In 1882, John Loucks purchased the claim to the territory that would become Sheridan and the lone building on that land — a post office operating out of a tiny cabin on Goose Creek — for $50, which amounts to roughly $1,200 by today’s standards.
While the cabin’s owner saw an opportunity to move on, Loucks saw a chance to build a home.
Sheridan’s development has historically relied on its stakeholders’ abilities to, like Loucks, create their own opportunities.
Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library’s Kim Ostermyer, who manages The Wyoming Room, said Sheridan’s evolution has always necessitated a mix of hard work and creativity.
“I think Sheridan has always had to be adaptive, and I think for the most part it’s done pretty well,” Ostermyer said.
Phil Roberts, a University of Wyoming Professor of History Emeritus who specializes in the history of Wyoming and the American West, said Sheridan County’s proximity to trails leading to gold fields in Montana made it a natural gathering center for livestock ranchers.
Sheridan’s location also played a big role in attracting the Burlington Railroad — it fell along the most direct route Burlington could use to extend its existing tracks into an intercontinental line — but some well-connected citizens helped seal the deal.
Originally, Burlington planned to build the railroad through Big Horn. But Edward Gillette, who was the surveyor for Burlington Railroad, was courting Sheridan Mayor Henry Coffeen’s daughter, Hallie, at the time. Through that relationship he was able to persuade — or at least strike a back-room deal with — Gillette to reroute the railroad through Sheridan.
That victory helped establish Sheridan as a regional center, an advantage the city built on through the rest of its history.
“That’s why Big Horn never grew like Sheridan has,” Ostermyer said. “The railroad became the central marketplace.”
The Sheridan railroad stop boosted several of the city’s industries and helped accelerate its expansion. Cattle ranchers in Sheridan were able to use the railroad to expand their businesses by allowing them to transport their cattle to out-of-state stockyards. And the railroad transported building materials into the city that spurred the construction of some of the buildings that now make up Sheridan’s downtown, Ostermyer said.
Railroad maintenance also created new demands, which led to the emergence of new industries in Sheridan. Lumber businesses popped up to supply Burlington with railroad ties and, most significantly, privately-owned coal mining towns began emerging in Sheridan County to provide fuel for Burlington’s steam-powered locomotives.
Those mining settlements brought an influx of immigrants to Sheridan, Roberts said, many of whom arrived from Europe.
Those immigrants provided mines with an industrious workforce that cost less than American labor, according to Ostermyer.
“A lot of those people came from places in Europe that were known for hardworking people,” Ostermyer said. “And there was actually a lot of advertising done in Western Europe to get people to come here to work in the mines.”
Immigrants who came to Sheridan also settled into small, tight-knit communities with their compatriots that let them live in their respective languages and cultures.
Sheridan County’s coal settlements didn’t last — the local demand for coal disappeared when railroads transitioned away from steam-powered engines and into diesel engines — but many of the communities that grew from those settlements put down roots.
“There’s a tremendous legacy from those people being here,” Ostermyer said. “Every year there’s what’s called the ‘Underground Miners Picnic,’ where descendants from these miners still meet every summer.”
The loss of coal dealt a serious blow to Sheridan’s economy, but the city managed to recover, in part because its community stuck around. And its population proved to be a foundation it could build on.
Without a flagship industry, Sheridan’s economy expanded in several directions, spurred on by a broad entrepreneurial spirit.
“There were an awful lot of people who came to Sheridan who were — I don’t know if it’s an accurate term to call them risk-takers — but there were a lot of people who weren’t afraid to try new industries and try new businesses,” Roberts said. “It’s people like that who opted to put a lot of money back into the economy that were really important. And that’s not always the case in a lot of Wyoming towns — a lot of people made their money and hauled it off to somewhere else.”
Ostermyer said Sheridan managed to develop a relatively diverse economy thanks to entrepreneurs who pursued a diverse range of opportunities, often simultaneously.
“These (people who helped build Sheridan) were not single-skill people,” Ostermyer said. “…They wore all these different hats and were able to do all of these different things, they were always trying to figure out how to make money here.”
He cited former-Sheridanite Horace Alger as an example. Alger worked as a banker, purchased real-estate and engaged in local politics, eventually serving as Sheridan’s mayor.
He also pointed to businessman and politician Cornelius Grinnell, who worked on the board of directors of the town’s first bank, founded local fuel and stone companies and purchased several thousand acres of land in what became northeast Sheridan.
Sheridan entrepreneurs’ ventures were diverse enough that they did not always pan out. For example, Ostermyer said somewhere between 500 and 600 mining sites appeared in the Bighorn Mountains hoping to strike gold, but none of them produced significant returns.
When Sheridan entrepreneurs did succeed, though, they often reinvested their profits into the community. Philanthropic endowments by past Sheridan residents, like John B. Kendrick and Edward A. Whitney, have persisted and still contribute to the city’s growth.
Shawn Reese, the chief executive officer of the Wyoming Business Council — the state’s economic development agency — said while economic diversification efforts throughout the state have been hit-or-miss, Sheridan has managed to grow steadily.
“What I see in Sheridan is exciting momentum that is the result of a lot of hard work and partnership in the community,” Reese said. “Throw in a bunch of entrepreneurs, industries that want to work together and grow the economy and grow their businesses, it’s the perfect combination.”
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.
Pick up a complimentary copy of the glossy magazine at The Press office at 144 Grinnell Plaza or explore more features online.