#Lookback: Outlaws and Roughnecks on Rock River

    It’s an unexpected sight to discover classic ionic Greek columns on a building in the middle of the vast, windswept grasslands of Albany County, Wyoming. Beyond the contrast of those marble columns, the First National Bank of Rock River remains an enigma in many ways.

    Rock River city limits – h/t Randy Tucker

    The tiny town, population 250, experienced its only boom more than a century ago when oil was discovered west of the town. From 1913 to 1923, the oil boom took over rural Albany County.

    Roughnecks on a rig in 1917 – h/t

    Laramie, the largest town in the county, and one of the principal towns on the Union Pacific railroad dominated the local economy, but oil has always taken a front row in 20th century America, and the tiny hamlet boomed with the increased petroleum demand during World War I.

    Local businessmen witnessed the boom and as usual, didn’t prepare for the inevitable bust. They met and built a bank worthy of any eastern city on the north side of the town. Construction began in 1919, and the bank was opened the following February.

    Rock River First National Bank – h/t Randy Tucker

    Rock River wasn’t an oilfield town originally. It was created in 1869 when the Union Pacific Railroad moved west at a feverish pace to connect with the Central Pacific heading east from California with the same breakneck intensity.

    Pine Bluffs was the first town on the tracks, followed by Cheyenne and Laramie. Cheyenne was a switching yard nicknamed the “Chicago of the West” by promoters. Laramie, the “Gem City of the Plains” was a coaling station. Coal was hauled south from mines near Hartville in modern Platte County, but in territorial Wyoming, Laramie County stretched from the Colorado border on the south to Montana on the north with Nebraska and the Dakota Territory providing an eastern boundary.

    Rpcl River circa 1895 – h/t Wyoming Rails and Trails

    Watering stations were needed at roughly 20-mile intervals across the plains. Bosler, and then Rock River met the conditions for water stations. The bubbling trout haven of Rock River provided all the water Union Pacific locomotives could use before they moved west towards Rawlins through Medicine Bow, Hanna, and Walcott Junction.

    Old Stagecoach from the Patrick Brothers Stageline, July 4, 1911. h/t Leslie C. John

    Though it was intended solely as a watering stop, Rock River quickly adapted to the local ranching life. The wide open, high altitude grasslands surrounding Rock River stretched west to McFadden and Arlington with mountains blocking the east. The towns of Medicine Bow and Bosler were ranching communities as well. The tiny town later became the site of the first International Harvester dealership in Wyoming.

    West of Rock River the tracks turned into a narrow canyon, necessitating slowing down the locomotive at the Wilcox station.

    The Wild Bunch in Fort Worth 1900 Left to right Harry Longabaugh (the Sundance Kid) William Carver, Ben Kilpatrick,Harvey Logan, Butch Cassidy.- h/t American Heritage Center

    It was here that Butch Cassidy and his infamous Hole in the Wall Gang first gave Rock River a bit of national notoriety.

    On June 2, 1899, near Wilcox, the gang flagged the train to a halt with a barrier on the tracks at 2:15 a.m.

    Cassidy was notorious for using too much dynamite, and it was the case this night. He blew up the baggage car, carrying a Union Pacific safe and $50,000 in cash with so much force that they heard it a dozen miles away in Rock River. Pieces of the rail car flew more than 150 yards in all directions and currency rained down across the windswept prairie.

    Too much dynamite by Butch Cassidy – h/t American Heritage Center

    The gang escaped on horseback into the night with a haul of jewelry, banknotes, and gold.

    Rock River remained a sleepy hamlet on the Union Pacific line until oil was discovered near McFadden just after the turn of the 20th century.

    A 1915 census declared 195 residents in Rock River, which soon swelled as oil found its way east via the railroad and a few early pipelines.

    Rock River 1917 – h/t Wyoming Rails and Trails

    By 1917, it was clear a bank would be a good investment for the rapidly growing little boomtown.

    Wyoming has always been a boom and bust state. The bank arrived on the cusp of the oil boom created by World War I. But with every boom in Wyoming’s 200-year history of European and American settlement, there came the inevitable bust. It happened to the Mountain Men, the gold miners, and the cattle barons, and it came to the oil fields after the war.

    A booming Rock River 1921 – h/t Leslie C. John

    With the armistice signed, the oil demand began to diminish. Rock River suffered as all the boomtowns across the oil-rich Wyoming countryside did.

    Just before the bank opened, another incident on the Union Pacific brought focus once again on the little town.

    Bill Carlisle was an orphan, raised by the state of Pennsylvania after his mother died when he was only nine months old, and his father, a Civil War veteran, already 60 years old when he was born, passed away.

    Bill Carlisle arrest photo – h/t Albany County Museum

    Carlisle left the York orphanage at 15 and tried to find his fortune in the West. After many marginal years, he robbed a Union Pacific train near Cheyenne in 1916. He netted about $500, which whetted his appetite for using his snub-nosed .32 caliber revolver to get cash quickly and easily.

    He was captured after the third robbery and sentenced to 50 years in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, where he promptly escaped by hiding in a load of laundry.

    On November 19, 1919, he found himself back on the Union Pacific, near the same spot at Wilcox that Butch Cassidy had success with another train robbery 20 years before.

    Carlisle stopped the train and then moved car to car relieving passengers of their valuables. The train had servicemen, soldiers, and sailors returning home from the World War I battlefields in France.

    Carlisle refused to rob the soldiers and sailors, telling them “I would have been there with you had they let me go.”

    Of course, getting out of prison with a sentence for train robbery doesn’t work for military service.

    Carlisle was leaving the train with only $86.40 taken from the passengers when a young man pulled a pistol on him. Carlisle swatted the gun away as the man fired, injuring Carlisle’s hand.

    Bill Carlisle on the steps of the courthouse with Sheriff Ruben Rivera – h/t Albany County Museum

    Two weeks later, Carlisle was shot in the chest at a prospector’s cabin near Douglas, Wyoming, but survived to find himself back in a cell in Rawlins. The Union Pacific made sure he didn’t escape this time after losing $15,000 to the armed bandit over the years in fees to Pinkerton Agents in search of the outlaw.

    In a story of retribution and rehabilitation, Carlisle was released after serving 16 years. He opened a cigar shop in Kemmerer, Wyoming, married a local woman, and moved back to Albany County, where he ran a service station and lunch counter in Laramie until he retired in 1962.

    A Union Pacific freight train pulling out of Rock River – h/t Randy Tucker

    During those years he returned to Rock River many times for business and pleasure.

    In those intervening years, the bank building evolved into many different uses.

    In 1923, the bank took an extra hit when bank vice-president Lewis. C. Butler was convicted of embezzlement. He ended up serving a sentence at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. The bank went into receivership on June 14, 1923.

    It was sold to the new Citizens State Bank in 1927 but folded after Albany County claimed the building for back taxes in 1931. That was the end of the banking era for Rock River.

    Remnants of a garage in Rock River – h/t Randy Tucker

    In 1936 Albany County sold the building to the town of Rock River. The post office was located there until 1950, with a doctor’s office using one of the back rooms from the bank’s inception. Apartments were built inside the building as Rock River enjoyed a second, smaller boom during the oil-hungry years of World War II.

    For most of the time, the bank building was a civic center, used as a polling place, city council room, and recreation hall. One of the rooms was the town library.

    Safe inside First National Bank of Rock River – h/t Old House Dreams

    After World War II ended, the apartments were converted to jail cells for the town. It was the site of a museum for a few years.

    The building closed to the public in 1985, though various individuals continued to use it. It remains in remarkably good condition, a testament to the quality of construction taking place more than a century ago. The vault still works and the interior with long lines of windows is well-lit and inviting.

    The vault inside First National Bank of Rock River – h/t Old House Dreams

    It is currently for sale, the most prominent building remaining in the isolated Wyoming town.

    Booms, one in the middle of the night by a world-famous outlaw using too much dynamite at the end of the 19th century, and two more created by actions half a world away brought a brief spotlight to the sleepy little town. The demand for oil brought on by two world wars, and a disgruntled orphan with a handgun brought notoriety to the small town that time forgot. But Rock River had its day in the sun.

    You can still see the bank if you take US Highway 30/287 Northwest from Laramie. The route is sometimes heavily used since Interstate 80 is often closed by winter weather while the old route following the Union Pacific tracks remains open almost the entire year.

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