CODY, Wyo. - Wyoming has always been unforgiving country, with some early settlements failing to catch on, while others faded away after reversals of work, wealth or weather.

The small ranching community of Marquette was settled years before Cody was founded. But it was the decision to build a massive dam between the two spots that meant an end to Marquette, submerging the settlement under what is now the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, about 10 miles west of Cody.

At the confluence of the North Fork and South Fork of the Shoshone River, near the site of what was once a large Crow Indian village, rancher George Marquette became one of the first white settlers in the area, said Jeannie Cook, a Cody historian, archivist and author.

Accounts in the Park County Historical Archives show Marquette, a German immigrant whose parents settled in Ohio when he was a boy, coming to the Bighorn Basin in 1878.

"He was a fiddler, and he would go around and play for all the parties in the Bighorn Basin. He was also a carpenter and did a lot of work for Otto Franc," a German aristocrat who founded the Pitchfork Ranch in Meeteetse, Cook said.

'Uncle George'

"Uncle George" Marquette, as he was known, and a handful of others ranched and farmed along the river bottoms west of where the Buffalo Bill Dam now stands, in an area that has been under water for nearly a century.

Named after Marquette, the community got a post office in 1891, with Marquette serving as postmaster. The town of Cody was founded in 1906, and the dam was completed in 1910.

But the popular notion that a bustling town was swallowed up by rising waters is not true, Cook said.

"People get the idea that there was a whole town with all these different buildings. It was basically just a post office," she said, with perhaps a dozen ranches in the surrounding area.

Just a few buildings served many purposes, with the post office including a dance hall. Another building had a barbershop and saloon, and the community also had a general store.

Marquette was a gregarious Civil War veteran who served as a justice of the peace and later as coroner. But no social event was complete if Uncle George wasn't there to play the fiddle.

"You had these characters that wanted to live on the edge of civilization," Cook said.

"There was definitely an attraction to that area for those people. It was a beautiful place," said Lynne Houze, curatorial assistant at the Buffalo Bill Museum in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

But not every community was as close to two rivers as Marquette, and other farmers were thirsty for reliable irrigation water.

"We needed the dam because we needed the water, so they had to give up their homes for the public good," Houze said.

Though the Shoshone Dam, later renamed the Buffalo Bill Dam, is hailed as an engineering marvel, the road through the canyon on the north side of the river is no less impressive, Houze said.

The road was needed to facilitate construction of the dam, and it was built mostly with hand tools or relatively primitive machines, she said.

Before that road was built, the trip to Yellowstone National Park first followed a road along the South Fork of the Shoshone River, fording that river and the North Fork about two dozen times before reaching the park, Cook said.

Failed attempts

The dam was a massive federal project that came only after failed attempts by others, including Buffalo Bill Cody, to develop private irrigation systems, said Beryl Churchill, a Powell farmer and author of Dams, Ditches and Water: A History of the Shoshone Reclamation Project.

"It didn't fly. It wouldn't work at all," Churchill said of Cody's irrigation scheme.

"He could not raise the money for such a huge project and his idea wasn't practical. That's when the Bureau of Reclamation, then called the Reclamation Service, stepped in, and Buffalo Bill relinquished his water rights," she said.

Before the dam was built, the federal government calculated the value of the ranches around Marquette using a formula accounting for water rights and crop yields.

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For each acre, the government paid $45 for land used to grow alfalfa, $35 for grain acreage, $20 for unbroken land with water rights, $7.50 for grazing land along the river bottom and $3.50 for grazing land with no water, she said.

Most buildings that could be salvaged were moved, with many becoming part of the new town site of Cody.

"There were obviously some unhappy ranchers, but I think in general, people figured it had to happen," Churchill said.

Buffalo Bill Cody owned a small 80-acre tract in Marquette that was separate from his sprawling TE Ranch on the South Fork. The government paid him $3,900 for the property, or about $86,000 in today's dollars.

The Trimmer family ranch, one of less than a dozen listed on a July 1905 U.S. Geological Survey map of the Marquette area, fetched about $12,000.

"It was hard work," said Nancy Trimmer Wulfing, whose grandfather was a Marquette rancher.

"My grandparents lived in a little three-room house with big bear skin rugs," said Wulfing, who was born in 1935. Her father was 3 years old when the family left Marquette after the dam was finished.

Wulfing said a small school in the area served about a dozen children, but added that she never heard much family history about early days in Marquette.

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Family history

"There's not a lot of family history that I retained," said A.J. Martin, who was born in 1936, and whose grandfather was a Marquette rancher.

"What is fascinating history to all of us now was commonplace when I was growing up, and you never paid any attention to it," he said.

"My grandmother said she was the third white woman to come into this country. But remember, as people tell their family history in Cody, it gets embellished with each generation," Martin said with a laugh.

His grandfather, also named A. J. Martin, was one of the first commissioners of Park County, and a friend of Buffalo Bill Cody.

His grandparents were married in 1895, while in their early 20s, and ranched in Marquette near the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek, Martin said.

"My grandmother used to tell me that every six months, they went to Red Lodge for supplies. That was the closest place they could get groceries. There was no railroad, no nothing, just wagon ruts," he said.

"Every now and then, there would be a couple of Indians who would start trailing them on the way to Red Lodge or back, and it scared her to death," he said.

"I had uncles tell me that she used to go down to the river and catch trout down there, and she would put them in a washtub and the nose would touch the tail," Martin said.

Martin said he does not agree with conventional wisdom that puts the Marquette post office at the confluence of the two rivers.

"I think it was four or five miles further up the South Fork. I've always questioned the exact location," he said.

The 1905 map shows the Martin ranch, the Trimmer ranch and properties owned by other families, including Jackson, Riddle, Dickenson, Brundage, Tinkcom, Trimmer and Grinder.

It also puts the location of Marquette, presumably the post office, a bit upstream on the South Fork, along the river's west bank, south of the confluence.

Martin said his grandparents kept working their property as long as possible.

"They farmed or ranched that place till the water came up to the steps of the house," he said.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevost@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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