City Management in the Old West: What Was It like to Manage a Small City in Wyoming in the Mid-1880s, and How Did City Administration Evolve in Response to a Variety of Issues Confronting the Laramie City Council?

By Hubbell, Larry; Winters, Regina | The Public Manager, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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City Management in the Old West: What Was It like to Manage a Small City in Wyoming in the Mid-1880s, and How Did City Administration Evolve in Response to a Variety of Issues Confronting the Laramie City Council?


Hubbell, Larry, Winters, Regina, The Public Manager


Water shortages, urban renewal, open space, and zoning are only a few of the issues facing modern city administrators. But what was it like to manage a small city in the American West in the mid-1880s at the dawn of public administration in the United States? What services fell under the public purview? In this article, the authors examine how city administration evolved in Laramie, Wyoming, as it began its life as a charter city in the 1880s--a period during which American public administration also began with the publishing of Woodrow Wilson's famous article "Study of Administration" in 1887.

In this article, the authors conducted research into the early days of city administration in Laramie, Wyoming, from 1884 to 1886. In their research, they consulted local newspaper articles, biographies, city ordinances, and other historical materials. As a means of contrasting late 19th century Laramie with the Laramie of today, they interviewed the city's current mayor.

The Historical Context

Laramie was established in 1868 when approximately 900 residents inhabited the small town. That year was also marked by the election of a mayor, a city marshal, a city clerk, and trustees, who ran on the platform of getting rid of the "Hell on Wheels," described by the League of Women Voters as a motley throng of gamblers and evildoers. The first structures in the town were tents and sheds, which were soon replaced by permanent structures. It was one of five towns in Wyoming established along the route of the Union Pacific Railroad along the Wyoming Territory's southern border with Colorado. During the 1880s, change was affecting the City of Laramie. The Oregon Trail, which had passed just south of the city, had recently been replaced by the railroad. The Indian wars were over, but the Battle of Little Big Horn was fought in the neighboring territory of Montana in 1876, just a few years before.

In 1884, the Wyoming legislature approved the Laramie city charter after two failed attempts. During these years, the rule of law was still in its infancy in this region. In 1885, a man accused of grand larceny, Si Partridge, was lynched by a mob on the outskirts of Laramie. In 1886, two major events occurred in the history of the town. The downtown became illuminated by electric lights, and the University of Wyoming was inaugurated, becoming the territory's only four-year institution of higher learning, a distinction it holds to this day.

By 1890, Laramie had a population of 6,386, and many of the local boosters, particularly the members of the board of trade, predicted that it would continue to grow rapidly. Laramie did reach a population of 8,207 in 1900, although the much-predicted boom never did occur. In the last 2000 census, Laramie's population was approximately 27,000, and about 9,000 of the residents were University of Wyoming students. Meanwhile, at the regional level, Wyoming became the nation's forty-fourth state in 1890.

The Principal City Officials

In 1884, the Wyoming legislature issued Laramie a permanent city charter that designated the city would be run by an elected mayor, treasurer, clerk, and five council members from three wards. Specifically, the charter outlined the duties of the mayor and council as follows:

         The mayor and council are empowered to bar and enforce
     ordinances for the government of the city; levy taxes, etc.; and
     given the usual powers of the government of municipal corporations.
     Among the powers especially granted are to restrain, prohibit and
     suppress tippling shops and all places where liquors are sold;
     billiard tables, bowling alleys, houses of prostitution and other
     disorderly houses and practices, games and gambling houses,
     desecration of the Sabbath day, commonly called Sunday and all
     kinds of public indecencies (Weekly Sentinel, 3/15/1884, p.3).

Each city official was elected annually in April.

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