Downtown Casper, Wyoming:
Historic Building Survey, 1988
I performed this survey of buildings in downtown Casper, Wyoming for the Casper Certified Local Government. The survey included forty-five government and business buildings in the downtown area and also nominated three of those buildings to the National Register of Historic Places.
I have not yet converted the survey into digital form, but parts of it can be included here to give a sample of the substance of the survey. The following paragraphs are extracted from a piece I prepared for the survey, "Casper, Wyoming and the First Oil Boom."
Casper, Wyoming, is situated on the banks of the North Platte River in the interior of the state, approximately midway north and south and a little closer to the eastern border of the state than to the western. The location on the river derives from the importance of that river historically as a geographic force, as a pathmarking feature for Indians and the earliest white settlers. In the effort to locate a path to the west coast, the Platte River proved the key as its tributary, the Sweetwater River, west of Casper, emanated from the area around the South Pass, a broad area through the Continental Divide where wagons could pass with ease. As mountain men explored that route and in 1832 took wagons through the pass, that route would become the path of more than a third of a million emigrants bound for Utah, California, and Oregon in the 1840s and 1850s.
As those emigrants eked their way across the continent, they unleashed a set of forces that would alter the west and as one of their products generate the circumstances responsible for the emergence of the city of Casper. Along their routes commercial developments punctuated the midpassage. Emigrants in need of fresh stock, food, and other provisions constituted a substantial market for suppliers wishing to turn a profit. In the area of modern Casper, the Mormons in 1847 erected a commercial ferry to get emigrants across the river, a venture that lasted until 1852. In that year a toll bridge was erected by John Baptiste Richard to the east of the modern city (in modern Evansville, a suburb of Casper) which prospered mightily. And in 1859-1860 a competitor, Louis Guinard, built a longer, sturdier bridge seven miles upstream that would ultimately prevail. That bridge, a magnificent accomplishment, generated more traffic and more commercial activity so that the Platte Bridge, as it was known, became a distinct mark on the Oregon-California Trail. Indeed shortly after its construction a stage line began to use the bridge; the Pony Express crossed the river at that point; and the telegraph, which replaced the Pony Express, was held aloft by poles attached to the bridge piers.
As if to underline the importance this site held, the military proceeded to station troops nearby. This was because of another force unleashed by the massive migration: the tension with the native inhabitants of the region. Initially welcomed with ample sign of cooperation, the emigrants proved to bring more ominous developments unanticipated by the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho who shoed them the way, who cut grass for the emigrants, and who helped them ford rivers. With the destruction of the grass and the killing of game, with the spread of disease that proved especially fatal among the Indians, with the removal of bison to other areas away from the trafficked corridor, and with the increasingly frequent opportunity for minor disputes and disagreements to escalate into hostility, the location of troops only exacerbated the tensions. An actual permanent military station, named Platte Bridge Station, had come into being by 1864. Subsequent conflicts included one in which Lieutenant Caspar Collins was killed and the post was renamed Fort Caspar (official orders misspelled the name Casper). By the time this post was suddenly abandoned in 1867, the telegraph to be moved south and the post to the east, the area around modern Casper, between the two bridges on the Oregon-California Trail, had achieved significant development.
Although the area was officially abandoned by the military, and although the bridge was burned by the Indians immediately, it was only a short period before white settlers began to pick up where the previous development had left off. The primary force in this was that of ranching. In the 1860s and 1870s and 1880s large cattle ranches from the Sun Ranch on the Sweetwater to the Goose Egg Ranch of the Seebright Brothers at Bessemer Bend to the Carey Ranch near the old Platte Bridge to the Brooks Ranch east of modern Casper. While these and other ranches began to emerge in the valley of the Platte, an actual settlement did not appear until 1888. In that year the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad (later the Chicago & Northwestern) arrived in the vicinity of modern Casper in a westward course following yet again the trail of the emigrants and mountain men heading west along the Platte River. And a small settlement emerged with the town filing for incorporation the next year, appropriately, under the name of Casper, Wyoming Territory.
The town that began to emerge grew slowly and for two decades was but one of a number of small villages dotting the plains serving local cattle operations. Few stores existed in the first years. These included four saloons and restaurants, three livery stables, one grocery store, and two general stores. A small newspaper, and a bank and a few other assorted businesses also held forth. By the turn of the century the only stores in town were the general store/dry goods dealers, a bank, the gunsmith, a theater, a few saloons and hotels, and a small number of other establishments that appeared and disappeared with the regularity of the wind. Most buildings were frame. Fewer than a thousand people lived in the town at the turn of the century. In 1900 the city downtown area received a limited amount of electrical lighting with a system that proved to be as flickering and faltering as the light it produced. While the railroad had initially made possible the town of Casper, service on that line was discontinued in 1892; after that the only service was special and occasional until 1903 when the original line resumed its service. Early photographs show a sleepy town with seldom any excitement, with few visitors, with minimal business interaction, and with sagebrush growing in the streets. A fire department existed, but that department was voluntary with only quarters for privately owned equipment comprising the fire department. The growth of the community in the first decade of the twentieth century was unspectacular, although Casper was clearly coming into a new stage of development with a greater population, permanent business community, and regular transportation.
The development that changed that pattern was the discovery of oil, or, more properly, the active commercial development of the production and refining of oil in the area. Indeed, oil had been discovered in the area some time earlier by emigrants and had been explored and pumped in the 1890s. The only refinery in the state was placed in Casper in 1895, shortlived though it was. through a series of reorganizations and take-overs, the refining business in Casper (and Wyoming) proved unsuccessful until the second decade of the century. In 1910 the Franco-Wyoming Oil Company was created and started construction of its own refinery the following year. The same year the Midwest Oil Company was organized and began construction of another refinery in Casper. Those two companies merged in 1914 with a recapitalization. In 1913 and 1914 Standard Oil also moved into the community, purchased land and began construction of a refinery. The oil activity increased dramatically, and the early (1923) historian of the community expressed it so: "During the latter part of 1916 and for nine months in 1917 Casper experienced a wonderful oil boom."  That observation, however, lacked the perspective of time. In fact, the boom had begun probably in 1913 and 1914 and continued into the next decade. What that early historian observed was a bubble within the boom.
During the decade and a half that the boom could be said to have existed, Casper was transformed. People poured into the town. Within a period of around a year, in 1913 and 1914, the population went from under three thousand to four thousand. In 1913 the Post Office reported a population increase of a third. Then, according to one estimate, "the population doubled, assessed valuation doubled and redoubled, and there was still no end in sight. . . . Between 1918 and 1921 population doubled again (and woolgrowing fell off 60% and kept on falling)." The same source continues: "The population rose 50% by 1922, rose again 25% by 1924. Some claimed 35,000 for the city in 1925. . . . There were 200,000 sheep in the county. There had once been ten times that many . . . ." Two railroads serviced the local economy (one individual claims that "During World War I the Northwestern shipped a trainload of gasoline for the war effort every hour from the Midwest and Standard refineries, the largest in the world at that time." Money in amounts undreamed before circulated. Construction of buildings and expansion of the community seemed endless. New values and habits and technologies infused the community and gave it a new orientation. Casper roared.
The boom ended less abruptly than it began, but the decline was evident by the middle of the decade of the twenties. Production of oil had increased dramatically and that accounted for part of the boom. Moreover, prices went higher too, and especially in the years immediately following World War I, when price controls were lifted, crude oil prices increased by more than fifty per cent, from $2 a barrel in 1918 to more than $3 a barrel in 1920. At that point, however, the unusual combination of greater production for increasing prices reached its limit and the price for crude began a sudden drop. By 1923 the price of crude was less than a dollar and half a barrel. Despite a gesture in the direction of recovery in 1925 and 1926, the spiral downward between 1927 and 1929 gutted the petroleum business. Part of the problem was the increase in the ability to extract higher quality fuels from crude, making the increased production of crude that much more redundant; part of the problem was the change in petroleum consumption making gasoline of greater demand than fuel oil; and part of the problem was the decline of competition in the petroleum business as the giants took control. All three parts can be seen locally with the ascendancy of the automobile, the sophistication of the refineries, and the consolidation of power. In 1921 Standard Oil, indeed the Ohio central core of the Rockefeller dynasty, took control of the Midwest Company. One refinery alone operated in Casper.
This was the trend in the nation and this was the trend in Casper. With an economy that had never been diversified, the dependence had shifted from agriculture to petroleum. With the decline of petroleum, the agriculture was no longer there to shore up the economy. During the 1920s the agricultural depression afflicting the nation worsened steadily after 1923 to be joined by the rest of the nation's economy in 1929, not to experience any recovery until World War II. Banks began to close, to be swallowed up by other, bigger institutions. Even the electrical power industry locally suffered the same fate. In 1913 the Casper Industrial Club, an organization of commercial boosters, proudly announced that "Owing to the presence of two electric light and power companies in Casper, each with a plant capable of supplying larger cities than Casper, both light and power are to be had at rates greatly below the average." In 1918 those two companies, the Wyoming Electric Company and the Casper Electric Company, merged becoming the Natrona Electric Company. In 1924, that organization was taken over by the Mountain States Electric Company. The process of centralization was abroad as fewer businesses operated in Casper. The boom was coming to an end, with the death knell for certain coming in 1929 with the stock market crash and the subsequent depression. The boom had been furious and powerful and seemingly endless, and before it faded from sight, that boom had permanently transformed Casper, Wyoming.
A. J. Mokler, History of Natrona County, Wyoming (Chicago, 1923), 262.
Casper Industrial Club, "Casper Wyoming," (n.p., n.d.), in Casper College Western Vertical File, p. 4.
Joseph Orr, "Anatomy of a Western Town," unpublished paper dated March 10, 1940, prepared for Works Progress Administration, located in Wyoming Archives, Museums, and Historical Department, Cheyenne.
Frances Seely Webb, "The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad," in Casper Zonta Club, Casper Chronicles (n.p., 1964), 80.
Harold F. Williamson, Ralph L. Andreano, Arnold R. Daum, and Gilbert C. Klose, The American Petroleum Industry: The Age of Energy 1899-1959 (Evanston, 1963), 462-466.
Casper Industrial Club, "Casper Wyoming," pamphlet located in Casper College Western Vertical File, p. 5.