By Marit Gookin
In 1906, a 26-year-old veteran of the Spanish-American War arrived in Riverton: one Dr. Albert Benjamin Tonkin. Tonkin would go on to play a key role in the early history of Riverton, leaving behind a legacy of health care, football and community service that made him a beloved figure for many in the area – and left his name attached to local landmarks including Tonkin Stadium.
Writing in this newspaper in 2007, Carolyn Tyler stated that “Tonkin was one of the day-one settlers who guarded the controversial townsite with six-shooters.” Having graduated from medical school at the University of Colorado, Tonkin came to Wyoming in 1905 as a railroad doctor when the “Northwest extension” was being built between Casper and Lander. First stationed at Powder River and then Shoshoni before coming to Riverton, having to move with the railroad meant that Tonkin initially worked out of a tent. The railroad workers eventually went away, but Tonkin remained in Riverton as its first medical doctor (although not its first doctor in general, having been preceded by a dentist).
Sources alternately claim that Tonkin was either the first or the second mayor of Riverton; the confusion is perhaps due to the city being founded a few months before being incorporated, and mayors at the time only serving one year in office. Elected on May 14, 1907, Tonkin was the mayor for the city’s first full year of incorporation.
Tonkin and his wife then went on to build the Tonkin Building in 1915, a large two-story building, on their two lots of land adjoining the recently-built First State Bank. The second floor originally housed Tonkin’s practice as well as the practice of dentist Dr. R. J. Inman; the first floor was home to Burleson’s Drug Store and The Wright Place, a pool hall. Over the years, businesses came and went in the building, which still stands at 307 Main Street today.
Tonkin was a member of the Wyoming National Guard, served on the local school board and, in addition to being involved in many other community organizations and boards, helped establish the high school football team. The former captain of his college football team and a lifelong football enthusiast, Tonkin worked to help get football started in Riverton and was the team’s unofficial doctor for many years. He also passed on his passion; his son, Albert Hoyle Tonkin, played on the team when he was in high school.
In 1918, Tonkin received a commission as a captain and was issued a notice to be ready to report for duty to serve in the war that we now know as World War I. After his service, Tonkin came back to Riverton, where he remained heavily involved in both the local community and in the medical profession. As president of the Wyoming State Board of Health, he oversaw the adoption of rules and regulations regarding communicable diseases within the state; Tonkin also published several articles in medical journals on his research into tick-borne diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
In a sad irony, it was a communicable disease that ultimately ended Tonkin’s life. On January 19, 1934, he died at the age of just 54, after battling typhoid and related complications for over a year. Medical authorities at the time attributed the “complications” to “certain troubles first contracted during his military service in the Philippines.” Tonkin had been sent to a Denver hospital when he failed to respond to treatment in Wyoming; after he died, his body was transported to Bonneville by train. The local Legion Post sent representatives to bring his body back to Riverton, where he was buried in what is said to be one of the largest funerals ever held in Fremont County. Forty mounted cavalrymen, as well as standard bearers and veterans of both wars Tonkin served in stood in formation, and more veterans and service members lined the streets as the funeral procession passed. Community members of all stripes turned out to pay their respects.
Just a few short years after Tonkin’s passing, the town broke ground on a new Works Project Administration building: a football stadium on “high school hill,” in place of an existing natural bowl and pond. Filled with gravel and rocks, the community debated naming the new stadium “The Gravel Bowl,” but ultimately Tonkin’s name won out. Community-driven from the very start, many of the materials used in the construction of the stadium were donated, and the community later raised money to install lights for the stadium. Talk of demolishing or repurposing the stadium started as early as 2007, but many community members thought of the stadium fondly and its use continued until the last football game was played there in 2011.
The high school and Tonkin Stadium are now being demolished, but Tonkin’s name continues to live on in Riverton’s history and on Tonkin Building. His legacy is unlikely to fade from the minds of Riverton residents any time soon.