Laramie City (as it was first called) was named and established by General Grenville Dodge, the man in charge of planning the Union Pacific’s route westward. The city of Laramie, as well as several other places in eastern Wyoming, bears the name of a French-Canadian trapper who was killed by Indians in the mountains also named in his honor. The location was chosen because of a major spring that still produces millions of gallons of water and because railroad ties could be cut in the mountains to the west and brought down the Laramie River for processing and use. The proximity of Fort Sanders, the first permanent settlement in the Laramie area (built in 1866 to protect settlers and stagecoaches along the Overland Trail), also influenced the location. By the time the first train rolled into Laramie on May 10, 1868, many “sooners” had already set up business in tents. The first passengers were met with 23 saloons, one hotel and no churches. Within three months, Laramie had 5,000 people.
The main reason for the existence of Laramie for many years was the presence of the railroad and the operations it established — including a roundhouse, an iron foundry, a tie-treating plant, machine shops and a mill for reprocessing old rails. The discovery of gold in the Snowy Range to the west helped Laramie’s economy grow, but the railroad remained the largest employer in Laramie until the 1950s when it was topped by the University of Wyoming.
In 1886, Laramie received a gift from the state legislature that would eventually transform it from a cow town into a college town. Under the leadership of Col. Stephen W. “Father of the University” Downey, the legislature voted to establish the University of Wyoming. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Francis E. Warren in 1886, four years before Wyoming achieved statehood. The school opened the following year with five professors and a coed student body of 42 who each paid $7.50 for tuition. Over the years, the railroad gradually diminished in importance, while the university added more and more to the local economy until it became the largest local employer.
Laramie was the site of two of the most notable events in the history of women’s rights. On September 6, 1870, Louisa Gardner “Grandma” Swain became the first woman in the nation to vote in an open and public election. A few months before this, a judge in Laramie established the world’s first jury with women members. A women’s history memorial park (the Johnson, Lummis, Hunkins Plaza, which features a full-size bronze statue of Grandma Swain) sits in the heart of historic downtown Laramie on Second Street between Garfield Street and Grand Avenue.
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