Wyoming’s gateway to the Wild West: Niobrara County holds rich history in cattle industry, railroad, gold and oil
Located in north eastern Wyoming, Niobrara County is the smallest of the state’s 23 counties, but boasts some of the richest history of Wyo- ming’s Wild West.
As gold was discovered in the nearby Black Hills of Dakota and Wyoming territories, a road – passing through what is now Niobrara County – was built to transport gold miners, stagecoach passengers and goods between Cheyenne and Deadwood. Today, the only stagecoach station which remains standing on the route lies near Hat Creek, roughly 30 miles north of Lusk.
Niobrara County includes the towns of Lusk, Manville and Van Tassell, as well as the census-designated residence to the west of Lance Creek. Booming from settlements of miners and homesteaders, the population of the county was 6,321 in 1920. The 2020 census stated the population declined to 2,467.
Originally, Niobrara County made up the eastern part of Converse County. In 1910, residents in the eastern section, which included Lusk, began advocating for a new county to be formed, while those in Manville opposed. Early 1911 brought petitions for and against the creation of Niobrara County. Named after the Native American name of the stream where the first state station was located – Niobrara – the creation of the county was approved by the Wyoming Legisla- ture on Feb. 14, 1911, though it wasn’t official until the November 1912 General Election.
History of agriculture
The cattle industry in Niobrara County dates back to the late 1870s, when cattle were driven north from Texas. One tale, as told by OW Ranch Foreman Addison Spaugh, described the 1884 spring roundup on Lance Creek where over 400,000 cattle were rounded up over a six-week time period with more than 20 different outfits, represented by 200 men with 2,000 horses involved.
Western beef was a major industry at the time, and the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad began taking advantage of increasing cattle numbers in the Wyoming Territory to ship cattle east. The Wyoming Central Railway Co., a tributary rail from Lusk to Manville, brought with it a water tank, stock yards and loading chutes.
Dry farming began around the early 1900s in the area. At the time, home- steaders raised drought-resis- tant crops such as wheat, oats, potatoes and small fruits.
A 1916 state auditor’s report estimated cattle numbers at 30,000 head, sheep at 51,452 head and horses at 8,803 head – a combined total of nearly $2 million worth at the time.
Additionally, the oilfields in Niobrara County became active in between 1910 and 1920. As oil boomed in the 1920s, the post-World War I era devasted ranchers in the area with falling crop and livestock prices. It is noted this pushed Wyoming agri- culture into a depression state nearly 10 years before the stock market crashed in 1929.
Though during Prohibition, some small ranchers started making moonshine whiskey. Many stories about the time point to Niobrara County as the home of some of “Wyoming’s finest moonshine.”
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Niobrara County holds more than 1.2 million acres in agricultural land. Of this land, four percent is designated as crop- land, 94 percent is pastureland and one percent is woodland.
Hay and haylage make up more than 24,000 acres, wheat accounts for 2,796 acres and oats for grain totals 641 acres.
The current livestock industry places cattle produc- tion at the top of the list with 59,317 head, followed by the sheep industry with 3,895 sheep and lambs, horses and ponies at 932, laying hens at 404 and meat-type chickens at 37.
The National Agriculture Statistics Survey’s 2017 cen- sus notes 94 percent of agri- cultural operations are family- owned and operated.
Today, more than 250 farms and ranches operate on the rolling plains of Niobrara County, which give way to Black Hills to the north and Sandhills to the east.
Information in this article was sourced from wyohistory. org, townoflusk.org and nass. usda.gov.
Averi Hales is the edi- tor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr. net.