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Happy birthday, Riverton

Aug 15, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

The city started as a few tents in the sagebrush on Aug. 15, 1906

It's Aug. 15, the day recognized as Riverton's birthday.

In a year filled with worries about drought, crop yields and river flows, it is worth noting that Riverton exists because of an irrigation project -- or the promise of one.

In 1905, an act of Congress allowed for the land that is now Riverton to be ceded -- fully, legally and permanently -- from the adjacent Wind River Indian Reservation for non-Indian settlement.

The following year, on Aug. 15, 1906, a land lottery was held, and the person to draw lot No. 1 was a German immigrant farmer named Hans Berlin. He came from Laramie, and many of the other original landholders were from outside Fremont County as well. A plan by Lander interests to control as much of the newly available land as possible backfired thanks to high water in the Wind River that prevented many of them from reaching Shoshoni in time for a crucial component of the lottery process. Enough "outsiders" arrived in Shoshoni from the east via train that any hope of operating the ceded land as a sort of plantation without much of a town was dashed.

The railroad pushed on to Riverton a few days later, and the local train depot was identified according to the name of the local Wind River Indian Reservation agent in charge, Mr. Wadsworth. But the town was never called Wadsworth, only the train station.

Settlers paid for lot deeds issued by "The Riverton Townsite Co." within days of the Aug. 15 opening, and in October, when the official town incorporation papers were filed with the State of Wyoming, the name Riverton was used. It's the only name the incorporated municipality here has ever had, although in the days of that summer of 1906, competing interests tried to label us Central City, Riverdale and Big Bend.

Many passengers on those first trains were people who had come to the area near the big bend of the Wind River on the promise of farming, supported by irrigation.

Hans Berlin, the man who drew lot No. 1, set up a nice farm on what is now North Second West in the Ash Grove neighborhood. The somewhat oddly shaped little house he and his family first lived in still stands, now an outbuilding behind a bigger, newer house.

The first irrigation water came right into the town via a canal still in use by the Riverton Valley Irrigation District. You cross is as you drive west up the hill near the old high school, and also on both Pershing Avenue and Sunset Drive as it cuts through town. (If you've ever hit a golf ball into the canal at the Riverton Country Club, that's the one we're talking about.)

But the larger project, the so-called Big Ditch that would provide water for a quarter-million acres immediately to the northwest, met with trouble. Finance fell through as big investors failed to deliver on their promises or got involved in political and banking squabbles.

Farmers in the Riverton Valley itself prospered well enough, and the town increased to a few hundred by 1910, a few hundred more by 1920. But it wasn't until the late 1920s that the Big Ditch finally was constructed. It's now the basis of the Midvale Irrigation District, and as predicted by the glad-handing boosters of 1906, it did transform central Fremont County into the top agricultural district in Wyoming. It just took awhile.

The Chicago and North Western Railroad no longer serves Riverton, nor does its competitor, the Burlington Northern. But by the time the trains left and the tracks were removed in the 1980s, Riverton was long and well established as a crossroads city with a diverse economy of agriculture, energy, tourism, manufacturing and government.

There have been some boom times, but for the most part growth has been more steady than spectacular. If the growth rate of the past century keeps up for the next one, by 2106 we'll have a population of 100,000.

That seems hard to believe, hard even to imagine. But, looking back to that hot day in 1906, it really isn't much more far-fetched than the idea of setting up a town in the sagebrush must have seemed then.

But they did it, and here we are. Happy 106th birthday, Riverton.

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