#Lookback: Riverton’s First Refinery

    Booms and busts are inherent to many sections of the economy, perhaps none more so than the oil and gas industry. While many fear the lows inherent in a bust-time (and rightly so), often individuals can just as easily lose a heap of money during a boom. 

    This was the case with those who invested in Riverton’s first refinery, the construction of which was announced in 1917, during Wyoming’s first big oil boom. Because of the excitement in the industry at large, people were throwing money hand over fist at companies like this refinery, which advertised themselves as embarking on an endeavor in which they could not fail. With the papers reporting daily on firms all around Wyoming striking black gold and making a fortune, reality seemed to back up these claims to readers. However, many unfortunate investors would learn the hard way that, even during a boom, one has to be discerning with one’s investments.

    Although oil was first drilled in Wyoming in the 1880s, it continued to be an underexploited resource due to the area’s lack of infrastructure. The large companies who had the capital to rectify this kept away initially, opting to drill closer to the larger markets in the east. 

    However, by 1912, the first of these oil giants had arrived. The Ohio Oil Company, formerly part of the Rockefeller Standard Oil behemoth, needed to find a way to replace declining production in its Ohio and Illinois fields. Rather than fight its competitors for land in more popular new oil states like Texas, the Ohio decided to file claims in the less crowded fields of Wyoming.

    By 1913, the company was able to find success in Grass Creek. With its vast expanse of capital, the Ohio was able to build infrastructure to allow Wyoming’s remote fields to be produced. And, sensing opportunity, it didn’t hesitate. By 1919, the Ohio was producing at every major oil field in the state and had laid over 400 miles of pipeline.

    With the Ohio’s success, the oil industry in Wyoming began to find another gear. The first refinery had been built in Casper in 1895 and had remained the only refinery in the state for over a decade. However, in the ten years after Grass Creek, at least 12 refineries – including one in Riverton – opened their doors.

    Unfortunately, most of these refineries didn’t last more than a few years. More than a few were overhyped, poorly thought out, or even fraudulent. Indeed, a portion of these new businesses were founded simply to make money off of selling stock; this was even more of a problem in the years following the First World War, as Americans cashing out their Liberty Bonds were marked as targets by schemers.

    The Riverton Refinery debacle of the late 1910s is a good example of how fraudsters could use the excitement and mystery surrounding a booming industry, often propelled by over-excited newsmen and bombastic advertising, to make a buck off of naïve investors. 

    In 1917, it was announced that the Riverton-Wyoming Refining Company had been formed in order to build a refinery one half-mile north of Riverton. Immediately the local paper began promoting the project, saying that this company would be “one of the biggest successes Riverton has ever hoped for,” even before construction of the building had begun. 

    Across the state, the company was advertising its stock in papers as a stock with which one could ignore the age-old advice against putting all one’s eggs in one basket. According to the ads, this was because the Riverton-Wyoming Refining Company didn’t just represent a refining business, but a pipeline and production business as well. At the same time, The Riverton Review was urging its readers to support the company in articles with titles such as “Riverton-Wyoming Refining Co. Deserves Co-operation of People,” assuring Rivertonians – and anyone else who would listen – that those who had a negative opinion of the project did so for “petty… personal” reasons. 

    However, negative opinions of the company were soon proven to be anything but petty. In 1918, it was revealed by a Denver government investigation that the promoters of the Riverton-Wyoming Refining Company had been organizing a stock selling scheme, where they had sold $600,000 of stock on a company whose capital stock was only $50,000 and “whose only hope of success is obtaining oil in a practically undeveloped district.” These fraudsters were let go by the company and one was later convicted in a different scheme. 

    Meanwhile, Riverton-Wyoming Refining continued on under new management and the paper, despite having promoted a scheme before, continued to endorse the project with a similar vigor, characterizing the scam as a “tangle in (the company’s) administrative affairs.” Riverton citizens should “show appreciation” at the progress the project had made, said the paper in late 1918. 

    It wasn’t until mid-1919 that the Riverton Refinery began operating, months behind schedule. In 1920, The Riverton Review declared that the plant was becoming a “leader in oil,” processing 1,500 barrels of crude a day from the Dallas Dome, Hudson (Lander), and Pilot Butte fields. In 1921, it was foreclosed upon.

    Perhaps one can’t blame The Riverton Review for its wishful thinking that the Riverton Refinery would be a success. Oil companies, when successful, could change the life of a small town, bringing with them infrastructure, such as paved roads, pipelines, and railroads; business for local enterprises; and many new, interesting people. Sometimes, the arrival of a sufficiently sized company could result in the construction of whole blocks of new houses, or even the establishment of new towns. 

    Still, the hope that the paper drummed up in the Riverton-Wyoming Refining Company likely caused more than a few Rivertonians to lose a decent sum of money, and today no trace remains of the doomed refinery.

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    July 1, 11am at the Riverton Museum, “Fun with Retro Computers” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    July 5, 7pm at the Dubois Museum, “Music at the Museum with Packin’ the Mail” 

    July 5, 7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Indian Dances & Native American Culture”

    July 6, 7pm at the Dubois Museum, “The Snake River Plain-Yellowstone Volcanic Province” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    July 12, 7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Indian Dances & Native American Culture”

    December 2022-October 2023 at the Pioneer Museum, “Wind River Memories: Artists of the Lander Valley and Beyond” art exhibition

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum.  The WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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