Who Was That Thornburgh Guy

For many years in Laramie the name Thornburgh was very prominent. As early as 1880, the name of the finest hotel in town, the Union Pacific, had been changed to Thornburgh. In 1889 when the east-west streets in town were renamed, one of the most important was called Thornburgh Street. Who was the person they were named after and what was the connection to Laramie?

He was Major Thomas Tipton Thornburgh and in May 1878 had been transferred to Fort Steele in Wyoming Territory to be commander of the installation, attached to the United States Army’s Fourth Infantry Regiment. Previously, Thornburgh had been stationed at Omaha, Nebraska, as one of the paymasters of the Military Department of the Platte. In that capacity he had occasionally been required to travel to Fort Sanders to deliver the cash to pay its soldiers.

Thornburgh enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and served in several Civil War battles. Within two years he was promoted to lieutenant and was eventually sent to study at West Point in 1863. After he graduated in 1867, he was appointed a lieutenant in the artillery. After several tours of duty, he was promoted to the rank of major and transferred to the Paymaster Corps.

Thornburgh, however, wanted to be closer to the “action” in the West and at his request he transferred to the infantry and eventually arrived at Fort Steele, near Rawlins, Wyoming. In September 1879, trouble arose between the Ute tribe on their White River reservation near present day Meeker, Colorado, and the reservation agent, Nathan Meeker. Although accounts of the source of the trouble vary greatly, the result was that Meeker requested the army to send troops to make sure the Utes did what they were told.

Thornburgh and a detachment of about 175 men set out from Fort Steele on the 21st and seven days later arrived at a location just north of the agency headquarters.  Through a series of miscommunications, Thornburgh and his troops continued to advance into the reservation and the Utes moved to stop them. On the afternoon of the 28th a sharp engagement between the Utes and the soldiers resulted in a mortal wound to Major Thornburgh. His troops would remain pinned down for another seven days before finally being reinforced by 9th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldiers” and eventually relieved by 5th Cavalry units from Fort D.A. Russell, Wyoming.

Why Thornburgh, who only had a very tenuous relationship with Laramie, would eventually be honored in the city is not entirely clear. As noted, he had conducted official business in the city and may have been known around town. More likely it was due to the influence of the Kitchen brothers who ran the Union Pacific Hotel. They had come to Laramie from Omaha they probably knew Thornburgh when he was stationed there. Moreover, Thornburgh’s death and the Battle of Milk River had been front page news across America, lending a heroic air to the major.

Some locals even erroneously remembered that he was at one time the commanding officer of Fort Sanders. Although false, that was cited in several articles as one of the reasons that South A Street in Laramie was changed to Thornburgh Street in 1889. Ironically many references to Thornburgh in stories concerning his death his name is incorrectly spelled “Thornburg.”

The Thornburgh Hotel burned to the ground in 1917 and was never rebuilt. The original Thornburgh Street was renamed Ivinson Avenue in 1928 in honor of Laramie banker and philanthropist Edward Ivinson. Laramie still has a street named after the fallen soldier. It is Thornburgh Drive located just south of Washington Park. 

Kim Viner

Photo Courtesy U. S. Military Academy