surprisingly colorful. The photograph shown below is of a thin section of an Apollo 11 lunar sample collected at the Sea of Tranquility landing site by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, Jr. The sample shows glass and crystals of feldspar, pyroxene and olivine as they appear under polarized light.

Image of a lunar sample used as the back cover of a program for a “Seminar on Space Exploration” at Augustana College, February 10, 1972.
Box 52, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

After working with the Apollo 11 team, Fryxell was invited back for continued research on lunar samples. He was part of the NASA team for Apollo 12 and Apollo 14 through Apollo 17. (Apollo 13 never landed on the moon, so no samples were collected – a spacecraft malfunction led to a flyby.) Each mission brought even more lunar material to study. The Apollo 17 mission returned with core samples drilled down ten feet into the moon’s surface and nearly 250 pounds of lunar rock and soil.

Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt using a lunar rake to collect rocks and rock chip samples during the Apollo 17 mission, December 11, 1972.
Box 43, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Fryxell’s involvement with the Apollo program gave him a new perspective about life on Earth. While he might not have called himself an environmentalist, he warned, “We are dependent for our survival on successful adaptation to the environment. Unlike our Native American predecessors, we are very near to destroying that environment; we must learn to curb our mismanagement of it. The flights of Apollo have shown us that we have no place else to duplicate it.”

Photograph of the moon taken by the crew of Apollo 16.
Box 49, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Beyond his work with NASA, Fryxell was also a professor of geochronology in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University. He is remembered for his infectious enthusiasm, a natural teaching ability and his cross disciplinary expertise.

Sadly, Roald Fryxell’s life was cut short. He was killed in a car accident in 1974. In memorializing his life, he was described as “a soft-spoken, unpretentious man … a scientist who easily reduced technical jargon to layman’s terms.” His name lives on in various university scholarships established in his memory and in outer space – the moon now has a crater named Fryxell.

More details on the life and work of Roald Fryxell and the Apollo space program can be found at the American Heritage Center in the Roald Fryxell papers.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


Posted in Geology, Lunar Exploraton, Space, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating 200 Years of Independence

July 4, 1976, marked the 200th anniversary of when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. It is little known that on that original day of independence, only two people signed the document – John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress and Charles Thomson, the Continental Congress’ secretary. It was not until August 2, 1776, that the other 55 signers penned their names onto parchment. John Hancock signed with a flourish, his signature large enough, he is reported to have said, so that King George of England could read it without his spectacles.

While July 4th is always a day celebrated in the U.S., in 1976 the Bicentennial celebrations lasted an entire year. Planning for the Bicentennial got underway ten years earlier under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Congress convened an American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, with senators, representatives, cabinet secretaries, leading historians and educators. At first, the concept was to have a single city exhibition in Boston or Philadelphia. That idea was soon abandoned.

By 1972 each state had formed a Bicentennial Commission. Plans for celebrations reached as far away as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and American Samoa. Washington, D.C., prepared for an expected 40 million visitors, the equivalent of nearly one fifth of the U.S. population. An official Bicentennial logo was designed and every sort of commemorative souvenir imaginable was marketed.

Publicity for souvenirs to commemorate the Bicentennial featuring the official logo, September 1975.
Box 1, Daniel A. Nelson Bicentennial Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In Wyoming, $350,000 in federal grant money was awarded to Bicentennial-related projects. In all, the state organized 353 different Bicentennial-themed events. That included planting of commemorative trees on the University of Wyoming campus, constructing a Bicentennial Memorial fountain in front of the Douglas courthouse and the commissioning of a three-act opera, “The Sweetwater Lynching.” Wyoming developed its own patriotic Bicentennial logo, based on the iconic bucking horse. It incorporated the cowboy dressed in colonial era clothing and a stylized background evoking the Grand Tetons.

Logo of the Wyoming Bicentennial Commission, 1976.
Box 3, Daniel A. Nelson Bicentennial Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Eighth grade students in Laramie donned colonial garb and reenacted the signing of the Declaration of Independence, complete with quill pens.

Laramie Boomerang photo of students reenacting the signing of the Declaration of Independence, 1976.
Box 1, Daniel A. Nelson Bicentennial Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Bicentennial festivities on Independence Day in 1976 included events in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip of the United Kingdom. British interest in the celebrations extended to Wyoming, where a British Broadcasting Corporation crew was dispatched to film the Cody Stampede rodeo and parade.

In true Wyoming fashion, the town of Centennial hosted a buffalo barbeque and turkey shoot. Thermopolis celebrated with horse races. Some larger Wyoming communities celebrated with extravagant fireworks displays.

The Bicentennial also proved to be a marketing boon for enterprises across the U.S.. Local Wyoming companies like Laramie’s Cadwell Shoes gave customers free Bicentennial themed calendars.

Cadwell Shoes Bicentennial calendar, 1976.
Box 8, Daniel A. Nelson Bicentennial Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Wyoming travel agents touted Bicentennial travel opportunities. In Washington, D.C., more than half a million people turned out to watch a three-hour long parade. And across Wyoming residents joined in on a nationwide tolling of bells in celebration.

1776 Tours travel brochure, 1976.
Box 1, Daniel A. Nelson Bicentennial Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Step back forty-six years in time to our nation’s Bicentennial by visiting the American Heritage Center where you can see the Daniel A. Nelson Bicentennial Collection.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


Posted in American history, Holidays, Uncategorized, Wyoming history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hanna, Wyoming’s 1903 “Frightful Disaster”

It was a normal Tuesday morning in the Union Pacific Coal Company mining town of Hanna, Wyoming, when disaster struck on June 30, 1903. It was about 10:30 in the morning when coal gas in the Hanna No. 1 mine caught fire and the resulting explosion imprisoned about 200 men underground. Miners not on shift, family members, and people from the surrounding communities rushed to help. Forty-six men were able to escape because they happened to be near an air shaft when the explosion occurred. Many others closer to the blast would have died instantly and others still would have suffocated before rescuers could reach them. In total, 169 miners lost their lives in the Hanna No. 1 mine that day. It remains Wyoming’s deadliest mine disaster.

The Story of Hanna

The area now known as Hanna was originally named Chimney Springs. In 1889, the Union Pacific Railway Coal Department (renamed the Union Pacific Coal Company the following year), opened the first mine at Hanna. Like the other Union Pacific owned coal mining towns, Hanna was a melting pot of various American and international cultures due to the company’s widespread recruiting practices.

The first Union Pacific Coal Company (UPCC) mines were opened in 1868, and the towns surrounding them and their successors were built haphazardly with housing placed close to the mine openings for ease of getting workers to the mines. Hanna was the first planned town built by the UPCC, with neat rows of identical company houses. Regardless of how the towns were planned or built, however, they mostly functioned as company towns with many of the goods and services (including housing) all owned by the company.

Local historian Nancy Anderson summed up the history of Hanna’s mines in her article, “A Brief History of Hanna, Wyoming” on “From its inception in 1890 until the closing of its Hanna mines in 1954, the Union Pacific Coal Company opened six mines, some mere prospect holes, others long-lived collieries.” Though the last coal mine closed in the 1950s, a little over 800 people still live in Hanna today.

This image shows the neat rows of company housing in Hanna, Wyoming in 1900. Hanna was the first planned Union Pacific Coal Company town.
Box 96, Negative D4-3583 & 2227, Samuel H. Knight papers, Collection No. 400044, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Wyoming’s Deadliest Mine Disaster

Within thirty minutes of the mine explosion, the Carbon County Commissioners hired a special train to send all physicians from Rawlins to aid in the recovery effort and provide medical assistance. Once in Hanna, the physicians were taken directly to the scene where fellow miners and community members were desperately trying to dig out their entombed colleagues and loved ones. It was slow going due to the force of the explosion, which threw debris—even large timbers—hundreds of feet from the mine opening. In addition to the men who were trapped underground, about 45 mules and horses kept in the mine stable inside the mine entrance were also trapped. The underground fire continued to burn for days, making recovery even more difficult.

By July 2, twenty-three men who had died from a resulting cave-in were found, some partially buried, at entry No. 17 but by the following day, mine bosses and rescuers alike, including about thirty “experienced fire fighters” who came from Rock Springs to assist, had given up hope of recovering any miners alive. They determined the burning stables at entry no. 17 had ignited the vein of coal and it was impossible to extinguish it. Great billows of black smoke were described in the newspapers. The smoke from the burning coal and the mine gas still present made it incredibly dangerous and nearly impossible to continue the recovery efforts, but they continued nonetheless. The newspapers reported that the 4th of July was “scarcely noticed” as they worked to contain the fire. Efforts to recover bodies would continue for months.

The 1903 Hanna mine disaster made front page news of the Cheyenne Daily Leader newspapers on the day it occurred, June 30. Several other newspapers ran the story the following day. Image courtesy of the Wyoming Digital Newspaper Collection.
An interior shot of the slope into Hanna No. 1 Mine, 1900.
Box 92, Negative D3-3215 & C-41000, Samuel H. Knight papers, Collection No. 400044, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Laramie Boomerang also pointed out in their July 1, 1903 front page story that many of the men who died were married, which meant they left a large number of widows and fatherless children when they were killed. After a survey of the town, one newspaper reported that about 600 children were left fatherless. Because so many of the miners were immigrants, some of these children were left without any living relatives in the United States or relatives at all. The Rawlins Republican reported on July 1, 1903 that it was “pitiful to see the women and children weeping and wailing about the mouth of the mine, begging for a word about their loved ones.”

Private donations were collected for the families as far as the East Coast. The company provided clothes and train cars full of coffins. However, Nancy Anderson also pointed out that the company “was condemned for refusing to compensate survivors beyond a meager amount for burial expenses. The explosion and ensuing publicity also brought national attention to dangers in Wyoming mines and increased state government concern for mine safety. Unions insisted on greater compensation for dependents of miners killed in such mishaps.”

Only a few images of Hanna from this time period are currently held by the American Heritage Center. The two photographs featured here are from the Samuel H. Knight papers (Collection # 400044). S.H. Knight was an early professor of geology at the University of Wyoming and ran the university’s Geology Museum. He took many photos documenting UW and Laramie buildings, events, and people. He also took photos around Wyoming related to his work as a geologist. The Hanna mine and the Hanna Basin are featured in several photos from this collection.

More details of the 1903 Hanna mine disaster can be read by visiting the Wyoming Digital Newspaper Collection and the website of the Hanna Basin Museum.

Post contributed by AHC Public History Educator Brigida Blasi.



Anderson, Nancy. “A Brief History of Hanna, Wyoming.” November 8, 2014.

Roberts, Phil. “The Most Dangerous Occupation: The Quest for Safety in Wyoming’s Coal Mines,” November 8, 2014. 

Leathers, Bob. “The June 30, 1903 Explosion,” Hanna Basin Museum. Accessed June 23, 2022.

“213 Men Entombed,” The Rawlins Republican, July 1, 1903.

“Abandon Hope for Miners,” Cheyenne Daily Leader, July 3, 1903.

“Disaster at Hanna,” The Laramie Boomerang, July 1, 1903.

“Fire Interferes with Work,” The Rawlins Republican, July 4, 1903.

“Fire Raging in Hanna Mine,” The Cheyenne Daily Leader, July 2, 1903.

“Frightful Disaster,” The Cheyenne Daily Leader, June 30, 1903.

“Great Progress at Hanna,” The Cheyenne Daily Leader, July 6, 1903.

“Will Not Abandon Mine,” Wyoming Tribune, July 5, 1903.

Posted in Coal industry, Mine disasters, mining history, Uncategorized, Western history, Wyoming History Day | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Female Fire Finders of the American Forests

Standing guard atop a lookout tower dozens of feet above the forest floor, female fire finders, sometimes called “lady lookouts” have been helping to protect American forests since before World War I. Hallie Morse Daggett was the first female lookout hired by the Forest Service in California in 1913. She was the most qualified of three applicants. (The other two were ne’er-do-well men.) Daggett had grown up exploring the Siskiyou Mountains in northern California’s Klamath National Forest and was familiar with and passionate about protecting the forest. She was paid a seasonal salary of $840 and liked the job so much that she returned for fifteen seasons. In her first season it is said that she reported forty fires. Her quick reaction time kept the burn area to under five acres.

As word of her success spread through the forestry community, other women were offered lookout jobs. Some women were motivated to seek out positions during World War I, when men who were overseas fighting left behind vacant lookout towers. In 1919, Helen Dowe took up a lookout post in Colorado’s Pike National Forest. She worked for three seasons and reported fires that prevented thousands of acres from burning. Through the early 1920s there were at least eighteen other female lookouts in the West. Women proved to be capable lookouts – more than a few male foresters were surprised to discover that female lookouts took the job more seriously than some of their male counterparts. The “lady lookouts” showed more patience and vigilance and were less likely to wander off on hunting or fishing expeditions.

Here at the American Heritage Center, there are no records of female lookouts in Wyoming until World War II. Then, in the summer of 1943, it appears from photographic records, that Roberta Eads served as a Forest Service lookout in the Medicine Bow National Forest.

Lookout Roberta Eads surveying the Medicine Bow National Forest from the catwalk of the
Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower, 1943.
Box 20, Medicine Bow National Forest Supervisor records, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Eads worked 55 feet above the forest floor in the Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower. Perched at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet, the tower is located seven miles west of Albany, Wyoming in the heart of the Medicine Bow National Forest. On the job, Eads would have enjoyed a panoramic view of Medicine Bow Peak, Rob Roy Reservoir, Jelm Mountain and the southern end of the Snowy Range.

It is likely that the Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. More than 3,000 lookout towers sprung up in forests across the U.S. during the 1930s. The towers were typically a metal frame topped with a fourteen-foot by fourteen-foot wooden cabin. Access was by a ladder or a staircase. The cabin was surrounded on all sides by a catwalk. The catwalk gave the Forest Service employee outside access from which to conduct their regular forest surveillance duties. Furnishings in the cabin in the sky were sparse – a chair, small table and cot for furniture and a small woodfired stove for cooking and warmth. While simple in construction, lookout towers were a critical part of forest management. In most cases, the Forest Service was responsible for staffing the lookout towers.

After the lookout construction boom of the 1930s, there was a need to staff all the new lookout towers. And with World War II drawing so many men away from forestry jobs, once again opportunities for female fire finders grew. There were as many as 600 “lady lookouts” hired in the 1940s.

Lookout Margaret R. Evens on the catwalk of the Jelm Mountain Fire Lookout Tower, 1945.
Box 26, Medicine Bow National Forest Supervisor records, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Forest Service set up specially designed classes and training sessions known as Guard School. Lookouts learned how to use radio sets and other lookout equipment and became well versed in lookout station duties. Their training reviewed specific responsibilities – lookouts used binoculars to scan the landscape and horizon at regular intervals (sometimes as often as every 15 minutes), spending time on each quadrant of the cabin’s catwalk looking for smoke.

Being a lookout was not for the faint of heart. Female lookouts had to endure isolation, storms, loneliness and sometimes even wild animals prowling at the base of their lookout towers. But most of the female lookouts found the rewards of living amid wilderness worth the risk. Often, they were motivated by a sense of civic duty to protect our nation’s forests. It was the women who worked as lookouts high above the forest floor that saved lives and kept land from burning.

One of the tools “lady lookouts” would have learned to use in Guard School was the Osborne Firefinder, a circular steel disc mounted in the center or the cabin. The forerunner to the device was invented in the 1800s to help combat fires in London. William Osborne, of the U.S. Forest Service, modernized the technology in 1911. Eads and Evens used the Osborne Firefinder by peering through two sighting holes that rotated around a topographic map fixed to the disc. They could pinpoint the location of distant smoke and record the directional coordinates of the fire.

Roberta Eads using an Osborne Firefinder in the cabin of the Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower, July 10, 1943.
Box 20, Medicine Bow National Forest Supervisor records, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Like all good fire finders, “lady lookouts” had to be both self-reliant and comfortable with pioneer-like conditions – hauling water, chopping wood, cooking over a primitive stove and hand washing clothes. Groceries and supplies would have been delivered to them periodically, but a lookout would have spent most of her time alone. And there were no days off or visits into town over the course of the fire season. It is likely that lookouts spent weeks on end with only radio contact with the outside world. It was by radio that they would have contacted the Forest Service to alert them of smoke spotted on the horizon.

Eads using the radio in the Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower, 1943.
Box 20, Medicine Bow National Forest Supervisor records, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

For the fire season of 1944, Mary Lockett took over Spruce Mountain lookout duties from Roberta Eads.

Lookout Mary Lockett on the catwalk of the Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower, 1944.
Box 26, Medicine Bow National Forest Supervisor records, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

If you want to get a taste of lookout life yourself, you can spend the night in the Spruce Mountain Fire Lookout Tower. While no longer serving as a lookout, the tower has been refurbished and was reopened in 1977. During the summer months, for forty dollars a night and a minimum two-night stay, those not afraid of heights can enjoy a bird’s eye view of the surrounding forest. Be prepared to rough it, though. As was the case in the 1940s, lookout furnishings are basic and there is still no water or electricity at the site. And beware of electricity of the natural sort. The Forest Service website cautions, “During lighting storms, stay in the cabin and do not touch metal furnishings.”

Today, while the Forest Service relies on aircraft, drones and satellites to spot forest fires, there are still some 450 lookout towers in active use, particularly in the western U.S. The Osborne Firefinder continues to play a critical role in helping lookouts pinpoint the location of a fire. And thanks to the exemplary work of the early female lookouts, it is estimated that at least half of modern-day Forest Service lookout employees are women.

The American Heritage Center’s collection of Medicine Bow National Forest records contains the photos of used in this blog post.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


Posted in conservation, Environment, Forests, U.S. Forest Service, Uncategorized, Wildfire, women's history, World War II | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reclaiming the Colorado: The Differing Visions of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Chemehuevi

In 1931, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California praised plans to build the Parker Aqueduct, which would redirect water from the Colorado River to the rapidly growing Los Angeles metropole.

To the engineers and planners of the Metropolitan Water District, building a system to pipe water from the river was a no-brainer. To them, the Mojave Desert was a wasteland, and the people of Southern California needed the water after draining the aquifers that had originally provided water to the Californian population.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 had divvied up the valuable water of the Colorado between seven states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – and the district was eager to access this valuable resource.[1] This fit into American dreams of utilizing the Colorado River to sustain urban growth, create hydroelectricity, provide irrigation, and control floods. Public officials moved forward with plans to build the Parker Aqueduct alongside proposals to construct the Parker Dam. However, the public officials and engineers who devised these projects paid little attention to the Indigenous People who currently resided along the Colorado River.[2]

Map of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California showing the route of the Parker Aqueduct.
Sinclair O. Harper papers, Box 27, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Chemehuevi, the most southern group of the Southern Paiutes, had lived in the arid Mojave Desert since time immemorial. They viewed themselves as children of Coyote and believed that Coyote had placed them in a sacred landscape. Over generations, the Chemehuevi moved across the desert landscape and developed intimate relationships with other Indigenous Peoples, sacred sites, springs, and the flora and fauna within the fragile environment.[3] American settlement challenged this way of life.

From the 1860s through the 1930s, government officials suggested concentrating various Indigenous Peoples, including the Chemehuevi, on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, which Congress established in March of 1865. This effort entailed combining the Chemehuevi and Mohave onto the reservation, despite the tension that often existed between the two Peoples. Notwithstanding American intentions, the Chemehuevi continued to travel across the desert and live upon their sacred lands. Their determination led to the Secretary of the Interior recognizing the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation in 1907 along the Colorado River and just north of the Colorado River Indian Reservation.

Nevertheless, plans to build the Parker Aqueduct and Parker Dam moved forward without consideration of the Chemehuevis’ homeland. Ultimately, the construction of the Parker Dam did not simply provide the flood control, hydroelectricity, and irrigation that planners envisioned. It flooded 8,000 acres of the Chemehuevis’ 32,000-acre reservation and displaced the Chemehuevi.[4] However, the Chemehuevi did not give up on reclaiming this land with a very different vision of community development.

Image of the Parker Dam.
Sinclair O. Harper papers, Box 27, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The American Heritage Center provides researchers with a rich source of information to delve into the plans to develop the Colorado River. Wyoming is among the Upper Basin states that negotiated the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and continued to engage in reclamation projects during the twentieth century.

The AHC holds the papers of Sinclair O. Harper, an accomplished engineer who worked for the Bureau of Reclamation and oversaw the constructing of dams across the world, including the Parker Dam. His records reveal American visions of remaking the West through reclamation. The papers of Senator Joseph O’Mahoney further uncover American attitudes and strategies for development along the Colorado River.

Within these reclamation records, very little mention of Indigenous Peoples, particularly the Chemehuevi, exist. However, this very omission is revealing. American policymakers discounted Indigenous claims to the land and water despite Supreme Court decisions that affirmed Indigenous water rights. Regardless of American projects that displaced and scattered the Chemehuevi, they persisted.

In 1974 the United States government reaffirmed their right to the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation, and many moved back to their original homelands to reconstruct a community. The collections at the AHC provide vital insight into the process of American dispossession through the creation of public works. The records of engineers, public entities, and the Senatorial letters of Joseph O’Mahoney and John Kendrick reveal the conversations that altered the course of the Colorado River and changed the lives of the Indigenous residents. This rich archive is essential in reconsidering Indigenous aspects of reclamation projects in the West as Americans continue to debate the future of the Colorado River.

Post contributed by AHC Travel Grant recipient Mary Ludwig. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


[1] The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, “Water from the Colorado River,” (Los Angeles: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 1931).

[2] Engineer F.E. Weymouth for the Metropolitan Water District dismissed Indigenous lands as having “low value,” in The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California: Colorado River Aqueduct, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 1937), p. 31. Sinclair O. Harper papers, Collection Number 2089, Box 13, Folder Colorado River Aqueduct, 1930-1962.

[3] Clifford E. Trafzer describes the origin stories of the Chemehuevi and their relationships with various Indigenous Peoples and other-than-humans in A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).

[4] “Historical Background on the Chemehuevi Tribe,” June 1981, Folder Chemehuevi Indian Tribe Historical Information, Chemehuevi Cultural Center, Chemehuevi Indian Reservation.

Posted in Hydroelectric power, Indigenous Peoples, Natural resources, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation history, Uncategorized, water resources, Western history | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday Hoppy!

William Lawrence Boyd, known throughout the world as “Hopalong Cassidy”, was born June 5, 1895 in Hendrysburg, Ohio, to Charles William Boyd, and his wife, the former Lida Wilkens (aka Lyda). Following his father’s death, Boyd moved to California to seek work. In Hollywood, he worked as an extra in Why Change Your Wife? (1920) and other films. More prominent film roles followed, including his breakout role as Jack Moreland in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Road to Yesterday (1925). Boyd’s performance in the film was praised by critics, and movie-goers alike and DeMille soon cast him as the lead in the highly acclaimed silent drama film, The Volga Boatman which firmly established him as a matinee idol and romantic “leading man.”

In 1935, Boyd was offered the supporting role of Red Connors in the movie Hop-Along Cassidy, but he asked to be considered for the title role and won it. The original character of Hopalong Cassidy, written by Clarence E. Mulford for pulp magazines, was changed from a hard-drinking, rough-living red-headed wrangler to a cowboy hero who did not smoke, swear, or drink alcohol (his drink of choice being sarsaparilla) and who always let the bad guy start the fight. Like cowboy stars Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Boyd gained lasting fame in the Western film genre.

William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy on set.
William Boyd papers, Collection No. 808, Box 160, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The “Hoppy” films were more polished than the typical low-budget westerns of the time and usually featured superior outdoor photography and familiar supporting players from major Hollywood films. Theaters responded to the high quality of the productions by giving the series more exposure than other cowboy films of the time. When interest in the character faded the producer, Harry Sherman, abandoned the Hopalong Cassidy franchise. However, Boyd was determined to keep it alive and produced the last 12 Cassidy features himself. But in spite of his efforts the series ended in 1948. Boyd remained convinced that the character was still a viable property and, after selling or mortgaging almost everything he owned, purchased the rights and film backlog from Sherman for $350,000.00.

In 1948 Boyd offered a print of one of his pictures to the local NBC television station hoping for new exposure. The film was so well received that NBC asked for more, and soon Boyd released the entire library to the national network. The films were extremely popular and began the long-running genre of Westerns on television making William Boyd the first national TV star. Like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Boyd licensed a phenomenal amount of merchandise relating to Hopalong Cassidy including watches, trash cans, cups, dishes, Topps trading cards, a comic strip, comic books, cowboy outfits, home-movie digests of his Paramount releases via Castle Films, and a new Hopalong Cassidy radio show, which ran from 1948 to 1952.

Hopalong Cassidy astride his horse Topper. Hoppy and Toppy made for an iconic pair. So much so that during the mid-1950s, dozens of companies were making Hoppy and Topper merchandise.
William Boyd papers, Collection No. 808, Box 160, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Although Boyd’s portrayal of Hopalong made him a wealthy man, he believed in supporting his biggest fans: America’s youth. Consequently, he refused to license his name for products he viewed as unsuitable or dangerous, and turned down personal appearances at which children would be charged admission.

Hopalong Cassidy and Topper at a public event. Topper was well-known for his gentle demeanor and willingness to allow fans to pet him, stroke his mane, and even pull his tail.
William Boyd papers, Collection No. 808, Box 160, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

William Boyd passed away in 1972 leaving a legion of loyal fans who continue to follow his onscreen exploits to this day.  The American Heritage Center is proud to house, preserve, and make available to the public the personal papers and memorabilia of this amazing individual who to this day means so much to so many.

Post contributed by AHC Assistant Director and Collections Manager William L. Hopkins.


Posted in Animal actors, Hollywood history, Motion picture actors and actresses, popular culture, television history, Uncategorized, Western history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Nisei Soldiers of World War II

As we honor the fallen for Memorial Day, the American Heritage Center would like to shine a spotlight on a small but mighty group, the Japanese American soldiers of World War II. Known collectively as Nisei, a term originating in the Japanese language for “second generation,” they were American-born children of Japanese immigrants. It is estimated that there were nearly 33,000 Nisei in the American military over the course of World War II. While some were drafted, many of them were volunteers. Most Nisei soldiers were from Hawaii, but thousands were also from the mainland.

The service of the mainland Nisei in defense of the United States was particularly remarkable as their families had been made to move from their homes on the West Coast to internment camps by the War Relocation Authority. While they faced internment and discrimination at home, many of the Nisei soldiers took on the most dangerous missions overseas, eager to prove their loyalty to the United States. By 1945 the War Relocation Authority had compiled a newsletter documenting the many heroic accomplishments of the Nisei.

Cover of a newsletter titled “Nisei in the War Against Japan” published by the Department of the Interior War Relocation Authority, April 1945.
Box 1, Heart Mountain Relocation Center Records, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Nisei involvement in the war dated back to the very beginning. Two Nisei National Guard members in Hawaii are credited with capturing the first Japanese prisoner of World War II in 1941. A one-man Japanese submarine had stranded itself on a coral reef off the island of Oahu. The National Guardsmen swam out into the Pacific and secured the surrender of the Japanese submariner. Nisei distinguished themselves first on the battlefields of Europe and, eventually, in the South Pacific. Often it was the Nisei soldiers who were sent to persuade the Japanese to surrender. Nisei translated captured documents and acted as interpreters when questioning the captured Japanese.

Japanese American families made enormous sacrifices despite the fact that they were often interned. Of particular note is the family of Ginzo Nakada, originally of Azusa, California, and interned at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, near Cody, Wyoming. A surely record breaking nine of the Nakada boys enlisted in the United States Army, serving in as far away as Australia and France.

Article from the Los Angeles Times newspaper featuring the seven brothers of the Nakada family serving in the military, February 10, 1945.
Box 1, Heart Mountain Relocation Center Records, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

While family members waited behind barbed wire in the mainland U.S., Nisei soldiers distinguished themselves serving their country. How strange and discouraging it must have been for those Nisei soldiers who returned from overseas to visit their families – families held captive in places like the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona and the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.

Article from the Baltimore Sun newspaper featuring Sergeant Kazuo Komoto home on leave visiting his younger brother at the Gila River Relocation Center, 1945.
Box 1, Heart Mountain Relocation Center Records, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Nearly 800 Nisei servicemen were killed in action over the course of World War II. Among the fallen was Frank T. Hachiya who was fatally wounded on Leyte in the Philippines. He had been an interpreter on General Douglas MacArthur’s staff but had volunteered to cross a valley under enemy fire to scout an enemy position. A Japanese sniper unloaded a barrage of bullets into his abdomen. Hachiya returned fire, killing the sniper, and then walked back to be treated by medics. Unfortunately, his wounds were too serious, and doctors were unable to save him.

Newspaper article from the Hood River Oregon News reporting on the death of Nisei soldier Frank T. Hachiya, February 1945. Box 1, Heart Mountain Relocation Center Records, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Another Nisei soldier, Technical Sergeant Yukitaka “Terry” Mizutari was killed while commanding a group of men during a Japanese counterattack. He was posthumously awarded both a Silver Star and a Purple Heart by his commanding general. Mizutari was not alone in receiving accolades. The Nisei soldiers of World War II were among the most decorated in military history. The Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated all Nisei fighting force, was awarded so many Purple Hearts, they were nicknamed the “Purple Heart Battalion.” Their motto was “Go for Broke” and on the battlefield they gave it their all.

Despite their many contributions to the war effort, the Nisei soldiers on leave faced hostility back in the mainland U.S. (In contrast, the Nisei returning home to Hawaii faced less discrimination – there were no internment camps for Japanese Americans in Hawaii during World War II.) In Denver, a barber attacked a Nisei soldier who wanted a haircut. And in Hood River, Oregon, the American Legion post voted to strike the names of 16 fallen Nisei soldiers from their county memorial roll. The Nisei soldiers did have support in some corners, particularly in the press. Editors from papers as varied as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Washington Post pointed out the exceptional service of the Nisei, noting they “have made a magnificent record in this war. Their fellow Americans ought to hear about it – if only to assure their families better treatment here at home.”

Editorials from various newspapers supporting the Nisei soldiers compiled in the newsletter titled “Nisei in the War Against Japan” published by the Department of the Interior War Relocation Authority, April 1945.
Box 1, Heart Mountain Relocation Center Records, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

If you are interested in learning more about the Nisei soldiers of World War II, consider a visit to the American Heritage Center or to our on-line collection of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center Records to further explore the wartime contributions of these often unsung heroes.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


Posted in Asian American history, Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Japanese American history, Japanese internment, Racial bias, Uncategorized, World War II | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What to Know Before You Go: Visiting the American Heritage Center’s Loggia

Looking for an enjoyable spot to add to your must-visit list this summer? Here at the American Heritage Center, located in the Centennial Complex on the campus of the University of Wyoming, we have just the spot you are looking for. From a 3D Immersive Triceratops model to classic works by painter Alfred Jacob Miller, there is sure to be an area of interest for everyone. Continue on to learn more about what to expect when you visit!

Birds-eye view of fireplace in American Heritage Center’s Loggia. This view is from the 5th floor to the building’s 2nd floor.

The Centennial Complex opened in 1993 and was designed by Antoine Predock. It’s home to the American Heritage Center and The University of Wyoming Art Museum. The building itself is known for its unique architecture emulating that of a mountain and plains at the base. Inside the mountain is where you will find the Loggia, complete with a cozy fireplace, cinderblock pillar forest, and sky at the canopy above. The space was designed to make visitors feel as though they were outside while indoors.

Front desk at entrance to Loggia. You may see the blog’s author there when you visit!

Along the walls and throughout the main floor of the Loggia are various exhibits and informational panels. Visitors can explore our current exhibits along the outer walls while based at the corners of the space are informational panels describing the collection areas that the American Heritage Center is home to. The areas the AHC collects include transportation, Wyoming and the West, the entertainment industry, conservation and the environment, and mining, petroleum, and energy and more. In addition to our collection areas, visitors are able to read more about what we do and the programs that take place at the AHC.

Currently on exhibit are: “More Pronghorn than People,” photographic works by Lora Webb Nichols, the Triceratops model, and many more. To learn more about these exhibits, and others, you can visit or

Adjacent to the Loggia are Gallery One and the Rentschler Room. Gallery One exhibits are comprised of works by Alfred Jacob Miller, Frederic Remington, and Richard Throssel. Recently renovated as a way to bring about more space to highlight artworks, Gallery One is furnished with seating for those to take in the artwork around the space. Originally built in the William Robertson Coe Library, The Rentschler Room was brought to the AHC when it opened in 1993. The space was designed as a replica office of the late George A. Rentschler after the donation of his works by his widow Rita Cushman. It houses 13 paintings by Henry Farny and one by Frederic Remington. 

View of Gallery One showing paintings by Alfred Jacob Miller.
Rentschler Room with views of paintings by Henry Farny.

Visiting the American Heritage Center this summer should be at the top of your list. With exhibits curated to give patrons a comprehensive view of what the AHC does and collects, and highlights classic western artworks, the Loggia is an enjoyable experience for all. To learn more about visiting the space and for hours of operation, please visit our website at

Post contributed by AHC docent Kenzie Venters Bowlby.


Posted in architectural history, Architecture, Centennial Complex, Uncategorized, University of Wyoming, University of Wyoming history | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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:

Posted in Agricultural history, Heart Mountain, Interns' projects, Local history, Uncategorized, water resources, Wyoming history | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment