National Register of Historic Places

Green River Commercial District

Green River

Date Added to Register

Friday, January 09, 2009

Smithsonian Number


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The Green River Downtown Historic District is eligible for its association with patterns of history significant to the development of Green River. The downtown district developed and continued to thrive in direct connection to its location along nationally significant transportation routes including the Union Pacific Railway and the Lincoln Highway. The district’s mixed-use character can be attributed to the community’s crowded early development within a small area of land bounded by the Union Pacific and the Green River to the south and a series of unique bluffs and rock formations to the north.

The Green River Downtown Historic District encompasses the downtown area’s surviving historic core. The entire district falls within the boundaries of Green River’s Original Town (c. 1867, official 1877). The district is located within a grid system of paved streets north of, and parallel and perpendicular to, the Union Pacific tracks. Streets are offset from the cardinal directions by 45 degrees. In general setbacks are uniform and begin at the sidewalk in the typical fashion of commercial downtown districts. However, a rise in elevation from the valley floor of the Green River to the south to the sandstone formations found immediately north of town, influences the overall character of the district.

Buildings are primarily commercial in nature, but transportation, education, communication and residential uses also played a significant role in the district’s historic development. In particular, the selection of Green River as a switching point on the Union Pacific Railroad and the coming of the Lincoln Highway in 1913 spurred early development along Railroad Avenue and East Flaming Gorge Way. Buildings within the district date from 1891 to 1943, indicating its continued importance throughout the period of significance. A building boom took place immediately after World War I spurred in part by the increasing popularity of the Lincoln Highway. Of the twelve contributing buildings within the district, five were constructed between 1919 and 1922.

While the district has no overarching architectural style, most of buildings were designed in various forms of the vernacular commercial style typical of main streets in Wyoming and the United States during the early 1900s. Only four buildings within the district are architect designed.

The present day community of Green River owes much of its early existence to transportation. Situated along the Green River, southwestern Wyoming’s most substantial waterway, and near a number of unique and colorful rock formations, it was a natural stopping point along some of the nation’s earliest east-west transportation routes for Euro-American westward expansion and settlement. Prior to this, however, the area was well known and used by the Shoshone, who referred to the river as the Seedskadee Agie or the Prairie Chicken River.

Green River, of course, had the advantage of the river’s presence and when the first transcontinental railroad was routed through southern Wyoming it seemed a natural rail center. The Union Pacific began construction of a roundhouse and machine shop south of the tracks and just west of Pine Street (South 2nd West Street). The original depot was located in a small section house just west of where the two-story brick depot (Building No. 9) stands today. The selection of Green River as the southern terminus of the Oregon Short Line in 1884 further solidified Green River’s status as a major rail center.

Wyoming gained statehood in 1890 and Green River officially incorporated under state law on May 5, 1891. The town continued to grow, thanks in large part to the presence of the Union Pacific. By 1900 the population reached approximately 1,000, and this growth spurred new construction and the establishment of new services.

Green River continued to grow and make improvements between 1900 and 1910. More significant was Union Pacific’s decision in the summer of 1917 to make Green River the regional headquarters for Wyoming’s Western division, from Rawlins to Ogden, Utah, which spurred construction projects as well as community optimism. As a result of this decision, improvements to the Union Pacific “campus” continued throughout the war, even after all railroads were placed under the control of the U.S. Government in an effort to better coordinate their wartime use. A one-story annex was added to the east side of the main depot building (Building No. 9) to house an express room and the second story was remodeled for office use in 1918.

A building boom took place in downtown Green River immediately after World War I; constructed after the war was the Hotel Tomahawk (Building No. 11), which was completed in 1920. The Hotel Tomahawk was more than just a hotel; it was also a trendsetter in Green River as one of the first major buildings in town consciously designed to face the Lincoln Highway and not the Union Pacific tracks. Green River residents were no doubt excited by the economic prospects of the Lincoln Highway Association’s decision to route the nation’s first transcontinental automobile route through Green River in 1913. However, excluding a few early exceptions, highway-related development did not take place until after World War I. During the 1920s, new development continued to take place in the Green River Downtown Historic District along the Lincoln Highway (Flaming Gorge Way) at a slow but steady pace.

At this time, the railroad divided the north and south sections of the city. As early as 1919, the Green River Star publically called for something to be done about the “perpetual nuisance” of the railroad grade crossing, reporting that “Autos and teams have been held at either side from thirty minutes to an hour and a half on many occasions” (Green River Star, 8/22/1919). The crossing was not only a nuisance to vehicles but a danger to pedestrians as well. The story of south side children crawling under stopped trains in an effort to get to their north side schools illustrates the potential for tragedy (Humstone, 2005). Remedying this situation was expensive, however, and Green River citizens would have to wait for federal assistance during the Great Depression to build a vehicle underpass and a pedestrian overpass.

Along with highlighting the benefits of the improved crossing, this passage also expresses the increased importance of the south side of the tracks to the community of Green River. While the commercial and civic buildings north of the tracks still maintained dominance, Green River—bound to the north by undevelopable land—was now growing to the south. By 1937 Green River was experiencing a slight recovery from the Depression, as this year marked the highest expenditures in new construction (mostly at the UP Yards) and in the remodeling of buildings and businesses since the stock market crash in 1929. World War II, however, would continue to stifle construction, although not necessarily economic recovery.

After World War II this southward development would continue, as the town spilled across the river after which it was named. The overpass connected south side residents to schools, civic buildings and businesses on the north side of the tracks, while at the same time connecting the historic downtown district to Green River’s future.

The Green River Downtown has changed little since its period of historic significance. With recent development flanking the district on all sides, it serves as a window into Green River’s transportation, commercial, and community history for citizens and visitors alike. Despite formidable competition from commercial development south of the river and near Green River’s two Interstate exits, the contributing buildings within the Downtown Historic District have remained in continuous service to their community. Green River became a Main Street community in 2005, with the hope of spurring downtown revitalization and historically sensitive rehabilitation within the district and beyond. Recognizing and documenting the significance of the district to Green River’s past is a necessary step in ensuring the Green River Downtown Historic District will contribute to the community’s future as well.

Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources