By Bill Deverell
Rawlins, Wyoming. Drove up here yesterday from Colorado Springs, right alongside Front Range. These are the baby Rockies that, in their north/south alignment, help create landscapes of great beauty and attraction up against their eastern-facing flanks. The Front Range, I learned as a kid, is where all the people are and hardly any of the water, and that’s even more true today.
We took the back road, state highway 287, from Ft. Collins (home to CSU and a superb history department) on up to and across the Wyoming border. This is a glorious drive: rocky canyons of red soils, vistas of fifty and sixty miles, every now and then a one-room church with a little steeple sitting in vigil on the open range. French place and river names are flecked here and there, leftovers from the early 19th century when French trappers and traders came through. Best known in these parts is probably the Cache la Poudre River, so named in the 1820s when French trappers got caught in a snowstorm and buried some of their gunpowder on the river’s banks. We hit a big rainstorm at the border, just before Laramie. Because you can see so far out here, the rainstorm sat on the horizon in sheets and sheets — lightning shooting down in big bolts every few minutes — for a long time before we drove right into it.
We made Rawlins by dinnertime, getting a little further than I thought we would. That will make today’s drive to our fishing range destination, near Daniel, Wyoming, a snap. Rawlins is a tough place — the Wyoming State Penitentiary is here, along with its maximum-security inmates. A precursor facility, the Wyoming Frontier Prison, sits in the center of town. It is the 1901 re-do of an 1872 prison. Tours run regularly through the castle-like structure, which, as we drove by at dusk, looked nearly as ominous and imposing as it no doubt was in its heyday. Especially “incorrigible” prisoners were housed in the “dungeon house” portion of the penitentiary. Many an inmate was executed here, mostly hanged from gallows or killed by gas. The last woman inmate, who had murdered her father with a poison plum pie, arrived for a brief stay in 1909, before being transferred to another site. A quick glance at the website describing the history and tours (and urging visitors to “Come Hang With Us”) gives a little sense of the context of the prison’s early years. Train robbers were behind bars here, as were men on either side of the often-bloody range wars that pitted cattlemen against sheepmen. Rawlins is a fascinating place — those early days peek around the corners of its buildings and storefronts to this day, the U.P. railroad tracks run right through town, and this haunted hulk of a prison is still telling stories.
Dinner for us was at Buck’s in town (the menus are big!), a boisterous and friendly place with all kinds of Old West paraphernalia on the walls. I spy Butch Cassidy’s prison mug shot on the wall. Born in Utah 1866 as Robert Leroy Parker to Mormon emigres from England, Cassidy took the name of a ranch hand mentor and put together a notorious band of outlaws late in the century. There are pictures of some of his “Hole in the Wall” gang up as well. The “Hole in the Wall,” a secluded pass through a rocky mesa about 200 miles north of here, was a notorious outlaw hideout, ca. 1880-1910, and Cassidy apparently knew it well. I don’t see Etta Place up here, but I bet she’s somewhere. A Denver schoolteacher, Etta was the girlfriend of Harry Longabaugh, Cassidy’s sidekick, better known as the Sundance Kid. She went to South America with the outlaws in the early 20th century, when things got way too hot for them in Wyoming and the Great Basin. She supposedly returned to Denver to undergo an appendectomy, at which point she disappears into history’s mists. Cassidy and Longabaugh, as the great Paul Newman/Robert Redford film depicts so movingly and well, look to have been killed in a shootout with authorities in Bolivia, though Butch may have somehow avoided that fate, as many still claim.
Not far from Rawlins — we will drive right by it this morning — is the site of one of Butch Cassidy’s signature train robberies made famous in the film. Having stopped the train, Cassidy and his men then blew up the baggage car to smithereens with dynamite, prompting, in the film, Redford (as the Sundance Kid) to ask, “Do ya think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”