Edward Gillette was both on December 14, 1854 in New Haven, Connecticut to a fairly well off family. He didn’t stray far from home to attend college, graduating from Yale University with an engineering degree in 1876. Little did he know his life would soon take him on a series of unexpected adventures that shaped the history of the American West.
Prior to 1878 Gillette had never been west of New York, but around that time he took a job as an assistant topographer for a survey being done by the Engineering Department of the Army in New Mexico. He had eight days to get from his home on the east coast to Santa Fe, and the train trip was quite lively. When the train stopped in a Missouri town a group of men came aboard and proceeded to pass around whiskey, sing, shout, and generally cause havoc. The chaos continued as the train rolled on culminating in several gun shots being fired into the roof of the train car. The gang took a liking to Gillette all the way through Kansas City. A member of the gang sat on either side of him as they travelled. In his book “Locating the Iron Trail”, Gillette said:
“Two delegates crowded into the seat with me and said we would have a ‘hell of a time’ on arriving in Kansas City where the boys would meet them with a band. I was adopted in the freest and heartiest manner possible as a member of the gang and the two fellows in the seat with me constituted a guard to see that I did not escape.”
The gun wielding men on the train were not the strangest thing to happen to Gillette on his trip west. The railroad ended in Colorado, so he travelled the rest of the way south to Santa Fe via stagecoach. The morning of July 29, 1878, Gillette’s driver showed up still drunk from an all-night party that had ended with a big fight, and the trip only went downhill from there. The ride was so rough that Gillette, as the only passenger, convinced the driver to let him sit next to him. The man drove erratically, including intentionally running a man on a donkey off the road. That day was also a total solar eclipse, providing a surreal experience that had many people Gillette passed praying and crossing themselves. The driver’s lack of care eventually came back to haunt him. Gillette heard a crack and saw the wheel of the stagecoach rolling away. To avoid the crash Gillette jumped into a clump of cactus. The driver wasn’t so lucky. Gillette had to pull him out of the wreckage, and he was too badly injured to drive. Using his engineering skills Gillette managed to fix the axle and wheel of the stagecoach, and drove it to the next station.
With such an introduction to the American West it is a wonder that Edward Gillette didn’t run screaming all the way back to New England. Instead he lived in the West, mainly in Wyoming, for the rest of his life.
When railroads began expanding further west, Gillette worked on mapping the most affordable train track routes for various companies working ahead of the men building the railroad with his surveying team. He first came to northern Wyoming from South Dakota surveying the route for the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad in the 1880s. A tent settlement of railroaders and cowboys, named Donkey Town, was on the route Gillette’s team was surveying. Between Donkey Creek to Hay Creek they ended up finding a route that saved the company a significant amount of money by needing to build thirty fewer bridges and was five miles shorter than originally planned. The men were excited to potentially get a bonus for their good work, but the Chief Engineer wrote to the crew that Donkey Town would be renamed Gillette instead. Thus Gillette, Wyoming got its name after a man who never even lived there.
The line next headed towards the Sheridan area, and the surveying of the route took place in the fall of 1890. There was much debate among the people about which of the communities in the area would get the railroad. Would it be Sheridan? Big Horn? No one knew for sure. In his memoir, Gillette doesn’t talk about coming to the Sheridan area before 1890. However in 1886, he started dating Hallie Coffeen, daughter of Henry Coffeen, future mayor of Sheridan and US Congressman. At the time Coffeen and his family lived in Big Horn. In 1887 his family moved to the newly incorporated town of Sheridan. Many have speculated that Gillette shared this information with Coffeen influencing his choice to move to Sheridan. The construction of the railroad brought hundreds of thousands of dollars in modern money into the Sheridan economy allowing many business people, including Coffeen, to profit and pay off debt. The first train came to Sheridan on November 22, 1892, eagerly greeted by a large crowd.
Gillette’s next adventure was one for the history books. The tracks were headed into Montana next and Bighorn Canyon was directly in their path. His team needed to survey this canyon to find the best crossing, but there was a problem: no had ever travelled the length of the canyon successfully. Bighorn Canyon is 55 miles long and stretches across the Wyoming-Montana border, and the Bighorn River runs through it. Before the construction of a dam, the fast flowing river filled the bottom of the canyon and the walls ranged from a few hundred to three thousand feet tall. When Gillette talked to people on the Crow Reservation about the canyon they told him it was dangerous and the few who had attempted to go through had died. Two men offered to go with Gillette on his trip through the canyon Frank Sykes and N.S. Sharpe. He chose Sharpe to go with him, and Sykes’ job was to come find them if they didn’t come back in ten days. They set off down the frozen river on March 7, 1891 towing a small sled with their supplies of food, bedding, and survey equipment. The temperature was a miserable negative twenty degrees, and didn’t warm up as the trip progressed. As they went, Gillette and Sharpe recorded wall heights and slopes to get at least some preliminary survey information from the canyon floor. The men faced deep snow, rapids, cold temperatures, and at times they waded through water sloshing over the ice. For most of the journey they walked on the frozen river itself because the walls of the canyon were so steep. When they got close to the end of the canyon, the ice was so thin they couldn’t walk on it, and there was not a trace of shore to walk on, so they had to get creative.
“…it was concluded to experiment with Sharpe, as he was considerably lighter than myself. A rope was firmly tied around him and he squirmed over the undulating ice while I let out the rope, ready to pull him back should he break through the ice. He made the shore outside the canyon all right, and, after sending over the outfit, I lay down on the ice and gradually worked my way out of the canyon. It was a great relief to walk along the bank of the river and contemplate the fact that we had gotten safely through the entire canyon, as the water was rising rapidly in the river. Had we been a few days later the trip we made would have been impossible.”
When he later met the future president, Teddy Roosevelt in Yellowstone, Gillette was flattered to learn that Roosevelt had heard of his adventure.
Gillette married Hallie Coffeen in 1893. They settled in Sheridan, and had three children. Surveys in the Bighorn Mountains and civil engineering projects kept him busy. In 1899 Burlington Railroad, a former employer of Gillette, was approached by the Secretary of War for a recommendation of an engineer to locate a route for the railroad in Alaska Territory from the southeast coast to the Klondike. Of all the surveyors the company knew, they recommended Gillette. He selected a surveying team and went off to Alaska Territory to find a route for what would later become the Copper River Railroad. His team proposed a route, and then headed back before winter set in. They caught the last boat out of Valdez, AK and headed for home. In a story that seems typical of Gillette’s life, the overcrowded boat hit an iceberg at night. The steamer sounded the general alarm. Some Native Americans lit a fire on the shore to indicate the way to the beach. By lighting the fire everyone on the ship was saved because the steamer was able to run aground on the beach instead of going down. Some passengers showed their appreciation by purchasing baskets and other goods from the women of the tribe while waiting for the ship to be repaired. The crew patched the ship and everyone made it home.
Returning to Sheridan, he worked on civic projects including the expansion of the Lake DeSmet Reservoir. He was elected State Treasurer from 1907-1911, and later served as the State Water Superintendent. In Sheridan, he was active in the community as part of the Sons of the American Revolution. He always advocated for the advancement of Sheridan, saying it could be bigger and better than cities like Billings and Cheyenne. In true engineer fashion, he always pushed for development and growth.
For much of his career he worked surveying for railroads, and came into contact with many different tribes of Native Americans. His granddaughter said in the “1983 Sheridan Heritage Book” that Gillette’s secret to getting along with them was “I took great pains to follow up on promises quickly and never to deceive them. They soon had implicit faith in whatever I told them and were wonderfully accommodating.” Gillette seemed to be a man of his word, who treated everyone he met with respect and decency.
His memoir “Locating the Iron Trail” was originally published in 1925. In 2015 the Wyoming State Historical Society reprinted it. He died on January 3, 1936 after a long illness, but still lives on in the history of Sheridan, Wyoming, and the United States.
If you are interested in reading “Locating the Iron Trail”, click here to purchase the book from our gift shop.