Getting warm; California beckons Laramie pioneers

There is no doubt that some of the earliest residents of Laramie were just passing through.  Exactly one year after Laramie was founded, the two great railroads, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, met at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869. The great migration to California could now begin by rail.

 Even Edward Ivinson had originally planned that his stay in Laramie would be relatively short.  Recalled his wife Jane in 1899: “In February of 1868, Mr. Ivinson with some friends came to Fort Sanders, on his way to California, intending to make the rest of the journey as soon as the railroad was finished.”

 It wasn’t the high plains that beckoned many pioneers, it was the gold coast of California that dazzled them.  But what they found in Laramie on their way west was a surprise—not so much an Artic desert as had been reported earlier, but a place with abundant water and nearby timber.  There was even enough grass for livestock to survive the winter, something highly doubtful to the Oregon-bound immigrants of earlier decades who raced across the high plains as fast as they could in the summers.

 The terminus of the transcontinental railroad was San Francisco, already a major port on the Pacific.  But reports of the climate there were not quite what everyone expected.  Like now, new residents reported back about the morning fog, the dampness and chill in the air, though extolling the beauty of the place and green vegetation year around.

 Laramie people were intrigued by the much more southern sleepy coastal town of San Diego. Though it beckoned, it wasn’t so easy to get there.  Powerful railroad investors in San Francisco blocked the building of a railroad south along the coast to prevent San Diego’s harbor from taking business away from San Francisco.

 The California Southern RR, a division of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, managed by 1881 to build a route northward from San Diego to Colton, intending to go on to Barstow.  The competing Southern Pacific Railway also went through Colton on its way from San Francisco to New Orleans by 1883 (intentionally by-passing Los Angeles and San Diego).

  In Colton, the California Southern would have to cross the Southern Pacific track.  Those crossings were known as “frogs” in those days, probably a reference to how one line had to hop over another. The Colton “frog war” ensued.

It wasn’t resolved until  1885 when San Diego received its first railroad connection with the east and north.  The population of San Diego, which had been less than half that of Laramie’s in 1880 at 2,637, soon blossomed to 16,159 by 1890, far outpacing Laramie’s growth.

 The UPRR offered special railroad excursion cars that would be transferred on tracks directly to San Diego.  Laramie mortician J.W. Stryker and his family were among the first to jump on that bandwagon with plans for the family to spend the winter of 1886-7 in San Diego.

 Stryker’s letters, published in the Boomerang in 1886, extol San Diego: “…the loveliest place I ever saw.”  He returned, but went back in late April to escort his family back home. Undoubtedly they influenced others to make the trip.  Col. John W. Donellan went, so did Laramie realtor C.H. Clark, who began frequent advertising in the Laramie Boomerang, offering “choice building lots” for those like him wishing to relocate.  Former resident J.W. Meldrum was reported to have made $30,000 with a partner in San Diego real estate speculation.

By 1888, however, San Diego’s sudden boom temporarily ended.  Prices were still high, but jobs and new housing were non-existent.  S.C. Gregg, formerly of Laramie, wrote to the Boomerang that he regretted moving there: “Life in the Golden State is not what the newspapers have alleged,” he claimed.  Former residents like him wrote back news of others from Laramie who had relocated, some doing well, some not so well, as the paper eagerly printed. 

 Despite this, the “Great Rock Island Route” began extensive advertising in the Boomerang, announcing its daily connections to Los Angeles and San Diego.

 Meanwhile, Edward and Jane Ivinson who had settled into Laramie life and abandoned their plans to relocate permanently in California, had been making trips there as early as 1887.  In January of 1889 they departed for San Diego.  By August, their son-in-law Galusha Grow, a Laramie businessman and County Commissioner, made the momentous decision to move his family permanently to San Diego.

 One of the Grow’s three daughters had asthma, the family story goes, and the doctor had advised a warmer climate.  Grow claimed that he had secured “agency” agreements with 20 insurance companies to represent them in San Diego. He sold his hardware store on a short trip back to Laramie in September, but postponed resigning as County Commissioner until the start of the new year, thereby saving county funds by avoiding a special election; required if he had resigned in 1887.

 In 1893, Edward Ivinson purchased the Merchant’s National Bank in San Diego, with his son-in-law in charge.  The Ivinsons made at least 17 trips to California from Laramie over the years, as local historian Kim Viner has discovered.  At one point Ivinson sold the bank he owned in Laramie, and intended to settle permanently in San Diego, close to their adopted daughter Maggie and her family.  But in 1892 they changed their minds and returned to Laramie, bought back controlling shares in the bank, and built the mansion that is now the Laramie Plains Museum.

 The Grow family apparently prospered in San Diego—along with their primary residence, they had a beach cottage in the fashionable San Diego neighborhood called La Jolla.  But Grow died suddenly in 1903, and his widow decided to move back to Laramie.  She built a house here, which still stands at 112 S. Sixth Street, across from the Ivinson Mansion.

 The Grow’s beach cottage also persists. It was moved to become part of a vacation rental development in La Jolla where, as the “G.B. Grow Yellow Cottage,” it is available for seasonal rental.   

By Judy Knight

Caption:  An eastbound passenger train departs from the Laramie UPRR depot and Thornburgh Hotel around 1907 (when the depot was at the foot of what is now Ivinson Avenue).  Some of these summer passengers who just alighted may have arrived from San Diego, which had direct rail connections from Laramie starting in 1885. Some local residents spent their winters in sunny southern California—Laramie’s first “snowbirds.”  J.E. Stimson photo, courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum (also in the digital collection of the Wyoming State Archives).