Some dreams don’t come true – Wahaba and Neble – Part I

    The law of unexpected consequences can lead to long-term changes in lives, localities, and even regions, but most often they arrive, upset the status quo, then gradually fade away. The story of the little town of Wahaba near the eastern bank of the Wind River is one of high expectations, extreme speculation, and disappointing results.

    It intertwines with the dreams of another man, flickering to a flame of expansive hope before extinguishing in the merciless fires of progress.

    Asmus Boysen used the auspices of the 1877 Desert Land Act to build a dam across the Wind River. His dam project arrived at a time when Shoshoni was the most energetic town in Wyoming. Thousands of people arrived on the little desert community, seeking a better life in homesteads newly opened on the Wind River Reservation through a purchase of land from the tribes by the federal government.

    The Chicago Northwestern Rail Network in 1910 – h/t C&NW Railroad

    Copper mines and dreams of gold had towns springing up at Depass and Birdseye Pass in pursuit of mineral wealth. A railroad opened in 1906 with the arrival of the Chicago Northwestern and a more successful rival that became the Burlington Northern Railroad rolled north of Shoshoni through Bonneville and the Wind River Canyon soon after.

    The Chicago Northwestern built an iron bridge across the Wind River as the railroad advanced to Lander in 1906. Later, they installed a new bridge which is still in place and known as “Black Bridge” to Fremont County natives. They had a small station a little over three miles northeast of the bridge called Wahaba.

    Today, over a century later, you can see the outlines of streets, buildings, and the Chicago Northwestern work area from high above via Google Earth.

    Wahaba was the rallying point for workers on the railroad as it expanded west to Lander and was used as a service center. Work gangs, largely recent European immigrants comprised most of the Chicago Northwestern crews.

    Gravel, sand, coal, and water were in abundant supply close to Wahaba, all the key ingredients for rail travel in the age of steam.

    The life of a Chicago Northwestern Laborer

    Though the workers were strong young men, they were prone to accidents and susceptible to disease when they crowded together in makeshift shelters.

    The railroad provided a box car as a bunkhouse at Wahaba.

    One morning a crew of Austrians reported their fellow worker, Rhade Frandjie, age 27, dead in the bunkhouse boxcar.

    Wyoming State Journal May 10, 1907

    An investigation and autopsy by Riverton physician Dr. A.B. Tonkin determined the man had been ill when he arrived in Chicago two weeks before. He had been in the United States for just 30 days. He was too ill to work, so his friends took care of him for eight days until he died. His body was transported to Lander on the train for burial at the Oddfellows Cemetery.

    Asmus Boysen and his Dam

    The dam was completed in 1908 and unanticipated consequences came with the first spring runoff. Boysen hadn’t calculated the buildup of silt below his dam. It began with the melting snow from the distant Wind River Mountains.

    Before the concrete dam blocked the river, the red, dirt, and rock-laden water flowed from May to early July grinding out the Wind River Canyon over eons in the process but taking the eroded soil and rocks of the Wind River Range downstream with it.

    The original Boysen Dam – h/t Riverton Museum

    A secondary purpose for Boysen’s Dam was flood control. When the river was wild, flash floods were a danger in the Wind River Canyon and much further upstream. The town of Basin is 90 miles from the original dam site. A newspaper story from the era describes what happened in a flash flood.

    Basin Republican – March 1906 – “For three hours the citizens stood on the banks of the river and watched a scene which beggars description. The river was more than bank full and great cakes of ice were forced out on either side. The great mass, miles in extent, moved majestically down the stream, as a great serpent wending its way with ponderous force.”

    The dam controlled these floods and made a small amount of electricity, but it blocked the sand, gravel, and dirt creating sluggish gray piles of sandbars along the once pristine banks of the river.

    The conservation movement was in its infancy at the turn of the 20th century. President Theodore Roosevelt was resented by mining, lumber, and petroleum corporations’ intent on taking every last dime from public lands while laying waste to the environment. Roosevelt created national forests, grasslands, and monuments, limited hunting of big game and saved public lands for future generations to enjoy.

    His influence didn’t reach the inflow of the Boysen Dam, but exploiting the problems created by the dam did.

    The South Pass Gold Rush of 1868 proved that shiny valuable metal was present in the mountains to the west. The legend of the Lost Cabin gold was fresh in the minds of get-rich-quick characters just added to the dream. Many thought that rapidly rising river silt held untold fortunes.


    Wahaba came to life about 14 miles southwest of Shoshoni, east of the Wind River. The Chicago Northwestern found deep gravel banks in the area, easily accessible and more than ample to resurface the entire line from Casper to Lander.

    The town was platted on June 6, 1911, by N.F. Shipton. It comprised a 40-acre plot surveyed by Woodward Engineering and registered with the Fremont County Clerk in Lander with papers delivered via the evening train.

    Shipton intended to develop the existing Chicago Northwestern station into a livestock shipping center. There was already ample competition further down the line at Arapaho and Hudson and receiving yards already in place at Moneta and Shoshoni to the east.

    The name Wahaba is Danish. Its first mention is from northern Poland in the 12th century and translates as digger, a good place name for a station on the railroad dedicated to supplying gravel for several hundred miles of track.

    June 6, 1911 story on creation of Neble – h/t Laramie Boomerang

    The first decade of the 20th century in Fremont County was a time of great speculation, much of it centered on mining and railroad expansion. Soon after Wahaba was established, the Chicago Northwestern began building additional siding along the tracks extended toward the river. Speculation claimed the ensuing switching yard would be the largest west of the main yard in Chadron, Nebraska. The prediction was this was a staging area for a push over South Pass and further west to California, while others claimed a line would extend to the agricultural area at Pavillion, then under an extensive irrigation project. Despite the repeated claims first published in a February 9, 1909, edition of the Casper Press none of these ever came to reality, the new lines were spurs to the gravel beds and nothing more.

    A Danish name was no coincidence. Asmus Boysen was born in Denmark, and Danish settlers soon began purchasing plots of land in the new townsite and claiming 160-acre homesteads on the virgin sagebrush plains nearby.

    Though the railroad was only four years old after reaching Lander in 1906, a major upgrade was undertaken in the summer of 1910, reported first in Casper.

    Casper Press – June 17, 1910The Wyoming Northwestern line has shipped a large number of workmen to Shoshoni to be used in graveling the road between Casper and Lander. The pits at Wahaba will be reopened and a large steam shovel put to work.

    Asmus Boysen was desperate to find a way to make his dam profitable, which included a couple of farfetched plans to irrigate a large section along the east side of the Wind River with water pumped to an irrigation ditch that he and his partners claimed would “Make the Desert Bloom.”

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

    To that end, he created the Riverside Irrigation District. Boysen enlisted the help of outgoing Wyoming governor Bryant Brooks, US Senator and incoming governor James Carey, and Attorney General James Mullen to get the necessary permits. The project was instituted under the auspices of the 1894 Carey Act, sponsored by James Carey, which allowed private irrigation companies to claim arid western land if they provided irrigation water.

    The original plan had the dam backing up water from near Wahaba to the mouth of the canyon high enough to allow gravity irrigation, but the dam was woefully short of the height needed to do this. A second option was to string power lines from the dam’s generator and pump the water into a ditch and then use gravity flow.

    The Boysen Irrigation Project – Dannebrog

    Neither plan proved successful, though Boysen spent a lot of time talking to newspapers, and even named the future area Dannebrog, the Danish name for the national flag of Denmark.

    Speculators hoped to bring a wave of Danish immigrants to their Dannebrog project – h/t Dannebrog, Nebraska

    Riverton News – November 5, 1910Final arrangements were completed in Cheyenne this week for what will prove the greatest boost Shoshoni and vicinity has ever had. Water rights were issued to the Riverside Irrigation Company for the irrigation of over forty thousand acres of land on the east side of Wind River, immediately around Shoshoni and extending down the river from Wahaba to the mouth of the canyon. An order has also been issued withdrawing all land under the project from entry pending segregation under the Carey Act. Plats of the entire project have already been sent in to complete the segregation.

    The water rights, etc., have been issued to the Riverside Irrigation Company, a corporation recently organized by Mr. Boysen and associates. These same men also own the Boysen Dam and the plan as outlined is to build a transmission line up the river from the dam to a point near Wahaba, a station on the Northwestern west of Shoshoni, and there using the electric power from the dam to lift the water from Wind River a height of thirty or forty feet into a ditch. From this point the water will run into a gravity ditch down around Shoshoni, covering the townsite itself and all the land immediately around town.

    The ditch comes around on the side hill south of town near the brick yard, crossing the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad east of the stock yards, then following the edge of the hills north and crossing Badwater, covering all the Tough Creek flats. All told the area of the land covered will be something over forty thousand acres.

    In their haste to bring in homesteaders, they didn’t calculate the cost of pumping water 40 or more feet above the average level of the Wind River. Another problem came with the town lots Boysen was trying to market, they were in the spring flood plain of the River.

    The land on the east side of the river is now on the Wind River Reservation but in the original 1906 agreement was open to homesteading.

    When the provisions of the irrigation project weren’t met three decades later, the land returned to the tribes.

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