|The city of Laramie, known as the "Gem City of the Plains", looks like a handful of precious stones nestled in a black velvet jewel box when approached from any direction at night. Surrounded by the Snowy Range to the west and the Laramie Mountains to the east, the Laramie Valley is wide enough to be considered a high plain. Its local high school’s mascot is the Plainsman, a nod to explorer/trapper Jacques LaRamee, for whom the town is named. One of the highest incorporated cities in the US, at an elevation of nearly 7,200 feet, Laramie is also near the highest point in the US on I-80. Lincoln Monument, at 8,640 feet, is about 10 miles to the east of town.
With the Laramie River running through it, the area has been a stopping place for travelers for millions of years, as the remains of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures here has proven. Native Americans, including the Sioux, Shoshones and Teton-Dakotas, have been camping here since about 8, 000 years ago. Jacques LaRamee was probably the first white man to come to the area between 1810 and 1820, as well as building the first European habitation in the area, a cabin at the confluence of the Platte and Laramie Rivers.
A few settlers left the Oregon and Mormon Trails in the 1840s and 50s to settle in the valley, which resulted in some Indian hostility. The US Army established a fort for protection, Fort Sanders (originally named Fort Buford) in 1866. In 1868, Indian troubles decreased for a time and the railroad came. General Grenville Dodge established the town site for Laramie, just north of the fort, as a camp for Union Pacific workers. An artesian spring with pristine drinking water and ample timber from the nearby Medicine Bow forest made this an ideal location.
The early days were typical of an "end of the tracks" town, with a lot of wild and rough individuals. By the end of 1868, Laramie sustained 23 saloons, one hotel, and not a single church. Law-abiding citizens became fed up after a while and formed a "vigilance committee" to keep the lawlessness to a minimum. After a few well-displayed hangings, and a little help from the federal government, the town settled into a more peaceful existence.
The year 1870 put Laramie in the history books, when the first woman in the world to ever vote in a general election, "Grandma" Louisa A. Swain, cast her ballot. That same year, the world’s first female jurors took their place in a trial in Laramie, despite taunts of "Baby, Baby, don’t be in a hurry. Your mama’s gone to sit on the jury." At the same trial, the Andrew Howie Case, Mrs. Martha Atkinson became the first female bailiff in the world.
In 1872, the Wyoming Territorial Prison was built near Laramie, and later housed many famous outlaws, including Butch Cassidy and "Big Nose" George Parrott. The 1870s and 1880s brought the advent of the cattle industry in the Laramie area, as herd after herd came up from Texas. In 1886, Wyoming University opened its doors. Now called the University of Wyoming, it remains the only four-year institution of higher learning in the state, although it has branches in several towns.
As other railroad towns went the way of the wind, the stability provided by the university, the prison, and the timber and ranching industries gave the town a niche as a permanent stop on the railway line, even though Cheyenne was only fifty miles away. The Old Laramie Depot continues to be a functioning depot today, and the town is a significant crossroads for both passenger and freight lines.
The territory became a state in 1890, and at the turn of the century, the University converted the Territorial Penitentiary into an experimental stock farm. Prisoners were relocated to a new facility in Rawlins. But the lumber, cattle, and educational advantages of Laramie kept the area strong while other towns in the state went through several boom and bust cycles.
Today, Laramie is most strongly influenced by the University, and the students and faculty from all parts of the country and the world who are drawn to this rich, windswept landscape. They bring to it their own skills, talents, tastes and perspectives to enrich the local milieu. Like many other Wyoming communities, Laramie is able to embrace both its historical ties to Western history and the new and increasingly global character of Wyoming’s lifestyle.
The diversity of altitude creates diversity of habitat and life. From the pronghorn antelope beside the Interstate to the moose in the marshes on the high ground, the presence of wildlife adds to the pleasure of living here.
The city is built on the sun-dappled plain between two units of the Medicine Bow National Forest. The granite Snowy Range mountains west of Laramie and the unusual sandstone formations of Vedauwoo to the east provide unparalleled opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Day to Day Living
The influence of the University of Wyoming, the state’s only four-year institution, is marked. Faculty and students come from everywhere. Their skills, talents and tastes enrich the local milieu. The University also has impact on the local business environment, providing a well-educated labor force and employers spun off from University-related research projects. This is enhanced by two more post-secondary education providers: Laramie County Community College’s Albany County campus, and Wyoming Technical Institute, a highly-regarded vocational school.
The urban environment is highlighted by a charming downtown area with lovingly restored buildings. Some of the most remarkable characteristics of Laramie, however, don’t come into play until you leave the city limits. The Snowy Range Mountains to the west shelter a family downhill ski area, 80 mountain lakes, innumerable ice-cold mountain streams, and all the room in the world for snowmobiling, mountain biking, cross-country skiing - all manner of mountain delights!
The Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site also makes its home in Laramie. The penitentiary was restored in 1989 and is open for tours. The WTPSHS is located on 190 acres and is home to the original prison Broom Factory and Warden’s House, along with a restored Horse Barn/Dinner Theater, Chimney Rock ranch, Rock Springs country church, and recreated Frontier Town. Special events include Ghost Tours of Laramie City, the Butch Cassidy Chili Cook-off, living history reenactments, and theater performances.
The Old West lives on in modern-day Laramie. The broad plain on which the city lies supports big cattle ranches and with them, the singular blend of reliance on community and proud individualism which typifies life on the land.
Portions excerpted from Laramie Chamber of Commerce brochure
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