End Of Track
In the fall of 1867, a single railroad track reached the southeastern corner of Dakota Territory--today's Wyoming state line. The Union Pacific had been pushing westward from Omaha for the past year and a half . Beyond this "End of Track" point, there was nothing but open prairie, mountains and rolling hills for hundreds of miles. No cities or civilization to speak of, no ranches or farms, and not much population. In a very real sense, there was no Wyoming.
The Transcontinental Railroad changed all that.
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With the arrival of the Transcontinental railroad, this vast emptiness soon achieved Territorial status and eventually statehood. Cities like Cheyenne and Laramie, Rawlins and Rock Springs, Green River and Evanston were created. But there were other Wyoming railroad towns that today are little remembered. Places like Benton and Bryan, Piedmont and Bear River City flourished for a time during construction, then simply vanished as the railroad moved on.
End of Track is the story of the Transcontinental Railroad's construction march across southern Wyoming and the growing pains of a state in its infancy. It's a story of incredible engineering achievements and boisterous "Hell on Wheels" towns. A tale of greed and corruption, murder and mayhem. An account of a clash of cultures and Native American retaliation. But it's also a story of hope and ambition, determination and unimagined success.
End of Track follows the progress of the surveyors and engineers, the graders and tracklayers from Cheyenne to Evanston in 1868. It delves into the lives of merchants and saloon keepers, gamblers and outlaws, new residents and famous visitors. Along the way the story moves up vertically in time to fully explore how the railroad changed the lives of people along its path.
You'll meet characters like Chief Engineer Grenville Dodge and the scandalous Union Pacific Vice President "Doc" Durant. The no nonsense Casement brothers, who as construction bosses drove their work crews to ever higher standards. The outlaw Big Nose George, who because of the railroad came to a strange and untimely end. And the Ames brothers, railroad financiers to whom a little known massive monument still exists just off present day I-80.
Many of the events that surrounded the building of the Transcontinental Railroad nearly 150 years ago embody themes that reverberate throughout the world today: The promise of a technology connecting the nation in a new way. A collision between industrialized and traditional cultures. Greed and hubris characterizing the captains of industry. The corruption and complicity of government officials. Huge amounts of taxpayer money lining the pockets of the wealthy. A plan to jump-start economic growth after a long and divisive war. A huge infrastructure project creating jobs and putting people to work. These are themes that give perspective to current events and perhaps serve as lessons on how to proceed into a turbulent future.
Featuring hundreds of historical photographs and lavish high definition video, dramatic readings and historic recreations; this compelling documentary paints a picture of frontier life in Wyoming during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An incisive narrative plus interviews with historians and railroad experts, presents an accurate account of how the Transcontinental railroad changed America. At a more regional level, End of Track is ultimately a story about the beginning of Wyoming.
Enjoy Producer Tom Manning's End Of Track blog entries:
Somewhere west of Cheyenne we are bumping over private land we've been granted permission to cross in search of an early trestle the Union Pacific built in 1868. And we're lost. My film crew and I are in a 4 wheel drive caravan with Dr. Larry Ostresh, Professor Emeritus of the University of Wyoming, Anna Lee Ames Frohlich , a descendent of a famous financier of the Union Pacific, and Jerry Hansen, a retired Union Pacific employee and railroad buff.
After leaving Cheyenne and reaching the summit of the Laramie Mountains, the Union Pacific tracklayers thought the worst was over. That it was all downhill from there. And it was. Except for Dale Creek. To reach it, the graders had to make a "cut" through solid Sherman granite, blasting and excavating by hand. And when they finally reached tiny Dale Creek, they saw a gorge 130 feet deep and some 700 feet across. They had to build a trestle across it. It took months and when it was finished, passengers had horror stories of travelling across the structure in the high winds that plague the area to this day. Three different bridges were ultimately built over Dale Creek. All that remains today are the original foundations.
It rises up like some Egyptian pyramid just a few miles off of busy I-80. Most people don't even know it's there. The Ames Monument is a National Historic Place, in the process of becoming a National Historic Landmark. Built in 1882 out of the native Sherman granite of the area, the massive pyramidal monument is 60 feet on a side by 60 feet high. It commemorates Oakes and Oliver Ames of Easton Massachusetts who were instrumental in financing the Union Pacific and insuring it's eventual completion.
Dr. Ostresh explains it was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the most famous architects of the 19th century. The east and west sides of the monument features two "medallions" or busts of Oakes and Oliver Ames by the famous sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. Two tourists watch us film our interview, mouths agape.
Grenville Dodge almost missed it. Most people do. But Dr. Larry Ostresh knows it very well. The "Gangplank" is a geological feature that forms a natural and gradual bridge linking the high prairie to the mountains. Because of the limited power of the early steam locomotives, railroad grades had to be kept to no more than four percent. The Gangplank provided that and allowed the Unon Pacific to climb the Laramie mountains and top out at 8,247 feet, the highest point of the entire Transcontinental Railroad from Omaha to Sacramento. Without its discovery, the Union Pacific would have taken a different route and southern Wyoming today would be a much different place.
Butch Cassidy slept here. Along with a lot of other prisoners. Deborah Amend, the superintendent of this state historic park just outside Laramie is showing us around the cell blocks. On the walls are pictures of the inmates who were incarcerated in Wyoming's first Territorial Prison during the years 1872 to 1903. They are high resolution super poster size photographs of prisoners who stared into the camera when they were first processed here and some of them look hardened indeed. But others look young and scared. The impact is stunning. These aren't like the staid formal portraits you see so often from this time period. They have a raw immediacy to them that is riveting. It's something in their eyes. A humanizing element. You feel like you've seen them before, on the street, in a bar, at an event. Normal people gone bad.
The cells themselves are austere. Just enough room for a bunk bed, a small table, a chair and a chamber pot. While no prison is a comfortable, these cells must have been unbearably hot in the summer and glacially cold in Laramie's harsh winters.
So what's all this have to do with the Transcontinental railroad? Well, End of Track towns like Laramie were rough places. Crime was high. Murders were commonplace. Local governments began to crack down. The criminals were sent to Territorial Prison via the train.
Deborah takes us to the wonderfully restored factory where prisoners worked making household brooms. The light filters in through multiple windows bathing the place in a golden glow. Here, modern day "prisoners" in full jail-bird striped garb, busy themselves showing visitors just how broom making was accomplished. It's an intricate and creative craft. The beautiful brooms they make are sold in the gift shop at the front entrance. They are the shop's biggest seller we're told.
When Union Pacific Chief Engineer Grenville Dodge and General John Rawlins were surveying for the railroad west of Laramie, they got into a bit of trouble. They had run out of drinking water and they were getting desperate. Especially Rawlins. He had been diagnosed with tuberculosis or consumption as it was called back then. His friend General Ulysses S. Grant urged him to go on this surveying expedition because it was believed that the dry, pure western air was a cure. Dodge, Rawlins and the rest of the party were moving from alkali pool to alkali pool, running out of all hope that they would find a fresh source of water. When they finally came upon a bubbling spring, it saved their lives.
Rawlins said that if anything were ever to be named after him, he hoped that it would be a spring like this of fresh, cool water. Rawlins died soon thereafter, but his wish was fulfilled. The site of the spring eventually became a railroad stop called Rawlins Springs, later shortened to Rawlins. Rans Baker, a local historian, tells me that they must have been incredibly thirsty, because although not poisonous, the spring water around those parts was the most foul stuff he'd ever tasted.
I met with Bob Nelson, director of the Rock Springs Museum housed in a beautiful 19th century sandstone building to talk about a significant event in Rock Springs history. As many know, Rock Springs was a coal mining town. The Union Pacific used coal to fire their locomotives, heat their buildings and even market the fuel across the country. In the 1880's, something terrible happened in Rock Springs. The Union Pacific had brought in Chinese workers to supplement the English, Welsh and Scottish miners as the mines expanded. In fact there were once more Chinese in Rock Springs than any other nationality. A bustling Chinatown emerged.
On September 2, 1885, a simple miscommunication transpired. Chinese miners were assigned a "room" in one of the mines that had been previously claimed by European miners. This led to a confrontation and attack in the mine that eventually spilled over into the community. The Rock Springs Massacre saw the Chinatown area of town burned to the ground and many Chinese lose their lives. To restore order, Federal troops were brought in and Rock Springs became an occupied town for the next 14 years. Today, it is a peaceful multicultural town that takes pride in being home to 56 nationalities.
By the time the Union Pacific reached the Green River the construction crew must have been overjoyed to see the fresh, clean water the town's namesake river provided. They had been across "The Great American Desert" and water supplies had been limited and foul tasting since the North Platte. I met with Ruth Lauritzen at the Sweetwater County Museum to talk about the early days of Green River.
She told me that Green River was originally passed over by the railroad because entrepreneurs had filed homestead claims before the railroad arrived, reasoning that the railroad would need the water the Green River provided and build what was called a "division point"--in essence, a railroad town. The entrepreneurs would sell their land holdings as city lots and reap huge profits.
The mighty Union Pacific wasn't pleased. They had received land grants from the Federal government all along the route and had made huge sums selling off these parcels as well as building their facilities on them. They couldn't do this at Green River. As the track layers approached, they were ordered to keep on moving and the railroad left Green River in the dust. A division point was established in a place they dubbed Bryan, some fifteen miles west. It lay on the Blacks Fork river, a tributary of the Green.
Bryan became one of the most violent End of Track towns on the entire Union Pacific line. After four years the railroad capitulated and moved the division point back to Green River. But it wasn't the mayhem of Bryan that did it in. It was mother nature. The Black's Fork had dried up from a serious drought. This summer the Blacks Fork again showed its historic propensity for running low. Wyoming PBS's film crew was there to capture it for this documentary.
What are these huge beehives? We're in the outback of Wyoming, somewhere between Green River and Evanston and three intriguing structures dominate the ghost town of Piedmont, an old Transcontinental railroad stop. They turn out to be charcoal kilns, 30 feet high and 30 feet across. Moses Byrne an early settler of the area had a huge charcoal business employing 40 of these massive kilns. These are the only 3 that remain. He burned wood in them from the forests of the nearby Uinta mountains to produce charcoal for the iron smelting industry in Utah. At the height of production, these kilns produced 100, 000 bushels of charcoal a year. All of it shipped by the Union Pacific of course.
For a town of around 12,000 people, Evanston boasts a community events center that rivals those in cities many times its size. Through grants and public donations, this small city on the edge of the Utah border has transformed an historic Union Pacific roundhouse into a showcase for the community spirit that permeates this Wyoming outpost.
Truly a spectacular setting, the Evanston Roundhouse was built by the Union Pacific between 1912 and 1914. Jim Davis, Evanston City Clerk and a driving force behind this renewal project shows us around. He tells us that as the steam locomotives became more efficient, trains could make the run between Green River and Ogden, Utah without the need to stop at Evanston for servicing. So the Union Pacific shut down the Evanston roundhouse in 1926.
There was such an outcry from the public at the time that city leaders decided to do something about it. A contingent of city representatives boarded a train and traveled east to the Union Pacific headquarters in Omaha to plead their case to keep the roundhouse open. They were successful in convincing the railroad to reopen it as a reclamation plant in 1927. It remained as such until 1971, when the Union Pacific vacated the site and donated it to the City of Evanston. This long tradition of civic involvement culminated in 2009 with the restoration of this beautiful facility.
Producer Tom Manning
Tom Manning has conceived, written, produced and managed communication materials throughout his professional career spanning over 25 years. Specializing in documentary scripting and production, Tom has planned, penned and produced a tremendous variety of informational, educational, historical, wildlife and entertainment projects.
His award winning work has won Western Heritage, Telly, Golden Cine, International Wildlife Film Festival, National Educational Media and Historical Society Media prizes. Tom's productions have appeared on Public Television, The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel as well as in visitor's centers and museums, throughout the country. He currently resides in Bozeman, Montana.
A brief list of Tom's Documentaries:
Please share your railroad stories. We would love to include them with our "End Of Track" tales.