Darrin & Andrea
Lythgoe's Genealogy Pages

Histories > Eliza R. Lythgoe

Colonization of the Big Horn Basin by the Latter-day Saints


Thomas & Mary Lythgoe in front of their cabin in Cowley, Wyoming.

By Eliza R. Lythgoe

Note: Eliza R. Lythgoe was the second wife of Thomas Lythgoe, who was Darrin's great grandfather and also a pioneer of the Big Horn Basin.

The coming of the Pioneers — usually told of the Salt Lake Valley pioneers — was relived with other faces and with slightly different incidents each time a new settlement was begun. This is the story of pioneering in the Big Horn Basin of northwestern Wyoming.

A small body of churchmen went into the Big Horn Basin about 1897 and settled at Burlington, Wyoming. Stories of the country were written to friends in Utah. The knowledge that land and water were available caused the leaders of the Church to investigate.

Colonel William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) was an admirerof Brigham Young and often praised his ability as a colonizer. He said, "If the Mormons will take over this Cincinnat Canal Proposition, I am sure it will succeed, as I know they will work together on it. I can see in my mind fields of alfalfa and grain and homes for many people here."

Elder A.O. Woodruff of the Council of the Twelve and fourteen other prominent men were sent in February 1900, to look over the country, not only the land that the Cincinnati Canal would cover, but also the level land surrounding it. Colonel Cody came down and met them near the place where the Sidon Canal now heads. He spent a pleasant evening recounting many of his experiences.

An application to divert, appropriate, and use the waters of the Shoshone River had been made by Colonel Cody and Nate Salisbury, their application begin approved by the state engineer on may 22, 1899. On April 24, 1900, Colonel Cody and Nate Salisbury signed a relinquishment of these rights to the state of Wyoming, permitting the state to assign the land and water rights to another party. The Church, having filed an application for the construction of a canal on January 11, 1900, subsequently received the rights Colonel Cody held.

While the delegation was at Bridger, montana, a hardware dealer by the name of Haskins was consulted in regard to the purchase of plows, scapers, crowbars, picks, and shovels. Though these men were entire strangers to Mr. Haskins, he agreed to secure the required tools for them.

A favorable report of the proposition in Wyoming was made to the Presidency of the Church, and the organization for colonizing the new country was started. Soon after this the canal was resurveyed, and preparations to go to work were immediately made.

Elder A.O. Woodruff was put in charge of the colony to build this canal. Staunch, experienced men like Byron Sessions, a frontiersman, Charles A. Welch, an expert accountant, and other stalwart men of experience were sent to see about work. Young men of strength and courage who were seeking land and wanted to grow up with a new country came, accompanied by their wives and children. None of them thought of going back or of failure. They came in covered wagons containing food, dishes, beds, clothing¾the bare necessities of life.

Since my three-weeks-old baby and I were unable to leave Salt Lake City for Wyoming when my husband and the others left in May 1900, we made the trip by train the following July, and since I want to present the experiences of a woman who did make the journey by team, I secured an account of a trip from my friend, Sarah J. Partridge, who, with three families, began her overland journey to the Big Horn Basin April 3, 1900. Mrs. Partridge said, "Everyone going to the basin started out on the road to Ham's Fork where they all were to meet."

In her party were the W.C. Partridge, the Edwart Partridge, and the Ben Salisbury families. She continued, "Our eldest boy, Clayton, walked and drove the milk cows. Realizing we were going to an unsettled country, we loaded our two wagons with everything we could not sell, even taking two or three hundred pounds of lead. Our wagons and teams were overloaded. Now, after forty years when I think back how we strewed the road with chickens, washers, etc., I sometimes laugh and sometimes cry. We were eight weeks on the road from Provo, Utah, to the Big Horn Basin in Wyoming, arriving at the head of the canal May 29, 1900.

"One reason why the start had been made early in the spring was to get across the rivers before high water, but you can still ehar a group of our pioneers talk of the time they forded this river or that, and how they were almost washed downstream at one river or another. I'll never forget the evening we forded Big Wind River. The water was above the front wheels of the wagon. The men led the horses through the stream with water above their waists. If ever the Lord helped us on our journey, he helped us then.

"A day's journey from Ham's Fork a blizzard swept over the company. The wagons were driven into what shelter could be found, the horses tied to the wagons and given a small feed of oats. Not much sleep was had by anyone as the horses gnawed the wagon boxes or any other wood not covered by irons. How the wind howled and shook the wagons in which everyone was trying to sleep! The storm lasted three days, and when it abated, nearly two feet of snow covered the ground.

"The morning after the blizzard the teams had to move on so that feed might be found in order to save the animals. Oats were obtained at Opal, Wyoming, which, with the salt sage and dry grass, dept the animals alive.

Other companies continued to come over the same route. Camps were established, and sources of supplies were sought out. Many pictures of those days came to my mind. Tents were lined up and down along the river, and how plainly everyone could be heard! In the evenings the horses were taken out across the river on the hills and herded, while people gathered in groups here and there, talking over conditions, playing a guitar, singing songs that were popular or hymns.

Mary Harston Lythgoe and family
Mary Harston Lythgoe, with her mother and children.

One menace was the rattlesnake; a woman found one in her tent, which made us all afraid.

As stated before, arrangements had been made to secure tools from Mr. Haskins, the hardware dealer at Bridger, Montana. An order for the necessary tools was sent to him by Mr. C.A. Welch, who collected the money, went to Bridger, and paid for them. Freight wagons were sent to Bridger for the tools, grain, food, and other necessities.

For the freight wagon, two or three wagons were hitched together, with eight or ten horses. The freight wagons supplied the country with food, clothes, tools, everything! Fifteenor twenty miles a day was their speed.

There were about two hundred people now at the head of the canal. Elder Franklin S. Richards, attorney for the Church, drew up articles of incorporation of the Big Horn Colonization Company. The canal on which they were to work was to be called the Sidon Canal.

Then came the most important day of all, May 28, 1900. Nearly everyone in camp went to the river, and all joined in singing, "Come, Come Ye Saints."

Elder Woodruff outlined the task before them, "The canal will be about thirty-seven miles long. It must be large enough to carry water to irrigate between twelve and fifteen thousand acres. It will take united effort to perform this gigantic task, for we are few in number. I urge you to pay your tithes and offerings. Keep the Sabbath day. Do not profane the name of Deity. Be honest with all men, and if you do all these things, this will be a land of Zion to you and your children and children's children throughout the generations to come."

Elder Woodruff then held the plow; Byron Sessions drove the team and plowed a furrow. The canal was started! Then the teams and men went to the canal to work, boys laughing, harnesses rattling, women with babies in their arms seeing them off.

Wages to be paid for men and teams were set at four dollars, and for single hands, two dollars and twenty-five cents. Six dollars an acre was to be charged for the land, two dollars of this to be paid in cash at the time the amount of land was signed for, the rest in work.

Sometime later a new note crept into the regular morning and evening community prayers. Often when President Sessions prayed, he asked for a way to be opened up that food and shelter might be obtained by them for the coming winter. I believe it increased every day, and a question began to form in my mind as to whether it was a serious problem. I knew they had very little money, but then that youthful spirit in all of us believed some way had always been provided and always would be. Then a fast and prayer were observed. In later years one of my strongest testimonies was the answer to that prayer meeting.

Strangers were observed in camp one day. The rumor spread that they were railroad men and had come to see if the people there did not want to take some of the road grading to do. This meant food, means for living, feed for horses.

Now when the train goes by, it seems to me that the railroad was built at that time to help accomplish the building of the canal. Half the colony remained on the canal and half on the railroad, each group getting half money and half ditch stock for their pay.

These people were in an unknown country; their tents and wagons, their only homes; they had no doctors or hospitals. Years would pass before they could have any of these comforts. But the plans were made; the canal was started; and after this it was, "ditch, ditch."

The land was surveyed, and two towns laid out¾Byron near the head of the canal, named in honor of our leader, Byron Sessions, and Cowley on Sage Creek near the foot of the Pryor Mountains.

Cowley at its present site was laid out in the early fall of 1900. Joseph Neville and others surveyed the land and laid it out into lots. As soon as all lots were staked out and numbered, a drawing for these lots was planned. We had all been in camps both at the head of the canal and on the railroad and had shared so many experiences we had become fast friends.

A number representing a lot was put in a hat. Those who had worked up or paid for a certain amount of land or ditch stock were allowed to draw a number. As each stepped up and drew his number, he became the owner of a lot on which to build his home. (Mine, for example, was lot 3, block 44.) Charles A. Welch had the map of the town. Some were elated, some disappointed, but very few thought of changing. Going to look those lots over was like going home.

Leo Lythgoe in Cowley, age 22.
Leo T. Lythgoe, age 22, in Cowley, WY.

Following the drawing in September 1900, the canal work was discontinued, about eight miles of the ditch having been completed. Many persons began hauling logs from Pryor Mountain in Montaina with which to build log cabins to house themselves and their families for the winter; however, most of the people moved their tents up Sage Creek near Pryor Gap to work on the railroad. These families spent the winter in boarded-up tents. I was thankful for my log cabin.

Our land was at what is now Cowley. The men went up Sage Creek to the Pryor Mountains over a poorly made road and obtained logs. Two loads made our house. There was no lumber except in and around the door and one small window. The house was twelve by fourteen feet, with a roof of small poles nailed to a ridgepole sloping to the sides. These were daubed with mud. My, this house was grand to me; walls to keep off storms, a place to hang things up, a rag rug from our Utah home on the floor, a cupboard on the wall, a frame for the bedsprings. My cook stove kept it warm. Home! We moved into it November 1, 1900.

About sixteen families remained in Cowley during the winter of 1900 and 1901. These families were desirous of having a school, but they had no books and no money. Pioneers, however, usually find a way to overcome difficulties. One of the men, William W. Willis, had gone down on the Shoshone River with his family in order to look after his cattle. He had built a log cabin, and it was decided that it would do for the school. The people hired me to teach the school, for I had previously taught in Utah. The salary was to be enough to hire a girl to look after my two children.

The school opened January 2, 1901, with twenty-four pupils and closed May 1, 1901.

One of the things that we missed so terribly was water. Cowley was situated on a dry bench six miles from the Shoshone River, the nearest water. The first winter, all the men went back to the railroad as it had to be finished by a certain date. After that was completed, everyone would go back to work on the canal. A Mr. Dickson was left at Cowley to haul water.

The night the water from the river came to the town of Cowley through the canal, July 14, 1902, everyone was out serenading, beating tin tubs, cans, and anything that would make a noise. How we rejoiced¾and who does not over the successful accomplishment of a task! Yes, and the successful completion of a dream!

Land and water must be brought together to make the soil productive in agriculture. Our first gardens were raised in Cowley in 1902, every radish, bean, or tomato producing a thrill. How we irrigated them¾perhaps too much!

Twenty-seven miles of railroad were finished August 22, 1901. During the years 1905 to 1908 the railroad was continued on to Thermopolis.

I.S.P. Weeks, who had charge of the railroad work, said to Jesse W. Crosby, Jr., "Mr. Crosby, the work you contracted has been completed, and we are more than pleased with the way you have handled thejob. You have done the best work with the least trouble of anyone who ever worked for the Burlington Railroad."

By February 23, 1905, when the first train arrived at the Cowley depot, the people had earned between ninety and one hundred thousand dollars, which had all gone to the building of the country.

As I sit here this evening, with these brightlights all around, and then think of that first Christmas, it seems a complete "blackout."

About seven small one-room log houses made up this town. One coal-oil lamp in each house gave very little light. If the lady of the house did not pull down the blind too tightly, you might have sen here or there a faint gleam, otherwise there was darkness everywhere.

Thomas and Eliza Lythgoe
Thomas & Eliza Lythgoe

Almost all the men were up near Frannie working on the railroad, which left the women to put over anything they could to please the children, and to help keep their faith in Santa alive. Stockings were hung up in faith, and many a mother wondered how on earth to save heartbreaks. Candy made in secret, a small pie, a dressed-over doll, one of Dad's knives, and a few marbles were all we had.

One small store down near the river had kerosene, salt pork, and some dried fruit. The storekeeper proudly told the ladies he had some figs in for Christmas. A package from the folks back home saved many a child sorrow.

Early Christmas morning we awoke to a clear, cold, bright sun and the sound of a distant neighbor's boy playing a harmonica. That, and the determination of everyone not to grumble or quit, are the characteristics of the settlers that stand out in my thoughts tonight as I have traveled back forty-nine years to that first Christmas in Cowley.

Our first real celebration was New Year's Eve, December 31, 1900.That was big red-letter night to us, for the pioneers of Cowley had very, very few "big times." Yes, we had a dance, and a big one, too! W.C. Partridge, Sr., had just laid the floor in his house. They intended to have two rooms, but they had not yet built the partition, and it certainly did seem large.

How we danced: quadrilles, polkas, waltzes, and schottisches! There was a smile on everyone's face and laughter above themusic. Mrs. Frazer caused much amusement by telling funny stories, and Hyrum Cook had some difficulty in calling for the quadrilles. The ladies' skirts were so long they swept up every particle of dust.

Everyone had brought his lamp along. One of the men had made a trip on foot the day before, and we had a gallon of coal oil from Cook's store on the river, so we wouldn't have to go home too early.

The children went to sleep on the benches while the dancing continued. We had a picnic at midnight, more dancing, and then went home through the piercing cold, lamps in hand, babies in arms; our thrilling time was over.

Originally printed in the February 1950 issue of the Improvement Era.