In his definitive early history of the University of Wyoming, U.W. Professor Wilson O. Clough notes that as early as 1869 Wyoming Territory legislators discussed the need for an institution of higher learning in the new territory.
Early efforts unsuccessful
No action was taken at the time and the issue seems not to have been given additional serious attention until 1878 when Governor John Hoyt, in his annual message to the Secretary of the Interior, requested that territories should have the same right as states to sell lands under the Morrill Act of 1862 to fund a university. This effort did not bear fruit, however.
To support the territories’ desire to fund universities, Martin Maginnis, Montana Democratic Delegate to Congress, introduced a bill in May 1880, which granted the western territories lands for such purposes.
That bill, likely supported by Stephen Wheeler Downey who was Wyoming Delegate to Congress at the time, wound its way through Congress and became law in February 1881. The problem was that the “University Lands Act” said the money from any sales or leases could not be used until after the territories became states.
That likely prompted Hoyt to address the Secretary of the Interior again and this time he gained a partial victory when the Secretary at least said Wyoming could survey lands to be reserved for use after statehood. Hoyt, however, did not act on the Secretary’s approval; the surveys were not completed until several years later.
Downey takes up the challenge
Stephen Wheeler Downey joined the Wyoming Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, which was founded by Governor Hoyt. This membership, and the action in Congress, coupled with his well-documented interest in education, clearly indicated a desire for additional higher education opportunities in the territory.
Attorney Downey, who arrived in Laramie in 1869, had been Albany County Superintendent of Schools and a very active member of Laramie’s Wyoming Literary and Library Association that started a free public reading room, the precursor to the Albany County Public library.
More importantly, his direct interest in establishing an institution of higher learning in Laramie was demonstrated in 1881 when he wrote to the Ames family asking them to found and fund a university in Wyoming.
The letter was written at the time that the Ames family was funding a monument to Oakes and Oliver Ames, two men instrumental in the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. Downey clearly thought that the rather large sum to be expended on a monument near the town of Sherman, Wyoming, (19 miles southeast of Laramie and eventually abandoned) would be better spent on creating a university. In any event, his appeal must have fallen on deaf ears as the Ames family did not respond.
Territorial legislative action
Downey did not give up easily and took the initiative upon his election to the 1886 session of the Wyoming Territory Legislative Assembly to pursue his quest. Downey astutely recognized the opportunity to advance his cause when it was clear that powerful Laramie County delegation was angling for the Assembly to fix the location of the capital in Cheyenne and to provide funds to build a permanent capitol building in that city.
There are conflicting stories about how the so-called Capital Bill came to include a university to be funded by the territory and placed in Laramie. The most prevalent but incorrect version is that Downey wrote and introduced the bill.
Alice Downey Nelson offered a different version in her brief biography of her father Stephen Downey. She wrote that her mother, Eva Downey, told her about how the bill came about. She "explained to her that although he drafted the bill and was influential in its passage, he asked his friend, Mr. Van Devanter to introduce it - thus gaining the support of Laramie County in locating the University at Laramie." Van Devanter was a Cheyenne attorney and no doubt an acquaintance of Downey. This story is also incorrect.
Clough’s detailed history of the first 50 years of the school clarified the way the university was included in the capital bill. Clough notes that there had been conferences in the 1886 Territorial Legislative Assembly on building a capitol and that Downey had been active in them. Downey’s involvement likely explains the inclusion for the creation of the university in the bill that proposed the location of the capital and the building. The bill was introduced on February 25, 1886.
Clough goes on to note that in 1886 "Colonel Downey took the lead from the first in support of the bill." He was able to move it to the committee of the whole where amendments were added to solidify Laramie’s role in governing the university. The bill was then sent on to the judiciary committee, of which Downey was the chair.
The amended bill stated that the members of the commission responsible for the construction of the building had to be Laramie residents and that three members of the governing board of trustees also had to be from Laramie (partially due to the difficulty of transportation at the time).
The bill ran to 55 sections and included an appropriation of not more than $50,000 for a university "near Laramie." Financing for the university would come from a tax of 1/4th mill on every dollar. It included strictures of the Morrill Act against any religious test for officials and also declared that no one could be denied admission on the basis of race or gender. Clough concluded that Willis Van Devanter indeed drew up the bill and Clough stated correctly that the bill was introduced by Nicholas O'Brien of Cheyenne.
Much opposition arose from northern part of the state but there was firm support from Laramie, Albany and later Uinta counties which ensured a majority in the House of Representatives. Downey took to the floor of the House to support his plan. On February 27, 1886, the Cheyenne Daily Sun carried Downey’s speech. It was cannily crafted to appeal to the powerful Laramie County delegation’s desire to have the capital located in their county seat. That speech likely ensured the passage in the House. The portion of the speech centering on the proposed university comprised only about ten percent of his address.
“Let us have a university that will attract population. One of the first questions asked by the man who proposes to come west is, “What kind of schools are there? I want to bring my family and children.” We now have a first-class system of public schools – as good as there is in the United States. Give us a university that our children may be educated in the higher branches, and they will bless us for the advantages afforded to them.
“Mr. Chairman, in conclusion, let me say that we all want to see the territory succeed; we want to see this great empire populated; we want to see her resources developed; we want to see every interest go hand in hand until we are admitted as a state to the union. In voting on this measure, I believe we are doing the fair and correct thing – something that ought to have been done long ago, and certainly it should be done now.”
The remainder of the speech was designed to shame those who were reticent to support the bill into changing their minds. There was no broad statement about Downey’s philosophy of education. Indeed, the lead sentence of the university paragraph was designed to appeal to those who knew Wyoming needed more residents in order to qualify for statehood. His argument worked.
The university is created
The bill then went to the upper chamber of the Assembly where it again encountered stiff opposition. Counties that were not “given” the largess of a public institution being planned for them were very unhappy with the bill. Despite the opposition, the bill was passed on March 2, 1886, and signed into law by Governor Frances E. Warren on March 4th.
After the bill creating the university became law, Downey continued his interest in the institution and was appointed to the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees. He attended his first meeting on January 31, 1891. At the March 27, 1891, meeting he was elected president of the board and would be called upon to shepherd the young establishment through some of its toughest times.
E. A. Slack, the editor of the Cheyenne Daily Sun, who had so often attacked Downey’s politics in the 1870’s, had come to respect the new board president. On January 17, 1891, his paper carried an article (no doubt written by Slack) that read in part, “Colonel Downey is the originator of the University. He is personally responsible for its creation. What could be more fitting than the proposed recognition of his services?”
That Stephen Downey is widely heralded as the “Father of the University of Wyoming” is no surprise. It seems natural, given his long-held interest in education that he would work to bring a university to Wyoming. On July 28, 2019, the President and the Board of Trustees of the University of Wyoming formally recognized Laramie pioneer Stephen Wheeler Downey as the “Father of the University.”
By Kim Viner
Caption: The entire University of Wyoming was contained in the building we now call “Old Main.” When constructed in 1887, it contained classrooms, offices, a demonstration school for the 2-year normal school training of teachers, as well as living quarters for the custodian. The grand tower that dominated Laramie for 28 years sadly had to be removed in 1915 due to structural problems. Source: UW American Heritage Center, Downey Family Papers