The House of Widow Diana Brown of Laramie: Rancher & Undine Park benefactor

When Irish immigrant Diana (Horran) Brown  (1843-1915) moved to the Laramie Plains around 1868, everything was new and hastily built. The town of Laramie was mostly a tent city on the banks of the Big Laramie River and beside the new Union Pacific Railroad tracks. 

Fort Sanders

Diana had come as a newlywed with her husband, Jackson K. Brown.  The 24-year old bride met and married Brown in 1867, in Rolla, Missouri.  It’s not clear what her husband’s initial occupation here was, but for a while he might have been a post sutler (civilian shopkeeper) on the US Army post at Fort Sanders, which had been established in 1866.  The site is just 3 miles south of Laramie—Highway 287 bisects the Fort property.

Their three children were probably born here: son Jackson I. Brown, and two daughters, Anna (Brown) Rice and Josephine (Brown) Sanger. 

First ranch established

 Jackson Brown soon became a landowner, obtaining a tract from the US government by patent in 1875—the earliest and most secure deed of land possible in what was then Wyoming Territory.  This land was at the north edge of Fort Sanders, on the south edge of  Laramie City, just south of Spring Creek.  They may have built a log cabin on the property prior to obtaining title to it—the log cabin was later moved to part of their property that later became a football field, now the site of Spring Creek School. 

A few buildings from the ranch, including the main house, still survive on what had been the Brown’s ranch, near Undine Park (that didn’t exist then).

The only newspaper mention I found of Jackson Brown was in 1877 when a deputy sheriff  arrested him for “working himself into a frenzy” at a public meeting held to discuss a water supply issue.  “You can either find bail or accompany me to the public boarding house,” said Deputy Sheriff Sinclair to the unruly Brown.  

Apparently he paid the bail. The Laramie Sentinel newspaper says the episode “rather took the starch out” of him.  He could be excused, as it’s not unusual for a rancher to get worked up about water issues.

Jackson Brown died in 1878, 3 years after establishing the ranch.  His death came from exposure in a snowstorm when he was moving cattle from Sand Creek, according to late Albany County rancher Leonard Johnson who relayed that story to Laramie attorney Maribeth Galvan, when she lived in the Brown’s house.  Diana Brown was left a widow at age 35, with three children to support.  She proved adequate to the task, continuing the ranching tradition of the family. 

 In addition to the original ranch on the south edge of Laramie inherited from her husband’s estate, she purchased other land by patent, particularly adding to a tract her husband may have started on Sand  Creek, southwest of Laramie.  Assessments to “Diana Brown” for cattle beginning in 1879 show that she was actively involved in ranching.

Undine Park

Gradually she moved all her cattle to the Sand Creek property, and sold off much of the land of the original Brown ranch for residential lots. In 1887 she granted most of the land that is now Undine Park to the city for public use. 

That was the year that the University of Wyoming began to accept students.  UW was built in what had been the only Laramie park—City Park—in the area of 9th and Ivinson Streets, given to Laramie by the Union Pacific Railroad.  The City in turn gave it to the state in 1886 as an enticement to build a university here, as opposed to Lander or any other Wyoming town vying for that  development.

Thus, when Diana Brown gave land for public use in 1887, the gift was welcomed; it  provided Laramie with a substitute park.  There was just one problem; Spring Creek ran through the park in 1887 and the creek was also north of her house and the ranch buildings that Diana had saved for herself when she sold off most of the land. 

Eventually the city solved that problem—engineers channelized Spring Creek, moving it south about 3 blocks, which removed it from Undine Park. This happed sometime before 1941 when a city map shows the creek in its present location.  That change also put the house on Steele St. on the north side of the waterway.

Historic Brown house

It’s not clear when Diana built the 8-room brick house on the original ranch property—it is listed as built in 1900 on the Albany County Assessor’s website, but her house and ranch outbuildings are clearly shown on the 1885 Whiting map of Laramie, before Spring Creek was moved.   It might have been built about the time that the Browns moved to their property in 1875, and then either replaced or enlarged when Diana sold off the rest of the ranch.

In the early days of that Laramie neighborhood, the address of the house was given as facing 8th St., but now the address is 802 Steele St.  It has been covered with stucco since at least the early 1930s, something that often happened to homes built of brick made in Laramie. Weathering caused the brick to begin sloughing off, unlike brick made in hotter or more expertly managed kilns in other locations. 

Diana lived to see both of her daughters married –she was affectionately known as “Grandma Brown” around Laramie in her later years. Her only son, Jackson, died in 1908 of appendicitis.  At 38, he was unmarried and had been the manager of the ranch the Jacksons established near Sand Creek. He later purchased a ranch on the Platte River at Saratoga in Carbon County.  Diana’s daughter Josephine and her husband Charles Sanger operated the Sand Creek ranch at the time her brother Jackson died.

The 2-story “gable-front and wing” house (one of the most common house designs in America) on Steele Street once had a wild rose hedge all around it. That was the work of a UW groundskeeper who was a resident after the house passed out of the Brown family.  

Across from it on 8th, and on Steele St. still stand four early Laramie homes. Maribeth Galvan was told they were brought to Laramie by Diana Brown from Fort Sanders, after it was decommissioned by the US government in 1882.

I’ve talked to another person who once lived in the Brown house—Dr. Boyd Strain, retired botany and ecology professor at Duke University. He grew up in the house in the WWII era when the home had become a rooming house.  His family moved to Newcastle after the war ended, but he came back to receive a bachelor’s degree in Botany from UW.

Maribeth Galvan speaks of the home’s unique features like original brick walls exposed in the kitchen and a secret passageway connecting upstairs bedrooms. She was aware of the rumored “ghost” hinted at on the Undine Park website as a possible resident apparition. 

“I never experienced a ghostly visitation while living there myself” said Galvan. But she adds: “I might have inspired some of those rumors because my then-spouse and I liked to have morning tea on the front porch—often when I was still in my long white nightgown.”

At any rate, the house is well into its second century now, still a family home as well as an enduring reminder of the legacy of Jackson and Diana Brown. 

By Judy Knight

Caption:  That’s not a ghost, its Laramie pioneer Diana Brown standing outside her brick home at 802 Steele St., on property that had earlier been the ranch she and her late husband established.  The photo was probably taken around 1910, judging by the newer home in the background at the corner of Ord and 8th St.  At this time Spring Creek was in front of the house, though it has been moved about 3 blocks south now. Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.