Photo: 400 Block of Cedar Street in the North Douglas Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Photographed by User: Jon Roanhaus own work), 2021, [cc-4.0], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed August, 2022.
The North Douglas Historic District [†] is a distinct and cohesive residential area integrally associated with and representative of the significant trends that contributed to the settlement and development of Douglas from 1886 through the 1950s. North Douglas comprises one of the earliest residential areas in Douglas, and includes the north half of the original (1886) townsite as well as a small portion of the Phillips Addition, platted in 1906. The district extends generally north and east of the original downtown commercial district of Douglas and contains a large concentration of the homes of "working class" citizens from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also contains the homes of a number of historically important and wealthier residents of early Douglas who played key roles in its economic, political and social growth. The pattern of homebuilding reflects the growth and development of Douglas from one of hundreds of railroad towns to a modern city and county seat with a diversified economy that today serves a regional ranching, energy, and industrial community.
Like so many western towns before it, Douglas owes its existence to late nineteenth century railroad expansion. During the pioneering days of railroading, western expansion was imperative in order to inhibit other railroads from building into and effectively controlling new regions. As a result, competing railroads built through long stretches of generally unsettled land, luring emigrants to the region and creating towns along the line to make the operation profitable. One of the railroads expanding into central Wyoming was the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railway (FE&MV), a subsidiary of the Chicago and North Western. The North Platte River Valley presented a favorable route from an engineering standpoint as well as for agricultural settlement. Also, coal deposits were known to exist along this new route, such as those at the future site of Glenrock, a short distance west of Douglas, and others were found during extensive surveys of the line.
The FE&MV gradually expanded its lines across central Nebraska in the 1870s. After gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the strikes proved of lasting significance, the FE&MV built into the region in 1886. That same year, the Wyoming Central Railway, a subsidiary of the FE&MV Railway, was organized in Wyoming Territory in order to extend the railroad westward along the valley of the North Platte. It would ultimately connect with the Central Pacific Railroad, creating a transcontinental route to the Pacific. The FE&MV Railway and the Wyoming Central officially merged in 1902 and took on the name of the parent railroad, the Chicago and North Western Railway.
The new line branched off from the existing line at Chadron, Nebraska, and ran seventy seven miles west to the future site of Douglas, Wyoming. Track-laying crews reached Wyoming Territory in late June of 1886, and railroad officials announced that the new town of Douglas would be the end-of-tracks for that year. In early August, the Western Town Lot Company laid out the townsite and named it in honor of statesman Stephen A. Douglas of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. The lots were sold when the tracks arrived at the site in September. A temporary tent town had already sprung up at the mouth of Antelope Creek about one mile to the north in anticipation of the railroad's arrival, and the residents were forced to move to the new site when Douglas was officially opened. Approximately five hundred people also relocated from nearby Fetterman City, a community in proximity to Fort Fetterman. This post was constructed in 1867 and used as a resupply point during the Plains Indian campaign of the 1870s. It was strategically located near the junction of the Bozeman and Oregon Trails but was abandoned by the military in 1882. When the Western Town Lot Company threw the Douglas townsite open to settlement on September thirtieth, 242 lots were rapidly auctioned off. By the end of the year, Douglas boasted a population of approximately 1,600, and the boom was accompanied by a frenzy of construction activity. To meet the needs of the community, a number of citizens worked to organize Douglas as a municipal entity, and in September of 1887, the town was incorporated.
In 1887, the Wyoming Central expanded its tracks westward from Douglas up the North Platte River Valley for a distance of twenty-nine miles to Deer Creek, and the new town of Glenrock was established. The following year, the Wyoming Central built an additional 24.7 miles of track up the North Platte to the site of Casper. However, the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Financial Panic of 1893 curtailed track expansion beyond Casper until the early twentieth century, delaying any transcontinental linkup.
When Converse County was created from a portion of Albany County in 1887, Douglas was selected as the county seat. From the beginning, the town served as an important supply, distribution, and shipping point on the rail line. However, as the line was extended westward, Douglas suffered a severe decline in population, and by the winter of 1888 fewer than three hundred citizens remained. Douglas was riding the "boom and bust" cycle, common for "end-of track" towns on the Western frontier.
The new town of Douglas remained a small frontier settlement with a population of only 491 by 1890. By June of 1894, when the town was first mapped by the Sanborn Map Company of New York, the business district was concentrated close to the rail line, mainly in the 100-block of North Second Street. Additional commercial buildings were scattered along Center, South Second, and North Third Streets. Within a few years after the founding of Douglas, the north side of town contained scattered modest dwellings, as well as a small brick school erected in around 1889 on Walnut Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets. The areas of most concentrated growth within the district prior to 1903 were Blocks 1,2, 7 and 8 of the Original Town Plat.
The oldest known dwelling within the district was constructed in 1893 by Albert and Jennie Chamberlin at 214 North Fifth Street (Building No. 75). It is a two-story wood frame residence with Gothic Revival elements. Chamberlin established a lumber business at the townsite before settlement commenced in 1886, then switched to sheep ranching. His wife Jennie McReynolds arrived in the same year and became the town's second postmaster. The two were married in 1899 and both worked for the U.S. Land Office in Douglas from 1895 to 1904. After Albert Chamberlin passed away in 1920, Jennie continued to operate the family sheep business, later switching to cattle.
The next oldest residence is a two-story, wood frame Foursquare with Classical Revival elements constructed by George W. Blaine in 1898 at 418 North Fourth Street (Building No. 63). Blaine was a native of England and one of Converse County's pioneer sheep ranchers, settling in Douglas in 1886 when it was still a tent town. The house was designed by M.J. Williams of Crawford, Nebraska. With nine rooms and a hot water heating system, the Budget stated that it "will be the best and most expensive building in town."
The arrival of the railroad provided a catalyst for the growth of the cattle and sheep industry in the region surrounding Douglas. After Wyoming achieved statehood in 1890, a federal land office was established in Douglas, which facilitated homesteading and development of an agricultural economy. The florescence of the regional sheep industry in particular, which was well suited to the ecological conditions of Converse County, brought new prosperity to Douglas and initiated a period of population growth.
Notable Douglas citizens John Morton, Jacob Jenne, and J.T. Williams, who profited from their involvement in the livestock industry, built mansions in North Douglas that reflected their success. John Morton, a native of Germany, is credited with being one of the first men to introduce sheep into Converse County, in 1889; he was joined in 1891 by his brother Jacob Jenne and together they operated a large sheep raising enterprise which they called the Morton-Jenne Sheep Company. Jenne's intricately detailed Queen Anne style house was built in 1902 at 107 North Sixth Street, while Morton's enormous Queen Anne home was built a short distance away, at 425 Center Street (outside the district). John T. Williams arrived in east-central Wyoming prior to the founding of Douglas and achieved success in the cattle industry. Williams hired prominent Wyoming architect William Dubois to design his brick Foursquare-style mansion at 135 North Sixth Street; it was completed in February 1903.
In 1904, Tom Cook built an impressive two-story, brick Foursquare residence at 309 North Third Street. Its symmetry and the use of massive tapered, unfluted columnar porch supports and a balustrade on the porch roof gives the house a Classical Revival appearance. Cook came from a coal mining background in Pennsylvania and moved west with his brother Archibald, prospecting for coal on behalf of the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railway. He and his wife Nellie moved to Douglas where he engaged in house construction as well as the building of the famous Florence Hardware Company sheep wagons. He also served as deputy sheriff of Converse County during the Johnson County War in 1892.
In 1906, Campbell H. and Caroline McWhinnie built a two-story, cross-gabled wood frame residence at 403 North Fourth Street. McWhinnie emigrated from England to Wyoming in 1886 and filed on a homestead at the confluence of LaBonte Creek and the North Platte River in 1893. He engaged in ranching and later became manager of the New Oil and Development Company. He also had an active career in public service including mayor, County Treasurer, deputy County Clerk, State Land Commissioner as well as State Fair Board member and secretary.
The rise of the sheep industry and its effect upon the growth of Douglas is reflected in the census statistics for the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1900, the population of Douglas stood at 734; by 1905, it had doubled to 1255; and by 1910, Douglas boasted 2246 residents, a phenomenal growth of 1512 people in only a decade. Concurrent with this major influx of new residents was a dramatic boom in homebuilding both north and south of Center Street. Taking advantage of the demand for residential lots, Arthur W. Phillips platted an extension to the northeast portion of the original Douglas townsite on November 19, 1906; the Phillips Addition comprised an area north of Cedar Street and east of North Fourth Street. Additional residential blocks were laid out by the Pioneer Townsite Company in 1908, adjoining the east side of the original town. Residential growth within the current district from 1903-1912 consisted of infill within the Original Town Plat and growth northward in Blocks 31 and 32 as well as in the new additions.
Increased settlement and homebuilding in Douglas during the first decade of the twentieth century were accompanied by civic improvements. A sign of progress and prosperity was the building of a monumental two story brick, eleven-grade school building (the Douglas High School) in North Douglas in 1906, which replaced the original 1889 school building. By 1907, the community boasted municipal water and sewer systems, paved streets, electric lights, telephone service, a modern $45,000 high school building, a public library, and four churches. Another welcome improvement that enhanced the status of Douglas during this period was a modern private hospital built by Miss Elizabeth D. Dickson in 1903 at 214 North Sixth Street (Building No. 94). Miss Dickson was a registered nurse who received her professional training in New York and graduated from Long Island Hospital in 1895. The local construction company of William H. Rhoades and Henry L. Brenning was hired to build the new facility at a cost of $4,500. This twos tory wood frame building featured a distinctive semi-octagonal porch and tower with a bell roof. The first floor contained a large parlor or living room, a spacious dining room, a three-bed ward, three private patient rooms, a fully-equipped operating room and a large kitchen, pantry, and china closet. The second floor was utilized as living quarters for Miss Dickson and her staff of nurses.
During this prosperous decade, mansions were built for three of the town's more important early citizens: J. DeForest Richards, Edward T. David, and Charles Maurer. J. DeForest Richards entered the family banking business in 1898, serving as vice president of the First National Bank in Douglas until his father's death in 1903. He then took over as president of the bank, and in 1905 a stately two-story Eclectic Vernacular home was erected for the Richards family at 406 Cedar Street (Building No. 108). Built by local contractor Ed A. Reaville, the house featured a brick first story and a wood frame upper story clad with split wood shingles.
Edward T. David, another important citizen of early Douglas, came to Wyoming in 1883 and had family ties to Joseph Carey, a major figure in Wyoming history. David resided at Fort Fetterman in 1888 while acquiring additional land for the Carey brothers, and shortly thereafter he was appointed as superintendent of the vast Carey ranches in central Wyoming. E.T. David was an influential proponent for the creation of Converse County, and he served as one of the original county commissioners. In 1907, the David family settled in Douglas, where he purchased Frank Knittle's Florence Lumber Company on North Second Street. Also in 1907, E.T. David arranged for construction of a spacious new house on the elevated South Sixth Street location that came to be known as "David Hill" (Building No. 101). Completed in 1908, the David's distinctive shingle-clad Dutch Colonial style home was yet another sign of prosperity in Douglas.
Charles F. Maurer was another influential citizen who built a house in North Douglas. After earning a law degree in Iowa in 1884, Charles Maurer relocated to the nascent town of Douglas in 1886. Maurer was immediately and continually involved in the development of Douglas and maintained a thriving law practice in the community until 1927. By 1910 he was serving both as an attorney as well as a realtor and a manager for the Douglas Warehouse Company. His career also encompassed two terms of service as County Attorney, and service as City Treasurer from 1890-94. Maurerwasthe leader of a successful effort to place a Carnegie Library in Douglas, and he served as President of the Good Roads Club. Maurer directed his substantial energy and talents in other ventures as well: he was a director of the First National Bank, served on the school board for twenty-one years, was the creator of the Wyoming Pioneer Association, and acted as the local representative for the Pioneer Townsite Company, His fortune was enhanced by successful investing in the regional livestock industries. A large wood frame, Foursquare style house was built for the Maurer family in 1910; the building was originally situated on the corner of North Fourth and Walnut Streets but was moved in 1976 to 409 South Seventh Street (south of the North Douglas Historic District).
The importance and prosperity of Douglas was enhanced during this period of growth by its designation in 1905 as the host city for the Wyoming State Fair. The festive annual event was an economic boon to the community, as each summer brought an influx of temporary visitors.
Extensive residential development that occurred in North Douglas during the first decade of the twentieth century is evident on the September 1912 Sanborn fire insurance maps. By that date, numerous small to moderate-sized working class dwellings, primarily of wood frame construction, had filled most blocks surrounding the central business district. Sanborn maps reveal that from 1912 to 1920, infilling occurred in the North Douglas residential area on the relatively few vacant lots remaining after the boom of 1900-1910.
While the population of Douglas increased only two percent between 1910 and 1920 (from 2246 to 2294), numerous landmark buildings were erected in Douglas during the 191 Os, including the monumental Douglas City Hall on South Third Street, a Post Office on North Third Street, a high school sited on the corner of South Fourth and Oak Streets, the Beaux-Arts style LaBonte Hotel on Walnut Street, and the ornate Jenne Block, built in 1916 by sheepman Jacob Jenne. Transportation-related developments were the primary impetus for the wave of construction that transformed the community and created numerous additions to the urban environment. Douglas was the focal point for promotion of the Yellowstone Highway in the early 1910s, and in 1914 the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad reached Douglas. Another boost to the economy of Douglas was the intensive exploration and development of oil and gas deposits in Converse County beginning with the development of the Big Muddy field near Glenrock in 1916.
The arrival of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad in 1914 was a watershed event in Douglas history, and not only resulted in the construction of a handsome new passenger depot, but also precipitated the construction of many new buildings including the landmark LaBonte Hotel. The building of a new rail line through Douglas was the culmination of the ambitious plans of Burlington magnate James Hill to construct a rail route extending from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Mexico. After acquiring the CB&Q in 1901 and the Colorado and Southern railroad in 1909, the Burlington Railroad built a rail line south from Billings through the Bighorn Basin. Tracks were laid through the Wind River Canyon and Casper towards Orin Junction to connect with the northern end of the Colorado and Southern line. The connection was made late in 1914, and the new passenger depot was completed in September 1915. Douglas embraced the arrival of the CB&Q, believing it would enhance the economic outlook of the region and bring an influx of new residents and an accompanying expansion of local commerce.
Many of the early twentieth century buildings erected in downtown Douglas as well as some residences were constructed of brick locally produced at the Douglas pressed brick plant just beyond the eastern edge of the town. The brick yard was started in around 1903 by H.L. Brenning and W. F. Hamilton, and was later acquired and operated by Howard G. Peters. The bricks were manufactured by pulverizing locally abundant Pierre shale, then pressing it in molds before a slow firing process. These locally manufactured bricks were utilized in the construction of the Catholic church, the Carnegie library, the Morsch Garage (1909), the Florence Hardware building (ca. 1909-10), the Converse County Court House (1915), as well as numerous other public and private buildings. Bricks produced in Douglas were undoubtedly used for the few brick dwellings erected in the northern residential area, including the O. P. Witt house (414 North Second Street, Building No. 17), the Tom Cook house (309 North Third Street, Building No. 29), the J. DeForest Richards carriage house (321 North Fourth Street, Building No. 52), and the George Powell house (239 North Fifth Street, Building No. 83).
O.P. Witt's brick residence at 414 North Second Street (Building No. 17) was one of the first houses in the northwest part of town in Block 45 and dates from 1907 to 1912. Witt was a native of Georgia who came to the area in 1885. He established a livery business in Douglas and in 1892 started the Grain and Storage Company. He was also a partner to George Cross Sr. and George Goodwin in the Mountain Valley Sheep Company.
The house at 239 North Fifth Street (Building No. 83) was constructed in 1903 as the residence of George W. and Margaret S. Powell. It is a one-and-one-half story stuccoed brick house combining elements of provincial European architectural styles, including a relatively steep pitched hipped roof with gabled dormers on all sides, a gabled vestibule on the front with an asymmetrical Tudor>style roof and arched doorway, and gently arched lintels over all of the first floor window openings. Powell was a pioneer settler who had worked as a freighter for an outfit stationed at Fort Laramie and later established his own freighting business serving Forts Fetterman, Laramie, and Caspar. In 1878, he married Margaret Skogland, and they were among the earliest settlers along LaPrele Creek. Powell is credited with introducing alfalfa seed into the region and was the first to obtain a water right on LaPrele Creek to irrigate hay fields. In addition to the establishment of a successful livestock ranch, Powell also began one of the region's first saw mills. When their Douglas house was finished, Powell and his wife moved from their ranch on LaPrele Creek and remained there until their deaths in 1924 and 1941, respectively.
A change in the complexion of North Douglas occurred beginning in the 1910s, as the Craftsman style was enthusiastically adopted by homebuilders. Late in the decade, local contractor and bridge builder Fred Cannon constructed three contiguous brick Craftsman bungalows at 420, 424 and 500 Cedar Street (Building Nos. 110, 111, 112) which stand as excellent examples of the style and reflect its emphasis on fine craftsmanship. Craftsman homes accounted for nearly all those built in North Douglas from ca. 1915-1930.
The house at 424 Cedar Street was occupied by Doctor L.W. Storey, a physician practicing in Douglas from ca. 1917 to 1926. From 1917 to 1919 he was listed in the State Business Directory as a physician and surgeon for the Chicago and North Western Railroad and the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, and from 1919 to 1926 he served as the official county physician. The house at 500 Cedar Street was once occupied by Doris Shannon Garst, a prolific author of children's books. Ms. Garst penned at least seventeen books for children between 1944 and 1960, many of which were nonfiction books about historical and Western subjects. Betty Bass, the former owner of the Douglas Budget, also lived there.
Fred Cannon, the builder of these fine houses, was a Douglas contractor who left an impressive legacy of residential, commercial, and industrial architecture in Douglas and Gillette, and he is credited with building most of the bridges in Converse County. He was active in the local construction industry from at least 1914 until 1945. He was particularly adept at brick masonry construction as evidenced in the landmark LaBonte Hotel (1914), the Douglas water pumping plant on the North Platte River (1917 or 1918), and the Ashlar Lodge No. 10 on Walnut and North Fourth Street (1925-26). He maintained a shop on North Second Street where he worked on carpentry projects and built a pile driver that helped him monopolize the regional bridge building market. Cannon employed large crews of laborers from Douglas, including Charles and Harvey Huntzinger and John Cowger.
Local architect J.B. Phillips was European-trained and designed a number of commercial and residential buildings in Denver, Colorado, and Douglas, Wyoming, before his untimely death in April 1912. Local buildings designed by Phillips include the Florence Hardware Company and Bolin Grocery buildings at 134 and 110 North Second Street, respectively. He also designed the Joseph Kidwell residence at 408 North Fourth Street (Building No. 61). The building dates from 1911-12 and is a two-story, seven-room wood frame structure distinguished by paired gables on the facade reminiscent of roof forms in Gothic Revival architecture, and each projecting verge is decorated with wide verge boards and a spindle pendent at the apex. Another distinctive feature is a polygonal bay window on the south side. Joseph Kidwell was the Douglas postmaster who arrived in Douglas in 1904 or 1905 and worked initially for the Douglas Mercantile Company. He served as postmaster from April 1908 to April 1916. Kidwell married Sadie Erwin, niece of B.J. Erwin, a pastor of the Congregational Church and leading promoter of the LaPrele Irrigation Project. While residing in the North Fourth Street house, the Kidwells reportedly rented rooms to school teachers. In 1938, the house was acquired by Jesse Morsch, son of prominent Douglas citizen William Morsch, who established Converse County's earliest automobile dealership in 1909. Jesse Morsch worked with his father at the dealership from ca. 1912 until 1930, and was a one-time president of the local chapter of the Good Roads Club. In the 1930s Jesse Morsch developed the Antelope Coal Company Mine, located near Antelope Creek, fifty-five miles north of Douglas and operated it for twenty years.
The population of Douglas declined from 2294 residents in 1920 to only 1758 residents in 1925. The trend was concurrent with a state-wide depression that severely affected the livestock industry, the economic foundation of Converse County. Relatively little construction occurred during the 1920s, with the notable exception of a monumental new Masonic lodge erected on the southeast corner of North Fourth and Walnut Streets (outside the proposed district).
The population remained relatively static at least until World War II. In 1941, the population of Douglas hovered just under 2,000 inhabitants. Relatively little construction occurred in North Douglas during the Great Depression, except in northeastern Douglas where a number of modest side-gabled homes of simple design were erected in the 1930s or early 1940s on the few remaining vacant lots. Two examples of 1930s construction are the Slonaker House at 122 North Fifth Street (Building No. 68) and the Dilts House at 114 North Fifth Street (Building No. 67). The Slonaker House is a one-story, cross-gabled Tudor Revival style home that replaced an earlier dwelling on the same lot. In the 1940s it was occupied by Clarence A. "Tye" Slonaker, son of Clarence and Belle Slonaker. Tye and his brother John entered into the family business, a coal, ice and (after 1913) oil supply outfit operated under the name of C.A. Slonaker & Son soon after their father's death in 1929. Tye Slonaker managed the ice and transfer aspect of the business while his brother ran the local Continental Oil Company (Conoco) agency. In the late 1940s, Tye took over the Conoco operation. A second example of 1930s construction is the Dilts home, a one-story brick dwelling that incorporates Modernistic traits into a common vernacular hipped house form. Its distinguishing features include an inset porch on the north half of the front facade topped by a smaller hipped roof joined to the main roof, the locally unusual use of red clay roof tile, and an integral basement level garage on the rear (west) side. It was constructed in 1939 for Fred W. and Elnora Dilts. Fred Dilts moved from Kansas to Douglas in 1902 and initially worked as a ranch hand for John Kern on LaBonte Creek. In 1906 he claimed a homestead north of Douglas on Bear Creek and began raising sheep. In 1921, after achieving success in the sheep business, he married Elnora Dunkelberger, and the Dilts steadily enlarged their land holdings. Upon his death in 1944, Fred Dilts had amassed an estimated 50,000 acres of ranch land in Converse County.
A notable change in the North Douglas area during the Depression was the replacement of the original Douglas Grade School building in 1931 with a modern school building (North Side Public School, Building No. 92) designed by Casper architects Goodrich and Krusmark. The two men often collaborated to produce designs for numerous schools in Casper, Riverton, and Mills. Their most noteworthy design is the Natrona County Courthouse with its distinctive frieze depicting county history and its unique western interior.
By the beginning of World War II, residential neighborhoods in North Douglas were completely developed, and construction activity was largely confined to remodeling and maintenance. Although many of the homes in North Douglas have been cosmetically altered by the replacement of siding with a variety of durable materials resistant to Wyoming's harsh winter climate, the historic form and character of most of the historic dwellings is still apparent. The district stands as a tangible monument to the people who built and lived in Douglas from its humble beginning in 1886 through its emergence as an important center of regional commerce and government.
† Robert G. Rosenberg. Historian, Rosenberg Historical Consultants, North Douglas Historic District, nomination document, 2002, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
2nd Street North • 3rd Street North • 4th Street North • 5th Street North • 6th Street North • 6th Street South • Cedar Street • Center Street • Walnut Street