Wyoming’s Small Capital Doing Big Things

Its annual massive nine-day Cheyenne Frontier Days just ended, and Wyoming’s capital has returned to its quiet norm. Or, so you’d think. Actually, the Magic City on the Plains is ever more a city on the go, with brewpubs and creative dining popping up both in the historic downtown and on its the edges—and thankfully not plagued by hipster excess. The small city has a big city number of fine museums as well. And to cap it off, nature hikes are a short ride out of town.

Cheyenne exists thanks to the Transcontinental Railroad. So, start where it all started, at the Union Pacific Depot. Built in the 1880s, in the Richardsonian style of Romanesque Revival to be precise, the sandstone structure and its attractive tower are deservedly a National Historic Landmark.

In effect, the Cheyenne Depot Museum tells the entire story of the city’s early development that followed the railroad arrival, with the narrative continuing up until the railroads packed it in decades ago. Cool steam and diesel engine equipment and machinery of long ago eras will leave a modern viewer guessing as to just what their function was. Over the length of the upstairs, visitors can follow a magnificent HO scale narrow-gauge model train that winds its way through Western landscapes, a feat of craftsmanship that took its builder thirty years to complete. After your visit, you can whet your whistle at the Accomplice Brew Company at the other end of the depot.

A straight shot up Capitol Avenue takes you to, what else, the Wyoming State Capitol. Residents of denser states might find it oddly welcoming that you can just walk in and wander around the halls. Helpful panels document details on everything from the marble floors up to the gilded dome and other fine architectural elements of the 1890 Renaissance Revival sandstone building. It’s filled with historic murals, huge allegorical figures and massive steel vaults. On the lawn outside sits what must be one of the more enormous statues in front of any state capitol; likely the most dramatic, in any case, The Spirit of Wyoming portrays a bronze cowboy riding his wildly bucking steed.

Nearby, the Wyoming State Museum’s well-designed, user-friendly displays cover Wyoming’s rich geologic diversity, paleontology, flora and fauna and cultural history, including Indian baskets and beadwork. The state’s six national parks are highlighted, with the Wagon 99 exhibit recounting how early visitors toured Yellowstone National Park in four-horse wagons. It includes diary excerpts from a five-day tour taken in 1905 by a New York schoolteacher.

Working out of Cody, Wyoming from the 1930s into the 50s, Thomas Molesworth pioneered a style of western lodge furniture that was inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement and is coveted today. Several pieces that came from a ranch owned by the Annenberg publishing family show Molesworth’s often whimsical use of burled woods, bright leathers and brass tacks.

You’ll get hungry on your downtown museum dives. As family as it gets, the two-story 2 Doors Down diner is popular with all ages. But don’t look for kale here where huge servings of fries come with your avocado bacon burgers or rack of ribs.

Back to museums, the private Nelson Museum of the West has yet more artifacts: uniforms, firearms, taxidermy, and elaborate silver-mounted saddlery work by Swedish-born Edward H. Bohlin who was known as saddlemaker to the stars. You’ve seen his work on the Lone Ranger’s, Roy Rogers’, and Rose Parade horses.

At the more informal end of museum curation is the Cowgirls of the West Museum located in a downtown storefront out of the 60s. The women of the West it honors include Annie Oakley and others whom you weren’t familiar with—as for the fame of Dell Burke, the “Lusty lady of Lusk,” you can figure that out before you even enter.

With its curved Art Deco façade and lettering, the Metropolitan Downtown restaurant honors its building’s origins as a 1930s drugstore. After a drink at the front bar, settle in for fining dining. Their starters of crispy Brussels sprouts with peanuts, apple and Thai chili vinaigrette, or the truffle fries could satisfy you enough, but stay for the wide range of steaks and seafood.

A true throwback cocktail bar, Paramount Ballroom takes up the corner of an old theater, along with a café. They also promote local artists and have a back lot patio with greenery and a festive garden mural.

The new Westby Edge Brewing Co. takes repurposing to new levels as it occupies a massive 100-year-old commercial space. Its festive indoor/outdoor pet friendly atmosphere includes swings at some tables where drinkers might wisely choose to imbibe slowly. The name is a play on the Westby family owners and the city’s West Edge district. A branch of a Sheridan brewery, Black Tooth Brewing Co. is another newcomer whose beer cans with Wyoming images are high art.

Just recently launched, Railspur in the West Edge is a lounge, bar, brasserie, nightclub all in one, and produces its own bourbon to boot. Owners Juan Coronado and Seth Stefanik are young, well-traveled chefs who came out of the Metropolitan restaurant.

A few miles north of town, Little Bear Inn restaurant has come a far cry from the 1880s inn that was a stop along the Cheyenne to Deadwood stage route. As you enter, you’re greeted appropriately by a big stuffed bear on its hind legs. Their list of steaks is endless, cuts the size and variety of which will leave you torn in selecting. And if you’re a city person, you’ll soon discover that you probably wouldn’t have known what those Rocky Mountain oysters were had you not been told.

You have to be of a certain age these days to know the name Curt Gowdy, least of all to remember his distinct voice as he called Saturday afternoon college football and Boston Red Sox games, as well as many World Series going back to the 1950s. Gowdy was raised in Cheyenne where his father worked for Union Pacific. Today, Curt Gowdy State Park is a popular destination for hiking, kayaking, camping, and bird watching—popular too with turkey vultures who perch on fence posts.

On the way back to town, look for a rusty old Depression-era Ford truck and you’ve found the Bunkhouse Bar & Grill. Inside, cowboy hats hang on the antlers of mounted elk amid all manner of Western paraphernalia. It serves up lots of comfort food, cold beers, and Fri-Sat live music. And how could you leave unfulfilled anyway at a place located on Happy Jack Road?

To lay your head in downtown Cheyenne, the Nagle Warren is a late-19th-century mansion turned YWCA, turned 12-room hotel with historic furniture that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Also on that list, the Plains Hotel was built in the early 1900s and was once furnished by Molesworth. Lovers of historic hotels will appreciate that from tycoons and barons to scoundrels a great deal of city history happened here.

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