By: Randy Tucker
It’s an unexpected sight to find ionic columns on a building in the middle of the vast, windswept grasslands of Albany County, Wyoming. The First National Bank of Rock River is an enigma in many ways.
The tiny town, population 250, experienced its only boom more than a century ago when oil was discovered west of the town. From 1913 to 1923, the oil boom took over rural Albany County.
Laramie, the largest town in the county, and one of the principal towns on the Union Pacific railroad, dominated the local economy, but oil has always talked in America, and the tiny hamlet boomed.
Local businessmen met and built a bank worthy of any eastern city on the north side of the town. Construction began in 1919, and the bank was opened the following year.
Rock River wasn’t an oilfield town originally. It was created in 1869 when the Union Pacific Railroad moved west at a feverish pace to connect with the Central Pacific heading east from California with the same furious intensity.
Pine Bluffs was the first town on the tracks, followed by Cheyenne and Laramie. Cheyenne was a switching yard nicknamed the “Chicago of the West” by promoters. Laramie, the “Gem City of the Plains” was a coaling station. That left watering stations at roughly 20-mile intervals across the plains.
Bosler, and then Rock Rive,r met the conditions for water stations.
West of Rock River the tracks turned into a narrow canyon, necessitating slowing down the locomotive at the Wilcox station.
It was here that Butch Cassidy and his infamous Hole in the Wall Gang first gave Rock River a bit of national notoriety.
On June 2, 1899, near Wilcox, the gang flagged the train to a halt with a barrier on the tracks at 2:15 a.m.
Cassidy was notorious for using too much dynamite, and it was the case this night.
He blew up the baggage care, carrying a UP safe and $50,000 in cash with so much force that they heard it a dozen miles away in Rock River. Pieces of the baggage car flew more than 150 yards in all directions.
The gang escaped on horseback into the night with a haul of jewelry, banknotes, and gold.
Rock River remained a sleepy hamlet on the Union Pacific line until oil was discovered near the present-day town of McFadden just after the turn of the 20th century.
A 1915 census declared 195 residents in Rock River, which soon swelled as oil found its way east via the railroad and a few early pipelines.
By 1917, it was clear a bank would be a good investment for the rapidly growing little boomtown.
Wyoming has always been a boom and bust state. The bank came on the cusp of the oil boom created by World War I.
With the armistice signed, the oil demand began to diminish. Rock River suffered as all the boomtowns across the oil-rich Wyoming countryside did.
Just before the bank opened, another incident on the Union Pacific brought focus once again on the little town.
Bill Carlisle was an orphan, raised by the state of Pennsylvania after his mother died when he was only nine months old, and his father, a Civil War veteran, already 60 years old when he was born, passed away.
Carlisle left the York orphanage at 15 and tried to find his fortune in the west. After many marginal years, he robbed a Union Pacific train near Cheyenne in 1916. He netted about $500, which whetted his appetite for using his snub-nosed .32 caliber revolver to get cash quickly and easily.
He was captured after the third robbery and sentenced to 50 years in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, where he promptly escaped by hiding in a load of laundry.
On November 19, 1919, he found himself back on the Union Pacific, near the same spot at Wilcox that Butch Cassidy had success with another train robbery 20 years before.
Carlisle stopped the train then moved car to car relieving passengers of their valuables. The train had servicemen, soldiers, and sailors returning home from the World War I battlefields in France.
Carlisle refused to rob the soldiers and sailors, telling them “I would have been there with you had they let me go.”
Of course, getting out of prison with a sentence for train robbery doesn’t work for military service.
Carlisle was leaving the train with only $86.40 taken from the passengers when a young man pulled a pistol on him. Carlisle swatted the gun away as the man fired, injuring Carlisle’s hand.
Carlisle was shot in the chest at a prospector’s cabin near Douglas, Wyoming two weeks later, but survived to find himself back in a cell in Rawlins. The Union Pacific made sure he didn’t escape this time after losing $15,000 to the armed bandit over the years in fees to Pinkerton Agents in search of the outlaw.
In a story of retribution and rehabilitation, Carlisle was released after serving 16 years. He opened a cigar shop in Kemmerer, Wyoming, married a local woman, and moved back to Albany County, where he ran a service station and lunch counter in Laramie until he retired in 1962.
During those years he returned to Rock River many times for business and pleasure.
In all those years intervening years, the bank building evolved into many different uses.
In 1923, the bank took an extra hit when bank vice-president Lewis. C. Butler was convicted of embezzlement. He ended up serving a sentence at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. The bank went into receivership on June 14, 1923.
It was sold to the new Citizens State Bank in 1927 but folded after Albany County claimed the building for back taxes in 1931. That was the end of the banking era for Rock River.
In 1936 Albany County sold the building to the town of Rock River. The post office was placed there until 1950, with a doctor’s office using one of the back rooms from the bank’s inception. Apartments were built inside the building as Rock River enjoyed a second boom during the oil-hungry years of World War II.
For most of the time, the bank building was a civic center, used as a polling place, city council room, and a recreation hall. One of the rooms was the town library.
After World War II ended, the apartments were converted to jail cells for the town.
The building closed to the public in 1985, though various individuals continued to use it.
It is currently for sale, the most prominent building remaining in the isolated Wyoming town.
A boom, one in the middle of the night by a world-famous outlaw using too much dynamite. Two more created by actions half-a-world away that demanded more oil, and a disgruntled orphan with a handgun brought notoriety to a small town that time forgot, but they had their day in the sun.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at [email protected].