A Ghost of a Ghost – The Way West – Wolton

    What’s in a name? Advertisers will tell you everything. Names bring recognition and in a twist of American Law, sometimes a name that catches on too well loses its status as a trademark when it becomes part of the common vocabulary.

    Whether you call it Woolville, Woolton, or Wolton, it probably doesn’t matter at this point. The largely forgotten ghost town in Western Natrona County lost its place and its name in 1914 when most of the town, including the buildings were transported eight miles away to the new community of Arminto.

    Railroad map of Natrona County 1914 – h/t University of Wyoming

    When the town was packed up, the remaining people renamed it Hiland in 1925 in deference to it having the highest elevation on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.

    Wyoming was a state for only six years in 1896 when Charles Henry King, a banker in nearby Casper and the owner/operator of the Lander Transportation Company decided to build a large sheep shearing operation on Jack Clark’s ranch on Poison Creek.

    Fremont County sheepmen were driving their herds to Rawlins on the Union Pacific in Carbon County and King wanted the business in Casper.

    The Fremont-Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad connected Omaha, Nebraska to Casper on one of its many tracks, this one was known as the “Cowboy Line.”

    In building the facility at the Clark Ranch near the Fremont County line, King was able to attract the attention of sheepmen in both Fremont County and north into the Big Horn Basin.

    A Natrona Tribune advertisement for the Clark Stage Line – h/t Natrona Tribune

    Clark’s ranch was on the Casper-Lost Cabin Stage Road, 60 miles west of Casper.

    Clark’s father, William Clark, ran the stage line between Casper and Lost Cabin. They constructed stations at William’s ranch on Casper Creek, another at Powder River, and at Jack’s Poison Creek ranch.

    King was already a well-established businessman, forming his Lander Transportation Company in 1893. He took most of the freight hauling business between Casper and Lander and hauled into the Big Horn Basin as well.

    A January 25, 1894, story in the Natrona Tribune, described King’s foresight.


    “C. H. King has returned from Lander, and although he had a rough journey, he is feeling very much elated about his trip. The new road to Lander was laid out and will prove a wonderful benefit to Casper as it will shorten the distance between this city and Lander by over twenty-five miles. The distance via the new road will be 130 miles in length and will deviate out of a straight line by only fifteen miles. Bridges will be constructed where necessary, and road ranches erected at which wells will be dug, and every convenience for travelers over the new road will be established.”

    In Cheyenne, the Daily Sun reported on April 28, 1894, “Casper Wyoming: Clark & Co.’s new stage line between Casper and Lander will send out its first four-horse coach next Tuesday. The line runs over a new route, and the proprietors guarantee to make the trip in thirty hours. This route is fifty miles shorter than the old one.”

    In February 1895, the Natrona Tribune reported, “Hoping to steer more of Fremont County’s business to Casper, which had been going to Rawlins, in February 1895, the Lander Transportation Company put on “fast freight teams” that would haul lightweight loads of freight between the two towns in just five days.”

    Lloyd Nelson and Stuart Nails on a Clark State in Wolton 1904 – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    An opinion piece in the March 1, 1895, Fremont Clipper explained the position of many Fremont County residents towards the Union Pacific.

    “The Union Pacific counties may ‘fool part of the people all the time, and all the people all the time,’ but they cannot fool the people of Fremont County any longer. We are through with the Union Pacific and the gang that hangs out along that line. They have taken our money to build state institutions and refused to make an appropriation to our county, even when the people of Wyoming instructed them to.

    Map of Wyoming 1900, note only 13 counties – h/t

    “J. E. Lovejoy, of the Lander Transportation Company, left on the stage Wednesday morning for Casper. Mr. Lovejoy is a thorough going businessman, and while here he investigated the transportation business and found the people of this valley were almost unanimously in favor of shipping by Casper. People have made up their minds to no longer put money in the pockets of our enemies. The result will be that our freight business will be concentrated at Casper from now on.

    “If you want to encourage a railroad to build to Lander you should patronize a corporation that is pointed this way. If the F.E. & M.V. railroad is assured of the good will of the people in this area, they can be induced to extend their road this year. Let everyone who has freight to ship see that it comes by way of Casper.”

    A Natrona Tribune advertisement for the Clark Stage Line – h/t Natrona Tribune

    Jack Clark went into the stage business to deliver mail to Lost Cabin in the early 1890s. Business was good, and he soon expanded his services to Lander. In 1896, the Chicago Northwestern Railroad built the first of what would be many reservoirs on a proposed route for a railroad eventually planned to reach Lander.

    During the winter of 1896-97, a store was built by the Wolton Commercial Company by C.H. King with a post office.

    The first postmaster of the Wolton Post Office was R.L. Carpenter, who also managed the store for King.

    In the fall of 1898, W.H. Dickinson of Lander took over the store and post office.

    A freight wagon rolls across eastern Fremont County – h/t Pioneer Museum

    In January 1899, the Wolton Commercial Company store sold all of its merchandise to A.J. Cunningham of Casper, who changed the name to the Wolton Store and operated it as a branch of his larger operation in Casper, 60 miles to the east.

    The store had a succession of managers with O.G. Johnson and, finally, J.A. Warlaumont in 1905. 

    Wolton was unique among the towns in Western Natrona and Eastern Fremont County in that it had good water. A central well was drilled with a windmill-powered pump filling a large town on high ground above the town. Pipes were buried underground from the tank and fresh water flowed to the homes and businesses of Wolton year-round.

    In 1896, the Fremont-Elkhorn & Missouri Valley railroad began cutting the rates charged by Union Pacific to ship cattle, sheep, and wool from Wyoming. Ranchers and sheepmen noticed. The community known as Myersville, near present-day Sweetwater Station, started shipping via Casper instead of Rawlins, which was 20 miles closer because of the lower rates.

    A freight wagon operated by C.H. King in Lander 1904 – h/t Pioneer Museum

    The April 23, 1896, Natrona Tribune noted the change. “The Lander Transportation Company this week started large freight outfits from both Lander and Casper for Myersville to bring in 210,000 pounds of wool already billed for shipment over (Casper’s railroad) line. As the Union Pacific people have made a strong pull for this wool, The Elkhorn railroad’s people are to be congratulated upon securing this clip.”

    Transportation, whether by freight wagon or locomotive, required water. The Fremont and Elkhorn began constructing reservoirs across the desert on two separate routes from Casper to Lander.

    “The Fremont & Elkhorn railroad has successfully established reservoirs on the Woodruff shortcut to Casper. The contractors are now at work and will soon complete their job so that there will be water stations every fifteen miles between Lander and Casper. These reservoirs contain from forty to sixty acres each, and when full the water will be about twelve feet deep in each. This will be a great advantage to those who have stock to drive to the railroad,” Lander Clipper, April 24, 1896.

    Henry, Wyoma and Memry Hemry playing in a sheep wagon at Walton 1904 – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    A month later, on May 29, the Lander Clipper reported the official distance on the new road to Casper.

    “C. H. King of Casper and DeForest Richards of Douglas came into Lander with their own private conveyance last Sunday and left for their homes on Monday. They had a cyclometer attached to their buckboard and it showed the exact distance from Casper to Lander is 152 miles.”

    Interest in a large, mechanized sheep shearing facility was high in both Casper and Lander.

    A story in the August 6, 1896, edition of the Natrona Tribune appeared, “For some time, it has been rumored that the railroad people intended to move the dipping pens from William Clark’s place out to the second stage station west of here on Jack Clark’s land. Only recently has it developed that a town of considerable size is going to be established there next spring. The town’s name indicates the chief source of revenue to its occupants, the wool business. The dipping pens are now being put in there, and before spring large shearing pens will also be erected at Woolville. A wool warehouse, blacksmith shop, general store, saloon, and eating house are among the business houses to be erected there in time for use next spring. This new town will prove a great convenience for the sheepmen of the state. The drive from Casper to the (Big Horn) mountains between dipping and shearing time will be made sixty miles less. The feed in that vicinity is excellent.”

    Speculation continued on the type of shearing station that would be constructed.

    “It is stated that a steam shearing plant will be put in there,” The Tribune read. “The railroad people who control the townsite will endeavor to have a post office established there in the near future.”

    The Chicago Northwestern yard in Casper 1905 – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    The key to business across America west of the Mississippi was a viable railroad. In Laramie, a town created by the Union Pacific Railroad, speculation ran high on the possible competition building to the north.

    “A dispatch from Casper says: ‘It is believed here that the managers of the Chicago and Northwestern railway system are contemplating the extension westward from the place of the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley branch of that system during the coming year. The right-of-way agent of that line reached Casper yesterday and some suspicious movements of parties connected with that railroad gives color to the belief in the extension. The encroachment of the Burlington railroad upon the wool and cattle trade to the west and northwest of Casper seems to demand the extension of the Northwestern in order to hold this business.” The November 26, 1896 edition of the Weekly Boomerang read. “It is believed the railroad will be extended sixty miles to the new town of Wolton, which has recently been established by parties connected with interests of the railroad company. At Wolton arrangements have already been made for the construction of a large wool warehouse, a general merchandise store, a hotel, etc. The officers of the company have complete control at the townsite, having ownership of a full section of land upon which the new town is located.”

    From the west in Lander, the news and the speculation spread just as rapidly.

    A colorized postcard of the Golden Rule Store in Lander behind one of the large 20-horse freight teams servicing the area before the railroad arrived in 1906. – h/t Pioneer Museum

    “From the Natrona Tribune: ’The conditions of the stock shipping interests west of us, and the encroachment of the Burlington railroad on the north, seems to demand the extension of the Elkhorn to a point west of Casper in order to hold this trade. The new town of Wolton, established this fall, will be the terminus of the extension, and extensive preparations are being made there to accommodate the expected business,’” the December 2, 1896 Wind River Mountaineer stated. “The advantage to be gained by the extension of the F.E.& M.V. is apparent. It would secure to the Elkhorm all the freight and passenger traffic for the western territory, a part of which now goes to the U.P. and B. M. railroads. While as yet this extension is only a surmise on our part every day’s developments more firmly convince us that this extension will be made.’”

    William Clark purchased an advertisement in the December 3 Natrona Tribune, and the speculation became a reality.

    “On to Wolton! The Golden Chariot will transport you. For more particulars see William Clark whose advertisement appears on the first page of this issue.”

    By February 1897, the Natrona Tribune was featuring articles describing the changing conditions of Clark’s stage line operation between Casper and Lost Cabin.

    the signing of the McLaughlin Agreement that opened the Wind River Indian Reservation to homesteading – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    “Although Casper is the terminus of the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley railroad system in Wyoming, the stage connections from the end of the railroad to the west are not very good. The stage line that runs tri-weekly between Casper to Lost Cabin via Woolton is owned by William Clark, is all that can be expected. A part of the season this line is run on the “buckboard plan,” although Mr. Clark has plenty of stock and Concord coaches, so that any time there are a sufficient number of passengers he can give them the best and most comfortable transportation. Clark informs us that with the prospect of increased travel between Casper and Woolton as soon as spring weather arrives, it is his intention to abandon use of the buckboards, and use (only) coaches. While (this winter) the scheduled time between Casper and Lost Cabin—80 miles—is 22 hours, the run can usually be made in about 14 hours during good weather. It is also hoped that the run between Casper and Woolton can be cut to about 10 hours, which will be greatly appreciated by the traveling public. Mr. Clark also sees to it that his passengers are assured of the best meals along the route that the season can afford.” February 17, Natrona Tribune.

    Shearing season began and prospective buyers and businessmen rode east to visit the new town of Wolton, which was still being called Woolton by many Wyoming newspapers.

    The April 19, 1897 edition of the Wind River Mountaineer described the challenges of travel at the end of the 19th century.

    Sheep waiting to be sheared – h/t Getty Images

    “Hon. J. D. Woodruff and J. B. Kerr, the sheep buyer, returned from the Lost Cabin sheep range Saturday evening, after an absence of nearly a week. During that time, they visited the prospective town of Woolton where large numbers of sheep are being shorn this season, though the recent storm has impeded the shearing very much. Mr. Woodruff says the roads between Woolton and Casper are simply horrible. A team of his has been out from Casper for 19 days and has yet to be heard from. Mr. Woodruff has sent out a four-horse relief but has not yet been informed as to the result.”

    The bar inside the Big Horn Hotel – h/t David Manchester

    By early summer, the first shearing season at Wolton was over. About 70 men were employed for five weeks before the portable equipment was taken back to Casper for shipment to Idaho and Montana.

    It was estimated that 6,000 sheep a day were shorn during this first season.

    Wolton was an advanced community despite the isolation.

    “A good water supply for the town was obtained from a spring about a quarter mile away. A tank was built on the high ground, a windmill put up, a pipeline laid to the tank and to all the buildings in the place, so that as far as water was concerned, the place had the convivence of a city,” taken from Alfred J. Mokler’s “History of Natrona County.”

    Wolton was a thriving operation.

    Shoshoni rising from the desert 1906 – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    King turned his interests westward to Fremont County as the railroad reached Shoshoni in Fremont County.

    Beginning in 1905 and continuing to 1906, King began construction of a landmark building in Shoshoni.

    Known today as the former home of the Yellowstone Drug, the two-story stone building began as the C.H. King Company and First National Bank Building.

    C.H. King’s 1906 Bank that became the Golden Rule and then the Yellowstone Drug Store – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    In anticipation of the opening of what would become the Riverton Reclamation Project to homesteading in August of 1906, King started a lumber business in the building with adjacent outdoor storage nearby.

    King’s legacy was his grandson, Gerald R. Ford, who became the 38th President of the United States.

    The poet Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” and that came into play for Charles King and the town of Wolton.

    A Chicago Northwestern locomotive pulled into Moneta for water – h/t Pioneer Museum

    The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad purchased the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad in 1903, and incorporated it into its lines.

    King saw unlimited opportunity awaiting his freight company in Fremont County as the opening of a huge homestead allotment on the Wind River Reservation approached in August 1906.

    The March 31, 1905, edition of the Casper Tribune documented his progress. “C. H. King has again been awarded the contract for hauling freight to Fort Washakie for one more year, commencing July 1st. During the past year, Mr. King has had the contract, and all the freight to Ft. Washakie has come via Casper. This has been a material benefit to our town. The other bidders were Rawlins parties, and they came within one cent per hundred pounds of being as low as Mr. King.”

    The Chicago Northwestern Depot in Riverotn 1974 – h/t Pioneer Museum

    Close, but a cent per pound adds up in early 20th-century dollars when you’re shipping hundreds of tons of freight.

    The impending opening of the Wind River Reservation to homesteading caught the eye of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad and prompted them to begin laying track toward the west from Casper.

    The end of the line for the Chicago Northwestern Railroad in Lander – h/t Pioneer Museum

    “Casper Tribune: On Sunday evening, May 7, the first train load of material for the extension of the Northwestern Railroad west from Casper arrived here, consisting of three carloads of steel rails and five carloads of ties. On Monday morning men were put to work unloading the cars, and a few teams were started the grading for the sidetracks that will be used as a supply yard,” Wind River Mountaineer May 19, 1905. “By the first of June it is expected the full number of men will be at work, and by fall trains will be running west at least as far as Wolton, a distance of 60 miles.”

    Building westward required a target, that target was Lander, but without a right of way yet across the reservation, another location was needed.

    The Hemry children playing with piglets and kittens, Wolton 1910 – h/t Wyoming State Archives

    That came in 1905 with a planned community that would become Shoshoni.

    Wind River Mountaineer, May 26, 1905, “A New Town in Fremont County”

    “Quite a little excitement was stirred up in Lander over a report that the Northwestern railway company had made a location of land for the purpose of building a town about three miles east of the junction of Poison Creek and the Wind River. Someone here got a tip and told a friend, who informed a few more until the land office was rushed with applications for filing. What the real facts are we don’t know, but one thing is certain, there is room for a good many towns in the vast stretch of country between here and Casper. Lander has natural advantages, however, that no other city in Wyoming possesses. Come what may, Lander is bound to be the leading city in Wyoming, and a town forty miles from here will not be much of a rival. So, we can wish “Poison City” all the prosperity possible.”

    The Holmberg homestead now in central Riverton – 1912 – h/t Pioneer Museum

    Poison City never caught on, but the name Shoshoni did, and in 1906 it was incorporated.

    The railroad meant an increase in business and promised a bright future for Wolton.

    Just months after a rail depot was built at Wolton, construction of the Big Horn Hotel began. The hotel was built by J.L. Marquis to take advantage of buyers and businessmen arriving at Wolton to buy and sell sheep. The bar was the center of many large real estate and livestock deals.

    The Big Horn Hotel in the 1970s after being moved to Arminto – h/t David Manchester

    The future was bright for King’s investment in Natrona County, and his business in Fremont County looked promising as well.

    King took a homestead in the upper Wind River Valley and established the town of Lenore. His dream was to expand the railroad that reached Lander with a triangular railway connecting Shoshoni, Lander, and Lenore.

    The railroad would have dramatically changed the future of Fremont County, but it never came to pass.

    Shoshoni 1906 waiting for the Chicago Northwestern to reach town – h/t Riverton Museum

    What did happen was another railroad, just a few miles north of the Chicago and Northwestern with a much greater reach to the west arrived.

    Travel has always been a key point of Wyoming’s fickle economy. The arrival of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, which became the Burlington Northern, arrived eight miles north of Wolton, at the new town of Arminto in 1913.

    The Chicago and Northwestern offered travel and shipping east to Omaha and Chicago, the Burlington, and Quincy offered the same, but reached the west coast as well, traveling through the Wind River Canyon north into Montana and then westward.

    A Chicago Northwestern diesel electric locomotive in Lander 1974 – h/t Pioneer Museum

    Almost the entire town of Wolton was moved to Arminto, including the Big Horn Hotel. What remained was just a remnant of the previously thriving community.

    The Burlington Northern remains one of the premier railroads in the world, while the tracks of the Chicago and Northwestern were removed from Fremont County in the 1980s and 90s.

    Riverton, 1906, the stage still worked for a few years after the railroad arrived – h/t Pioneer Museum

    Wolton is the classic ghost town story of boom and bust that fills the pages of Wyoming history and of the West as a whole. Most of the time, ghost towns are affiliated with gold, uranium, or other mining operations. Wolton was unique, a mixture of railroads, wagons, and sheep that almost made it.  

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