Who began the UW Geological Museum? Guess again!

Unless you’re very familiar with UW history, you probably guessed it was one of the Knights, likely Wilbur Clinton Knight or his son Sam, but you’d be wrong.

In fact, it was Dr. John Dykeman Conley (1843-1926), who moved the dream of a geology museum into a reality.

Dr. Conley was one of the first five professors hired to teach at UW when it opened in 1887. The New York native was hired from the faculty at Blackburn University in Illinois. He and the other four new professors negotiated what they would teach because their specialties overlapped; his subjects became geology, chemistry, physics, commercial correspondence and penmanship.

From January through March of 1891, Dr. Conley filled the position of Interim UW President after the first UW president John W. Hoyt was fired. Despite that distraction, he spent the summer of 1891 readying the north end of the University Library on the second and third floor of today’s Old Main into a space for eight large “cabinets,” (display cases) purchased by UW at a cost of $1,700. The value of the cases alone is estimated at more than $44,000 today. The cases were almost completely filled with his own collection of geological specimens accumulated over a 20-25 year period.

According to the Boomerang Annual of 1891, Conley’s collection of “choice” geological, mineralogical and archaeological specimens was worth $5,000 then. Today it would be over $131,000. “This cabinet (referring to all eight filled display cabinets), together with a collection of Wyoming’s resources and private donations, make a rare and valuable museum, superior to those of most American colleges of fifty years’ standing” the paper extolled.

Brent Breithaupt, former curator of the UW Geological Museum, found that other local donors to the museum included one of Laramie’s first medical doctors, John H. Finfrock, who donated 200 items ranging from ore specimens to fossil reptile bones. Conley’s early outreach efforts resulted in other local donors such as Dr. Grace R. Hebard, the Hon. Melville C. Brown, the Hon. Stephen W. Downey and William H. Reed of Como Bluff, who had discovered the famous dinosaur bone deposit there.

Conley’s prodigious efforts were recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, which donated ore and mineral examples. Altogether, these diverse donations amounted to a collection of about 20,000 specimens. The Boomerang advised that more than one visit was necessary to really absorb it all saying “a dozen visits would reveal something new each time.”

Conley was largely instrumental in building this UW resource for students, researchers and for the edification and enjoyment of the people of Laramie and Wyoming. Much of the collection, and much that was added later, became the genesis of four current UW museums: Anthropology, Modern Vertebrate, Entomology as well as the Geological Museum.

Conley had dreams and expectations that he would be heading this museum for years to come. But, when an official curator was selected, Conley was passed over in favor of Wilbur C. Knight who joined the University in 1893. Breithaupt writes that in 1894 “President Johnson determined that Knight should be appointed curator … without salary and that Conley’s private collection be removed from the cabinets to provide room for the growing number of specimens being acquired by the University of Wyoming” probably as part of an “extensive worldwide exchange program started in 1893 by Knight.”

Was it merely for more space that Conley’s collection was removed? Was Conley not appointed because Knight’s mining geology experience better suited a new focus? Or was Conley a victim of a victim of events not of his making?

In a 1986 article on UW history, Deborah Hardy writes that political wrangling, internecine power struggles, and conflicting opinions about its mission beset the earliest years of the university.

Conley had two major disappointments at UW, first, in not being appointed UW president in 1891 after serving as interim president, and second, in 1893, in not being appointed curator. The April 18, 1896 Boomerang reports that Vice-President J.D. Conley, Ph. D., tendered his resignation. Interestingly, also resigning that day was President Dr. Albinus A. Johnson, the man who did become the president in 1891 – the man who failed to appoint Conley curator.

The Conley family left Laramie and went back to Carlinville, Illinois in 1896. Although he likely took most of his personal specimens with him, the geological collection he developed at UW is a legacy that has become the foundation of the UW Geological Museum.

  By RoseMarie Aridas

Caption: Dr. John Dykeman Conley in 1891 standing among the neatly arranged original display cabinets of the State Museum, now known as the UW Geological Museum.  At the time it shared a space with the library in Old Main. Dr. Conley, one of the first five UW professors to be hired, lived in Laramie for nine years.  The Conley house at 718 Ivinson is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  Photo is courtesy of American Heritage Center, B.C. Buffum Papers Collection