When 28-year-old Jane Ivinson stepped off the first passenger train that rolled into Laramie on May 10, 1868, she beheld a treeless expanse stretching from horizon to horizon, dotted with tents and cut through by brand-new railroad tracks.
Thirty years later, writing down her memories of that day, she recalled gazing around and noting mountains to the east, mountains to the west and arid grasslands in between.
“The first glimpse of my surroundings was anything but reassuring,” she writes.
In 1899, the newly formed Laramie Woman’s Club, of which Jane Ivinson was a founding member, asked her to describe Laramie’s earliest days. Ivinson responded with a lengthy letter dated Dec. 20, 1899.
The letter was written from San Diego, California, where Jane and her husband, Edward, were spending the winter. It was printed in a special “Woman’s Edition” of the Laramie Boomerang on Jan. 1, 1900.
In the letter, Ivinson remembers her first months in Laramie, during which she, her husband and other early residents laid the foundation for businesses, buildings and institutions that stand today, 150 years later. The letter offers a unique look at the city’s beginnings, while also giving a glimpse of the lives of the people who built a home from empty plains.
“It’s really a precious remnant of our past,” said Mary Mountain, executive director of the Laramie Plains Museum at the Historic Ivinson Mansion.
According to a history of the museum written by Mountain, Edward Ivinson was born in 1830 on the island of St. Croix in the West Indies. When he was 7, he traveled to England, where he grew up and started a career selling cloth. He moved to the United States in 1853, where he met Jane Ivinson’s mother.
Jane Ivinson was born in England in 1840, the youngest of 13 children and the only child to live past the age of two. Her father died when she was young, and her mother remarried and moved to the United States, leaving Jane with her grandparents.
Historian Kim Viner, who has written several books about Laramie’s early history, said it’s possible Jane was a child-laborer who didn’t receive an education.
“I’m not even really sure how well she could write,” he said.
In 1853, Jane boarded a ship to follow her mother, who had asked Edward to meet the young girl at the dock. She had just turned 13, he was 23, and a few months after meeting they were married.
The couple moved to Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee over the next 14 years. Along the way, they adopted Margaret, the three-year-old daughter of a dying friend with many children.
In February 1868, as tracks were being laid for the transcontinental railroad and Western expansion was accelerating, Edward left his wife and daughter and traveled by train to Cheyenne, and then by horse to Laramie City, which sat along the Laramie River.
He brought two carloads of goods in order to open a mercantile. He later made money supplying ties for the Union Pacific Railroad and operating a bank.
Edward returned to Memphis to bring Jane, Maggie and their maid to Laramie on the first passenger train, which arrived on May 10, 1868.
“You may imagine my sensation in coming from my beautiful home in Tennessee, with its balmy air and fragrant flowers to this little pioneer hamlet, where luxury was unknown and fortunes were to be carved out by dint of great perseverance and stout hearts,” she writes.
The Ivinsons had a dwelling Jane described as “pretentious” because it was a log building, not a tent. The board roof didn’t have shingles, which were considered “superfluous” because, as she was told, it didn’t rain in that part of the country.
They ate their first meal — coffee, ham and sandwiches — in a tent that housed a bakery, while sitting on boxes covered with newspaper.
Clerks in Edward’s store shared their bedding with the family. During their first night, a downpour woke them from sleep.
“No it did not rain, it only poured and consequently we were drenched,” she writes.
The next morning, Jane observed a nearby gambling hall, a restaurant that served meals on tin plates and a new tent that had popped up overnight.
As she took in her surroundings, she seemed to gather herself for the work required to forge a home from this rough collection of tents and strangers, most of them men.
“One of my former ambitions had been to have a field to labor in where help was needed and unlimited good could be done, and I realized that I had now reached that place,” she writes. “So with a brave heart, I looked around to see what material was at hand to aid in the immense work now laid out before me.”
Mountain said that passage is her favorite because it speaks of Jane’s willingness to invest in the new settlement.
“I believe she had a depth of strength that helped her do what needed to be done in this Western town,” Mountain said.
Laramie wasn’t a civilized place in 1868. It was dominated by saloons and dance halls. Its provisional government crumbled within weeks of its founding, lynchings and shootings were commonplace and vigilantes roamed the streets.
“The town was really unsettled,” Viner said.
Soon after arriving, Jane started a Sunday school for families moving to Laramie with young children. They met in the back room of her husband’s store, sitting on dry goods boxes and covering the walls with blankets to keep the wind out. The nearby gambling establishments and dance halls were respectful enough to close during the services, re-opening immediately afterwards.
Jane and several women raised money through bake sales and dances for a public school, for those who couldn’t afford the private school. It opened in February 1869.
“It gives me great pleasure to see the girls and boys raised on our bleak plains such able men and women,” she writes.
Jane also arranged for Laramie to be on the circuit of a traveling preacher from Cheyenne and pushed for construction of an Episcopal church.
Near the end of the letter, Jane remembers the first Christmas in Laramie City, celebrated at the new railroad hotel, which had been built several months earlier. Men supplied evergreens and the women decorated the dining room for an evening party. They distributed books and toys to the children, and an evening train deposited weary travelers at the hotel.
“The passengers expressed surprise at seeing in that wilderness of sand and sage brush, such a beautiful Christmas display of good cheer and plenty,” she writes.
While Edward Ivinson helped build Laramie through banking and commerce, Jane Ivinson was instrumental in starting the town’s first cultural institutions. Mountain said both were vital in helping the transient tent city gain a foothold of permanence.
“Some of these towns took hold because people like the Ivinsons were there,” she said.
The population of Laramie at the time was about two-thirds men, but other women also made their mark there. The first women to serve on a jury in the United States were summoned in Laramie in March 1870, not including Jane because she declined upon the advice of her husband. In September 1870, Laramie’s Louisa Gardner Swain, a 70-year-old Quaker, became the first American women to vote in a general election.
“There might not have been much here, but what needed to be done, the women did,” Mountain said.
Not much is known about the following years of Jane’s life, Viner said. The Frontier Index was the first newspaper, but it followed the railroad and left Laramie in July 1868 to continue west. The Laramie Sentinel started printing in May 1869, but the first year of editions are lost.
Writing in 1899, Jane refers to Laramie as a “handsome city,” with “sightly buildings and green lawns.” By then, then the population had grown to more than 8,000 people and the Ivinsons were living in a lavish mansion.
Jane Ivinson died in 1915 after 61 years of marriage, after which Edward donated $50,000 to establish Ivinson Memorial Hospital. He donated his mansion and property to the Episcopal Missionary District for use as a school for girls. He also donated over the years for the expansion, towers, spire, chimes, paintings and stained glass of St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
In honor of a personal wish of Jane’s, he built and endowed the Ivinson Home for Ladies.
Upon her death, the Laramie Boomerang published a tribute to one of the city’s first residents: “Mrs. Ivinson will be sadly missed. Her cheery smile, her kindly word of greeting, her indomitable spirit of having a prominent part in every understanding that made for the betterment of the community, her desire to alleviate suffering, and above all her disposition to see that the city was properly regarded by the transient visitor, have made her a woman that can ill be spared at this time.”