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The Online Encyclopedia of Wyoming History

union pacific railroad

union pacific railroad

Industry, Politics and Power: the Union Pacific in Wyoming

The construction of the Union Pacific in 1868 gave rise to the towns, geography of settlement and the economy of new Wyoming Territory in 1869. Obstacles to construction were both physical and financial, and the railroad overcame them with sometimes slapdash results—hastily laid track and rickety bridges, watered stock and Congressional corruption. But the Union Pacific contributed enormously to Wyoming’s growth and development, made its modern economy possible and continues today as an economic power in the state.

The Wyoming Cattle Boom, 1868-1886

Grass was free and profits enormous in the cattle business in Wyoming Territory — for a while. The business dates to the 1850s, but the boom came after the Union Pacific Railroad connected Wyoming ranges to eastern markets. For a time it seemed as if every investor got rich. Finally, a weakening market and the overstocked range could not withstand two years of drought followed by a terrible winter. The big boom busted, following an economic pattern repeated many times since in an economy still based heavily on natural resources.

Rock Springs, Wyoming

Rock Springs, Wyo. traces its origins to a coal mine established there in 1868 to serve the still-building Union Pacific Railroad. Ever since, the town has been enriched by the people who came from around the world to live and work there—in coal mines, on the railroad and, in recent decades, in trona mines to the west and the oil and natural-gas fields to the north. Rock Springs boasted 56 nationalities by the 1920s. Its political and economic fortunes have closely followed all these industries’ cycles of boom and bust.

The Rock Springs Massacre

On September 2, 1885, long-simmering tensions between white and Chinese coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyo. boiled over into a massacre in which whites murdered 28 Chinese, wounded 15 more, and looted and burned all 79 shacks and houses in Rock Springs’ Chinatown. Though the remaining Chinese miners wanted desperately to leave Wyoming, the Union Pacific Railroad, which owned the mines, refused to grant them railroad passes or the back pay owed them. The Chinese finally had no choice but to return to work, which kept wages low and the coal flowing from the mines.

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