Last stand for a roadside attraction

Proposed development near Cody's Old Trail Town sparks outrage

 

CODY, Wyo. - On the west end of this northwestern Wyoming city, along the highway to Yellowstone National Park, a 20-acre stretch of sagebrush and native grasses lies sandwiched between a trailer park and the platform of a former drive-in theater.

Local historian Bob Edgar says this unremarkable parcel of land is rich with human history. Clovis points from mammoth hunts thousands of years ago have been found here; in more recent centuries, Native Americans brought their sick and wounded to the nearby hot springs on the Shoshone River. In the 1890s, Buffalo Bill Cody sketched out the first dozen structures of Cody City. The settlement soon moved east, and a faint trail of wagon ruts in the middle of the parcel is all that's left of the original frontier town.

Forty years ago, Edgar saw remnants of frontier history disappearing across the region. "Historical material was getting destroyed faster than anything else," he recalls. "People were tearing it down, burning it down, and making fenceposts out of it."

Though the original cabins, saloons and stables of Cody City were long gone, Edgar started to collect abandoned frontier buildings from remote spots in the mountains and plains. He has re-erected 26 buildings dating from 1879-1901 next to the original Cody townsite, creating a virtual frontier village known as Old Trail Town.

Edgar's one-man dream has become one of Cody's top three tourist attractions, offering visitors a chance to stroll through original cabins and saloons frequented by the likes of the outlaw, Sundance Kid, and Custer's scout, Curly. And now, it's at the center of one of Cody's first serious development battles.

Some civic leaders see another kind of value in the 20 acres of city-owned open space next to Trail Town: They hope to sell the land for at least $2.25 million to raise funds for a Cody Convention Center.

But Edgar says the original townsite acts like a "picture frame" for Trail Town. If the open space is developed into an obtrusive business, tourists won't be able to see Trail Town from the highway and visitation will plummet. "Without that traffic, Trail Town might not survive," he says.

Too valuable to keep

Modern Cody has experienced slow but steady growth, as its population has increased by about 1,000 during the past 10 years to almost 9,000. The city revolves around tourism, which keeps its economy healthy during most summer seasons. But merchants often have a tough time making it through the off-season. They complain that Cody's year-round economy is running flat, and they urge the city to boost economic development efforts.

Former mayor Jack Skates, who first suggested the sale of the Trail Town land, says it was the only way he could see to fund a major addition to the Cody Auditorium, turning it into a viable downtown convention center that would attract new visitors.

Because of insufficient convention facilities, Cody is currently turning away as many as 10 large conventions per year. The new convention center could accommodate those conventions, bringing as many as 1,000 people to Cody per convention. Considering that convention-goers spend between $100 to $150 per day, the revenue they generate could add up to several million dollars per year, according to Park County Travel Council Marketing Director Claudia Wade.

In the meantime, as Skates sees it, the Trail Town land could be working harder for Cody's economy if it was turned over to the retail sector. There are many blocks of open space in Cody as large or larger than Trail Town, but many are privately owned.

"The city has very little property left, especially land that's that good," Skates says. "I think the land should be sold because it's too valuable to just sit there."

Skates says the city has been getting nibbles on the land from a variety of business interests; some are betting that its value will climb. The property is located on the West Strip, a stretch of highway frequented by Yellowstone tourists and residents of Cody's growing subdivisions. The Strip, already studded with giant signs and utility lines, is fertile turf for new motels and super stores.

Save Old Trail Town

In December, the city council was within a whisker of putting the land up for sale when Jeannie Cook, curator of the Park County Historical Archives, protested and appealed for more time.

While Cook is concerned about the original Cody townsite, she's also worried about the effects of roadside development on Trail Town. "Two million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but that's not much when it comes to protecting your heritage," Cook says. "When you ruin your history, it's gone."

Historic preservation has an economic power of its own for a tourist town like Cody, she argues. "Tourists want to come and see something about the Old West. They all have their own McDonald's and strip malls and they don't care about those."

Cook and a growing force of preservationists, organized as the nonprofit Friends of Park County History, Inc., have rallied around the battle cry "Save Old Trail Town." They want to protect the land - even if they have to buy it themselves - and turn it into a low-impact history park with a walking trail and an outdoor amphitheater.

Observers say the preservationists are partly inspired by affection for Trail Town founder Bob Edgar. Edgar is a legendary Cody figure, and many have fond childhood memories of Trail Town and the surrounding land.

Former Republican Sen. Al Simpson, a Cody native, remembers Trail Town and the nearby hot springs as a "kids' paradise." He credits Edgar for doing a "wonderful job" with Trail Town, and says he doesn't want to see him "injured." He plans to find a way to protect the land.

Even the staunchest proponents of the land sale believe there's room for compromise. The city could choose to sell only a piece of the land, or require restrictive zoning to mandate a type of business and architectural style that would merge with Trail Town's character.

Like others on the city council, chairman Dave Johnson wants more input during the next couple of months before he decides where he stands.

Says Johnson, "We've been hearing from both sides, and I believe all of us on the council have consciously open minds."

Edgar has been heartened by the outpouring of public support - evidenced by 2,000 petition signatures as of late February. "People don't want to see this done," Edgar notes. "They want to save it, and not have it covered up by development."

In the meantime, Edgar and his business partners are betting that Trail Town will remain a popular tourist stop. In early March, they will present city officials with their proposal for a "living history park" directly east of Trail Town. If approved, the $2 million park will open in the spring of 2002.

Mark Bagne is a freelance writer in Cody, Wyoming.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Bob Edgar, Trail Town, 307/587-5302;
  • Cody City Hall, 307/527-7511.

Copyright 2001 HCN and Mark Bagne

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