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Park County History: The historic Big Horn Basin continues to prosper

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The Big Horn Basin of present day Park County tells a story dating back long before white settlers ventured across the states. 

In fact, the basin was prime hunting ground for various mountain and plains people of the time, including the Crow, Shoshone, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux and Blackfeet Tribes, among others. 

After the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 designated the area as Crow land, a Crow Reservation was built to the north and a Shoshone Reservation was built to the south. 

In 1869, prior to becoming a territory, Wyoming was split into four counties – Laramie, Albany, Carbon and Carter – with a strip along the western border which would later become Uinta County. 

The Big Horn Basin stayed fairly unpopulated until the late 1870s when ranchers and other settlers started moving in, and as the white population grew, Fremont County was organized in the northern end of Sweetwater County, originally named Carter County after Judge W.A. Carter.

In 1890, the basin became part of Big Horn County, which was officially organized in 1896, and in 1909, Park County was eventually created out of the western half of Big Horn County. 

Historic towns

Today, Park County sprawls across 6,943 square miles, encompassing the historic towns of Meeteetse, Cody, Frannie, Garland, Ralston, Clark and Powell. 

Meeteetse, a Shoshone word meaning “meeting place,” is located in the southern part of the state and is home to the Pitchfork Ranch, one of the oldest cattle and sheep ranches in the basin. At one time, the ranch, which was founded in 1879 by Count Otto Franc von Lichtenstein, covered 250,000 acres. 

Fifty-three miles west of Yellowstone National Park, the town of Cody was founded in 1896 and named after Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who told people he met during his travels it was “a paradise with land suitable for farming and ranching with close proximity to Yellowstone and an abundance of hunting and fishing opportunities.” 

In 1901, the towns of Frannie and Garland were founded. 

Named after the daughter of a cattle rancher in the area, Frannie is the only town in the Big Horn Basin named after a woman and sits on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad line just south of the Montana border.

Garland is also situated along the railroad and was nicknamed “Gate City” because it was CB&Q’s gateway to the Big Horn Basin. The town boomed for five years before the railroad extended its main line to Worland, bypassing the city altogether. 

In 1906, Ralston was also founded as a railroad town and the town of Powell was started as a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Camp, known as Camp Colter, for men working on an irrigation system called the Garland Division of the Shoshone Project.  

Heart Mountain 

Park County is also home to the monumental Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, which was established during World War II between Cody and Powell. The camp was mandated through an executive order issued by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942 and was one of 10 relocation centers in the U.S.

Here, Japanese Americans who were living on the West Coast were ordered to leave their homes, jobs and possessions and relocate to camps, where they were confined to live regardless of their citizenship. 

The camp had its own school, hospital, post office, newspaper and recreation centers, as well as guard towers and barbed wire fence to keep individuals from leaving.

For three years, Heart Mountain was considered its own town, with the population peaking to 10,872, making it the third largest town in Wyoming at the time. 

In 1996, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was established to preserve what remains of the camp and to tell stories of the 14,000 people who were incarcerated at the site. 

The foundation also opened the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in 2011, which is still open to the public today.

Economy and industries

From the beginning, Park County’s economy has centered around oil and gas production, agriculture and tourism. 

Several oil and gas fields still exist today, including the Oregon Basin and Salt Creek, established in 1912; the Big Gas Field, established in 1915 and Elk Basin, established in 1916. 

The county’s abundant water supply and efficient irrigation system has allowed for farming and ranching operations to thrive. Several cattle, sheep and hog operations call Park County home, but the majority of its agriculture production comes from fertile farmland, where sugarbeets, beans and barley are grown, among many other crops. 

In 1926, the Dude Ranchers’ Association was started, and in 1953, Northwest College was founded, opening doors at its current site in Powell three years later. 

Home to 53 percent of Yellowstone National Park, the county is also a popular tourism destination.

The growth of Park County’s top-performing industries and the area’s increasing popularity has helped the community prosper and made it a breathtaking place to live or visit.

Information in this article was compiled from the Wyoming Historical Society and Park County’s official website,

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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