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Riverton's birthday

Aug 16, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

The big eclipse crowds are arriving as we note 111 years since the land lottery

The big crowds that are about to start arriving in Riverton to seenext Monday'sgrand solar eclipse are getting here during the city's birthday week.

There's rarely any kind of public ceremony or annual acknowledgment of the city's founding anymore, but mid-August is pivotal in local history. Our newspaper tries to make note of it each year.

Riverton came into being in 1906, some months after an act of Congress had authorized "opening" land on the Wind River Indian Reservation for white settlement.

In August, a lottery was held to allocate portions of land for the new settlers, land that would be removed, legally and permanently, from the reservation. Lucky holder of position No. 1 was a dairy farmer from Laramie named Hans Berlin. He chose property on what is now North Second West, just below the new canal that was being dug there, near the top of what later came to be known as High School Hill.

It is hard to picture it now, but the land sloping downward to the east of that canal and north of Main Street before the railroads tracks (now Rails to Trails) was farmland. Riverton exists because of an irrigation project. The promise of irrigated land was what brought the first white settlers here 111 years ago this month to a hot, dry valley in the sagebrush.

A common myth remains among some people that the original name of the town was Wadsworth. Not true.

The federal agent overseeing the Wind River Indian Reservation at the time was a man named Wadsworth, and his name was applied on one of the railway stops on the newly opened land as the Chicago and North Western Railroad was pushing east from Casper. That was common practice around the West as the rails advanced where there was no established town. Each stop had to have a name, and if there was a government official anywhere nearby, the stop could be named after that person.

Lander newspaper accounts from the time used the name Riverdale and Central City to describe the tiny town site. Some used the name Big Bend, referring to the dramatic direction change in the Wind River from northwest to northeast. But when, on Sept. 1, 1906, the first edition of the first legitimate newspaper was produced, it was called the Riverton News. (Its first headline, trumpeting the impending arrival of irrigation water, read "To Water Big Bend"). Wadsworth's name, either as a person or a town, is never mentioned. Alas, no permanent archive of the paper exists. It was handed over to a new owner within weeks, who changed the name to the Riverton Review.

With "squatters" staking out plots of nearby land just outside the area covered by the formal land lottery, an enterprising man named F.M. Gill collected $2.50 from each of them so that they could have a piece of paper to show to outside authorities threatening to remove them from the land until October. They weren't legal property transactions, but they did count for something. At the top of each deed were the words "Riverton Townsite Company."

The railroad had the right to name its depot, but not the town that arose near it. And the only name that town ever had is Riverton. We've been working to put the Wadsworth myth to bed for years. Let's keep it there.

A century and a decade later, a few signs of old Riverton remain. Mr. Berlin's little white house is a prominent feature in some of the earliest pictures of Riverton. It still stands today, and if you know where to look you can see it to the rear of a bigger residence, tucked up close to the canal bank. It's an outbuilding now, but it's still there, and it's still in good shape, still serving a purpose.

The Riverton train depot is now a restaurant. It wasn't the first train station built here, and it has been moved from its original spot across Main to the north, but it's still a standing monument to the very early days. The Riverton Valley Irrigation District canal, cutting through Riverton from the golf course across Main, just east of Tonkin Stadium and north past Sunset Park, dates from the beginning as well. It's been widened, lined, stabilized and otherwise improved, but it's still there largely as it was from the start.

We note with pride as well that our newspaper is the direct business descendant of that first 1906 paper. It was published as the Riverton Review from 1906 to 1953, when it merged with another weekly, the Riverton Times. Going forward, the new paper was called The Ranger. This week we mark our 64th year under that name, and we can lay fair claim to being the oldest business in town.

Most new settlements begin with lofty predictions of future prosperity. Riverton certainly did. Those dreams of 50,000 residents didn't come true, but a stable, diverse, sustaining city of 11,000, with a surrounding unincorporated population of thousands more, stands today, its original farm economy still in place, supplemented and expanded by minerals, livestock, tourism, government and industry.

Even that must have seemed a remote possibility in those early days under the tents. But they got us started, and their effort and commitment are worth our memory.

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2017-09-22