Friday, February 28, 2014

Wyoming: Bath County's Forgotten Town

 I was raised on Wyoming Road about a mile from Owingsville's city limits.  The communities along that road are Prickly Ash, Slate Valley, Naylor, Lower White Oak, and Wyoming.  At one time, Wyoming was the central hub for the northeast corner of Bath County.  As a kid, I remember a few houses along Old Wyoming Loop and heard my parents talk about the town that once occupied the open field at the mouth of Slate Creek. Here is a brief history of the town that once was.

If you drive northeast, just outside of Owingsville, Kentucky’s city limits, you will see Kentucky Highway 111, locally known as Wyoming Road. What you won’t see is the town that gave Kentucky Hwy. 111 its local namesake. Approximately seven miles from the beginning of Wyoming Road, a traveler will see, off to the right, a large open field with a barn and a brick house directly across from the intersection with Kentucky Hwy. 1944, locally known as White Oak Road. At one time, in that field, one of Bath County’s earliest and once thriving settlements sprawled at the mouth of Slate Creek.

Wyoming was situated along the banks of the Licking River at the mouth of Slate Creek. The plot of ground was surveyed in 1819 on land belonging to Thomas Deye Owings, for whom Owingsville was named. The following year, the town was platted out, and the Bath County Court appointed Jacob Trumbo, John Trumbo, Isaac Conyers, Archibald Ramsey, William Atchison, and Coleman Smoot as trustees of the town. 
Plat map of Wyoming, 1876.

The original name was Mouth of Slate. The name Wyoming, according to local legend, stemmed from an account from a person who died around 1900 and at that time was 90 years old. The unknown storyteller told that a lone Native American was attempting to cross Slate Creek at a high state, and the early settlers would not help him cross the creek. In apparent anger, the Native American threw his hands up and cried out, “Wyomee,” then stormed away. The settlers had no idea what the word meant, but it eventually stuck at the town’s name. Whether this account is true, it does provide a colorful insight into the town’s origins.

Wyoming’s early days were noted for being rowdy, and it was labeled an outlaw town. This is most likely due to the town being a river town hub in the area. A saloon establishment was operated by Al McClain and was the scene of several typical brawls and friendly exchanges of words. One account tells that Jess Underwood, a native of Carter County, fatally shot George Trumbo during an incident at the saloon. Jess, who was known as a feudist and son of George Underwood, resided at what was locally known in Carter County as “Fort Underwood” at the headwaters of Tygart Creek. He visited family members in the Wyoming area several times between 1860 and 1870, and this incident stemmed from one of Jess’ visits to the town fair. The account says that Jess and another saloon patron had words and a feud resulted. Unfortunately, George Trumbo, an unintended victim, was struck by Underwood’s bullet. Underwood fled to Carter County to avoid a lynching, and several months later was killed when ambushed by members of the Halbrook and Stamper clans, also of Carter County. He was never brought to justice for Trumbo’s death.

Wyoming became a prosperous river town and was at one time one of the industrial hubs of Bath County. In its early days, Wyoming boasted a population of around 300; a hotel, post office, the saloon, at least four grocery and mercantile stores, three blacksmith shops, a carding factory, a grist mill, flour mill, and saw mill. The mills were powered by a stick dam across the Licking River, and the saw mill was the primary employer of the town’s citizens. 

Wyoming also had a ferry that crossed the Licking River into Fleming County. The old roadway leading to the ferry is still intact, but the cross itself has eroded considerably over the years. Early ferry operators were Thomas Barber, Boone Filson, and Frank Calvert. Bruce Snedegar, who was the last ferryman, took over the operation in 1914. In a Lexington Herald-Leader interview circa 1956, Mr. Snedegar, who was approaching his 89th birthday, described life as a ferryman at Wyoming. He said in the article that early in his tenure, he would transport at times more than twenty cargoes across the river per day. The ferry was described as a flat-bed wooden boat which was maneuvered using a 400-foot long guide cable across the river. The operator would have an oar to help guide the ferry, but the water current would be the main source of motivation. Snedegar went on to tell that he went through a total of three boats, one of which was made of steel. He also said that he never lost any cargo, even during flood stages that occasionally reached 35 feet. One incident he related was that the ferry broke loose from the guide wire and drifted three miles before he could control it. The ferry toll was fifty cents per vehicle or horse and became a lucrative business for Snedegar until the advent of the automobile. Business began to slow around 1925 and further declined when Ky. Rt. 32 from Flemingsburg to Morehead was built. Bruce Snedegar retired the ferry in 1950 and passed away in 1962 at the age of 94. Today nothing more remains of the once thriving ferry service.
Early trade items were brought in by ox cart or mule teams from Maysville, the closest railroad spearhead city through Flemingsburg or Grange City. The Licking River was the other obvious route, and at times it was said that hundreds of rafts would anchor at Wyoming. The modernization of paved roads and automobiles would prove to be the end of such transportation, much like the end of the ferry service. 
The Wyoming Ferry, early 1900's.

Wyoming, in addition to being an industrial town, was also very politically inspired. The town was one of the first established voting precincts and was strongly Republican. One interesting account of the political life of Wyoming tells of John Gudgell, a strong Democrat, and Odd Rogers, a devout Republican. The pair often had heated exchanges, and on Election Day, 1876, the citizens of Wyoming were treated to an all-out brawl in the streets. Wyoming was like the rest of Kentucky, considered neutral during the Civil War, however, retained a strong Southern sentiment. During the war, in the vicinity of Wyoming, Federal troops captured and hanged Thomas Dawson for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of a Confederate sympathizer. Dawson was cut down soon afterwards and survived the ordeal. This was the only documented occurrence of Civil War activity in Wyoming or the surrounding area.

Another violent point in Wyoming and Bath County’s history was the War for Free Turnpikes. Prior to November 1896, counties were limited with power to levy taxes for roadways. The solution was to authorize private citizens to organize toll roads, or turnpikes. These toll roads were governed by corporations headed with presidents and board of directors, meaning the corporation owned the roadway to be traveled. The revenue went toward improvement and maintenance of roadways and encouraged counties to establish improved road systems. In 1896, there were approximately 175 miles of toll roads owned by the corporations with tolls averaging around 75 cents per every 15 miles. Citizens often complained about not being able to travel from any point in the county without having to pay the tolls multiple times. Many meetings were held and plans drawn out to resolve the issue, but the poor financial state of the county prevented officials from being able to act. An attempt by legislators to take a referendum of voters to free the turnpikes resulted in a majority of favoring the move, but the county’s financial condition couldn’t warrant the situation.

Threats of violence were reported to officials, and in 1897, the issue culminated with raids on the toll gates houses. Masked horsemen raided the houses and dynamited roads throughout the county, reaching a climax on the night of May 21, 1897. Sheriff James Lane had received word that a raid was being planned on the Prickly Ash toll house at the Owingsville and Wyoming turnpike, which was located near the present bridge spanning Prickly Ash Creek on Ky. 111. Under the direction of County Judge W. S. Gudgell and County Attorney C. G. McCallister, Lane and his deputy, George Young, organized a posse of nine armed men to protect the toll house. At approximately midnight, the group heard heavy gunfire down Slate Creek in the direction of Wyoming. The raiders had cut the pole at the at the toll house at the White Oak Turnpike and another at the lower end of the Wyoming Turnpike and began firing into the toll houses. A short time later, the raiders were heard approaching Prickly Ash and when they were about 150 yards away, they surrounded the toll house. The raiders demanded, at gunpoint, that Chris Garner, who resided at the toll house, present an axe so that the gate pole could be cut.

Sheriff Lane and Dept. Young’s posse flanked the raiders and demanded a surrender, only to be met with gunfire. The posse returned fire striking three of the raiders. The raiders split into two groups, one heading up Skillet Branch, the others down Slate Creek toward Wyoming. Later Lane and Young’s posse found and arrested a member of the raiders, David Johnson, who was lying wounded along the turnpike. The following morning, Charles Johnson who had also been wounded, was arrested in the Forge Hill community. Arrest warrants for the other raiders were obtained by Sheriff Lane, but only four were arrested, as the others had fled the area. These arrests brought death threats to Sheriff Lane and Judge Executive Gudgell and threats to burn the courthouse and jail raided. Judge Gudgell wired Governor William Bradley about the circumstances and requested state troops to assist in maintaining order in the county. Company E, 2nd Regiment of the Kentucky State Guard, dispatched 52 men to Owingsville to protect the jail and courthouse and provide security for upcoming court appearances of the accused raiders. The War for Free Turnpikes ended after this bloody, yet non-fatal, event in Bath County. After the court trials, the Bath County Fiscal Court appointed turnpike commissioners to meet and negotiate the purchase of the turnpikes and eventually purchased all of them, officially ending the turnpike debate by 1929.

Wyoming endured many hardships and tribulations over the years, including a devastating fire around 1890, numerous floods, and outlaws, just to name a few. The one thing Wyoming could not survive was the modern era. Modern roads and railroads took the place of the mighty Licking River commerce route, bypassing the town into oblivion. By the early 1960s, only the church and a few houses and barns dotted the open field that was once a thriving community. Kentucky State Route 111 was rerouted and stretched past the former town. A modern bridge was erected across the Licking River on a new road downstream from the old ferry crossing that once provided so much of Wyoming’s transportation and trade. Today, nothing that resembles a town exists, and time has forgotten Wyoming. Many of the town’s descendants still reside in Bath County, but few, if any, can recall the heyday of the Wyoming. In the next generation, there will be no mention of the little town that gave State Route 111 its namesake; no memories of the good times and hard-working community that once graced the acres of farmland . . . Wyoming will truly become Bath County’s forgotten town. 

Sources: A History of Bath County, by J. A. Richards, Phyllis Byron Archive, and Bath County Clerk Records


  1. Thank you for posting this, I have been working on my genealogy and love to read anything about the county. Some of the McCarty's lived in this area in the 1800s, but a lot of them lived in the White Sulfur area.

  2. You are very welcome. This county has so much history and I love to dig into it every chance I get. So few know about Wyoming and where it was located, I hope this helps some who are looking to complete their family's story.

  3. Thank you Rob, You have brought the yesteryears our Hilligoss relatives and their extended family lived in Bath and Fleming County to life. Your posting reveals what was involved to get goods and oneself from here to there..not so simple.