Stephen and Eva Downey Day: Laramie pioneers honored

Laramie and Albany County honored the lives of Albany County pioneers Stephen and Eva Downey on July 28. Both governments proclaimed the day as Stephen and Eva Downey Day for their contributions to our community. The University of Wyoming Board of Trustees also marked the day by formally recognizing Stephen Downey as the “Father of the University.”

 Pioneer Laramie Families

Evangeline Victoria Owen arrived in Laramie, Dakota Territory, as a 15-year-old girl in May 1868 with her mother, sister and brother. Her mother, Sarah Montgomery, opened a boarding house in the first two story wooden structure in town that was located between 1st and 2nd Streets on South A (now Ivinson Avenue).

 Following his Civil War service in the Union Army where he rose from private to Colonel by the age of 23, Stephen Wheeler Downey moved from West Virginia to Laramie, Wyoming Territory in 1869 when he was 30 years old. His wife Fannie and two daughters joined him. He immediately set about making an impact on his new home in several ways. Sadly, within a year Fannie died, likely due to tuberculosis.

 Marriage of Stephen and Eva

Eva, as she was called, likely first encountered Stephen in 1870 when she observed the proceedings of the first jury in the world to seat women. Downey was the prosecuting attorney.  They would marry in Denver, Colorado, on July 25, 1872, in the Episcopal Church.

Family history says that Sarah Montgomery was opposed to the marriage because she thought Eva was too young at age 17 to care for Stephen’s two young daughters. Eva showed she was more than up to the task as together they had 10 children and the couple had a positive lasting impact on their community for nearly 70 years.

 Eva’s community spirit

Eva was a charter member of the Wyoming Literary and Library Association, the precursor to the Albany County Library. When the Albany County Library was created, she was honored as a life member of the board of directors.

Eva was a key member of the local Clio Club that promoted education to improve intellectual, cultural and general improvement and served as president of the Cathedral Home for Children board of trustees.  She was also a charter member and served in many offices of the Laramie Woman’s Club that created Laramie’s first museum and led to the founding of the Albany County Historical Society

 Eva was a dedicated Republican and served once as a delegate to the Republican state convention. She was chagrined, however, that one son was a prominent Democrat but defended him strenuously when others criticized him.

 Rearing the family

Because Stephen was so heavily involved in business and political affairs, Eva assumed most of the duties in raising the 12 children, two from Stephen’s first marriage and 10 that they had together. She was extremely successful in that role.

 Her success was clearly manifested in their accomplishments. All the 10 children they had together attended the University of Wyoming. Three sons became attorneys, with one of them, Sheridan Downey, elected in California to the U. S. Senate and one, Stephen Corlett Downey, elected as mayor of Laramie. The third, Stephen Downey, became a nationally known expert in water law.

 Daughter June Etta Downey earned a PhD and as part of the faculty of the University of Wyoming became the first woman in the Untied States to head a university academic department. U.W.’s Downey Hall is named for her. Three daughters became successful authors, Alice about family history, Evangeline about home economics and Dorothy wrote widely respected prose.

 Stephen - the law and business

After his arrival in Laramie, Downey chose to do four things at once: open a law practice, enter the political arena, pursue the riches that he believed were to be found by mining in the nearby mountains, and be active in business circles. All the while he was engaged not only in family life, but also in promoting community educational opportunities.

 Downey was very successful in his law practice. The law not only provided for his family, but it also saw him play an important role in a legal case in which women, for the first time in the world, were empaneled in a formal jury in Laramie in 1870. He argued many cases before the Wyoming Territorial and State Supreme Courts, including one where he faced off against his son Stephen Corlett Downey. Corlett won the day.

 In addition to practicing law, Downey promoted numerous local businesses: a glass factory, a hotel, a “flouring mill” and real estate. He was dogged in pursuit of glass manufacturing, trying for nearly a decade without success to make Laramie the “Pittsburgh of the West.” Only the electric light plant he championed that was built in 1886 became a true success.

 Mining disappointments

Stephen had a near obsession with extracting the mineral wealth of the area. Most notably, he tried his hand in several Keystone ventures, on Centennial Ridge and at Gold Hill atop the Snowy Range. Unfortunately, he was also taken in by a scam at Cummins City just south of Woods Landing.

 His mine on Centennial Ridge struck a very rich vein of gold ore. When offered over $100,000 (worth several million dollars in today’s money) for the claim he turned it down. Shortly thereafter the vein was displaced by a fault in the rock and to this day has never been found.

None of the efforts proved successful, costing more money to complete than the investments returned to Downey.

 Republican stalwart

Downey was heavily involved in local, territorial and statewide Republican politics. He served in many offices including seven terms in the legislature and a term as the non-voting delegate of Wyoming Territory to the U.S. House of Representatives. He also served terms as territorial auditor and treasurer. In Congress he secured funds to start the Wyoming Territory Library and badly needed money for Yellowstone National Park.

 Downey’s first term in the territorial legislature would see him successfully and passionately argue to preserve the right for women to vote in the face of an 1871 challenge. His vote against a measure to take voting rights away from women was critical to the measure’s failure.

 Father of the University of Wyoming

An abiding belief in the value of education led Stephen to work in the 1886 territorial legislature to establish Wyoming’s only four-year institution of higher learning and locate it in Laramie. Cannily dovetailing on the desire of Laramie County legislators to fund a formal capitol building in Cheyenne, Downey worked to put $50,000 into their bill for funding the establishment of the university. His efforts would earn him the title “Father of the University of Wyoming.”

 He also served as the president of the U.W. Board of Trustees from 1891 through 1896. As president he presided over a small executive committee that made all major decisions for the school, hiring professors and even determining course offerings.  He was successful in shepherding the institution through very lean financial times.

 Passing from the scene

In June 1902, Stephen was stricken with kidney failure. He lingered near death in a local private hospital but was taken to Denver in early August for a potentially life saving operation. It was unsuccessful and he died on August 5th.

 Downey’s mining activities proved fruitless and left the family nearly penniless. After his death, Eva held the family together with sheer determination, making the most of her talents. She was an artist of reputation; her painting of chinaware won her praise in several exhibits and earned valuable income.

 Later in life, failing health forced her to remain home much of the time where she lived with son Corlett and daughter June Etta. She continued, however, to be as active as possible in local affairs.

Eva’s October 19, 1937, obituary in the Laramie Daily Bulletin noted, “Although the mother of ten children, three of whom are now deceased, Mrs. Downey found time for a variety of pursuits, social duties and church work.”

By Kim Viner

 Caption:  Stephen Wheeler Downey (1839-1902) and Evangeline “Eva” Owen Downey (1854-1937). Source:  Photos courtesy of Peter and Stephen Boutin

University of Wyoming resolution naming Stephen Wheeler Downey Father of the University. Note: the resolution says Downey was a lieutenant colonel when in fact his final rank was colonel. The error is the author’s.

Downey UW resolution adjusted.jpg