Centennial railroad

Centennial’s July 4th celebration in 1907 attracted 1,200 visitors from Laramie. Some are shown in this photo of the pavilion, with unidentified LHP&P dignitaries probably in front. A golden spike was hammered in place to mark the 6-year process of laying track about 30 miles between Laramie and Centennial. Exact location of the pavilion is unmarked, but it was close to the present-day Old Corral, on the south side of Highway 130.

Hopes were raised in Centennial, Wyoming with news that “the railroad should be ready in a few months.” The announcement ran in the July 16, 1902, first issue of The Centennial Post, a newspaper founded by the railroad promoters.

Five years later, the town was still waiting for the train to arrive.

Boston money

What Centennial residents were waiting for was the ambitiously named Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railway Company (LHP&P), which was to go over the Snowy Range into Colorado. The “Pacific” part of the name was speculation, perhaps for a hoped-for merger with other railroads that were also being planned to move people and raw materials from the Rocky Mountains to the coast.

The LHP&P railroad had been incorporated in 1901, with Isaac Van Horn of Boston as president and Fred A. Miller of Laramie as vice president. These men focused on Centennial, which they promised to enhance not only with a railroad and depot, but a hotel, dance pavilion, newspaper and a lavish country club.

These would augment the Larson Hotel where Mrs. E.C. Larson advertised 35¢ meals, Moore’s Place (“A place for a Gentleman to Drink”), a grocery store, post office, several real estate agents, and some close-in ranches advertising other services. That was about it for the business district of Centennial before the Boston money came in.

Country club?

The Centennial Valley countryside abounds in rocks and boulders that were pushed off the Snowy Range and left behind in the valley by a glacier eons ago. Locals probably knew the rock-strewn prairie could never be converted into fairways. No matter how many rocks are moved away, more pop up every winter. But they kept quiet about it, for who wants to dash the dreams of rich men coming from afar?

The railroad promoters published a prospectus saying the Rocky Mountain Country Club will be limited to 250 members, offering bowling, tennis, polo, cricket, target shooting, and croquet, along with golf. Club-owned hotel accommodations on site were promised, as well as a large dormitory for the servants these moneyed easterners would bring with them.

In addition to Van Horn, the prospectus published in 1905 listed three other men from the Boston area as officers: the impressively named Marquis Fayette Dickinson; his son Charles Dickinson; and Henry M. Whitney of Brookline, Massachusetts. Isaac Van Horn & Co. bank of Boston, exclaimed in the newspaper that it dealt exclusively in Wyoming securities — stock in the enterprise was available through that bank.

The country club, planned to be a showpiece for the transformation of Centennial into a playground for members arriving on the expected railroad, never got off the ground. The impressively bound book describing this investment opportunity is a marvel of making something on paper appear to be “real.” It is complete with drawings by Fred H. Bond, Jr., a Boston architect, showing the prospective clubhouse, locker rooms, hotel, stables, carriage house, bowling alley, etc.

Fits and starts for the RR

There were difficulties getting the railroad going after the laying of track began in 1901. Work stopped for the winter but materials were delivered and by May work crews were starting to erect a trestle and two bridges near Laramie that crossed a canal and the Big and Little Laramie Rivers.

The “Van Horn-Miller Co-operative Trust,” (formal name for the promoters) announced in October of 1902 that they had an “intention” to petition for condemnation of property the railroad needed. Vice-president Fred A. Miller filed the notice in a Laramie newspaper, naming the Union Pacific (UPRR) and some Centennial landowners as defendants. This was likely done to pressure the landowners to grant covenants or ownership of the parcels the LHP&P needed so they could reach Centennial. One would think that they might have taken care of all right-of-way issues before track laying began but apparently that didn’t happen.

There was no news of railroad construction in 1903, though Van Horn was reported to be negotiating with another new Colorado railroad line and with the UPRR to connect their lines through the new town of Steamboat Springs and on to Grand Junction. In 1904 the company announced that $800,000 in bonds were to be issued to enable the line to get to Centennial by May of 1905. It also announced that this would be the “Initial opening of the big company club houses,” though neither materialized in 1905.

Nothing at all happened in 1905 that made the newspapers, save the Van Horn mouthpiece, The Centennial Post, which continued to be very optimistic. On April 3, 1906, a Boomerang reporter cornered Van Horn in Laramie long enough to learn that the bonds had been sold and rail had been ordered, but delivery timing was likely to make it early fall before the line would reach Centennial. He also stated that Fred Miller was now the president of the company; there was no indication of what Van Horn’s role had become.

Finally, Centennial is in sight

The company got serious about laying track in early 1907, determined to reach Centennial by July. On June 8, the Centennial Post announced that a large throng was expected for the opening ceremonies on July 4, 1907, with the Laramie Fraternal Order of Eagles doing most of the organizing.

On June 16, the first train chugged into Centennial, probably to the sound of hammering as workers were still erecting the dance pavilion and depot that had been promised. All on the train were guests of Fred Miller, including a great number of Eagles members to make final festivity plans.

On June 22, the Post announced that carpenters would stop work on the depot so they could get the dancing pavilion ready for the ceremonies happening in less than 2 weeks. One of the last things to be done was to lay the maple floor for the pavilion.

Golden Spike hammered in — then removed

The July 4th festivities included celebrating the completion of the LHP&P to Centennial. Eighteen Boston and New York investors and their wives arrived “in a private Pullman” and were entertained at the Mountain View hotel, according to the Post, though they only stayed overnight before returning to Denver and on to homes in the east.

Nine LHP&P officials and employees wielded the hammer to drive in the Golden Spike that the Commercial Club of Centennial had prepared. After the ceremony, the spike was pulled out and replaced, with the original given to Mr. Van Horn as a souvenir.

Eagles celebration a success

The Eagles’ picnic, Fourth of July celebration, railroad dedication, dance and sporting contests in Centennial were a rousing success, as reported by the Laramie Republican on July 11th, 1907. “The Laramie Plains line handled about 1,200 people to and from Centennial … for the hour and 10 minutes run.” There was no mention of the number of locals overrun with all these visitors, but many were probably put to work as vendors, waitresses and cooks.

The planners were rewarded with a perfect day: “no rain, no mosquitoes and just enough sunshine to make the shade preferable in the hottest part of the day,” said the paper. It was a “merry happy throng,” the paper declared. Sheriff Bath and Deputy Thirkeldsen were on hand and might have “prevented a fight or two between intoxicated graders,” though most revelers were well behaved, and are reported to have listened attentively to the patriotic address given by Judge Groesbeck of Laramie.

“The elegant dancing pavilion, perhaps the largest in the county, had been finished and was used all day long, excellent music being furnished by Niethe’s orchestra of this city [Laramie], with violin, piano, clarinet, cornet and trombone,” said the paper. “One could get anything from a sandwich of picnic-baked meat to a glass of Anheuser-Busch.”

There was one mishap: Laramie’s “Fred Sackett, the aeronaut” was severely burned about the hands and face when his huge balloon was destroyed. Sackett intended to parachute down once the balloon reached altitude, but while still on the ground the balloon caught fire. A pail holding gasoline was mistaken for water and tossed onto the flames making a huge flareup from which Sackett barely escaped.

Visitors from Laramie discovered that though there had been trains coming and going all afternoon, the LHP&P operators cancelled the 8 p.m. return, forcing everyone to wait until the final run at 10 p.m. which was packed; it reached Laramie around midnight. There were few complaints; it was a celebration talked about for years.

Van Horn’s Legacy

Not much is known about Isaac Van Horn. A search of resources like Ancestry and Google yielded nothing with certainty except a book written by Van Horn before all the Centennial business started. The title is “Brains and Money vs. Resources, Illustrated and Embellished with Views of One of the Most Resourceful Yet Undeveloped Sections of the Rocky Mountain Region,” published around 1900. Coe Library at UW has several copies in the Special Collections Department.

McBride Rare Books of New York City offers a copy of this book for $300 and suggests that it is “a wonderful and elaborate promotional work for Laramie, Wyoming.” The McBride blurb also reveals that Van Horn declared bankruptcy in 1917, with liabilities in excess of $750,000.

The author of the website “Wyoming Tales and Trails” reports (with no sources) that Van Horn made his initial money as a grocer in Nebraska before moving to Boston, and that he received $2,750,000 in railroad stock without any evidence of having paid for it.

By 1913, the railroad that Van Horn envisioned was in receivership, with Fred Miller as the court-appointed “receiver.” The line was reorganized four times with different owners after 1914, ending finally as the Wyoming & Colorado Scenic Railroad, which dissolved in 1996. The tracks were pulled up, and a portion of the grade that had been built in the Medicine Bow Mountains has now become a popular “rails-to-trails” segment maintained by the Forest Service and a group of dedicated volunteers.

So the LHP&P was put to rest with all the jokes about its name. It was the “Laramie North Park & Western” at one time; “Lazy, No Pep and Wobbly” was what locals told me they called it. The UPRR took over the line in mid-century; I remember the unique sound of its diesel engine throbbing and whistle blowing as it slowly chugged along the edge of Lake Owen Campground, on its way to Coalmont, Colorado.

Proudly unincorporated

In 2010, the population of Centennial was 270. It’s about 31 miles west of Laramie on Highway 130. The unincorporated town does boast a Post Office, Community Center, Church, Branch Library, School, Museum, Volunteer Fire Station, convenience story with gas station, and several more restaurants than it had in 1907.

And the name? It came from a gold mine that was supposedly discovered when a local fellow picked up a quartz stone with something shiny in it that was assayed to reveal gold. One would think that might have happened in 1876, the Centennial year for the United States. But the authors of the booklet “Centennial, Wyoming 1876-1976: The Real Centennial” say the Centennial mine was actually founded in 1875. The gold vein soon disappeared but hopes still remain that the “lost vein” is somewhere in the mountains above Centennial.

Judy Knight is collection manager at the Laramie Plains Museum. This story and others in the series are archived on the website of the Albany County (Wyoming) Historical Society, wyachs.com.

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