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Oil, ranching develop Big Horn County

Written by Christy Martinez

Big Horn County sits in northern Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin, and was organized in 1897 from parcels taken from Johnson, Fremont and Sheridan counties.

On March 12, 1890 the Wyoming Legislature officially created the county, named for the Big Horn Mountains that form it eastern boundary.

The county originally included the entire Big Horn Basin, but in 1909 Park County was detached, and in 1911 Hot Springs and Washakie counties were, also, and the county ended up with today’s borders.

In northwest Big Horn County lie the Pryor Mountains, named after Nathaniel Pryor, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that passed to the north.   

Through the Pryor Mountains runs the Bad Pass Trail, which was used by early mountain men to carry furs from the Bighorn Basin east to the Missouri River. The first European to use the pass was Francois Larocque, a trapper with the British Northwest Company in 1805. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company later utilized the pass in 1824 and 1825 and in later years General William Ashley is said to have transported some $50,000 in furs through the pass.

Despite the early exploration by trappers, today’s Big Horn County area remained relatively unexplored and certainly unsettled until the late 1870s, when Henry Clay Lovell trailed two herds of cattle into the area in 1879.

In 1883, Lovell, after whom the town of Lovell is named, in partnership with Anthony L. Mason of Kansas City, established a ranch at the mouth of Nowood Creek, followed by the establishment the next year of a second ranch on Shell Creek. A third ranch was formed at Five Springs, which became the headquarters for the operation. At one time the partnership controlled 25,000 head ranging from Thermopolis north into Montana.

Other settlers in the area included Josia Cook, first postmaster for Lovell, and B. F. Wickwire, who homesteaded Medicine Lodge. The first settler in what is now Greybull was John Gottlieb Borner (1838-1919) who came to the area from the Lander area following the death of his wife in 1886.
The town of Greybull dates back to the first decade of the 1900s and sits at the confluence of the Bighorn and Greybull rivers. The river is allegedly named after an albino bison, which is regarded by the Native Americans of the Northern Great Plains has having great significance. The town of Greybull developed through a combination of the coming of irrigation, the discovery of gas and oil and the coming of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

The railroad provided easy transportation for cattle and tanker cars bearing oil, and the two refineries owned by Standard of Indiana and the Midwest Oil Company provided needed employment and prosperity. Greybull was unlike rough oil and coal camps, but instead the town had central water, lights, indoor plumbing, a two-story school and a semi-pro baseball team playing in an industrial league sponsored by the Midwest Oil Company.

Greybull and Shell are also noted as being the center of significant Jurassic and Cretaceous Period dinosaur deposits. In 1933, based on information furnished an amateur fossil collector, Barnum Brown (1873-1963), uncovered a bone deposit on the Barker Howe Ranch near the base of the Bighorn Mountains. The following year, with financial support from the Sinclair Refining Company, Brown, with Roland Thaxter Bird (1899-1978), returned to the site, which proved to be one of the most significant beds of Sauropods in the world. As a result, Sinclair adopted the dinosaur as its trademark.

Brown developed a hypothosis that the concentration of bones was as a result of a massive disaster causing a desiccation of lakes and swamps. More recently, following a 10-year study of the Howe Ranch site, Kirby Siber, director of a dinosaur museum in Aathal, Switzerland, has reiterated the theory, indicating his belief that the site was caused by “a huge catastrophe” such as a hurricane, flood or similar natural event.

Today, people who live in Big Horn County say they like its climate, they like the access to the Bighorn Mountains for livestock grazing and they like the “end of the road” feel of some parts of the county.
Article compiled by Christy Martinez from wyomingtailsandtrails.com.