Before Douglas [†], before the State of Wyoming itself, there was Fort Fetterman,a military outpost established by the U.S. Government in 1867, on the edge of the Western frontier. For fifteen years, Fetterman troops afforded protection to local settlers and to emigrants traveling westward along the Bozeman and Oregon trails.
By 1882, as emigrant traffic waned and civil order was more or less established across the region, the Fort housed a population of only 200 people; these included a small garrison of troops, and a number of enterprising civilians who provided supplies and various forms of entertainment and refreshment to cattle ranchers within the region.
At the Fort, long-standing rumors of an impending railway route intensified during the early 1880's, and the hearsay attracted a steady stream of new, opportunistic pioneers. The Fort's population soon doubled, and finally more than quintupled when, by 1886, the rumors had turned to fact: from Chadron, Nebraska—a little cattle town 150 miles due-east of Fetterman—the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad was laying rail, due-west.
In those days, railway companies laid out not only ties and rails, but whole towns as well—commercial centers that functioned as distribution points for both freight and passengers. Thus, although it was to be situated in the wilds of the Wyoming Territory, the town of Douglas was first conceived as 24 rectangular plats on a drafting board in the Chicago offices of the FE&MV Railroad. The Railroad named their new town "Douglas," in honor of former Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas (who, amongst other claims to fame, had been a vigorous exponent of westward expansion).
While Douglas was still on the drawing table, the settlers at Fetterman had determined that they were in the wrong place, even if at the righuntil the final hour, it was common knowledge that tracks could not be laid through a military reservation. Acting on their best hunch, then, the settlers soon evacuated the Fort and established a temporary tent town, called "Antelope," a few miles south, on a delta of Antelope Creek and the North Platte River. "Close, but not quite" describes the accuracy of the collective hunch: eventually, from August 30 through September 2, 1886, the new town of Douglas was auctioned off, parcel by parcel, on the delta immediately south of the ragtag Antelope.
Construction began immediately, spearheaded by entrepreneurs eager to replace their flimsy Antelope tents with wood and masonry structures before the onset of winter. By December of 1886, there were, as one historian reports, "three newspapers, two banks, twelve general stores, twenty smaller stores, hotels, restaurants, lumber yards, drug and jewelry stores, two dance halls, and twenty-one saloons"—all catering to a population of 1,600 people.
The initial boom, however, immediately went bust: in October, a typhoid epidemic swept through the settlement, and was shortly followed by a disastrous winter that destroyed livestock and ranches on a major scale. Shortly thereafter, adding insult to injury, in 1888 the town lost its privileged status as the railway's western terminus: the FE&MV was already proceeding further west, into Casper, and from thence on out to the base of the Rocky Mountains. By December 1888, the Douglas population had dwindled to a total of 300 lonely souls, and the continuing existence of the infant town was in serious doubt.
It was saved in 1889, when sheep were introduced to the region, and were found to thrive where cattle had not. On the strength of this new industry, the Douglas population more than doubled within the year, to a total of 734. Less than a decade later, in 1907, population was approaching the 2,000 mark, and the local press was crowing that it was "due largely to the sheep business that Douglas was resurrected from a 'busted boomlet' in 1888 to a wealthy, thriving, prosperous modern improved city."
Another early impetus to growth was land irrigation—introduced in 1906 by the LaPrele Ditch and Reservoir Company—which enabled the formation of agricultural enterprises across the dry flats west of the North Platte River. And so by 1910, thanks to agriculture and sheep ranching, the Douglas population had burgeoned to a total of 2,246 people. Population remained roughly stable across the ensuing six decades, varying from a recorded low of 1,758 (in 1925), to a recorded high of 2,677 (in 1970).
In the late 1970's, coal, oil, and uranium production began in earnest within the region, and by the latter half of the 1980's the population had grown to around 6,500. By the end of the 1990's, however, natural resource industries were experiencing lower levels of production, and population had declined to around 5,300.
† Adapted from: Historic Downtown Douglas: A Walking Tour. 2003, updated 2011, www.conversecountytourism.com, accessed September, 2022.