SUNRISE – The once-thriving iron ore mining town of Sunrise has a YMCA built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and a natural lake that is 900 feet deep. The land is also yielding up its treasures in the form of thousands of Clovis artifacts. Today, it is not a ghost town, although it is said to be inhabited by one ghost.
The long forgotten town is beginning to be recognized as a major community of current vision, ancient history and dedicated research.
The entire town was purchased and is currently owned by John Voight.
“So, it all began by the fact that I knew the prior owner,” Voight said. “It was in the 1990s and I was working a historic property downtown Cheyenne. I had several buildings down there and having good luck working some old projects, and I loved it because it gave me the chance to work old buildings, update them a little bit and get them productive again.”
It was there that Voight who was born in Wheatland and raised on a ranch in Chugwater, met the man who inherited not only some old buildings in Cheyenne, but also the entire town of Sunrise from his father.
“Having grown up in this area, 60 miles south of here, not knowing about Sunrise, that intrigued me,” he said. “So I came up and visited the place in the late 1990s for the first time in my life. It still amazes me to this day why we never talked about Sunrise. In fact, I can never remember it coming up in history class or social studies class. And here was this very large consequential mine; one of the largest iron mines west of the Mississippi, so close by and we didn’t know about it.”
It was almost as if it was a hidden city. A Brigadoon if you will, that eluded conversations and the public eye for many years. But out of the ashes of obscurity is rising a Phoenix right here in Platte County. The property was proven to have inhabitants over 13,000 years ago, but those facts too were obscured and hidden until just recently.
It’s almost as if the sun is beginning to rise on the forgotten little town and the light is beginning to reveal things that were hidden in the darkness of silence for generations.
Voight is a Renaissance man. A forgotten breed of the romantic, the lyrical and the philosopher. Much like the town he owns, he is experiencing an awakening. In fact, the town that is revealing itself is also in turn, revealing him.
After high school, Voight went on to major in music at the University of Wyoming. He then went overseas and worked in the Middle East as a farmer and was involved in implementing irrigation. A music major farming and irrigating in the Middle East.
“Yeah,” he said with a laugh. “I like to apply my trade. And then when I returned, I went back to the University of Wyoming and got a degree in finance.”
After yet another trip to back to the Middle East and worked in Saudi as a farmer before coming back to Laramie where he resided for 25 years.
“I eventually got into a situation where I had the opportunity to buy Sunrise,” Voight said. “The owner at the time was considering a sale to a Chinese company around 2010-2011 when the world price of iron ore had skyrocketed. Chinese companies were going all over the world looking for iron resources and they found this place and had made plans to buy it. I kinda got in their way because the owner didn’t want to sell it to them.”
The rest is pretty much history and Voight has been living in the town ever since. But not as a lonely hermit. He has brought in former Wyoming State archaeologist team George and Geri Zeimens who have unearthed and verified several artifacts from Clovis man.
In addition, Voight has been refurbishing buildings, cleaning out the town of debris and defunct junk and is in the process of restoring the old YMCA which was built in 1917. The vision is to turn the building into a museum and artifact vault for the relics found in the dig.
“The short story of the building is that it was built by John D. Rockefeller Jr.,” Voight said. “He was pretty much in charge of the Colorado Fuel and Oil Company at the time. The Rockefeller contingent had control of the steel company at the time. There was a tremendous amount of labor unrest at the time.”
According to Voight, the idea was to create a more friendly and family-oriented environment with more amenities. The mining village turned into a town literally overnight with a hospital added, a YMCA complete with programs, a gymnasium, a cafeteria and even a bowling alley.
At one time, there was housing for over 100 miners and according to Ripley’s, Sunrise had the longest garage on the grounds that were home to many Model Ts and various other vehicles throughout the years. The mine eventually shut down in the early 80s and the townspeople just disappeared leaving everything behind.
Voight also has a bat study going on and is in cooperation with the DNR and University of Wyoming to determine some little-known facts about Wyoming bats.
The mine has also produced some surprises in that a rock formation that had never been identified on earth has been discovered and in fact has now been named in the national archives as the John Voight stone.
Archaeological Hot Spot
Clovis people are considered to be the ancestors of most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas, and some of the artifacts being collected by a team of Wyoming archaeologists date back to 13,000 years ago.
It’s a red ochre mine, and we have found artifacts in here that are 13,000 years old,” said archaeologist, Geri Zeimens.“It’s the oldest human occupancy find in the North American continent.
The dig site is called Powars II which is named after a man who coached at Sunrise school in the 1930s. Although he developed his own private dig that few people knew about, in the early 80s Powars had a collection of artifacts that he took to the Smithsonian Institution. At that time, Dennis Stanford, the head of the anthropology department was from Wyoming. They inspected the articles and recognized them immediately as being early man Clovis.
George Zeimens, who was the state of Wyoming anthropologist for many years and his wife, Geri have run an anthropology school for students for 33 years. The students come to wherever the Zeimens are digging and learn to dig from the experts. This summer at the old Sunrise mine, the youngest student is 13 years old and they have 7 students enrolled in the program.
“Things that we found this year, were tools, scrapers, and knives,” Geri Zeimens. “But the coolest things our program has found was the clovis points. And we found several. And what’s neat about this is that we’ve found close to 4,000 artifacts in the last five years.”
George Ziemens was the state archaeologist for the state of Wyoming. He found that it was very time consuming.
“The last year I was state archaeologist I was gone 272 days,” he said. “It was during the energy boom in the late 70s and I had a little boy at home that didn’t know me anymore, so I quit. And people wouldn’t leave me alone.”
There were so many people at that time that had dig sites that they wanted Zeimens to look at and research. There were also many offers to teach classes, which he did, but he said that they did not have enough resources to cover all of the sites. The idea then came to receive private funds to teach students archaeology and they have been teaching students for 33 years. Their organization which was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1989 is called the Western Plains Historic Preservation Association.
The entire interview with John Voight will be airing on a future episode of our television program, “HOMESPUN” within the next few weeks. To gain more information about Sunrise or the Record-Times, please visit us on Facebook or at our website: www.pcrecordtimes.com