‘Get Your West On’ in Carbon County, Where History, Enchantment Welcomes Visitors to Medicine Bow

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Though the films and television series based on its namesake weren’t filmed in Wyoming, The Historic Virginian Hotel is located in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, named for Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian which inspired several motion pictures of the same name plus the third-longest running television western series. 

Local Photos Courtesy of Carbon County Visitors Council.

To many people who weren’t fortunate enough to have been born in The Cowboy State, the mention of Wyoming conjures up powerful images: cowboys on horseback, cattle drives, old black and white vintage movies where homes were decorated with candles at Christmastime and of course the enchanting romance of America’s old west.

And it’s no wonder since much of the Western novel The Virginian and subsequent films and television series of the same name were set in or near Medicine Bow, Wyoming. After all, the motion picture that launched Gary Cooper’s career was released in 1929, based on the 1902 novel The Virginian by Owen Wister and adapted from the popular 1904 theatrical play Wister had collaborated on with playwright Kirke La Shelle, featuring Dustin Farnum in the title role. Farnum reprised the role ten years later in Cecil B. DeMille’s film adaptation of the play.

Owen Wister, author of The Virginian

Owen Wister has been regarded widely as the “father” of western fiction. He is best remembered for writing The Virginian along with a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. 

Wister had spent several summers in the American West, making his first trip to the Territory of Wyoming in 1885, planning to hunt big game, fish crystal clear waters for fresh and tasty trout, meet Native Americans and spend nights in the wild under skies basked in clear moonlight and brilliant constellations. Oh what a sight The Cowboy State must have been!

Wister came to Medicine Bow with the owner of the ranch, but with no rooms available, he slept on the counter of the General Store, south of the tracks, now known as the Owen Wister General Store. Wister made several trips out west, with the names and events over a period of the next 15 years kept in a series of diaries. Those diaries contained full and realistic accounts of his western experiences with cattle thieves, ranchers, cowboys, saloons and their keepers, and Native Americans, who at that time were simply referred to as ‘Indians’. Wister used these colorful events to provide the material for his western novel “The Virginian.” In the same fashion as his good friend Teddy Roosevelt, Wister was fascinated with the culture, beauty and terrain of the region, not to mention the lore.

Indeed Wister was struck with wonder and delight while he possessed the keen eye to see along with literary talent to portray the life unfolding in America. After six journeys out west for pleasure he gave up the profession of law and became the author for which he is best known. On an 1893 visit to Yellowstone National Park, Wister met western artist Frederic Remington, who also became and remained a lifelong friend.

When he began writing, Wister naturally inclined towards fiction set on the western frontier. His most famous work remains the 1902 novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, providing a complex mixture of people, locations and events dramatized from experience, word of mouth, and his own vivid imagination. This work is widely regarded as being the first cowboy romance novel. The Virginian was reprinted fourteen times in just eight months. It still stands as one of the top 50 best-selling works of fiction and is considered by Hollywood experts to be the basis for the modern fictional cowboy portrayed in literature, film, and television.

The film The Virginian is about a good-natured cowboy who romances the new schoolmarm but has a crisis of conscience when he learns his best friend is involved in cattle rustling. Considered to be Gary Cooper’s breakthrough role in 1929, coached in the Virginian’s accent by Randolph Scott, and well-remembered for Cooper’s line, “If you wanna call me that—smile”, in response to a cuss by the antagonist.

Movie Poster from 1929

In the film we are introduced to a man known only as the Virginian who is the ranch foreman at Box H Ranch near Medicine Bow, Wyoming.

Many movie industry historians will agree that most, if not all, westerns can be claimed to contain influences from The Virginian. It is near universally accepted that the “Hollywood cowboy” was, and still is, based on Wister’s turn-of-the-century book.

After four big screen film releases, The Virginian television series appeared on small screens everywhere. The Virginian, which was renamed The Men from Shiloh in its final year on network TV, starred James Drury in the title role, along with Doug McClure, Lee J. Cobb, and others. 

Doug McClure and James Drury on set of The Virginian television series where McClure was known as Trampus and Drury’s horse was named Joe D.   Drury’s character was called simply “The Virginian,” adding to his mystique. He wore a black hat, vest and pants, with a red corduroy shirt that stood out in the first color western series on TV.

Originally aired on NBC from 1962 to 1971, the series produced a total of 249 episodes. The romance of ‘Out West’ sprung to life on televisions from across the country and beyond, as a wholesome, family-friendly series that was filmed in color. The Virginian became television’s first 90-minute Western series with 75 minutes of show, excluding the commercial breaks. Cobb left the series after the first four seasons, and was replaced over the years by mature character actors John Dehner, Charles Bickford, John McIntire, and Stewart Granger, portraying different characters. 

The series was set before Wyoming even became a state in 1890 and frequently referred to Wyoming Territory, although other references set the time later, around 1898. No matter, as even today, the show remains popular on retro and western-inspired television cable and satellite networks. 

The series ran for nine consecutive seasons, making it network television’s third-longest running Western, behind Bonanza at 14 seasons and 430 episodes, and Gunsmoke at 20 seasons and 635 episodes.

After the series ended in 1971 it lived on in reruns for nearly three decades before ushering in a brand new film that was once again quite familiar. In 2000 audiences saw The Virginian telefilm with Bill Pullman, Diane Lane, John Savage, Colm Feore, and Dennis Weaver. Then again with a rebirth in 2014 it was The Virginian telefilm with Trace Adkins, Brendan Penny, Ron Perlman, and Victoria Pratt. 

Medicine Bow was and is a real town and a slice of life from the old west. 

Postcard from 1944

The post office at Medicine Bow has been in operation since 1869, assigned with 82329 as the ZIP Code, serving the town, with a total area just shy of three-and-a-half square miles. With a rich history where visitors can not only turn back time to explore that history but may also enjoy drinks, a meal and accomodations at the historic Virginian Hotel. Construction of the three-story hotel was originally completed in 1911, built by August Grimm and appropriately named after Owen Wister’s classic novel. 

Back in the 1910s, part of the Lincoln Highway was routed through Medicine Bow, that was until Interstate-80 replaced the route in 1970. The hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and since that time, University of Wyoming Student Publications has published the literary and arts magazine Owen Wister Review. The magazine was published bi-annually until 1996 and became an annual publication in the spring of 1997.

While film and television have made Medicine Bow a well-known town in Wyoming, the community, named after the Medicine Bow River, the town largely owes its existence to the first transcontinental railroad that built through the area in 1868. The railroad gave names to unnamed places as they made tracks westward, over the Rocky Mountains, eventually becoming the Trans-Continental Railroad. Well ahead of those new tracks were Army surveyors laying out the route and marking the ‘water holes’ along the route.  

Long before solar or wind power, steam was king. Watering stations were important places in a time when great steam locomotives used thousands of gallons of water to travel relatively short distances. These stations that permitted taking on water often became supply depots and trading posts. The three-story Virginian Hotel was the largest hotel between Denver and Salt Lake City back in the day. Let that fact sink in for just a moment.

Medicine Bow blossomed as a regular gathering place for travelers, local ranchers, and of course railroaders. 

Today many people think of ‘watering holes’ as places to get a drink and wash the trail dust out of their throat, not to mention get a good meal – and Medicine Bow does not disappoint! Not only does the marvelous hotel building still stand well over a century after being built, it remains a working hotel and with one of the finest old-time western bars in Wyoming. With antique suites, including the famed Owen Wister Suite, plus antique rooms of individual western splendor – it’s a place where time has lingered for more than a century at “The Historic Virginian Hotel” -retaining the style and air of old, continuing a world-famous reputation for welcoming western hospitality making nobody feel like a stranger but rather a long-lost friend.

You’re invited to “Get Your West On!” by the Carbon County Visitor Council and one of the best ways to do exactly that is with a visit to Medicine Bow, located in Carbon County with a 2020 census population of 255, making it the 75th largest city/town in Wyoming.

Drawing people from across the country and globe, one review on TripAdvisor recounts this ‘great part of history’ by writing, “My son and I stayed there while enroute to deer hunting in the mountains. The Hotel is very interesting, people are great and very helpful. Room at adjacent building was inexpensive and more than adequate. The food and bar atmosphere is perfect. We both had a New York strip steak with sides that could not have been better. We hope it continues the same, keeping the history. All the people working there and patrons are very friendly.” 

Another review by a family laments they didn’t have more time to spend, “Staff were very friendly and helpful. Great old place. Lots to do and see in one place. Lots of history on the walls. A ‘must stop’ for all cowboy enthusiasts. Very historic place. I would have loved to stay the night- get some food and drinks and meet some local people. Next time we will ensure we give it the respect it has earned and deserves.”

Sometimes it’s just refreshing to hear what your friends and neighbors are saying: “The Virginian is an experience and not just a place to eat. This review is for the restaurant since I’ve never stayed in the hotel. We live about an hour and a quarter from Medicine Bow but regularly make motorcycle trips down that way and always stop in for something to eat. We also enjoy taking visitors to the state to Medicine Bow for the atmosphere and for the pleasure of looking through the old hotel rooms. It was my parents’ favorite place to visit whenever they came to Wyoming and a discussion of Owen Wister’s work was a traditional part of our mealtime conversation. This is not a chain restaurant and I see by other reviews that some folks are appalled by the casual nature of those that run the place. Yep, they ain’t folks with city veneer and that’s part of what makes it such a cool place to visit. I like walking into a restaurant where someone hollers, ‘Sit anywhere; I’ll be there in a minute,’ as the cook slides a fresh baked pie onto a shelf.” 

Yes, you’re never a stranger when you visit Medicine Bow and The Historic Virginian Hotel!

Now is a great time to visit Medicine Bow, and be sure to give yourself adequate time to explore the Medicine Bow Museum, located in the old railroad depot that was built in 1913 after a fire destroyed the original depot earlier that same year. You’ll also see The Monument, made of petrified wood and erected in 1939 as a tribute to Owen Wister and his book “The Virginian.” 

Look for Owen Wister Cabin and Dinosaur Fossil Cabin that’s built entirely of bones excavated from the nearby “dinosaur graveyard” of Como Bluff (also on the National Register of Historic Places), and dubbed by Ripley’s the “oldest” building in the world. 

Dippy, a well-known dinosaur skeleton, was found in a nearby quarry in 1898-99. 

In July 1999, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh unveiled a life-size statue of the Diplodocus dinosaur that has been the centerpiece of the museum’s paleontology department since the turn of the previous century. The fossilized remains of “Dippy,” as the creature is affectionately known, was initially discovered in Wyoming exactly 100 years earlier, on July 4, 1899, by bone hunters employed by the Carnegie Museum.

While Dippy has been an icon in the Steel City for well over a century, however, the Steel City was not alone in its adulation of the prehistoric dinosaur. An exact replica of Dippy’s fossilized skeleton, for instance, greets visitors at the Natural History Museum in London, and additional replicas can be found in other museums across the globe, including those in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, Madrid and Mexico City – making Dippy from near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, arguably the most famous dinosaur in the world.

According to the 2010 book Dippy: The Tale of a Museum Icon by Dr. Paul Barrett, Sandra Chapman and Polly Parry, the first remains of a Diplodocus were discovered in Canon City, Colorado, in 1877 by bone hunters under the employment of Othniel C. Marsh, one of the two most infamous dinosaur experts in the United States during the time period. Marsh and his rival Edward D. Cope organized dozens of expeditions to the American Midwest, fertile ground for fossilized bones of numerous species.

At one point, Marsh hired a Union Pacific Railroad foreman named William Reed to hunt for dinosaur bones in Wyoming, and while Reed made many discoveries for Marsh, he also changed employers numerous times.

It was while working for the University of Wyoming in 1898 that Reed unearthed a collection of bones that were dubbed the “most colossal animal ever on Earth” by the media. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie read an article about the discovery in the New York Journal and immediately decided that he wanted the remains for the museum he had recently founded in Pittsburgh.

The task of acquiring the fossilized bones fell to Carnegie Museum Director William J. Holland. He contacted William Reed with offers to both purchase the remains out right as well as hire Reed as a consultant. Since Reed was employed by the University of Wyoming at the time of his discovery, however, the ownership of the fossils was in dispute, and Holland attempted to circumvent the other institution through legal means.

It was all for naught, however, as Reed’s discovery wasn’t “colossal” after all, but additional bone hunters employed by the Carnegie Museum were already combing the Wyoming wilderness searching for additional relics nonetheless. On July 4, 1899, their efforts reached fruition when they unearthed the toe bone from the hind foot of what would become known as Dippy the Dinosaur.

Ghost Towns to Explore

Carbon County Visitors Council

Ghost town enthusiasts will appreciate Carbon, a ghost town that is 9.5 miles west-southwest of Medicine Bow. The Carbon Cemetery, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is located in Carbon, where today its ghostly ruins crumble around the Old Carbon Cemetery.

The town of Carbon was founded by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1868 as a place where they could source fuel for steam locomotives. It was unfortunately not a great place to live as it was rife with Indian attacks, frequent mining accidents and lacked water. Once inhabited by more than 1000 people this mining outpost contained several coal mines, as well as churches, a general store, saloons, bank, school, newspaper, hotel and miner’s hall among other businesses. 

In 1890, the year Wyoming attained statehood, a fire destroyed most of the town’s structures and today, only a few foundations remain. There is still a cemetery and traces of the old town of Carbon still at the site. The town of Carbon went bust when coal mines started closing down and the railroad moved the line. This prompted inhabitants to move to better places such as Hanna and left the place pretty much a ghost town. 

The Hanna Museum is your best resource to learn more about the old town of Carbon. The museum has photos, artifacts, maps and personal accounts of life in Carbon. The old Ghost Town of Carbon Cemetery is popular for both history buffs and descendants of the miners who lived and died in the mines of Carbon.

The Hanna Basin Museum which is located in the old Community Hall building, is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Originally constructed as a saloon in 1890, the hall has served many purposes in the Union Pacific Coal Company Town. Sharin the Front Street site is The Miner’s Cottage, a restored exemplary Two Town House. The Hanna Basin Museum is an active participant in the Carbon Cemetery Restoration and Preservation Project. The Museum houses the Carbon archive, resources revealing life and death in the first coal camp (1868-1902) along the original line of the Union Pacific Railroad.

The Carbon County Visitors Guide is a great resource for planning your visit so start today by downloading your free guide. 

CARBON COUNTY VISITORS COUNCIL

1-800-228-3547 or 307-324-3020

PO Box 1017, Rawlins, WY 82301

info@wyomingcarboncounty.com

Administrative office located at

508 W Cedar, Rawlins WY

Request a Visitors Guide to be mailed

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