None of Laramie’s earliest residents actually owned the land they built their homes and businesses upon inside the city limits. So, who did?
The reason had to do with the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act that gave the Union Pacific Railroad alternating sections of land 10 miles either side of the path of the railroad as it was constructed toward the western United States. As early as 1864 UPRR railroad survey crews were scouting potential rail lines on the Laramie Plains.
But before the railroad reached the Laramie Plains, in the summer of 1866, the U.S. military ordered the construction of Fort Buford about 3 miles south of where the center of Laramie now stands. Soon the name was changed to Fort Sanders (as there was already a Fort Buford in what is now North Dakota) and the location was soon occupied by the U.S. Army.
After the fort was established, it was unclear exactly what size the surrounding military reservation was to be. A University of Wyoming master’s thesis written by Ray Revere in 1960 noted there were statements by Army officials that the reservation was anywhere from 2 miles square (4 square miles) to 9 miles square (81 square miles). This caused some minor problems with settlers who occupied lands near the actual fort, but they were swiftly dealt with by the Army.
The final UPRR survey of the line across the Laramie Plains was laid out in the summer of 1867, thus setting the boundaries of the 20 miles of alternating sections the rail lines bisected. Grenville Dodge platted the site of Laramie City, Dakota Territory in June 1867 on one of those sections.
Even the platting of the city did not portend any friction between the soon to be arriving citizens and the Army because (as noted by Revere) at the time the military reservation was officially 6 miles square (36 square miles) and its northern border was just south of the UPRR’s section of land on which Laramie City was laid out.
However, huge problems for the people who bought town lots from the UPRR beginning in April 1868 were created by the Army when on 28 June 1869 the military reservation was officially increased in size to 9 miles square (why this was done by the War Department is unclear). The lots purchased by the town’s residents now lay on the proclaimed military reservation.
In his autobiography, Grenville Dodge, who selected the site for Laramie City, says he received communication from UPRR surveyor, James Evans, on March 3, 1868, that sale of lots in Laramie could not begin until permission was granted by the War Department. If Dodge's recollection of the date is correct, it implies that the UPRR either got permission from the War Department before sale of lots began on April 20, 1868, or the War Department realized the platted lots were outside of the military reservation. In either case, the June 1869 move to increase the size of the reservation is perplexing.
This unsttled question caused the ownership of the lots to be in doubt. For example, the lot where the Laramie Plains Museum is located was purchased by Edward Ivinson 23 November 1870 and transferred to him by the UPRR. But because the Army claimed ownership the title was not cleared.
Laramie residents apparently caused enough commotion over the problem that as early as 1871 a bill was introduced in the US House of Representatives to reduce the size of the military reservation. The bill languished in Congress for another three years.
After much additional complaining by the residents, the US government finally rectified the situation on 9 June 1874 when the reservation was reduced in size to approximately 5 by 6 miles, placing Laramie City outside of the reservation.
Titles were cleared up over several years, much to the relief of the lot “owners”, especially those who had already constructed buildings on the lots they hoped to gain title to, including all of downtown Laramie at the time. Ivinson’s block was transferred from the Army to the UPRR in January 1875. But it was still another two years before Ivinson finally got clear title to his land (all of block 178 of the original town of Laramie).
By Kim Viner
Caption: 1871 map of Ft. Sanders, Wyoming Territory. Remains of two buildings survive, one the “guard house” or prison that is on the west side of Highway 287 going north into Laramie, and the other, a storehouse for ammunition, that is on the east side of the highway, just south of the Cavalryman Restaurant. Map from US Department of Interior, from historic Government Land Office maps.