Nitro, murder, mayhem and floods – Bonneville

    Explosions, flash floods, murders, and teenage antics highlight the rise and fall of the little rail terminal town of Bonneville. Much of the original construction has been swept away by floods, and the town is now a loading facility for BTI.

    The last passenger run from Bonneville Station took fifth and sixth graders from Lander to Denver for a field trip. The April 14, 1996, edition of the Fremont County Vocational High School Trail Blazer described the bus ride from Lander to Bonneville, where they boarded the Burlington Northern passenger train to the Mile High City.

    A 1930s BN steam engine – h/t

    The fanciful journey for a group of 11 and 12-year-old students was the last gasp of a Wyoming community that was the center of transportation from coast to coast for half a century.

    Bonneville, named in honor of early Western explorer, Captain Benjamin Bonneville, was the center of a railroad expansion that dominated the transportation technologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    In 1902, James Hill, a prospective railroad tycoon who dreamed of becoming a Robber Baron started to plan a rail line that would connect Seattle with New Orleans. There were already established routes surrounding both those metropolitan areas but connecting them via the rugged Owl Creek Mountains through the Wind River Canyon was a daunting challenge.

    The final piece of Hill’s dream was the approximately 325-mile run from Deaver to Orin Junction, Wyoming.

    First CB&Q train through the Wind River Canyon 1914 – h/t BN Railroad

    On October 3, 1905, crews began laying tracks south from Deaver toward the Wind River Canyon. They reached the tiny town of Kirby on September 3, 1907, and work stopped until 1909.

    Kirby was an important shipping station for coal being mined five miles to the west at Gebo. The booming mining town began shipping coal to the Northwest at Kirby, delivering the high BTU, low sulfur coal to the main line via a trunk line from the mine.

    The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad had big plans and advertised along the east coast and in dozens of European countries luring immigrants to settle along its tracks.

    It worked. Between 1906 and 1913, an estimated 8,000 families moved into the Big Horn Basin from Thermopolis north to the Montana line.

    In 1908, Hill purchased a pair of railroads, the Colorado and Southern, and the Fort Worth and Denver. With these two railroads in hand, he could run trains from the Gulf Coast to Cheyenne. It was just over 100 miles more to the north at Orin Junction, where he planned to continue the route on to Seattle.

    It wasn’t as easy as it looked on paper. The granite of the Wind River Canyon stood in the way of his dream. It took four long years of blasting, digging, and grading to get the railroad from Kirby, south through the Wind River Canyon to Bonneville.

    On October 20, 1913, the line from Kirby to Casper was complete, it was just another 60 miles over relatively flat country to Orin Junction.

    The Chicago Burlington and Quincy connected with the Colorado and Southern at Orin Junction in 1914.

    George Sinks marketing Bonneville in the Wind River Mountaineer December 26, 1913 – h/t Wind River Mountaineer

    A rival to the transcontinental prowess of the Union Pacific began operations later that year. The three stations that marked the 325-mile central connection that completed the northern transcontinental route were at Orin Junction in the East, Greybull in the Northwest, and Bonneville in the center.

    The completion of what would become the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1914, spelled the end of a rival line to the south, the Chicago Northwestern.

    Railroads were big business in the 19th and early 20th centuries, perhaps the biggest businesses in all of America.

    Speculators, like J.B. Okie, at Lysite, Lost Cabin, Moneta, and Arminto augmented massive sheep and cattle empires with stations on the newly constructed railroads.

    When the CB&Q decided not to go through Lost Cabin, but rather a few miles away in Lysite, Oakie pulled up stakes, and bought Lysite, moving his store, and many other businesses to be on the rail line.

    The December 3, 1909, edition of the Wyoming State Journal, published in Lander, related the plans to build the new town of Bonneville on the sagebrush plains less than three miles north of the Chicago Northwestern rolling through Shoshoni.

    Wyoming State Journal – December 3, 1909

    Burlington to Build New Town of Bonneville  – “The name of the new town on the Burlington two and one-half miles northeast of Shoshoni will be Bonneville, in honor of Capt. Bonneville was a noted officer of the early days of Wyoming.

    A large tract of land will be laid out at that point for a townsite, which will be made a freight and passenger division point.

    Greybull will be a freight and passenger division point, Bonneville the second one going south, Casper a freight division point, and Orin Junction the third general direction place on the new route, which will pass about two miles south of Lost Cabin.

    All the land along Badwater has been titled under the Desert Act, and surveys are being made for reservoir sites to impound the spring floods for irrigation purposes. It is expected that next spring will witness a wonderful development in the vicinity of Bonneville.

    The MacArthur Brothers have been awarded the contract for the building of the 20 miles of railroad from the mouth of Badwater to Powder River and they expect to have it completed by September 1, 1910.”

    Bonneville arrived in 1914, with the first trains on the CB&Q.

    To say it was a railroad town was an understatement. Rail cars, switches, and crew transfers were big business in the little town. The route was simply superior to that offered by the rival Chicago Northwestern. In sections across the center of Wyoming, the two lines came within two miles of each other, but unless you were traveling to Chicago, the CB&Q always won out.

    The Bonneville Station viewed from the tracks around 1955 – h/t Pioneer Museum

    The Chicago Northwestern had stations in Moneta, Shoshoni, Riverton, Arapahoe, Hudson, and Lander, but the single CB&Q station at Bonneville outdid their combined passenger list easily each year.

    People drove wagons, and by 1920, drove cars and buses from Lander to Bonneville to catch the train. In a bit of an insult to the CN, they’d load at Lander, Hudson, or Riverton, ride the train to Shoshoni, get off, and then take a taxi to Bonneville to catch the BN.

    Bonneville New Town of Great Promise –

    Wind River Mountaineer – October 3, 1913“Bonneville! A new town has arisen in Fremont County where but a few months ago before the advent of the Burlington railroad a dreary waste greeted the vision. But it was a waste on the exterior only beneath the covering of sagebrush and sandy loam lay hidden vast wealth for the explorer and the town builder.

    Bonneville! It is a name synonymous with development, with progress, and with hope and future for those seeking fortunes or establishing a home in a new land.

    Plainly speaking, the new townsite of Bonneville is situated on the Gulf Coast extension of the Burlington railroad.

    What has the town have to offer business and home builders? All the advantages of a new town just the same as made the fortunes of pioneers in the East and Middle West.

    The Burlington is to establish its divisional point in Bonneville. Big shops are to be located there in addition to a forty-stall roundhouse. A fine depot two stories high already has been erected. Extensive yards are planned, and great divisional facilities are outlined. It is conservatively estimated that the Burlington railroad involvement in Bonneville will exceed $325,000. The railroad has confidence in the new town to which it has given birth.”

    Bonneville was a wild town, full of two-fisted railroad workers, stray miners drifting down from Birdseye and Depass, and drifters following the rails hoping to get their big break. Crime was high as well with this lethal combination of personalities.

    Buy a lot in Bonneville Casper Press November 7, 1913 – h/t Casper Press

    The town’s biggest promoter was George Sink. He recruited immigrants, made deals with politicians, and spent ample sums of money in the dozens of Fremont County newspapers trying to get people to settle in Bonneville.

    The problem was, and remains to this day, a steady supply of potable water. There isn’t much available and hasn’t been for millennia, aside from the occasional flash flood.

    After three years of intense speculation, Sinks began to crack.

    The Wyoming State Journal outlined his demise.

    Wyoming State Journal August 15, 1915 – “George W. Sinks of Bonneville was pronounced Insane by a jury in Lander that has been obtained, and the find Evanston. A few days ago, he began to show signs of a breakdown and was taken Into custody. Sinks has been well known In the central part of the state. He had homesteaded a quarter section adjoining the Bonneville townsite and for several years had been selling lots in the tract. He had also promoted gold and oil deals but with indifferent success.”

    The December 12, 1919, edition of the Wyoming State Journal reported 31 cases of whiskey stolen from a siding at Bonneville. The purloined hooch was never recovered.

    From the outset, city councils in Lander, Hudson, and Riverton dreamed of connecting the Chicago Northwester with the CB&Q. The advantages were obvious with increased tread and greater access, but the future Burlington Northern would have none of it.

    Before the CB&Q was even completed, Lander businessmen proposed and marketed the idea of running a line from Bonneville to Lander and then over South Pass to Rock Springs. The line would provide Lander with the best of all three railroads, the Chicago Northwestern, the Union Pacific, and the Burlington Northern.

    Picturesque Bonneville Station circa 1940 – h/t Pioneer Museum

    In an ironic twist, Bonneville Transloaders Inc, (BTI) was established in 1985 to do the same thing, hauling trona from the higher-priced UP to Bonneville to be loaded on the lower-cost BN.

    Dozens of attempts to build trunk lines from Hudson, Arapahoe, and Riverton to Bonneville always failed.

    What also failed was the luck of a driver for the Wyoming Torpedo Company, Nelson Glass, in the spring of 1921. The Wind River Mountaineer had all the grisly details.

    Two Killed in Explosion

    Wind River Mountaineer – May 20, 1921 – “A report Sunday evening from Shoshoni states that Nelson A. Glass of Casper, about 30 years of age, driver for the Independent Torpedo company, and an unknown man were blown to atoms at the village of Bonneville, about three miles north of Shoshoni, narrowly escaped complete destruction at 2 o’clock Sunday afternoon by the explosion of a cargo of nitroglycerin being transported by truck to the storage plant at Thermopolis from the manufacturing, plant at Casper. Glass’s companion in tragedy may remain unidentified as he is believed to have been a stranger who was given a “lift” onto the death car.

    The type of truck that Nelson Glass was carrying nitroglycerin in Bonneville – h/t Newberry Archive

    The light truck bearing the two men and driven by Glass stopped in Bonneville long enough to replenish the gasoline tank at the filling station of P. A. Fright. At a point some 200 yards west of the filling station an equal: distance from the nearest houses, a rough piece of road was encountered, and the explosion occurred. A mammoth column of dirt shot up from the spot where the truck was moving and left a hole 16 feet deep and 20 feet across.

    The men and the truck were literally blown, to bits, a few small pieces of flesh and breakable parts of the car being scattered far and wide. Some of the heavier pieces of the car were thrown a quarter of a mile, and the largest piece of flesh left intact was a hand, which was identified by a plain gold band ring as that of Glass.

    This was hurled 100 yards from the scene of the explosion.

    Practically every one of the more than 75 buildings which comprises the village of Bonneville and house the 150 residents was damaged. In addition to the shower of debris precipitated by the blast, iron parts of the car were hurled through windows, nearly all of which were broken. The door in the building is otherwise damaged.

    The greatest damage, it is reported, occurred to the store of Bancroft & Son, the interior of which was badly wrecked. Shelving was torn down, precipitating groceries onto the floor and the rear end was caved in. The same damage was reported at the P. A. Wright Store on a smaller scale, and other buildings severely damaged include the Bonneville Hotel, the rail

    road eating house and roundhouse, school, and post office. The majority of structures were knocked out of plumb and walls and plastering warped and loosened.

    Shoshoni felt the effects of the blast, several windows being broken here.

    Several Bonneville residents were cut by flying glass and others suffered injuries from shock, none seriously.

    Remnants of 1940s Bonneville – h/t Randy Tucker

    Eyewitnesses stated that flames from the explosion covered fully 100 yards of. the 200-yard distance to the nearest buildings. Structures extended in a circle on every side of the spot where the explosion occurred, and all Bonneville is congratulating itself today that none were nearer. Further loss of life would have occurred. It is believed had the accident happened at any other point within distance of a quarter of a mile on the road out of town.

    No description of the unidentified man who met death with Glass was available here today. It is considered possible that he left Casper on the truck. He was a stranger to those who saw him in Bonneville.

    Glass had been in the employ of the Independent Torpedo company since last November and his duties were largely confined to transporting the explosives used in shooting oil wells over the state. The explosion was the first reported by the Torpedo company in the last year following several tragedies of like nature in the Wyoming oil fields in previous years.

    Glass, it is said, came to Casper about a year ago from Clarksville, Ind., after being mustered out of service, having served overseas in the army. A brother, Albert Glass, left Casper a year ago and is now located elsewhere.

    To say Glass went out with a bang is an understatement.

    The Bonneville Explosion – Wind River Mountaineer May 20, 1921 – h/t Wind River Mountaineer

    Wind River Mountaineer – June 6, 1921 – “The claim adjuster for the Independent Torpedo company of Casper has practically completed his work of making good the damages sustained by Bonneville people as a result of the recent nitroglycerine explosion there

    Adjustments are said to have been quite satisfactory to the people there. The property loss in Bonneville is estimated at $110,000.”

    Wahaba and Third Street – Bonneville – h/t Randy Tucker

    Bad Water Creek crosses the highway south of Bonneville. Along the north bank of this seasonal waterway runs the Burlington Northern. On Sunday, July 22, 1923, a fast-moving series of thunderstorms raced down the Wind River Canyon and then turned east. Walls of water flooded Bonneville, and in the process derailed a locomotive and eight rail cars, burying them in Badwater Creek. A crew extricated the locomotive later, but the railcars remain buried in the wet sand.

    A string of rail cars lies buried here – h/t Randy Tucker

    Powell Tribune – July 26, 1923 – “In this district, it was reported that all bridge approaches had been washed away, but that, in some instances, the bridges themselves remained in one 11-mile stretch between Thermopolis and Bonneville, about half of the track has entirely disappeared. The water in the Bad Water Creek, which caused most of the damage at Bonneville, where the entire community was swept by flood, is going down according to reports received Wednesday. Half of the townsite of Bonneville has been washed away by the high waters.”

    Traveling to the sleepy remains of the former town, now engulfed by approaching sagebrush wouldn’t give any indication of the activity that once dominated the community. Tiny Bonneville had a murder in 1923.

    Bonneville in it’s passenger service heyday – h/t Newberry Archive



    Submarine Seers Gilbert Charged With Murder In The First Degree For Killing

    Wyoming State Journal – November 9, 1923 –“Sheriff Gaylord returned Thursday evening from Casper with Submarine Sears Gilbert, charged with first degree murder as the result of the killing of Robert Mann at Bonneville Monday night.

    Prosecuting Attorney Michels went to Bonneville Tuesday to investigate the crime and to secure evidence to be used in the dial of Gilbert.

    Tuesday’s Casper Tribune gives the following account of the arrest of Gilbert.

    With four bullet wounds In his body inflicted as a result of a quarrel over money, Bob Mann, colored, 50 years of age, and an employee of Sprague and Nisely at Bonneville, was brought to Casper on the Burlington last night. On the same train but In a different part of It rode “Submarine” Sears Gilbert, also colored. and charged by the authorities at Bonneville with the shooting of Mann. Gilbert was arrested at the Burlington station last night by Chief of Police Alexander Nisbet.

    A freight train approaching the Bonneville siding 1968 – h/t Pioneer Museum

    Two other Negroes. Sonny McKnight and Francis Green had made the trip with Gilbert and were arrested by the police along with the suspect.

    They were afterward released but will be called as witnesses when Gilbert has his trial.

    Little is known regarding the nature of the quarrel in which the colored victim was shot. Mann had been put under the influence of narcotics while at Bonneville so that he could handle the journey to Casper.

    He claims that he was shot while on duty as a night watchman and that the act had been committed In cold blood.

    Other parts of his incoherent testimony, however, point to the theory that he had owed Gilbert some money and that the alleged assailant had gone to collect. When the debtor

    failed to satisfy the demands of his creditor an argument arose which quickly found utterance in the barking of a six-shooter.”

    From 1923 to 1966, Bonneville was the train station for much of Fremont County. Soldiers headed off to war, boarded at Bonneville. College students heading south to Denver did the same. The Chicago Northwestern held onto freight and livestock shipping but couldn’t compete with the ease of passenger travel on the Burlington Northern.

    Several stores were built, and a first-class hotel with bar, and dining facilities.

    As the 20th century advanced, Bonneville began to fall into disrepair.

    The school was closed, and the students went to nearby Shoshoni. The old schoolhouse went up for bid, and it became the Bonneville Bar.

    The Bonneville Bar 1974 – h/t Pioneer Museum

    A story about the bar emerged from high school boys in the early 1960s. The bar had a storage shed behind it that was often unlocked, it held beer in keys, bottles, and cans. One night four Shoshoni High School seniors decided to make a run to Bonneville and help themselves to a little free beer.

    The names aren’t written here since they’re all still around Fremont County, but during their approach to pilfer a little Pilsner, the lady owning the bar heard them.

    She fired a shotgun into the air and three of the four scrambled to their car. They sped back to Shoshoni without their friend.

    The last days of the Bonneville Bar – h/t Pioneer Museum

    Fearing the worst, they found him waiting for them at the school. The missing senior is still regarded by many as the greatest athlete to ever graduate from Shoshoni and he had outrun the car across the two-and-a-half miles back to the school.

    Bonneville, a place of legend long after the naming of the intrepid Captain.

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