The Sidewalks of Laramie

There was a time in the early days of Laramie when being a pedestrian required considerable agility and vigilance.

If there were any sidewalks, they were likely to be made of boards.  But there was no requirement that property owners build them. Ramshackle businesses built mostly of tents and wood had streets eroded to their front doorways in 1868.

And the streets were often filled with ruts and mud, especially at intersections where the traffic was heavy.  Snow made matters worse, though in stretches of cold weather, packed snow meant the sleighs could be brought out. Conversion kits to add sleigh runners below the wheels were available for some carriage models. 

As earliest wooden shops downtown gave way to brick and stone buildings, merchants raised their first floors considerably above the streets and boardwalks to minimize customers tracking in mud. This also reduced the risk of flooding.

With no regulations on sidewalk construction, Laramie quickly resembled a patchwork of different heights, widths and construction techniques—or no sidewalks at all. 

As with nearly every jurisdiction in the US, sidewalk construction was up to property owners, with double the obligation for those owning corner lots.  All Laramie blocks were interrupted by alleys, where there were no sidewalks. There was agreement that the city was responsible for alley crosswalks, but boards across alleys and intersections would be quickly torn up by the weight of carriages.

Merchants resorted to a custom already prevalent in cities elsewhere, of digging out their basements to go under the sidewalks with trap doors for the delivery of goods from the front.  But that created another couple of hazards for pedestrians—boxes blocking sidewalks altogether.

The first “Town Law” enacted in Laramie regarding sidewalks was in 1874.  However it only set fines for blocking a sidewalk, leaving a cellar door open, or failing to erect a barrier around a hole while something was being constructed. All these ordinances were designed to reduce the danger of a person falling in or being forced into the muddy street. 

Considering that there were no street lights at the time--not even gas lighting was provided for that purpose in Laramie--it could be a hazard to pedestrians’ health to negotiate on a moonless night.  Simon Durlacher’s wife recalls setting out with a lantern every night from their home on Fifth St. to collect and guide her husband from his Second St. store in the early days of their marriage.

In 1884, the City Council finally got around to mandating that property owners erect sidewalks, specifying exactly what the widths should be, 4 or 8 feet wide in most residential areas, and 12 foot wide downtown.  Exact specifications were given for what width should go on what streets.  Specifications for plank and board sidewalks were very thorough, including the requirement that the surface boards be set at right angles to their supports of 2 x 4” boards underneath.

The 1884 ordinances also allowed for sidewalks of flagstone, brick, gravel and concrete, called “cement” at the time. There was no mention of curbs to separate streets from sidewalks, nor provision for drainage.

Quickly it was apparent that the fines and authority given the town marshal to enforce these ordinances were not enough to bring about the desired result.  A 1889 visitor’s account of Laramie says: “the sidewalks of Laramie are badly in need of improvements and we hope before another year rolls around that the present wooden pavements will be torn up and replaced with good flagstone.”

Board sidewalks presented plenty of opportunity for jokes.  Women’s floor-length skirts were “filthy” as they dragged in whatever was deposited on the sidewalks. Planks could go missing suddenly; boards could be worn “thin as shingles” by gossips promenading up and down to report on what was going on.  Cowboys wearing spurs could splinter boards, heels could get stuck in cracks.

One wag commented in a Sentinel issue of 1890: “Don’t tell me that a true lady ever sacrifices the duty of keeping all about her sweet and clean to the risk of making a vulgar show [of her legs]… There are some things that fashion has no right to touch, and cleanliness is one of those things”

In 1906 a newcomer to Laramie, Sidney J. Kent, whose business interests had just caused him to relocate with his family here, complained in the Boomerang that among other things, Laramie is “without sidewalks and yet surrounded by an abundance of sidewalk material.  Nothing adds so much to the appearance of a city as cement walks.” He further added:  “this is called the cement age.”

Sidewalks continued to be enough of a novelty that when a new boardwalk or cement sidewalk was being laid it was often mentioned in the newspaper.  Meanwhile, there were frequent complaints about animals, particularly cattle running loose in town and messing up the sidewalks. 

City council finally enacted an ordinance in 1907 to require that all Laramie property owners construct, repair or replace worn-out sidewalks at their own expense.  Board sidewalks were outlawed, “all sidewalks to be constructed of vitrified brick, stone flagging or cement.  If cement, excavations were required be at least four inches below the top of the proposed walk.  All brick sidewalks were to be laid herringbone style. 

There were frequent notices given by the town marshal to property owners who failed to comply – after a year with no action, the city was given authority to contract the work themselves, with the bill to the property owners.  This was met with frequent requests for exemptions from owners who had excuses of one type or another for their inaction.

There were complaints about the unfairness of it all, particularly when the city did nothing about the alleys and crosswalks that should be their responsibility.  Plus, as the Boomerang reported “someone has blundered in [not] establishing a uniform grade for city sidewalks…” The paper also called for “no more toboggan slide approaches to the crossings similar to those at the intersection of Grand and Third, as they are a menace to public safety.”

The first ordinance requiring sidewalks to be cleared of “ice, mud, dirt, rubbish or filth after any fall of snow” was enacted in 1912, and it required the occupant, not necessarily the landlord, to do the clearing.

In 1913 the city finally began the process of letting contracts for building crosswalks and alley sidewalks of cement.  Soon, even before the streets were paved, it was possible to cross from one side of the street to the other without traipsing through ruts and mud. 

Thus the reasonably uniform standards and appearance that can be seen in most Laramie sidewalks now hides the fitful progress toward that goal.  Developing uniform sidewalks presented a long history of headaches for City Council members as a fair solution emerged.

By Judy Knight

Caption:  Early 1900’s view of Holliday’s Store at approximately 417 south 2nd Street, showing the high boardwalk provided in front of the store, and the three steps going into the doorway.  The elevation above street level was even higher for other stores downtown.  This location is about where Elite Medical Supply and Sears are located now.   Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.