What kind of town would Laramie be without the University of Wyoming?
But UW wasn’t always a mainstay. Until the 1950s Laramie was mainly a railroad town that had a college. When the Union Pacific Railroad eliminated Laramie as a crew stop on the railroad in 1964, the University was poised to take over as the main employer in town, if it hadn’t happened already.
There were struggles at first, as other towns in Wyoming like Douglas and Lander tried to use their political clout to wrest the University away from Laramie even after “Old Main” had been built. Lander came close, with legislation to designate a Wyoming Agricultural College in Lander, but no money was ever appropriated to actually establish build it there.
The 1886 funding to establish UW in Laramie came from the Wyoming Territorial Legislative Assembly. Thus the school existed even before Wyoming became a state in 1890. UW History Professor Deborah Hardy says in her 1987 book “Wyoming University; the First 100 years” that the academic goal was a “polytechnic” education, with a faculty of six charged to “turn out a class of students who, when they graduate, shall know how to do something, something the world wants done.”
Despite this, the six members of the first faculty included two who primarily taught languages other than English: French, German, Greek and Latin. Apparently that was considered part of what the world wanted.
In the first few years, the number of students in the “preparatory curriculum” outnumbered those in college-level courses according to Hardy. In 1894, for instance, there were 32 prep school students at UW, and only 21 in collegiate studies. Thus it could be said that UW was basically a high school for a time, with some college coursework offered also.
Though the work force at UW may have been a minor part of the employment picture in Laramie until the mid-1950s, the number of faculty and staff began to grow as student enrollment increased dramatically following World War II.
Today’s total enrollment at UW is given on their web site as 13,929 students—in 1937 (after 50 years in existence) there were 1,847. UW Lab School (Prep) is now part of the local school district with a lottery system for admission; its students aren’t counted in UW’s total.
Faculty in 1937 stood at 133, whereas in 2017 it was 1,006, including 25 part-time. An additional 1,739 “benefited employees” (staff) do much of the work that makes the university function.
Do students count?
A frequently asked question is whether or not students are counted when the census is conducted every 10 years. The answer is “most of them.” The census measures people who are actually in a place as of a particular day in April.
If students rent off-campus housing here, this is where they live and they are part of the census total. If they live in the dormitories, they should report that they “lived in Laramie as of April 1.” However, there will always be some who commute, or who want their hometown to benefit by reporting their residence there.
Third largest employer
A U.S. Department of Labor 2018 publication (www.careerinfonet.org) rounds off the total UW employment now to 2,800, which makes it not only the largest employer in Laramie but also the third largest employer in the entire state. A close fourth is the Natrona County Wyoming School District, with 2,500 employees according to the same source.
In contrast, the Albany County School District #1, which encompasses the entire county, anticipated about 687 full time equivalent employees in the 2017-18 budget given on its website. Of course, Natrona County’s population is more than double that of Albany County’s. Also, there are only two incorporated towns here, compared to six in Natrona County.
Notably, the 1st and 2nd largest employers in Wyoming cities, according to the 2018 U.S. Department of Labor statistics, is the same company, Ferrellgas, Inc., headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas. It is credited with about 4,000 employees each in both Big Piney and Jackson, Wyoming. Its main business is natural gas and propane distribution and sales.
UPRR jobs lost
As for the Union Pacific Railroad, today it has 1,044 employees in the entire state of Wyoming. Just a handful of those are in Laramie now that the railroad’s crew change divisions have changed and the machine shops, tie treatment plant and rail welding plant have shut down. In 1890, Laramie Depot Museum president Jerry Hansen estimates there were between 1,100 and 1,500 UPRR Laramie employees, at a time when the entire county had fewer than 9,000 residents.
Hansen says: “in those days they didn’t have the machines to do the work that we have now—most everything was done by hand and it took a lot of people.” The Laramie Rolling Mill alone had up to 300 employees in round-the-clock shift work until it burned down in 1910, after which operations were moved to Pueblo, Colorado.
1920 building boom
The accompanying map of the UW campus gives an indication of the huge building boom that began in 1922. It is reprinted from the program for UW’s Semicentennial celebration in 1937.
It is interesting to see what existed then, and what the plans were for the future. On the left side, University Ave. continues past 9th St. and ends at the door of Old Main. Prexy’s pasture is clearly pictured, with a road all around it instead of the pedestrian walkway there now, a change made in the late 1990s.
On the east (right) side, there is a horseshoe shape showing “Corbett Field,” which is the UW football field built in 1926 at the edge of town at 15th St. and Ivinson Ave. Obviously plans were to expand it into a full-fledged stadium. However, that didn’t happen there, and the space is now a large parking lot and the College of Business.
The Great Depression of 1928-1940 cut the 1922 boom short. There was almost no construction on campus or anywhere in Laramie for 12 years. After the war started, there were many temporary buildings erected on campus for training military personnel, including an array of so-called Quonset Huts, later moved to other locations in Laramie. One was just demolished to make way for the new Snowy Range Road Bridge.
But beginning in the late 1950s and later, with the administration of George Duke Humphrey at UW and E.G. Meyer as Dean of Arts and Sciences, UW began an even greater expansion in physical plant and enrollment. Memorial Fieldhouse was built north of 20th St. on what was the east edge of Laramie then. Many other buildings went up, such as the Classroom Building and Physical and Biological Sciences Buildings.
The first high-rise buildings in the state were constructed along Grand Avenue in 1965—UW dormitories. The campus began to take on the appearance that it has now by the time of its 1987 Centennial year.
It will be interesting to contemplate what UW will look like in 2037, when it celebrates its 150th year. Will 15th St. still go through campus? Will other streets north of Lewis begin to have UW buildings instead of residences? Will there be the hoped-for increase in the number of out-of-state students? Will any new dormitories materialize?
An even bigger question: Will there be jobs in state for UW graduates who want one? Time will tell.
By Judy Knight
Caption: 1937 UW map and future building ideas, an excerpt from the program for UW’s “Semicentennial” year. The left edge is 9th St., on right edge is 15th St. At bottom is Ivinson Ave., and at top is Lewis St. Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.