It happens so quickly. One minute, you’re comfortably wandering through dozens of quaint, small Nebraska towns. The next minute you’re stampeding down Wyoming’s Interstate 80, sometimes at a legal 80 miles an hour.
In Wyoming, U.S. Route 30 is sometimes a road on its own, but through most of the western states, it is ‘adopted’ by interstates.
U.S. Route 30 had a good run through Nebraska, all 450 miles being designated as Lincoln Highway Scenic and Historic Byway. But the equally historic Oregon, California, Mormon, Overland, Cherokee, and Pony Express all passed through Wyoming’s Sweetwater County.
Also here, the Lincoln Highway splits off toward San Francisco, while U.S. Route 30 goes northwest into Idaho and Oregon.
You can’t think of Wyoming history and not think of the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ of TV lore, cattle ranchers with dusty Stetson hats, gunslingers and bad guys like Butch Cassidy (he lived here for a time). That’s a romanticized history, and not so ancient.
Wyoming is a television western, with names like Medicine Bow (The Virginian), Laramie, Rawlins, Cheyanne, and movie titles like Unforgiven (four academy awards), Shane, The Laramie Project and the Man From Laramie–names from U.S. Route 30. Dozens of films were set here and many names are familiar to western TV fans, but most were filmed on a convenient California set.
Wyoming is easily the least populated state in the country (579,000), just a few more people than all of Lancaster County, Pa. State capital Cheyenne, in the far southeastern corner of the state, has 63,000 of those residents. The state nickname is The Equality State since Wyoming was the first to grant women the right to vote. More precisely, women were granted the right to vote in 1868 so there would be enough voting citizens to meet the population requirement for statehood.
The landscape is no longer Nebraska corn and bean fields, but rolling cattle and horse pastures. Pine Bluffs (population 1,142), just a good golf shot from the Nebraska state line, stands at an elevation of 5,047 feet but doesn’t seem like it is nearly a mile above sea level. On a recent Sunday morning, Main Street was empty of vehicles.
At the milepost 323 is the Lincoln Statue. Heading westward… there are fewer and fewer signs marking the route of the Lincoln Highway. This is especially true in Wyoming, where significant sections of Interstate 80 west of Cheyenne were simply built over the original Lincoln Highway, says The Lincoln Highway Guide.
The monument is at the Sherman Hill rest stop, the highest point on the Lincoln Highway at 8,835 feet.
Eight miles away is Laramie, (population 28,000) home of the University of Wyoming’s Cowboys.
The Wyoming state penitentiary is probably the second point of interest tourists see in town, the first being a huge cowboy on a bucking bronco in front of a university building. It is the state’s official registered trademark. The silhouette is also on the U.S. Mint’s commemorative quarter. Because of all this, Wyoming is sometimes referred to as The Cowboy State.
The university’s slogan, “The world needs more cowboys,” has drawn criticism from some, calling it “sexist, racist and counterproductive to the university’s recruiting goals.”
Interstate 80 departs from paralleling the Union Pacific Railroad and U.S. Route 30 just outside of Laramie. It’s on this stretch of U.S. Route 30 that travelers can feel even more of the cowboy atmosphere, the wild west.
There are no big cities or large towns on this 93-mile stretch of U.S. Route 30. In fact, Bosler (population 2) is the first burg seen along this stretch. in 1940, Bosler boasted 267 people, enough for a school. That closed in 1983, a victim of Interstate 80’s quicker route through the state. It still stands, alone in the middle of a field.
Interstate I-80 between Laramie and Wolcott Junction is the subject of a book called ‘Snow Chi Minh Trail’, in reference to the Vietnam road. The author calls the interstate “one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the nation…Residents of south-central Wyoming warned highway officials of the hostile weather conditions, advising against the construction of a road in that area.” But severe weather warning signs are posted on U.S. Route 30 near Bosler as well.
Doc reigns in Bosler, and with his lone renter, makes up Bosler’s entire population. He’s been called ‘eccentric’ by folks in the area, but they smile when they say it. He promotes his website about the town and the area, and it makes for interesting reading. Or, try his other site here, more about his sales site– and Doc’s had his fingers in a lot of pies.
This stretch ofU.S. Route 30 is part of the Sand Creek Massacre Trail– – a 600-mile ceremonial link between the Colorado massacre site and the headquarters of the Northern Arapaho Tribe on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation. In 1864, at least 150 mostly Indian women and children were slaughtered by the U.S. military.
Twenty miles beyond Bosler is Rock River (population 245), a town with one church, hotel, school, and general store. The Longhorn Lodge gets good reviews, but the bar has been closed for at least a decade, despite a badly-hung sign showing that it is open.
Another 18 miles (towns were generally ‘arranged’ that way to provide water and services for the trains) introduces TV western fans to Medicine Bow (population 267), and the Virginian Hotel. The hotel offers beautiful rooms in the western style of the day.
The Medicine Bow Museum was originally the Union Pacific Railroad depot which closed in 1981.
Hanna (population 793) is the last town along this lonely stretch of U.S. Route 30. About a mile off the highway, Hanna’s population rises and falls dramatically with the fortunes of the coal mining industry.
“Lying as it does in the center of one of Wyoming’s largest and richest coalfields, Hanna has an equally rich past and present. Mining has been the mainstay in this part of the county since coal was discovered here in the late 1800s,” says Hanna’s website. The population in 1980 was a booming 2,228.
U.S. Route 30 joins I-80 for about 20 miles again before splitting again as it enters Rawlins, (population 9,200). The county seat of Carbon County, Rawlins was established just a year before Fort Fred Steele was built to protect the advancing Union Pacific Railroad.
Travelers cross the Continental Divide again on the way to Rock Springs. This crossing, combined with the earlier crossing, forms the Great Divide Basin, which, between 34 and 56 million years ago, formed a lake as well as the Green River Basin.
Rock Springs, (population 23,000) is a busy place today and loaded with history.
As is typical in this part of Wyoming, the town was important in building the Union Pacific Railroad (and vice versa), and the nearly 130 coal mines here fueled the trains all across the country. Rock Springs fortunes were boosted by international coal miners, and the town is proud to be called the Home of 56 Nationalities.
But they didn’t always coexist peacefully. On Sept. 2, 1885, 150 white miners attacked their Chinese co-workers. Twenty-eight Chinese were killed, fifteen were wounded and several hundred more were run out of town.
It seems everyone in Wyoming is excited to claim outlaw legend Butch Cassidy as homegrown. Cassidy– Robert LeRoy Parker was his given name when he was born to Morman parents in Utah– was made a legend by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the movie ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. Rock Springs commemorates Cassidy’s stay here on a mural and says “Butch” came from his work here as a butcher.
Rock Springs was booming until the mid-1950s when the Union Pacific engines began using diesel fuel instead of coal. All the mines closed down. Despite that, a large arch boasting Rock Springs coal still stands. That blow could have spelled disaster, but Rock Springs and Sweetwater County had another ace in its pocket.
Sweetwater County was named the “Trona Capital of the World” in 1989, and the current economy is soaring because of this naturally occurring mineral (sodium sesquicarbonate). Says the Sweetwater County Historical Museum, there are an estimated 100 billion tons in the area. Trona yields soda ash, which is used to make paper, laundry detergents and glass.
Just north of Rock Springs is the Reliance coal tipple, built in 1936 and used until its mines closed in 1955. Sweetwater Museum administers the site.
Beyond Reliance is Winton, once a town of 700 people, and three coal mines. The town closed its doors in 1952 when the mines shut down. Visitors will find little there now, other than some crumbling foundations and maybe some youngsters shooting target practice.
At or near I-80 mile marker 66, highway designations and directions change. U.S. Route 30 and the Lincoln Highway head northwest for two miles, after which the Lincoln Highway splits permanently from U.S. Route 30. It heads in the same general direction as I-80 (it sometimes becomes an interstate) which turns southwest toward Utah. U.S. Route 30 heads north into Idaho as a quiet two-lane road until it reaches McCammon, where it becomes part of the interstate system.
In Kemmerer (population 2,630), the original J.C. Penney store is still in business and selling Penney’s souvenirs. At last check, the struggling Penney’s chain still operated 800 stores (not in York, Pa.) but lost $154 million in the first quarter of 2019.
Fossil Butte National Monument, one of the newer and least-visited parks, is 16 miles west of Kemmerer. Established in 1972, the beautiful visitor center was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1990.
‘Some of the world’s best-preserved fossils are found in the flat-topped ridges of southwestern Wyoming’s cold sagebrush desert. Fossilized fishes, insects, plants, reptiles, birds, and mammals are exceptional for their abundance, variety, and detail of preservation’– from the website.
The park is a work in progress, since cleaning up discovered fossils found in the Research Quarry is a long, detailed process. Visitors are welcome to hike along with rangers to the quarry on Friday and Saturday, and even help find fossils. Unfortunately, any fossils found are park property. The park counts only 20,000 visitors a year, so there are no crowds.
Tourists can search for and keep fossils at Ulrich’s Fossil Gallery near the Fossil Butte entrance. Ulrich’s is one of a handful of private companies that allow visitors to hunt and keep any fossils they find.
Ulrich employes drive to the top of a butte to search. Using long, thin metal blades, they cut slabs and pry apart rock layers to find fossils. Displays of their treasure are on display at the office.
Cokeville (population 550) is ten miles from the Idaho border. A highly religious and largely Mormon community, it was the scene of an elementary school bomb explosion. Some people say that because no children died, it was “The Cokeville Miracle.”
Former police officer David Young and his wife Doris took 154 people hostage in May 1986 in the town’s elementary school. They entered the town’s only elementary school with an arsenal of weapons and a gasoline bomb in a grocery cart, no one saw it coming, says the Wyoming State Historical Society.
They planned to hold each of the children hostage for $2 million dollars apiece and then detonate the bomb. The gasoline bomb exploded prematurely, seriously injuring Doris Young. David Young killed his wife and then committed suicide. Nearly 80 children were treated for injuries.
The ordeal was made into a movie ‘The Cokeville Miracle‘ in 2015.
Understandably, the people in Cokeville don’t want to talk about the event. They’ll talk about the Italian Ice shop near the park, the rough-looking opera house that looks like a building out of Gunsmoke or The Virginian (its future is uncertain), or how Cokeville is a nice, quiet little place on the west side of U.S. Route 30.
A few old stores still stand, including the drug store, empty for at least 20 years. The closest drug store is in Montpelier, about 30 miles away.
The last true grocery store closed about four or five years ago. Most people choose to fly out of Salt Lake City (150 miles) and trek to Montpelier for specialty doctors, cars, or drug stores.
But it’s a beautiful drive.