Cinders, smoke and smells—the price of living in early Laramie

There’s no doubt about it—Laramie got started in the wrong place.

Most other Wyoming towns were laid out by the Union Pacific Rail Road (UPRR) with the main part of town on either the north, south or west side of the railroad tracks. Never on the east side as in Laramie.

That meant the smoke and cinders of the steam locomotives would ride the prevailing westerly winds directly over town. Surely the early surveyors noticed that the winds mostly came from that direction but they platted “original town” lots on the east anyway.

The Laramie River flows north out of Laramie. The surveyors put the tracks too close to the river to allow much space for a town to develop on the west side. A small business district did start there but “downtown” Laramie has always been on the east side.

Laramie and Rock River are unique along the UPRR line in that the tracks go mostly north/south through town, rather than east/west as with Cheyenne, Medicine Bow, Rawlins, and other settlements along the route in Wyoming.

The westerly winds brought smoke and cinders over Laramie. Connie and Dave Tyndall once lived in a house on 10th St. that had been moved from close to the tracks downtown. “You needed a shovel,” Connie recalls, “to get out all the cinders that had settled in the attic.”

Those cinders were created by the practice of forcing sand into the smokestack of steam locomotives to scour out the sludge that would accumulate in the smokestack as the coal was burned. It did improve engine efficiency but as long as steam engines persisted, it didn’t pay to get too close to the smokestack if the wind was blowing in your direction.

The late Carol Ludwig Loyer recalled that as a youngster her job was to deliver prints to all the drugstores in town from her family’s photography business. “I’d shut my eyes and feel my way along the store fronts,” she said, “in order to avoid getting cinders in my eyes” as she went down 2nd St. from one store to another.

There was always an optometrist or two doing business in downtown Laramie. Providing glasses was part of their service, but they also specialized in removing cinders from the eyes of pedestrians venturing out on windy days.

But passing steam engines were not the only source of pollution.

The UPRR shops that were a vital part of Laramie’s economy started here in 1867. They were about where the remnant smokestack stands today along the tracks at Kearney St. Smokestacks from the 20-bay roundhouse, the machine shop, and the power house added their gray soot to the air. That’s not to mention the unique smell of burning coal from these steam furnaces.

In 1875 the UPRR built the “Rolling Mill,” a factory to melt down and recycle worn-out steel rail in Laramie, located on 3rd St. where Safeway is today. Eventually the plant had nine smokestacks, nine furnaces belching smoke that required 38 tons of coal per day. The plant operated until 1910 when it was destroyed by fire and the operations shifted to Pueblo, Colorado.

In its heyday in 1901, the Rolling Mill employed 350 men and operated day and night. Despite the pollution, the Laramie Board of Trade tried to convince residents that the smokestacks should be a source of pride. Working furnaces meant working men. Having industry is what separated Laramie from those fly-by-night ephemeral stops along the rail line that disappeared after industry and settlement failed to develop.

Most Laramie homes were heated with coal in the early days. So when smoke from all those chimneys was added to that from industry, it’s a wonder anyone thought to call us the “Gem City of the Plains.”

As if the smoke and cinders weren’t bad enough, there was the smell of the Laramie slaughterhouses and tanneries to contend with. Those of us who like leather products are probably better off not being reminded of the nasty work in their production. By the late 1800s, urine and brains were no longer the main ingredients for breaking down and softening hides, but the chemicals that replaced them didn’t produce any better smells.

From 1884 through 1937, there were at least one if not two tanneries in operation here.

The “Laramie Tannery” developed by S.H. Kennedy in 1885 was in a four-story wooden building, just north of the Rolling Mill. It had its greatest success producing “lace leather,” narrow strips for shoelaces.

It closed by 1889, but several other people tried to coax it back to life. For a while it was known as the Cikenek tannery, then the Carlson tannery, but by 1908 there was an ominous ad in the newspaper: For Sale—Buildings formerly occupied by Wyoming Tannery; will sell cheap if taken at once.” In 1909 the buildings burned and were not replaced.

Meanwhile, the Mountain Lion Tannery was located at 810 S. Spruce St. in 1892, operated by Louis Seehausen and his son of the same name. The elder Seehausen died in 1907, but the tannery continued under Seehausen Jr. through at least 1937. However, by 1913 it was located at 718 Spruce St., and “Wyoming Tannery” was adopted for its name.

Last to come of the early tanneries was the Laramie Taxidermy and Fur Company, operated by William and Hazel Weibold at 514 South 2nd Street. They heavily advertised their business in 1913 and 1914. Remodeling old fur garments was their specialty. Tanning seems to have been a small part of their short-lived operation.

The westerly winds are still with us, but thankfully the cinders, smoke and smells are mostly a thing of the past.

Some incongruities in a china plate displayed in the Ivinson Mansion indicate the mixed feelings local residents may have had about Laramie’s smokestack industries. The plate, from around 1900, shows black smoke billowing over Laramie from the UPRR Rolling Mill. It was made in Europe exclusively for the local W.H. Holliday store. Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.