The Magic City of the Plains” – Cheyenne, WY

David and I found ourselves back in Wyoming after spending several months with family in Portland, OR. We are headed to the East Coast for the fall and winter months. The last time that we made this drive was during the height of the COVID outbreak. The upside of being able to travel in our RV during that time was that we were self-contained and that limited our exposure to the virus; the downside was that we did not stop and see anything along the way. This time we wanted to see some of the sights that we had driven past.

We hopped, skipped, and jumped quickly through western Oregon, Idaho, and Utah until we reached Wyoming’s capital city, Cheyenne. After settling in at the Laramie County Fairgrounds, we made our way downtown to do some exploring.

Cheyenne is called “The Magic City of the Plains.” Grenville Dodge, who was the Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad, founded the city in 1867. After surveying a possible route for the new railroad, he concluded that this was the perfect place for two railroad lines to intersect. He established a tent city for the workers on the transcontinental railroad. They also built a repair shop for the trains. Not long after the railroad was laid, settlers began to arrive and set up new businesses such as cattle farming, trading, and mining in the area. This new influx of residents proved detrimental to many of the Native American tribes, among them the Cheyenne. Ironically, the city bears the name of one of the many displaced nomadic Plains Indian tribes.

In the shadow of the picturesque gold-domed State Capitol Building in downtown Cheyenne is the Wyoming State Museum. This museum established in 1895 was a great place to begin our visit because it provided an overview of important events and places in the state. Their collection is very wide-ranging and covers many years of Wyoming history and culture beginning with the geology and Native American tribes to the arrival of the settlers and the railroad to life in the American West in the 1800’s to the importance of the National Park Service in the state. Here are a few highlights:

-A beaded Lakota Horse parade mask (c. 1900). It is one of 50 that remain in the United States. This particular one was used during Fourth of July celebrations.

-There was a display of wildlife found in Wyoming which included life-sized replicas of bison and pronghorn. We saw hundred of pronghorn as we drove across the state. There are about 500,000 in Wyoming. Pronghorns are found predominantly in the western part of the state and they migrate 300 miles between their summer and winter “homes.”

-The Yellowstone Wagon # 99 which was built in 1893 is on exhibit. This wagon transported tourists around Yellowstone. Drawn by four horses, it ferried eleven passengers into the park to see the sights.

-In 1868, Wyoming was the first state in the United States to guarantee women the right to vote and to hold public office as well as to serve on juries. It was also the first state to have a female justice of the peace and a female governor. When Wyoming gained statehood in 1890, women had already been voting there for more than 20 years.

-There is a section dedicated to the construction and renovation of the State Capitol Building. We had wanted to tour it to see the interior of the building but it is closed on weekends. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and they offer tours M-F from 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

-The National Park Service and Wyoming’s famous national parks and monuments, such as Yellowstone NP, Devil’s Tower, Fossil Butte, and Grand Teton NP, are featured in this museum.

David and I really enjoyed the Wyoming State Museum. Also, admission is free and it is open on weekends.

The former Union Pacific Railroad Depot is another place in downtown Cheyenne that is a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Registry of Historic Places. Built in 1887 and expanded in 1922, the Depot and the Union Pacific Railroad are central to Cheyenne’s success.

In 1869, the first depot and railroad hotel burned down. These were rebuilt but in 1886 they too burned to the ground. The Union Pacific Railroad had promised the city that it would build the “grandest depot” west of the Mississippi River. Construction began in 1886 and it took two years to build the Richardsonian Romanesque style depot. It was located in direct sight of the State Capitol building thus signaling Union Pacific’s dominance and historical significance to the city and the state. Today the iconic Cheyenne Depot building is the site of the city’s Visitor Center and the Cheyenne Depot Museum.

The Cheyenne Depot Museum, established in 1993, offers fascinating exhibits and displays about the Union Pacific Railroad. We were not sure how interesting this museum would be but we were quite impressed with it. There are many artifacts and so much information packed in it that it is hard to talk about all of it so we will highlight three that we found to be most interesting to us.

The first exhibit was about the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Once Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, General Grenville Dodge led a survey team to determine the best route for the new rail line. The Union Pacific was to lay track westward starting in Omaha, NE and the Central Pacific would move eastward starting in Sacramento, CA. The museum showed a documentary video that explained how the timber was cut and shaped, then floated down the Black River. The cross ties weighing more than 200 lbs. each were loaded on wagons and then carried and stacked onto the rail cars. When they arrived at the construction site, they were placed on wagons again. The Graders, a group of 8,000-10,000 men, worked to level the railway bed and, if necessary, there were teams that were in charge of blasting through the mountains to create the railroad bed. The Tie Layers would position the cross ties 19 inches apart. They used 2,640 ties for each mile of track. Then five men called Iron Men would carry the 560 lb. pieces of rail from the rail cars and place them atop the ties. The rails were then secured using spikes, the rails were bolted together, and gravel was spread between the cross ties. As workers moved the rails into alignment, they would employ a long metal tool called a gandy. To coordinate their efforts, one worker would call out and the others would respond and move the heavy rails at the same time. This sing-song cadence was called the Gandy Dance. It was inspiring to see how hard these construction crews worked. They labored from sunrise to sunset, six days a week and earned $6 per day (about $15.52 per hour in today’s dollars) for their efforts. It was fascinating to learn how the transcontinental railroad came to be and why it was so critical for U. S. development and expansion.

The second exhibit recounted the effects that weather has on the railroad. Keeping the trains moving proved to be challenging at times. This display featured photographs of some of the winters in Wyoming. The Blizzard of 1949 was perhaps the worst in history. From November 1948 to March 1949, there were a series of snowstorms out west that impacted not only the residents but the railroads as well. Winds in excess of 80 mph and temperatures of -50 F degrees resulted in 50 foot snow drifts. Forty four trains were actually frozen to the rails and many were stranded. The National Guard and 14,000 men joined the effort not only to dig out the trains but to airlift food to people and cattle. When the crisis was over, it was estimated that this one season cost the state of Wyoming $9 million ($75 million today). The photographs on display were astounding.

The third exhibit, located on the second floor of the museum, was a model train layout of Colorado’s Union Central and Northern Railroad. The hand-built narrow gauge layout was the creation of Harry W. Brunk. In 2011, he gave it to a friend, Rich Steeli, who donated it to the museum.

Brunk worked on this project for 30 years in a mobile home that had all its furnishings removed. The mobile home had been moved beside his house and when the train layout was relocated to the museum they hauled the entire mobile home to the depot! The outside walls of the trailer were removed to access the train display. After removing the large windows from the museum itself, forklifts placed the numerous sections of the model train layout in the building. The layout is the length of the second floor of the depot (65 ft. x 12 ft.). The docents operated the trains and were on hand to answer any questions. It was simply amazing to see this well researched train layout.

These three were just a few of the many that we saw. The Cheyenne Depot Museum is definitely worth a visit.

In front of the Depot building is the Cheyenne Depot Plaza. Completed in 2006, it is the site of many free cultural events from May through December. There is also a trolley tour that departs from the plaza. The Cheyenne Street Railway Trolley offers daily narrated tours of the downtown. This is another way to get to know something about Cheyenne’s history. Tickets are available in the Cheyenne Depot building.

David and I were very impressed with the downtown area. It was very clean and there were many beautifully manicured green spaces. The city is very walkable and there are many things to see even though some attractions are closed on the weekends. Perhaps because we were there on a weekend, there was not a lot of traffic and there was plenty of parking. We did not get to do everything that we wanted to do in Cheyenne so we will have to plan another visit to “The Magic City of the Plains.”

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