Bill Sniffin Wyoming's national award winning columnist

Bill Sniffin News
Home Search

1822 - The demise of the phone company

Telephone service first hit Cheyenne in the 1881. Soon lines stretched from the state capitol all the way to Evanston and north to Sheridan and all places in-between.   

And for 125 years, those lines hummed with calls 24 hours a day.  

Yellow pages were invented in Cheyenne in 1881 when the first phone book was printed. They ran out of white paper and printed the business listings on some yellow paper they had laying around. Started a national trend.

Telephone Canyon, which stretches steeply west down into Laramie on Interstate 80, was named that because the first telephone cable from Cheyenne to Laramie in 1882 was strung down that route.

         My, have times changed when it comes to telephone service in the Cowboy State.

         The future of the telephone company in Wyoming comes down to POTS and PANS, according to the primary lobbyist for the Century Link Company.

         Kristin Lee was in Lander for a legislative meeting and told the sad tale about the decline of her company. POTS stands for “Plain Old Telephone Service.”  While PANS stands for “Pretty Awesome New Stuff.”

         Lee is a Cheyenne lawyer/lobbyist who works for Century Link. Her complaint is the phone company is still heavily regulated in Wyoming when it is no longer a monopoly. Their business model is outdated and in decline.

         “At our height, we had 150,000 phone lines in Wyoming,” she said.  “Many homes had separate lines for the kids. Businesses had separate lines for fax machines. All that has gone away. Today we have 60,000 lines and it is declining at a rate of 10 percent per year.”

         There is a proposal to build a $12 million line north of Lusk for 200 customers.  “We get $23.10 per month per customer. It just does not work out, she said”

         “Our business model is dead,” she says. She is hoping the legislature will ease up on the decades-old regulations that still govern her company, but do not faze its competitors.

         The legislative committee ultimately voted to draft a bill by a 9-4 vote, to extend the Wyoming telecommunication act. But there was a lot of movement toward the idea of removing Century Link from oversight, since it obviously is no longer a monopoly.

         Phone service in Wyoming has come a long way by way of diversification over the decades. It is unrecognizable compared to what we experienced back in the 1970s.

         Mountain Bell was one of the major Bell operating companies, based out of Denver.  Then as deregulation occurred, an outfit called U.S. West took over. Then Qwest took over the phones.  It was funny to hear people either call the company “Quest” or “Cue-West.” Never did know how to pronounce it.

         Back in those days the people at the local phone company were prominent folks in our community.  Today, they are nowhere to be seen – the phone company’s employees, that is.

         To folks of the older generation, the impossible seems to be occurring – ditching their land telephone line.  The arrival of cell phones almost 30 years ago has changed everything.

         When the Internet arrived, something called VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) came into being.

         Then the big cable companies started bundling your cable TV, your Internet, and your landline as one package.  This event probably has kept more landlines in operation than any other event.

         But mainly folks are just using their cell phones full-time.

         My mom still likes her landline, though. My 94-year old mother Betty Sniffin really loves the Internet. One of my brothers, Ron Sniffin of Cheyenne, and a sister, Susan Kinneman of Riverton, helped mom put together an Internet network called “Betnet,” which she uses to communicate with the dozens of members of her extended family. It includes her 11 children and their spouses, her 23 grandchildren and her 24 great-grandchildren.  Since her one and only great-great grandchild is barely one year old, she probably cannot claim a five-generation network, but she is ready whenever little Hailey picks up a cell phone and starts playing around.

         But my point is that as readily as my mom took to the computer and the Internet, she never really liked cell phones.  Part of it was her hearing aids, which are a constant source of irritation.

         Her landline is hooked up to a machine that translates voice into printed words on a screen, so she can communicate pretty well.

         Alas, times are changing.  Relics of our past like the legacy telephone carriers are hanging around, but just barely.

1821 - Important Cowboy State `tribal values`

   Perhaps the most individual of a list of Wyoming’s fundamental values I struggled to put together a few years ago was the idea that you just cannot drive by a stranded person, especially in winter.

         Because our beautiful weather can turn very cruel and because our distances are so vast and, finally, because of our low population, this all adds up to the simple fact that we must help if we can.

         Now the sentences above are pretty long but they sum up to me a fundamental value of living here.

         One of the best travel books I have ever read is called Oregon Trail Revisited by Rinker Buck, which includes a lot of history of the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails.

         In Buck’s book, he stated repeatedly how you just have to help out when you are on the frontier.  You have no choice.  And now, here we are in that same place 165 years later, and the same rules apply.

         Another outstanding book is called Tribe by Sebastian Junger. It describes a situation that happened to him in Gillette. Junger is the best-selling author of some classic books including The Perfect Storm and War.

         His first trip out west at the age of 17 was when he attended a National Outdoor Leadership School course in Lander. 

         Junger in his latest book describes a situation much like the reason you try to help stranded people in our frontier state.  I thought it worth reprinting. It makes me proud of the people here:

"In the fall of 1986, just out of college, I set out to hitchhike across the United States. I’d grown up in a Boston suburb where people’s homes were set behind deep hedges or protected by huge yards and neighbors hardly knew each other.

“The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping—somewhat irresponsibly —for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive.

“Those kinds of tests clearly weren’t going to happen, but putting myself in a situation where I had very little control—like hitchhiking across the country—seemed like a decent substitute. That’s how I wound up outside Gillette, Wyoming, one morning in late October 1986, with my pack leaned against the guardrail and an interstate map in my back pocket. Semis rattled over the bridge spacers and hurtled on toward the Rockies. Pickup trucks passed with men in them who turned to stare.

 “A tent and sleeping bag, a set of cook pots, and a week’s worth of food was all I had that morning, when I saw a man walking toward me up the onramp.

“I could see he wore a quilted old canvas union suit and carried a black lunch box. He walked up and stood there studying me. His hair was wild and matted and his union suit was shiny with filth and grease at the thighs. He didn’t look unkindly but I was young and alone and I watched him like a hawk. He asked me where I was headed?

“California,” I said. He nodded. “How much food do you got?” he asked.

“I thought about this. I had plenty of food—along with all the rest of my gear—and he obviously didn’t have much. I’d give food to anyone who said he was hungry, but I didn’t want to get robbed, and that’s what seemed was about to happen.

“Oh, I just got a little cheese,” I lied. I stood there, ready, but he just shook his head.

“You can’t get to California on just a little cheese,” he said. “You need more than that.”

“The man said that he lived in a broken-down car and that every morning he walked three miles to a coal mine outside of town to see if they needed fillin work. Some days they did, some days they didn’t, and this was one of the days that they didn’t. “So I won’t be needing this,” he said, opening his black lunch box. “I saw you from town and just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“The lunch box contained a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of potato chips. I thanked him and put the food in my pack. Then he turned and made his way back down the onramp toward Gillette.

“I thought about that man for the rest of my trip. I thought about him for the rest of my life.”  


1820 - Grads, do you have gumption?

You can’t stop what’s coming. – From the movie No Country for Old Men


This is my message for 2018 graduates – your future is coming at you at a terrific speed and there is very little you can do to get ready for it, except get an education and use your education.

There is an old saying that a person needs to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

In your case, you will not be able to get out of the way.

Is it possible that many of the great truths that you graduates have come to take for granted are just not true after all? Let me share three examples:


• First, you were told that loyalty to your boss or your employer was a total waste of time and a relic from your parents and grandparents’ generations.

Not true.

Instead loyalty may be the most important factor going forward in getting and keeping that job that you covet. Do you remember the key component of the state of Wyoming’s official philosophy, called the Code of the West?  To me, the big one is “Ride for the Brand.”


         • Second, here in Wyoming energy is a big, big deal. You were told your entire lives that America would be relying on foreign energy imports forever.  You were taught that our destiny, as a country, is to make Arab Sheiks rich as we continually import their oil.

Not true.

         Today we are a net energy exporting country.  With Wyoming’s wind and solar resources, our vast coal deposits, gigantic natural gas reserves and new oil discoveries, Wyoming is helping the country send out more energy than we are importing.  Amazing.              


         • Third, you were told that manufacturing is dying in America and, no matter what you do, do not get into that dinosaur business.  We expect everything of importance to be built in China.  Surely the experience of Wal Mart and Apple Computer would verify this.

Not true.

         Surprise, the USA manufacturing sector is gigantic.  At $1.8 trillion, if this sector were a country, it would be the 10th largest economy on the planet.

After turning these three truisms onto their heads, it seems like much of what was drilled into you over your brief lifetime of about two decades was not as true as it was told to you.

         So what happened?

         Just when everything has a gloomy but predictable look to it, we find out that many assumed truths in the world really are upside down. What you thought was true is false. What was passé is back in fashion. 

         To a graduate sitting in a hot, crowded auditorium pondering that biggest of all questions: “What is going to happen to me?” well, I want to tell you that these times can be times of opportunity just as easily as they can be times of worry.

         And because of all the above, that is why I write.

         This annual column to high school and college graduates is much like speeches given in person. It just seems like this is an important time to peer into our crystal ball and help you graduates in any way that I can.

         I remember my high school graduation in 1964 back in Iowa.  A future U. S. Senator predicted a long and gloomy Cold War with the Soviet Union (Russia) that could last a millennium.  No one in that room would have believed the USSR would come crashing down a generation later.

         Today your focus is on getting a job.  

         But there are jobs out there, lots of them.

         If you are a mess, then you have a problem.  And probably what I am writing is not for you.

If you are a hard worker with good work habits and ethics, your future is bright. The key word might be “gumption.” If you do not know what it means, look it up.

You grads heading out into the world of new jobs need to be alert to trends in your chosen fields. 

         Employers are looking for good workers.  And they are looking for good people. And most of them want to hire you for a long time. They are looking as hard for you as you are looking for them.  Don’t give up too soon.

         I see a future that is as bright as ever for the young person willing to work hard, make friends and perhaps, most of all, “keep learning” as you grow in your careers.

         Good luck and Godspeed.



1819 - Worst school killing could have occurred here

To the people involved, it was a miracle on May 16, 1986, when a Wyoming school-bombing attempt failed, sparing 154 students and teachers from dying.

         Cokeville, Wyoming, is a sleepy little town on the far west border of the state next to Idaho.  It is a predominantly Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints town where crazy things are never supposed to happen. It is nestled between the towns of Afton and Kemmerer in Lincoln County. It was always believed to be the safest place possible to raise children. The schools were considered good and the teachers excellent.

         But all of this serenity changed 32 years ago this month

         With little warning, a nutty couple took over the school with guns and bombs and promised to start killing people.

         Books have been written about the event and even a movie was filmed a few years ago. The State Historical Society’s has compiled amazing data on the event. See Jessica Clark`s article at, which includes a dozen oral histories by people who were there.

         One of the best books is Trial by Terror: The Child-Hostage Crisis in Cokeville, Wyoming by Hartt and Judene Wixom.

         Much of the following is from their book.

         The perpetrator of all the danger was the town’s former lawman named David Young. He and his wife Doris entered the town’s elementary school with a grocery cart full of guns and gasoline bombs. Nobody saw such a threat coming. This was decades before schools all over the country started keeping their doors locked.

         Young had been the town’s marshal in the 1970s. He was let go after his six-month probationary period. He had recently married Doris Waters of Cokeville, a divorcee who was a waitress and singer in a local bar.

         After their wedding, they moved to Tucson where David became more reclusive. He came up with a scheme called “the Biggie,” and acquired some investment money from friends.

         His Biggie plan was to invade the Cokeville School, hold the kids ransom for $2 million apiece and then use the money to create what his friends said he called a Brave New World

         David, his wife Doris and his daughter Princess from his first marriage entered the school that Friday at 1 p.m. and took the entire school hostage. They herded the 154 students, teachers, and other staff into one. It was a room that had a capacity for just 30 students.

         According to the Trial by Terror book: David set himself up in the center of the room with his guns and bombs while Doris rounded up more folks. She told most of the younger students they were needed for an all school assembly.

         Once they were all in the room he told them he was leading a revolution. He passed out copies of his philosophy called Zero Equals Infinity.

         He also sent copies to the president of Chadron State College (where he graduated), President Ronald Reagan, and various media.

         The teachers tried to keep the students calm, especially the younger ones.  They watched movies, played games and prayed.

         Suddenly at 4 p.m., the bomb exploded.  People in the room later said that just before the explosion, David had connected the bomb to his wife.  Then he went to the restroom, which was next to the bigger room. Doris accidentally set off the bomb by motioning to the hostages with her arms.  The explosion covered her in flames and burned some nearby children.

         In the chaos, David returned to find Doris thrashing in agony. He shot her dead and then saw music teacher John Miller trying to escape. He shot Miller in the back. Then he returned to the restroom and killed himself. The danger was over.

         This tragedy ended with just two fatalities, the perpetrator and his wife.  Miller survived his injuries.

         This potential tragic story became a feel-good story across the country.  But in Cokeville and the larger Mormon community it took on a different theme – it was a miracle.

         Many recalled seeing angels during the crisis and prayer circles had been formed all over town and over the West.

         In the book Witness to Miracles by the Cokeville Miracle Foundation in 2005, Kameron Wixon, son of the authors of the original book, wrote: “I didn’t have to see angels, hear them or even think that their presence might be required. God did deliver our salvation that day. I’m living proof.”

         A movie called The Cokeville Miracle was made in 2015.