Laramie Gets Its First Safe and Reliable Drinking Water

Before Laramie was settled in 1868, Fort Sanders was already located four miles south of where the new town was to be.  The military got its drinking water from Soldier Creek, which used to run through the fort (it is a dried-up creek bed now). But as Laramie began to blossom over the summer of 1868, a closer source of water was needed.


The Big Laramie River flowed just west of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks through Laramie—it was an obvious choice to supply the town. On April 23, 1868, The Frontier Index newspaper optimistically reported that “capitalists” would soon form a company that would “carry water to every home in town.” In fact, some entrepreneurs quickly set up to collect river water and sell it townsfolk who stored it in barrels at their homes and businesses.

 At the same time the town filed for water rights on City Springs to the east of town for irrigation purposes. A ditch was constructed to bring this water downhill to residents to use for their gardens and livestock. The “City Ditch” ran down what is now Grand Ave. and had branches running north and south to property owners. This open trench was clearly unsanitary to use as drinking water, especially with nearby privies at every house, and animals running wild all over town.

 Some people also began to wonder about the cleanliness of the Laramie River water. More cattle ranches were established upriver, which was worrisome. Even more problematic, a slaughterhouse was established on the river at the Hutton ranch just a mile west of town around 1870.

 Residents began searching for a way to get cleaner water to their homes. Ideas were floated but the impediment was getting the money to fund any project.  The solution finally came from an unlikely source—the Union Pacific Railroad.


In 1873 rumors abounded that soon the railroad would build a rolling mill for melting down old rails and making new ones. These rumors were primarily fed by business interests in Cheyenne.  The Cheyenne Leader newspaper assured readers in September that the rolling mill would be built there the next summer.

 That did not happen. The railroad surveyed several locations for its mill and, enticed by an $18,000 subsidy offered by the Laramie government, announced in early September 1874 that the mill would be located in the Gem City.

 Rolling mills need a lot of good quality water to operate and Laramie’s City Spring water right of 1868 could offer that. Immediately the city amended its right with the territory board of control to include building a pipeline from City Springs through town to the rolling mill site, where the Safeway Plaza is now located.


As part of the agreement with the railroad, citizens were to receive water from the pipeline. Judge John Kingman drew up the contract on September 9, 1874 and according to a paper written by former Laramie city engineer Elmer K. Nelson, the city ceded first right of the water from City Springs to the railroad on the September 14.

 Within three days Union Pacific’s rolling mill project manager, Joseph Richardson, was surveying the path for the 12-inch pipe. The Laramie Independent newspaper praised the pipe chosen for the line, “iron tubes" coated with cement making them "impervious to the action of water.”

 Early the next week, city officials began conferring with Richardson about locations for “fire plugs” which was one of the main selling points of the agreement. Fire plugs were greatly desired in a city made almost entirely of wooden buildings and also subject to high winds.


Richardson’s survey route took the pipe down South B St. (now Grand Ave.) to Second St. where it formed a “T” with one branch running north to the site of the rolling mill and the other west to a fire plug near the south end of the Union Pacific Hotel.

 By early November, 1874, one-half mile of pipeline was completed and after a brief strike over a reduction in pay, by December 2nd workmen were laying pipe past the courthouse at 5th St. and Grand Ave. Where the work was the least difficult, 750 feet of pipe were placed in the ground in two days.

 The Daily Sun reported on March 21, 1875, that water had been turned into the pipes at the rolling mill to “see how the machinery would operate.” So, the UPRR now had what it wanted and it was up to Laramie residents to complete the work to get water to their homes.


The main pipeline, the fire plugs and the laterals were referred to as “water works”. The water was pure enough that it did not have to be treated and the change in elevation steep enough that no pumps were needed.

 The initial issue that came to the fore was who would pay for the installation of the “laterals” which branched off the main pipeline. The city had already levied a property tax which would have helped pay for the water works.

 To gauge public opinion a city wide meeting was called on April 3, 1875. Unfortunately, the results of the meeting are not known, but that same day editor Hayford of the Sentinel made the reasonable argument that whoever could run the water works at the lowest cost should be allowed to do so.

 The next day, Laramie City Council member George Fox wrote a lengthy letter to the Sun extoling the virtues of a privately run operation. One of his main points was residents were not paying taxes on their real estate to support laying the lines required to support the water works.

 Resident Edward Ivinson created a completely different problem when he sued the city over the property tax that was to fund the water works. He argued that deeds to property in the city were not clear because both the railroad and Fort Sanders claimed they had title to the land. Since he did not “own” the land he had paid the railroad for, he argued that it could not be taxed. The court eventually sided with Ivinson but the issue was not completely resolved until a vote in Congress clarified the situation by reducing the size of the military fort.


The city apparently took over the task of funding its part of the water system and levied a 1 percent additional tax on property on July 15th. This ensured the fire plugs would be paid for and indeed they were tested successfully on August 30th when a 1000-foot long hose with a one and one-quarter nozzle shot a stream of water 80 feet into the air.

 That did not solve the problem of who would pay for connecting residences and businesses to the main line. The Union Pacific stated that residents could have the water for free but that they would have to pay for installation, which the railroad would do at cost.

 Soon enough money was forthcoming to install numerous laterals, but not before the system suffered its first burst pipe on December 28, 1875, near the Union Pacific Hotel. That was rapidly repaired, likely by two men, Morgan Knadler and P. McCarthy who were listed in the 1875 city director as maintaining the water works. Through the next year water lines were laid into the court house at the cost of $627.00, and north and south along Second and Third Sts.


A typical example of how businesses were supplied with water was documented in August of 1877. Businesses owned by George Fox (grocery store), B. F. Smith (building contractor) and G.W. Lancaster (harness maker) raised enough money to supply water to the two blocks bounded by Front, Third, South B (Grand Ave) and South C (Garfield) Streets. 

 The 1885 map of Laramie by city engineer F. Whiting shows the main lines and the laterals that served residents. Water pipes by that year were put in as far south as Kearney and north to Clark Streets and along Grand from First St. to Tenth St. An additional line was laid to Greenhill Cemetery and numerous fire plugs were placed along Grand Ave. and in the downtown business district.


That first system using water from City Springs was enough to serve the city’s needs for many years. As the population increased from 800 residents in 1870 to approximately 8000 in 1900, the need for additional sources of water was recognized. In 1888 attorney Stephen Wheeler Downey secured the water rights of Soldier Spring south of town for use by the city. In 1914, a 14-inch water pipe was laid from the spring to town.

 Over the ensuing years as the population further increased the city also tapped Pope Spring, the Laramie River, Turner Tract wells, and the Spur Wellfield to ensure the clean and plentiful supply which we enjoy today.

By Kim Viner

Caption:  This is half of a photographic panorama probably taken in 1872. The anonymous photographer was on top of the Albany County courthouse then under construction. It shows Laramie looking west, with the open water ditches visible. In the center is the “Wanless” building, constructed as a clubhouse/dormitory by Union Pacific managers when they were in Laramie temporarily. It is at the corner of 4th and Grand, where the City of Laramie’s Carnegie building is today (the former Albany County Public Library).  West of it is the wooden Catholic Church, and across Grand Avenue is the First Baptist Church, which stood at 4th and Grand from 1870 until it was destroyed by fire in 1904. Now the Boomerang office is on that site.  

Courtesy Laramie Plains Museum

Caption: This news clipping from a 1905 publication of the Laramie Commercial Club touts the success of Laramie’s water system as an important asset for any entity who might want to locate in Wyoming.  The title of the publication was “Albany County, Wyoming.”

Source: Hebard Collection, Emmett D. Chisum Special Collections, University of Wyoming Libraries

Source: Hebard Collection, Emmett D. Chisum Special Collections, University of Wyoming Libraries