Since fur-trade times, Wyoming has straddled the main travel route across North America. The Oregon and Overland trails were followed by the Union Pacific Railroad, which was followed by the Lincoln Highway and today’s Interstate 80. The routes are full of stories.
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.
Union Pacific locomotives still rumble through Cheyenne, as they first did 150 years ago. But after the railroad arrived in November 1867, skeptics questioned whether the town would last, as so many other end-of-tracks communities had died once the graders and tracklayers moved on.
The Ames Monument, a 60-foot-high granite pyramid, was completed in 1882 at the highest point on the Union Pacific Railroad, to honor railroad financiers Oakes and Oliver Ames. The tracks have since been moved, but the monument is still easily visible and accessible from Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyo.
Billy Owen never saw a railroad until he was eight years old. His mother had told him about railroads. But in his mind as he traveled east by wagon train across Wyoming in the spring of 1868, he had imagined railroad wheels that looked something like wagon wheels. They rolled in grooves. Each groove was made by two rails. That meant it took four rails, as he imagined it, to make a track.
Hanna, Wyo., best known for its coal mines, was founded in 1889 by the Union Pacific Coal Co. as a company town. It has survived mining disasters and a long cycle of booms and busts. The last mines around Hanna closed in the mid-2000s. The town survives today as a bedroom community, with hopes of future mineral development.
In 1869, Fort Fred Steele was built by the U.S. Army to protect workers on the advancing transcontinental railroad at the spot where the rails crossed the North Platte River. The fort was closed in 1886, and the site, containing foundations of the original buildings, was much later acquired by the state.
Wyoming’s first state prison was located in Rawlins, Wyo., and housed inmates for 80 years, beginning in 1901. In 1988, a joint powers board turned the abandoned building into a museum and renamed it the Wyoming Frontier Prison. Visitors today can tour the cells and see the grounds where 13,500 prisoners, including 11 women, served time.
Point of Rocks Stage Station, 25 miles east of present Rock Springs, Wyo., was built in 1862 by the Overland Stage Company. The station was attacked and burned at least once by Indians, and stagecoach passengers were supposedly robbed and murdered nearby by the notorious outlaw and onetime stage-line superintendent Jack Slade. Point of Rocks Stage Station has been a school, freight station, store, ranch headquarters and a home. It is one of the only stage stations remaining intact on the Overland Trail. This site is on the National Register of Historic Places.
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.
Green River, Wyo., on its namesake river and on the Union Pacific Railroad, began as a stage station. After the U.P. relocated switching and roundhouse operations there in the early 1870s, the Green River rail yard became one of the busiest in the nation. Since the early 1900s, this county seat of Sweetwater County has weathered many booms and busts of nearby oil, gas and trona development, with the railroad and county government steadying its economy all the while.
Established by mountain men Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez in 1843, Fort Bridger was an important rest and re-supply spot for emigrants bound to Utah, California and Oregon. Mormons acquired the site in the mid-1850s, and burned it in 1857 as the U.S. Army approached during the bloodless Utah War. The following year the Army took over, and garrisoned the fort until 1890. Today it is a state historic site.
Chinese contract laborers were among the first residents of Evanston, Wyo., which was created as a service stop for locomotives between Green River, Wyo., and Ogden, Utah, on the Union Pacific Railroad’s transcontinental route. Later, travelers drove through town on the Lincoln Highway. The Wyoming State Hospital, known as the Wyoming Insane Asylum in territorial days, is located here. Like many of the state’s towns, Evanston’s rich oil resources contribute to its continuing “boom and bust” cycles, and tourism plays a prominent role in the town’s economy.
The Piedmont Charcoal Kilns southwest of Evanston, Wyo. were built in 1869 to supply charcoal primarily to Utah mining and smelting operations. The town of Piedmont’s location—on the Union Pacific Railroad but near a ready timber supply in the Uinta Mountains—made it a logical spot for the industry. Most of the charcoal was shipped to the Salt Lake valley, and some to Fort Bridger for use in blacksmith forges and heating stoves. Piedmont was a railroad station on the Union Pacific line. Three of the original five kilns remain standing. The site is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1919, Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower and an Army truck convoy crossed Wyoming and the nation to determine the condition of the nation’s roads—which were terrible. In the 1950s, with memories of that trip vivid in his mind, President Eisenhower successfully pushed Congress to back a system of interstate highways.
In 1913, the nation’s first transcontinental highway—initially more idea than road—followed Wyoming’s southern rail corridor. After its life as a named highway ended, the route lived on as U.S. 30. Since I-80 was finished in 1970, the Lincoln Highway has become a nostalgic touchstone for a friendlier, more easygoing way to drive.