From the Kitchen Table: The Barnum Road
The Barnum Road is a spur traveling west of Kaycee for about 25 miles. It follows the meandering Middle Fork of the Powder River, then turns north behind the Red Wall. It’s a scenic and historical route.
The Barnum Road is State Highway 190 for 10 miles, then turns to Johnson County Road 78 for another six miles. At the Red Wall, the pavement ends, and it becomes a well-graveled road for 10 miles, ending at the Graves’ Ranch.
I live on the Barnum Road.
Dinosaurs roamed the area, and their bones are found in the Cretaceous layers which can be seen in the pinkish formation along the way. In more modern times, buffalo kept the area scoured of vegetation along the river.
Game trails and Indian trails crisscrossed the region.
In 1810, the Astorians passed through on their way to the West Coast to establish a fur trapping chain. In 1859, Jim Bridger came through as an Indian scout.
In November 1876, Col. MacKenzie came up with troops to destroy the Dull Knife Village of Cheyenne Indians on the valley below Fraker Mountain at the end of the Barnum Road.
The Barnum name came from Guy Barnum who homesteaded behind the Red Wall in the 1890s. In 1897, a post office was established at the Barnum house.
Barnum became a very active community, most famously for being involved with the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.
The Red Wall portion of Barnum Road wasn’t reached by the current-day blacktop heading west out of Kaycee. Instead, it was traveled to from the south at Arminto and the 33 Mile Trail out of Casper.
In those days, the stage line ran along the base of the southern Big Horn Mountains.
The Barnum Road out of Kaycee was most likely paved in the early 1950s for 10 miles. My mother-in-law writes about going to town before then and how it could be a seven-hour trip on a muddy two-track road.
My history with Barnum Road is more modern.
I moved here in 1983, and the mail was delivered three days a week – it still is. The Barnum school, which had kept the community alive and well, had closed 15 years earlier, and the kids bussed to town in Kaycee.
The Barnum Town Hall is still active with Christmas parties, New Year’s dances and weddings.
In the late 1940s, there was talk of damming up the Middle Fork. Farmers east of Kaycee at Sussex were interested in the water for their crops and flood protection. The dam site was two miles up from the Harlan Ranch.
In the early 1950s, my father-in-law Jim traveled to Wisconsin and brought back milk cows to sell milk to the dam workers. A town was plotted out on a bench above the ranch house. My mother-in-law Jo fed and housed the surveyors in her upstairs bedrooms.
The project to build a dam has heated up several times over the years, as recently as 2005.
I went to visit the main proponent for the dam, Don Meike of Sussex, this January – a month before he passed away. He still had a fire in his eye about the dam, and I’m sure if he’d lived 50 more years, he would fight for it to be built.
It will probably never be permitted in this day and age.
I bring up the dam because it’s been rumored the reason the county road wasn’t repaired very often was because the dam was always going to be built, and this particular section of the road would be underwater.
There have been three bridges replaced on the road in my short time as a “Barnumite.” I flagged cars for one of them. I can remember the year because I was pregnant with my daughter. It was winter, and I sat in a car most of the time since the road wasn’t very busy.
When I first moved to Barnum, I could call the grocery store in town by 9 a.m. on mail days, and they would box up my order. The mail lady would pick it up and leave it at my mailbox. Nowadays, it’s nothing to slip into town for milk, a six-pack of beer or a hamburger.
Come take a drive up the Barnum Road sometime. The Barnum Valley is on the fly zone for big planes out of the Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., and one may be “bombed” by a low flying B-1 bomber.
While here, a person will see great expanses of hay meadows, fringed by giant old cottonwood trees. The pine ridge rises above the river, and soon a hint of red will be seen to the north.
Individuals can come through the rocky adobe hills to the Red Wall, drive through a hole in the wall, then turn north up the pretty valley with it’s green meadows and towering red ramparts of the Chugwater formation – the rock is red because of rusted iron minerals.
We are fortunate to live in a state with many striking highways and byways, and the Barnum Road is one of them.
I compiled this information from an article in “Our Powder River Heritage,” published in 1982.