August 2022 – When we rolled into Encampment, Wyoming, just north of the Colorado border, we’d been driving through miles and miles of wide open land. So, when we passed a sign that said, “Population 452,” we figured we’d stay for a quickie overnight and move on.
After all, how much is there to do in such a little place?
Moments later, we passed an old fellow whiling away the hours and watching the world go by from a chair in front of a small log cabin with a sign that said, “Visitors Center.” He waved at us as we drove by.
Wow! When does that ever happen?
And then we passed a building with a huge, colorful mural on one end:
We were smiling at each other by now and commenting about receiving this surprisingly warm welcome when we spotted some tall, conical metal buildings, one of which was covered with decorations. The town’s High School logo was emblazoned in bright red on one side.
We got out of the truck to take a closer look, and we discovered the numbers were for the years the local high school teams had won their championships. How fun!! Cross-country was blazing…but the football team was still in the hunt for a win.
Yet we still had no idea what the building had been used for.
As we got back in the truck, we noticed a deer crossing the street in front of us. Our smiles grew wide as we whipped around to catch him on camera.
The buck was joining some friends across the street, and we suddenly noticed there was a group of 5 or 6 deer hanging around and sampling the grass!
Not long after that we saw a small group of pronghorn antelope milling about. This was unbelievable!
As we drove down the main drag, the only paved road in town, we noticed the liquor store was called White Dog Liquors. Now, ya gotta love that — and we realized we were beginning to love this town!
As we cruised down some of the dirt back streets, we discovered someone had a row of antique trailers lined up. Whether they were carefully selected collectibles or just a collection of old cast-offs, we weren’t sure, but there was a fun and funky spirit to this place that was quickly growing on us.
We decided to head back to the Visitors Center to meet the guy that had waved to us when we pulled into town. He was still sitting out in front of the Visitors Center, and he introduced himself as Cowboy Wadsworth.
He regaled us with fascinating tales of the history of the town. Originally called Grand Encampment by fur trappers who settled here, it later became home to “tie-hacks” who logged the surrounding forests into carefully cut railroad ties for the burgeoning railroad industry.
Who knew that making railroad ties was an entire industry unto itself?! But if you consider how many ties were needed to create the vast network of railroads that spread across this country, it must have been a big business in many forests!
Then copper mining took over the area, and a 16 mile long tramway was built to move buckets of copper ore out from the mine. The town grew quickly and became something of a company town, although unlike conventional company towns, deeded lots were sold, giving residents a tangible stake in their community. In no time, 15,000 people called Grand Encampment home.
Around the edges of this bustling town, cattle ranchers and sheep herders soon filled the valley and hillsides with their herds.
But what about those weird metal conical buildings we’d seen? Cowboy explained that those were “teepee burners” that were used to burn the bark that came off the logs during the railroad tie making process. In the olden days there was no use for the bark — fancy landscaping hadn’t taken off yet — so it was burned.
“Go to the Grand Encampment Museum,” Cowboy urged us. “You’ll learn even more about this town over there!”
Now, we’re not really big on museums, in part because they aren’t typically dog friendly. But we wandered over in the direction he was pointing to see what was we’d see.
First, we noticed a replica of a stagecoach.
My, oh my. It is startling to see just how small those things were inside. I can’t imagine traveling for any length of time over rutted and dusty dirt trails, wearing a long skirt and hat and squeezed into tight quarters alongside my hubby and nose to nose with people I’d probably just met.
The people who lived in the west in the late 1800s and the turn of the last century were not only outdoorsy and rugged but were very determined!
Then we rounded the bend, and before us stood the buildings of Grand Encampment, Wyoming, just as they were back in those days.
This isn’t just a “go inside a building and see historic relics and read signs” kind of museum. This is a fully reconstructed town that has been lovingly preserved with family memorabilia from the locals. It is an outdoor museum with a few special indoor spots, and dogs are allowed in the outdoor parts.
What’s astonishing is that the population of the town that hosts this museum is just 452. The streets of modern day Encampment are still all dirt roads. The neighboring town of Riverside located a few hundred yards down the one paved road has a population of 66 people. And there is nothing else around for 18 miles except wide open land.
Talk about a strong community spirit — what an achievement to create this fabulous museum!
It turns out that back in the 1960s two women who loved the town decided the old buildings and relics of Encampment’s earliest inhabitants deserved to be preserved for generations to come.
They set about raising the funds and raising the interest among their friends and neighbors that was necessary to set aside a large parcel of land right in town and move the town’s oldest buildings from where they originally stood to where they now stand on the museum grounds.
The main museum building was erected in 1969, but all the other homes, cabins and stores on site (except the very large Livery building) were moved from elsewhere in the area. There is even an old US Forest Service ranger station log cabin that is painted in the familiar US Forest Service brown. It sports a very cool door knocker.
We were enchanted!
Not all the buildings were open, but we peeked in all the windows, and each room of each building had been set up as it would have been back in the day using artifacts that had been carefully stored and passed down through the generations by local families.
Back in the early 1900s, an enterprising merchant opened a mercantile store along with some other businesses. The house he built in 1908 to persuade his wife to stay in Encampment rather than return to Denver is just charming. It is a simple house with small rooms by today’s standards, but it boasted all the modern conveniences of that time, including electricity, heat (via steam piped in from his store), running water and indoor plumbing!
It remained in the family from 1908 until it was donated to the museum in 1996.
One building at the museum used to be a stagecoach stop, and the front room is set up the way a boarding room for travelers would have been. Imagine riding in a stagecoach for hours and hours, seeing a lonely cabin in a vast prairie, and being told, “This is where you’ll spend the night!”
In a way, that little cabin must have been so cozy and inviting and such a relief. And yet it must have also seemed so isolated, remote and perhaps even a bit forlorn at the same time!
Out in a field we found a bunch of old farming equipment, and Mark was floored that the tractor had a crank start!
Our greeter at the Visitors Center, Cowboy, told us winter temperatures in this area have hit 75 below zero. Chatting with the Chief of Police a few days later (no, we weren’t hauled in, and yes, it’s super easy to meet people in this town and talk to them for a few hours!), we discovered he’d seen temperatures around 40 below zero. The town clerk we chatted with who’d lived in town for just a few years said she’d seen temps in the negative 30s.
Wow, that is COLD!
The snow piles up in this area too. It’s not uncommon to see 10 or more feet of snow in the dead of winter.
So, back in the day, a ground level outhouse just didn’t do the trick in the wintertime. Grand Encampment Museum has a replica of a two story outhouse on display. Once the lower level got completely snowed in and couldn’t be used any more, the second level became “ground level” and they simply used that level of the outhouse instead!
However, no one explained to us how things worked out drainage-wise when the snow melted in the springtime…!
Inside the immense Livery building we found all kinds of vehicles from days gone by. There was a covered wagon, a basque sheep herder’s wagon, and early motor cars.
There was also a one horse open sleigh adorned with Jingle Bells!!
A horse drawn hearse was on display, reminiscent of the funeral procession and the horse drawn hearse we’d seen in Utah earlier this year (blog post here).
One resident of Encampment kept all of his license plates through the years. It was fascinating to see that the year wasn’t imprinted on license plates prior to 1918, and the familiar Wyoming logo of the bucking bronco first appeared on the license plate in 1936.
There were all kinds of other intriguing things from beautiful and intricately hand sewn clothing to fascinating antique photos. The photo of a group of women lined up to ski was a hoot!
Back outside on the Grand Encampment Museum grounds we found a replica of the copper ore tramway. The buckets and all the gear were original but the scaffoldings had been recreated. The original tram went for 16 miles and each scaffolding was a different height because the terrain was hilly!
We first saw an ore tramway like this in Pioche, Nevada, where the original tramway and buckets still stand, frozen in time (blog post here).
We went behind some buildings and were surprised to come across two large open boats. These were tie-drive boats that were used to float the newly cut railroad ties from Encampment downriver.
The size, scale and scope of the railroad industry in the late 1800s has never hit us as hard as when we stood in Bovill, Idaho, two months ago and stared at the remains of a railroad crossing (blog post here).
Touching the immense, rusted railroad spikes and imagining what it took to nail millions of them into the thick wooden ties (with the rails precisely spaced so the train wheels would track properly) all across the country suddenly brought the whole creation of the railroad system to life for us. We sang “I’ve been working on the railroad” for a few days after that!
A photo in Grand Encampment Museum shows one of these tie-drive boats with two tie-hacks in action guiding the boat and the newly hewn ties down the river.
Encampment (and neighboring Riverside) had lots of other things to offer besides the museum. We shopped at the thrift store that’s open two days a week and we had a fabulous lunch at the Bear Trap Cafe in neighboring Riverside.
While we were savoring our meal, we noticed Cowboy Wadsworth coming into the restaurant. He was all dressed up in a freshly pressed cowboy shirt, kerchief around his neck and a cowboy hat, big belt buckle and cowboy boots.
Lots of other people began to arrive, and they were all dressed up as well.
It turned out Cowboy had just turned 95 and all his friends in town were celebrating his birthday with him in style at the Bear Trap Cafe! How cool is that?!
If your RV travels take you to southern Wyoming some day, we hope you too will find enchantment in Encampment!
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More info about Encampment, Wyoming:
- Encampment, Wyoming
- Grand Encampment Museum
- RV parks and campgrounds near Encampment, Wyoming
- Location of Encampment, Wyoming
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