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Rawlins City

Rawlins City Hall is located at 521 West Cedar Street, Rawlins, WY 82301; phone: 307-328-4500.

Beginnings [†]

From its humble origins as one of hundreds of railroad towns along the mainline of the first transcontinental railroad, Rawlins first prospered as a major division point on the Union Pacific Railroad. Transportation has always been a key factor in the city's growth, and the first transcontinental highway (Lincoln Highway) was also built through it in the early twentieth century. Rawlins has evolved into a modern city and county seat with a diversified economy that today serves a regional ranching, energy, and industrial community.

Rawlins, located along the Union Pacific mainline in south central Wyoming, is inextricably bound to the construction of the first transcontinental railroad through southern Wyoming Territory in 1867-1868. The town grew up along the Union Pacific right-of-way near a free-flowing spring. Chief Engineer Grenville A. Dodge named the spring and rail camp after his good friend Major General John A. Rawlins, a noted military figure. At first Rawlins was little more than a grading camp built around the springs. By July 1868, the tracks reached Rawlins, and a post office and railroad station were constructed. However, the chief catalyst for Rawlins' early growth was the decision of the Union Pacific Railroad to make it a division point in August 1868. As a division point Rawlins became the site of extensive railroad facilities, such as an engine roundhouse and repair and machine shops offering many employment opportunities.

Although its initial growth was due to railroad facilities, Rawlins soon became a major freighting and supply center for the Wind River Reservation to the north as well as the Ute White River Agency to the south in Colorado. Rawlins became the county seat in 1869-1870 for Carbon County's population of 612. At first the town was located on the south side of the Union Pacific tracks behind the depot, but as early as 1869, it began to expand northward and eventually became centered in the present downtown district.

In the 1870s and 1880s Rawlins' economic base consisted of the Union Pacific Railroad, the freighting and supply business with the Ute Agency and Wind River Reservation, and the livestock industry. Rawlins' second period of growth occurred from the fall of 1879 to the mid-1880s and was initiated by the Meeker Massacre at the Ute Indian Agency and the resulting increased military activity through the town, which was used as a supply base. The 1880 census lists the town's population as 1451.

The cattle industry spread westward from Laramie and Albany counties, and large outfits were established along the northern foothills of the Medicine Bow Range, Elk Mountain, the North Platte River Valley, the northern foothills of the Sierra Madre Range, and the Little Snake River Valley near Baggs and extending into Colorado. To the north, cattle operations were established along the Sweetwater River Valley and foothills of the Green and Ferris Mountains. Rawlins, at the center of these loci, served as a supply and shipping point for all outlying ranches throughout the region.

Cattlemen established their headquarters on perennial drainages. They grazed their livestock on the open range utilizing lands at lower elevations in winter and the foothills and mountains in the summer. Seasonal roundups with temporary hired help accomplished the essential work with the cattle. The paper profits of such a low-overhead industry attracted speculative capital and created a great investment boom, bringing large amounts of foreign investment capital into many Wyoming communities, including Rawlins.

In contrast to many other areas of the West, sheep were brought to the Rawlins area in large numbers at about the same time as cattle. Most of the big sheep outfits were based along the rail line. They wintered their flocks in the Red Desert and other desert basins and drove them to the nearby mountains in summer. I.E. Miller, a Danish immigrant, was one of the first to bring sheep into Carbon County in 1875. Mr. Miller served as sheriff from 1881 to 1884, mayor in 1886, and on the territorial commission in 1888. His home was located at 417 First Street within the historic residential area, and his commercial block is located in the Downtown Rawlins Historic District.

Sheep ranching helped carry the region as well as the territory and state through the lean years of the cattle industry, which was devastated by drought and the harsh winter of 1886-1887. Many of the large cattle companies that were overextended and poorly managed were forced out of business. Small operators fared better, but the succeeding years saw the number of cattle decline steadily while ranchers sought a viable system of cattle raising for the region. By contrast the sheep business moved quickly into a long-lived boom. In the spring of 1886 there were 136,000 sheep in Carbon County and by the spring of 1889 the number had increased to 154,613. Rawlins became an important wool gathering and shipping center for this burgeoning industry. By the turn of the century, a social pattern had developed in the small western town. Most of the sheepmen then residing in Rawlins were considered pillars of the community. Many were involved in politics and served in public offices on both local and state levels. The majority lived in the historic residential area. The boom in the sheep industry resulted in increased profits, allowing the large operators to hire managers and foremen to care for the livestock. The owners were then free to pursue other interests and establish residency in town.

In the 1920s, Rawlins became a center for the burgeoning oil and gas industry, beginning with the development of the Lost Soldier Field to the north of town. Although the oil and gas industry has fluctuated with market demand throughout the twentieth century, it has continued to benefit Rawlins, strategically located amidst oil and gas fields to the north, west, south, and east.

By the 1930s, management of several of the large sheep outfits had passed to the second generation. A number of the original pioneer sheepmen were deceased. Children and grandchildren began to sell some of the original ranches and move away from Rawlins. Many large homes were sold to families employed outside the livestock industry.

Like many small towns across the country, Rawlins felt the economic effects of the depression years, yet added a new county courthouse and city hall during the period. Rawlins' economy then stabilized with little growth, until the late 1970s brought a tremendous energy boom. However, most of the new construction occurred east of historic commercial and residential areas and tended to draw activity away from the city's core, and neglect has become a problem for some homes in the residential area.

The City of Rawlins has experienced economic fluctuations throughout its history, but its continued role as a commercial center for the surrounding ranching community and the presence of the Union Pacific facilities helped provide a stabilizing influence. The recent "boom and bust" cycles of the energy industry and the loss of many rail facilities and employees have threatened the economic stability of Rawlins. However, the community still retains its ties with the past by means of its many significant historic buildings, which represent the major episodes in its growth from grading camp to a modern commercial and governmental center

† Robert G. Rosenberg, Historian, Rawlins CLG, Wyoming SHPO, Rosenberg Historical Consultants, Rawlins Residential Historic District, Carbon County, Wyoming, nomination document, 1999, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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