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Wyoming Railroad History

The construction of the Union Pacific Railroad across Wyoming from 1867 to 1868 opened the state to permanent settlement. Cheyenne rose from the barren plains in the fall of 1867 and to become a hub for shipping and railroad maintenance. Elsewhere Laramie, Rawlins, Rock Springs, and Evanston emerged from 30 day town railroad camps to centers of commerce. This urban pattern was duplicated as other railroads, like the Burlington Northern and the Chicago North Western railroads also laid track and feeder lines across northern and eastern Wyoming. Here, too, railroad towns became destination points for eastern emigrants and shipping terminals for agricultural and raw materials to eastern and western markets. The rapidly growing railroad network provided a relatively safer and much quicker form of two way traffic for both freight and people. In comparison, wagon roads and trails were slower and sometimes dangerous.

In addition to laying track and building maintenance centers, the railroads had extensive land grants to manage. As a building incentive, they had received from the federal government every other section ten or twenty miles deep along the each side of the right of way. Some of these lands contained minerals, such as coal, iron and trona, which the railroads mined for their own use or for commercial or industrial needs. Railroads hoped to profit from remaining lands by encouraging settlement and development. To this end, they published brochures about government and railroad lands that were open to the public for sale or homesteading. These brochures had information about homesteading procedures, advice on crops and livestock, and sensational accounts and descriptions of the land itself.

In addition to selling and developing western lands, the railroads also promoted western tourism. The West’s varied landscapes, forms of entertainment and leisurely pursuits became and have remained attractive to eastern residents. A major attraction for Wyoming was Yellowstone National Park, and many railroads developed special tourist packages to the park. Besides Yellowstone, the railroads advertised dude ranches and western excursions emphasizing the colorful imagery and lifestyle of the American cowboy.

To capture the tourist trade, the railroads needed the proper guidance and marketing to make it profitable. Thus, railroads as travel agents were born. Brochures boasted about the many wondrous sights and activities travelers would encounter. To further entice tourists, railroads equipped passenger trains with sleeper, restaurant, and club cars. Expensive but well appointed Pullman cars were often more luxurious than middle class homes. By the turn of the century, leisure travel had become an American pastime, but for the most part, but it was expensive. By the 1920s, trips for all budgets were conceived and later, the railroads encouraged family vacations. One brochure shows families from different decades in dining cars watching the passing scenery, hinting that train travel was for all families and all ages.

The railroads continued to provide these services throughout the west until the early 1980's when they finally succumbed to the combined competition of the airplane and automobile. Strangely enough the railroad was the main carrier of automobiles throughout the United States during this period of declining passenger service and continues to haul the new automobiles. Even today, the railroad is the largest carrier of bulk freight. Wyoming still uses the railroad to ship its coal, agricultural products, and other goods and to carry manufactured goods into the state. The trucking industry has made inroads but the number one carrier is still the railroad.

The railroads were vital to Wyoming’s beginnings and still contribute greatly to the economy and growth of the state almost a century and a half later. The Archives has several collections related to the railroad and its presence in Wyoming history.

Thanks to S. Houston
Cultural Resource Specialist, Wyoming State Archives

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Last Update 03/18/01

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