Industrial adaptation has proven a key to long-term economic survival. In Sheridan County, the tradition goes back to the first generation of pioneers.
Sheridan County was a natural pathway for what would become the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. The line construction reached Sheridan County in 1892 and sparked an industry the area was prime to accommodate: timber ties to lay the tracks.
One year after the arrival of the railroad, two men from Omaha contracted to provide 1.6 million ties for tracks to be laid north into Montana.
To transport the ties from the Bighorn Mountains to the intended path of the railway, a flume was constructed along the Tongue River. The V-shaped trough with running water used to transport the ties originally started at Sheep Creek. Loggers continually needed to move up the mountain and establish more camps to maintain an adequate supply of large timber.
Sheridan County Historical Society and Museum Executive Director Mikayla Larrow explained the collective impact the railroad and timber industry had on the local market.
“When the railroad arrived in Sheridan and the tie flume industry got going, the businesses here paid off $30,000 in debt. That’s the modern-day equivalent of $840,000 in monetary debt,” she said. “It was an economic boom for sure.”
In the late summer of 1909, as many as 400 men worked for the thriving Big Horn Timber Company. The dangerous work was periodically interrupted by fires. One such fire destroyed most of a sawmill at Woodrock. Company officials had decided to use that transitional time to move the location of their sawmill to a location 3 miles down the mountain.
Loggers began moving salvageable parts of the mill to the new location, but the boiler had been too badly damaged, which necessitated bringing a new boiler up the mountain. Before starting the trip, the boiler was weighed on an industrial scale but was too heavy to register a weight. Therefore, it was more than 20,000 pounds, according to the museum exhibit, “Twenty years of Timbermen: The story of the Tongue River Tie Flume.”
While navigating the narrow mountain road with the new boiler on a wagon pulled by a 40-horse jerkline, the wagon often sank in mud. On one treacherous turn, the boiler fell off the wagon. Unable to reset the heavy boiler onto the wagon, the load was ultimately lifted up using jacks, and a sleigh was then built underneath to complete the journey.
The remaining traveling was slow. Workers had to shovel snow onto exposed mud to allow the sleigh to pass. The approximately 3-mile trip ultimately took a few days with 50 horses and 100 men.
At the same time, BHTC had entered an agreement with Sheridan County to help pay for a road up the mountain near where Highway 14 exists today. The total cost of the road was to be $16,000. Of that, the timber company would pay half, the county would pay $2,000 and the Dayton Booster Club would raise the other $6,000. However, it became apparent the new road would be narrow, sometimes have a grade as much as 15% and include one passage with 23 switchbacks.
After realizing the road was likely not suited for much of the industrial traffic necessary for the business and likely still reeling from the harrowing trip up the mountain with the boiler, BHTC defected on $3,000 of the payment for the new road. Sheridan County took the company to court and won on all counts. The county then put a lien on the new Sucker Creek Mill and quickly found a new operator in May 1913.
In September of that same year, another fire in Ranchester engulfed another mill. Those damages were covered by insurance, but the mill was never rebuilt to what it was, as tie orders from the railroad were starting to dry up.
Given the losses at the mill and a canceled order for 600,000 ties, the logging business in Sheridan County came to an end. There is still a pile of logs on the mountain from the winter of 1912 and 1913 to stand as testament to the anticipation of more business but the ultimate transition out of the tie industry.
In the end, the Bighorn Mountains provided approximately 2 million ties to the railroad via the 20-year Tongue River Tie Flume industry.
Though the timbermen cleared out of the mountains in Sheridan County, their legacy lives on in a few remaining fragments of the flume, rusty piles of sled runners and can dumps from long-gone cookhouses and blacksmith shops.
The railroad itself is still a pillar of the local economy, though these days, railroad infrastructure exists for coal.
BNSF Railway Public Affairs Director Mia LaSalle said last year, BNSF delivered 188 million tons of coal from the Powder River Basin to coal plants in 26 states. Peak employment in Sheridan County was in 2014, when the railroad employed 226 people locally.
However, demand for coal is on the decline, and thus, railroad traffic has decreased over the years.
LaSalle said last year, BNSF averaged 38.2 coal trains per day through Sheridan County. So far this year, the line averages 30 trains per day and employs 160.
“Industries go up and down, and they come and go,” said Jodi Hartley, Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce director of marketing and communications. “For any community, it’s important to have a diverse economy.”
Keeping Sheridan’s economy diverse has been a focal point of community leaders. Local resources geared toward recruiting and sustaining businesses include the Wyoming Technology Business Center Incubator, the WTBC Sheridan Start-Up Challenge, high-tech business parks and the Next Generation Manufacturing Partnership. Hartley said these programs exist to foster entrepreneurship, and so far, it’s working.
“Especially compared to other Wyoming communities, Sheridan is doing a fantastic job as far as diversity,” Hartley said. “We do a better job at weathering the booms and busts than some other communities.”
With the changing times, the people of Sheridan County have shown a willingness to roll up their sleeves and do what is needed to carry the community into the future. The tools and faces change with each generation, but the pioneer spirit is alive and well in Sheridan County industry.
By Tracee Davis
The Sheridan Press
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the fall/winter 2019 edition of Destination Sheridan, the official lifestyle and tourism magazine of Sheridan County, created by The Sheridan Press.
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