Turning off State Route 257, the bus rumbles down a dirt road under a clear blue sky, pitching and grinding through a sea of copper grass toward the North Platte River.
For close to a century, this rocky grassland was privately owned ranchland, more than 600 acres of open space brushed by a grove of Russian olive trees and bordered by a more than mile-long stretch of pristine riverfront land. To the east, a housing development has begun to creep nearer. To the west, the prairie stretches onward toward the mountains and Independence Rock, the landmark of the same settlers who passed through this property on their way down the Oregon Trail.
This property is also the site of skirmishes fought in the Battle of the Red Buttes in 1865, the same battle that felled Casper’s namesake, Caspar Collins, in four hours of desperate battle against thousands of Native American warriors, themselves fighting in retaliation over the Sand Creek massacre that had occurred the year before in Colorado.
In a way, this patch of dirt — known as the Rim Rock property — is symbolic of all Casper represents: the city’s frontier spirit, the struggle that shaped its identity and, with world-class fishing steps away, the outdoor recreation capital that attracts visitors from the world over. But, being privately owned for so long, its secrets remained well-kept.
Then, last year, the property came on the market, attracting interest from the Casper office of the Bureau of Land Management.
Located just outside the city, the land offered a rare chance at acquiring 1.5 miles of riverfront for the public’s use — significant considering this stretch of river is one of the world’s premiere sites for trout fishing. And, with the city’s suburbs expanding westward, the prospect of preserving a remaining shard of Casper’s legacy made the acquisition more critical.
“The city is right here. Access is right here. Getting this land is a game-changer,” said Brady Owens, a public affairs officer for the BLM. “The actual identity of this town can be traced back to this property.”
After meeting with the family that owned the land, the BLM purchased two parcels — Rim Rock I, a 350-acre parcel believed to be the focal point of the Battle of the Red Buttes and Rim Rock II, a 234-acre peninsula in the shape of an oxbow. The BLM bought a third parcel, the 52-acre Rim Rock III, from the local Shriners.
The initial funds were provided through the Land Conservation Fund and, under the BLM’s management, the site will be kept in the public’s hands forever. In the coming months, the bureau will also be facilitating public outreach on how the land should be used — whether for trails, wilderness or modified for increased handicap accessibility.
“People often get confused about what we do,” said Owens. “But we’re basically a landlord — a sort of management company for the American people.”
The ethic of conservation was echoed by U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, who gave brief remarks during the two-hour ceremony dedicating the plot. In his speech, Barrasso — who in the past has been criticized by some environmental groups for seeking more state control of federally owned land — evoked the spirit of former president Theodore Roosevelt and the foundation of the United States Department of the Interior, and spoke to the importance of taking steps to “protect, preserve and pass on” land for future generations to enjoy.
“[Roosevelt] came to Wyoming a lot, he loved this part of the country, because of the way we live and the assets we have,” Barrasso said. “He did it all with one stroke of the pen, but for us it’s about trying to do it one project at a time.”
In preserving the land for people’s future enjoyment, the purchase will also help protect deep connections to Wyoming’s past.
In the 19th century, Platte Bridge Station — located on the banks of the North Platte — was a key river crossing for settlers on the Oregon and Mormon Trails. It was also a key outpost for the United States Army, intended to guard both the nation’s mail service and the transcontinental telegraph lines from attacks by the plains-dwelling tribes who had begun ramping up assaults on the major trails used by the Americans in retribution for atrocities waged by the invaders from the east.
At the outpost were stationed veterans of the Civil War, sent west to complete their three-year terms of service to the Union Army. There they were tasked with guarding both supplies and passengers from attack on their journey toward South Pass, some 130 miles southwest. In late July of 1865, the men there were handed the responsibility of assisting the journey of a group of U.S. soldiers through territory known to be patrolled by Cheyenne warriors. On their way to rescue a wagon train of a group of soldiers from Ohio, a patrol spotted a gang of Cheyenne cutting telegraph lines, and Collins gave the orders to fire upon them.
The resulting skirmish resulted in the deaths of Collins as well as 27 other soldiers. Fearing the return of native forces and with limited options in the summer heat, the bodies were hastily buried on the ridge overlooking the field.
In the decades to follow, numerous private expeditions were organized to find their final resting place. In the 1920s, the owners of the field even invited the elderly survivors of the battle out on the field to try and deconstruct what had happened, with no success. In the decades since, numerous individuals have attempted to figure out exactly what took place here but, unfunded and with limited time, little has been found.
Now under federal jurisdiction, the land will be preserved for future generations to explore, saved from the fate of another potential burial ground which, today, is the site of a trailer park. Any non-permitted searches now will also be considered crimes, due to guidelines governing historic sites under the management of the federal government.
“We’ve got a long way to go doing historic research on this, and if that grave is ever found, this will be one of the biggest preservation projects seen in Wyoming in a long time,” said Danny Walker, a retired assistant state archaeologist who was part of a dig on the site in 2016. “It’s going to be really important for the history of this state that we do it all properly.”