Barney Ford: Fast Food Pioneer

55. In 1867, the town of Cheyenne, Wyoming popped up virtually overnight. Barney Ford got there immediately, and opened a restaurant. (In 1867, the area was still part of the Dakota Territory.) It’s not hard to imagine that, as a popular business leader in Denver, he had some advance notice of what was going on. Across the Old West, getting there first was usually a crucial step to success.


The earliest known ad for Barney’s Cheyenne restaurant was published on October 10, 1867. The Union Pacific railroad didn’t reach Cheyenne until a month later, on November 13. By January 1868, Barney had worked out a system, and was advertising that he was getting daily shipments of fresh oysters from Baltimore, a five-day trip by the new trains, which was impossibly fast by 1868 standards.


Union Pacific Engine No.119 met the Central Pacific’s “Jupiter” at Promontory Point in 1869. This was a standard locomotive in the late 1860s, and would have been the type seen in the early days of Cheyenne.

Oysters in Wyoming? Not exactly the contemporary idea of “eating local.” But there was no “local” in Wyoming in 1868. Nearly everyone in the area, apart from the native population, was there because of the railroad. Cattle ranching hadn’t developed yet, and the buffalo (bison) were quickly being exterminated.

Meanwhile, folks needed to eat, and Ford had plenty of competition. At its peak during the rail construction boom, Cheyenne had as many as 70 places serving food, or at least offering a drink, but even after the transcontinental line was completed in Utah in 1869, Ford still had at least five solid competitors.

Once the transcontinental trains started running from Omaha to San Francisco, Ford was competing not only against the other local businesses, but against the other towns along the route. The trains would make a 30-minute stop in Cheyenne. Ford’s original restaurant was only a block away from the station. People had plenty of time to run in and have a quick bowl of oysters. They probably wouldn’t have had time to go somewhere else and wait for a steak to be grilled.

His typical 1868 newspaper copy read:

Oysters!  Fresh Oysters!  B. L. Ford and Co., 16th Street, is receiving daily, by express, Maltby’s, Select, and H.M. Oysters, the best and freshest in the market.  We serve them up in every style, at all hours, and furnish the trade in quantities to suit.  Our oyster broils can’t be beat. They are large, fat and luscious.  Call and try them.”

In his 1870 ads, he was also offering “free carriage rides” from the train station to his Ford and Durkee Hotel, saving passengers a few more precious moments. Fast food! We associate fast food with the rise of the automobile culture, but it had already started with the railroads. (For a glimpse into an early fast food project back east, read about the “waiter carriers” of Gordonsville, Virginia–African American women who would meet the trains to sell food such as fried chicken directly to the passengers–in Psyche A. Williams-Forson’s Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, & Power.)


In this 1869 photo of Cheyenne’s business district, the Ford and Durkee Hotel is the two-story building in the middle of the block on the left side of the street.

At the peak of the railroad construction boom, Cheyenne’s population had ballooned from nothing to 4000. Then, as the construction work moved west, the population fell off. By the summer of 1869, Cheyenne had 2300 people.

In 1870, the hotel, which had brick sides, nonetheless burned down in a fire that gobbled up buildings over a two-block area. Ford rebuilt, but by 1871 or so, he sold out, and returned to Denver. He then bought the Sargent House hotel, on Larimer Street:


Ford advertised his new Ford Hotel and Restaurant in the Cheyenne newspaper, hoping to capitalize on the new rail traffic that was heading south from Cheyenne to Denver. He advertised “Meals at all hours,” with “oysters, fish and game a specialty.”

He followed that project with his Inter-Ocean Hotel, built in 1873, at the corner of 16th & Blake. It was a fine hotel, and included an electric bell system that connected each room to the front desk.


A stereoscopic photo of the Inter-Ocean Hotel in Denver, from the Denver Public Library.

Ford returned to Cheyenne in 1875 to open an Inter-Ocean Hotel there. Once again, he was advertising his fresh oysters. In September of that year, President Grant stopped in Cheyenne. After the obligatory greetings at the train depot, Grant and his party took the carriage ride to the Inter-Ocean Hotel, and was personally served by Barney Ford.


The Inter-Ocean Hotel in Cheyenne, 1875. It was destroyed by fire in 1916. It may have been the first hotel in the U.S. to have both electric lights in the rooms and a telephone in the lobby.

The new hotel offered lodging for 150, the dining room could seat 180, and it included a gentlemen’s reading room, a ladies’ dining room, billiard hall, gentlemen’s club, and a barber shop. At the time, it was considered the finest hotel between St. Louis and San Francisco, and over the next forty years, it welcomed a number of famous guests, including Teddy Roosevelt. It was also used for meetings of the Wyoming territorial legislature.

It was also at the head of the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage coach line that carried gold rush miners east into the Black Hills of South Dakota. Its saloon became a hot spot for miners returning from Deadwood with bags full of gold dust. Tom Horn, the hired gun who was finally hanged in Cheyenne in 1903 for the murder of a 14-year old boy, often stayed there, and was arrested in the hotel bar after his drunken confession to a murder he may not have actually committed.

In the process of constructing these substantial hotels in Denver and Cheyenne, Ford became financially over-extended. By May 1878, Ford and family were preparing to leave Cheyenne for an interlude in San Francisco. The Cheyenne newspaper ran a story bidding farewell to a “gentleman” they described as “a man of unimpeachable integrity, public spirited and enterprising,” and added that “The good wishes of our citizens accompany himself and family to their new home.”

Let that sink in. The rest is history (and covered in the previous post). But here’s the moral of this particular part of story: A newspaper gave that kind of a farewell to an African American family in 1878. The paper called him a ”gentleman,” in a time when many white folks couldn’t even have brought themselves to call an African American man “sir.” As a black man in his 50s,  he’d probably have been called “Uncle Barney” in many parts of the country. The Cheyenne paper’s accolades show the high degree of respect that Barney Ford had earned.

Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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