It took a massive effort by the early residents of Cheyenne to make Wyoming’s arid, high-altitude desert capital become known as “The City of Trees” from once having just 12.
Now the city’s Urban Forestry Division cares for and keeps tabs on more than 20,000 of what have become the city’s oldest and largest trees and the city overall has more than 250,000.
It’s because of Nannie Steele that history knows the extraordinary efforts those early Cheyenne residents went through to plant so many trees and keep them alive, said Shane Smith, founder of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and its director from 1977-2018,
Steele, who was then president of the Queen Anne Society, reportedly recorded that initial count of 12 trees in her diary in 1876.
“Supposedly, this information came from Mrs. Steele's diary,” Smith told Cowboy State Daily.
That’s according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture paper by A.C. Hildreth titled “Development of Horticulture on the Northern Great Plains,” Smith said.
By 1877, U.S. Army Maj. John Talbot ordered 20,000 young trees and willow cuttings from Nebraska for planting near Cheyenne.
The Early Effort
Because Steele had seen the paucity of trees, she led her organization in taking trees from eastern Nebraska to Cheyenne by train to beautify the city, said Sue James, who has been Visit Cheyenne’s trolleys transportation manager since April 2021.
“Every single time the train stopped, they dug up trees, put them on the train and they brought them back to Cheyenne, and they planted them,” James told Cowboy State Daily.
Along with trees, the society members also brought back as much water as they could to help keep the trees alive, as Cheyenne just receives a meager average of 13 inches of precipitation annually, James said.
The first trees were planted in the park where the Wyoming Supreme Court building stands today.
James assumes people chose to plant trees there first because it is roughly in the middle of a 4-square-mile area that city founder Gen. Grenville Dodge plotted. Also, at the time it was a park for Union Pacific Railroad workers, who likely wanted trees to shade their picnics.
“Amateur Cheyenne historians have told me that the last surviving trees from that planting were located where Pioneer Park school is now located,” Smith said.
More Get On Board
Cheyenne Urban Forestry Division Manager Mark Ellison told Cowboy State Daily that Union Pacific Railroad donated the land, which became the city’s first park.
James Floyd Jenkins, who moved from Wisconsin in 1876 and missed the green space and the trees of the Midwest, was the first to really take on tree planting and park establishment in Cheyenne, Ellison said.
In 1882, Jenkins led locals’ first celebration of Arbor Day. After fundraising through businesses’ donations, he bought trees for the city’s first park.
“If you look at old photos of Cheyenne, that park was completely forested,” Ellison said. “You couldn’t even see the grass through the trees from an aerial view.”
The city ultimately gave the park to the state.
Against The Forces Of Nature
Settlers in the early 1900s often referred to Cheyenne as “The City of Trees,” Ellison said, as Jenkins’ efforts had made the city stand out among the high plains.
Trees are still tough to grow in Cheyenne because of the climate, he said. Unlike some other areas of the country, trees are not native and do not grow naturally.
Cheyenne is the fourth-windiest city in the country with a daily average of 13 mph, and it has about 10 hailstorms a year, Smith said.
Most years, the city has fewer days with winter snow on the ground than other Front Range communities. It also is at 6,000 feet of elevation, so it has chilly summer nights. These cool nights can slow the grow of some trees and make it almost impossible for others to grow.
“As a result, it is important to winter water newly planted trees when there is three to four weeks without winter moisture, which is common,” Smith said.
About That Effort
Young trees have a high mortality rate in Cheyenne for a number of reasons, including soil conditions, Ellison said.
“You need to plant and take good care of them here because if you just plant them and walk away, they’re not going to survive,” he said.
For many, that meant saving their wash water to use on the trees.
Jenkins planted many of the trees along streets and parks, which then served to ease the harsh climate and environment, Ellison said. People also used fencing to protect trees from livestock.
“People early on understood the value of trees for wind protection, for shade, the feeling you get when you’re surrounded by trees,” he said. “They tend to calm people. They give you a sense of place.”
Taking a trip 10 miles outside of Cheyenne and then going to Lions Park, which has a healthy forest canopy, gives people a sense of trees’ benefits, Ellison said.
Some of the trees Jenkins planted are now coming down, he said. Cottonwoods are particularly vulnerable since they only live about 100 or 120 years. A long-term tree planning program rooted in Cheyenne is replanting them.
“Once we have established trees, we really try to protect them and nurture them and care for them as best we can,” Ellison said.