Billy Owen: Laramie Pioneer, Surveyor and Mountain Climber

Most early pioneers came to Laramie from the east.  But one plucky family came from the west in June of 1868.

 William Octavius (Billy) Owen, with his older sisters Evangeline and Henrietta, along with their mother, joined a wagon train from Salt Lake City, arriving in Laramie one month after the UPRR did. Their English-born mother was disillusioned by life among the polygamist Mormons who had since assigned her husband to be a European missionary.  She left Utah and was expecting to collect an inheritance that would pay their way back to England.  But upon reaching Laramie, she learned that the lawyer to whom the inheritance had been entrusted had been murdered, and the money gone.

 At the time the family was stranded in Laramie Billy was nine years old. Soon he became a witness to the hanging of “Long Steve” by vigilantes; he is the one child in a photo of Laramie townsmen with the unfortunate victim of lawless mob justice. 

 Jane Ivinson mentions the Owen children in her recollections of the attendees at the first Sunday School in Laramie that she helped organize in 1868.  As evidenced by the accompanying photo, Billy was small in stature which may be why he was always known as “Billy” throughout his life.

 Mrs. Owen went by the name of Sarah Montgomery in Laramie, and proved to be adaptable to circumstances. She opened a restaurant in her home which was conveniently located near the tracks at First and South A (now Ivinson Ave.). By 1870, young Billy was hanging out with two pioneer government surveyors, Mortimer N. Grant and William O. Downey.  At age 15, he became an assistant on Downey’s surveying crew and qualified as a civil engineer himself in 1878. 

 Owen contracted with the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Land Management, and from 1881 to 1891 did over 100 BLM surveys, particularly in the Snake River Valley around Jackson Hole and western Wyoming. He surveyed and established the boundaries of Albany County, and did surveys in every other Wyoming county. In addition, he held posts as Albany County Surveyor, Laramie City Engineer, and US Examiner of Surveys for the Department of Interior until his retirement in 1914.  Active in Republican politics, he was elected Wyoming State Auditor in 1894 and served four years beginning in January 1895. He had married Emma Wilson in Laramie in 1888; by 1910 they had moved to Los Angeles. 

 Lake Owen in the Medicine Bow Mountains, which is actually a reservoir now and part of the City of Cheyenne’s water supply system, is probably named for him.  More well-known is “Mount Owen,” the second highest of the Teton Range, named in recognition of his climb to the top of the Grand Teton on August 11, 1894.  Owen had first seen the Tetons after a bicycle trip through Yellowstone in 1883 and resolved then to climb Grand Teton peak.

 There is some controversy about whether he was the first to climb the Grand Teton. In point of fact, another member of the team he organized, Rev. Franklin Spalding, was the first on the summit. “First” is a relative term in mountaineering, owing to possible unrecorded ascents of Native Americans before Europeans.  Also, Nathaniel Lankford and James Stevenson, members of the 1872 Hayden Geological Survey, did climb the Grand Teton; the controversy is whether they actually got to the top or not.

 Billy Owen died in 1947 in Tucson, AZ.   A manuscript copy of his 1930s autobiography and Downey family papers (his sister Eva married Stephen W. Downey) are archived at the Laramie Plains Museum.

 By Judy Knight, LPM collection manager, with assistance from Albany County Genealogy Society members Dicksie May and Leroy Maki