Monday, September 18, 2017

Travel through time in Wyoming

Recently, I returned to Wyoming for a short vacation from my vacation. That isn’t entirely true.  I do work at my job as a deckhand; however, my vocation is another man’s vacation.  The trip home - from Bermuda via St Martin – wasn’t short of adventure, but I’ll tell you about that in my next blog.
I made it home to Green River, and during my stay in Wyoming, I drove across the state along I-80 several times.  Although I’ve driven this route hundreds of times in the past, this time I made several stops along the way as a tourist in my home state.  It’s a historic route in American transcontinental transportation.  It roughly follows parts of the Oregon and Overland Trails, the transcontinental railroad, the Lincoln Highway, and even a major air corridor, which began with giant painted cement arrows along the route to guide pilots. 

These routes originated with old Native American trails that also followed this path over the continental divide, the spine of the continent.  The high desert has preserved many of the ruins from the early trails, with ruts from stagecoach wheels still visible today, along with names carved in cliffs like Independence Rock, and even petroglyphs from the Native Americans who crossed the high plains long before Europeans landed on American shores.
Petroglyphs outside Rock Springs

In the early days, these routes hugged the rivers for both the people and horse power.  Even though horses and coaches were used, most people still walked the trails, and a trip across Wyoming could take nearly a month.  In northern Wyoming there is a town called Ten Sleep.  It got the name because it was ten days/sleeps from Yellowstone, to the west; and ten sleeps to Fort Laramie, to the southeast. 
The railroad began to drift away from the rivers to find the most gradual grades, but still needed the water for the steam engines, and forts were added at strategic bridge crossings to both protect the bridges, but also act as supply hubs.  The highway didn’t need to follow the rivers, but hugged the same paths because you still needed stops for rest, food and fuel. 

You might think the Lincoln ‘highway’ (established in 1913) would speed up travel, but it was actually still a dirt road, and the speed limit was a whopping 25 mph, for those daring enough to drive that fast.  At that speed, the 450 mile, dusty, bone rattling drive across Wyoming would take over 18 hours!  However, that was lightning speed compared to the month of walking with wagon trains.

Today, the driving route has been straightened, paved and the speed limit reaches 80 mph, so you can make it across the state in about 5 hours, a third of the time.  And if you fly, you’ll be over the mountains and on to the Nebraska plains in under an hour.  However, I recommend the drive with stops to see some of the historic sites along the way. 


In the tradition of manifest destiny, I’ll travel east to west starting with Cheyenne.  Cheyenne, as well as the rest of Wyoming, was part of the Dakota Territory, until the Wyoming Territory was created on July 25th, 1868.  The railroad came in and the town was established in 1867.

The early years were lawless and the town was initially just another ‘Hell on Wheels’ railroad boom town, at the end of the plains and foot of the Rockies.  However, it didn’t bust like many railroad towns across Wyoming, and with cattle barons, and gold coming in from the Black Hills, Cheyenne became the richest town in the world by 1882.  There was Millionaire’s Row on what is now Carey Avenue; and the famous Cheyenne Club, where the cattle barons gathered for fine dining, socializing, and even acted as the de facto government.  The Cheyenne club and all but one of the mansions are gone now, as are the cattle barons.

That all began to change in the 1890’s after the economic crash of 1893 and several harsh years of winter blizzards and summer heat killed off much of the herds.  This drove the leaders of Cheyenne to develop the tourism draw of Cheyenne Frontiers Days, in 1897.  Today it is the world’s largest rodeo known as the “Daddy of Them All.”  Last year the crowds that came to see the show doubled the state population!  500,000 people came through Cheyenne during the ten day event, and 29,000 people volunteer to make the whole thing possible!  I’d love to tell you all about my experience, but in all my years living in Wyoming I’ve never been to the big show! 
Cheyenne Train Depot Plaza and one of many painted boots, which can be found throughout the city.

Buford or Phin Deli Town

Buford is another of the ‘Hell on Wheels’ railroad towns that sprang up in 1866 to ‘support’ the railroad booze, brothels, and gambling halls to separate the workers from their pay.  The most notorious was the town of Benton, which sprung up west of Buford and disappeared in 90 days.  Many of the ‘residents’ were even shorter-lived because the town racked up 100 murders in those 90 days! 
Buford's famous pop. 1 sign.  Don Sammons had Buford recognized as a town and requested signs to help bring in customers to his gas station and store.  Then he sold the 'town' to Vietnamese investor Pham Dinh Nguyen who renamed it Phin Deli Town.

Buford wasn’t as notorious, but the population also crashed when the railroad moved on.  Today, it has gained quite a bit of notoriety as being the smallest town in America, population one!  As I pulled into town, semi-truck traffic hummed past on I-80 to the north, while a train squealed along the tracks to the south.  A billboard reads “Welcome to Phin Deli Town Buford”, much to the annoyance of the gas station attendant.  “There is no deli, but I get asked about it every day.”  He is now the population one.  He lives in the house behind the station, but he’ll be leaving after Labor Day, and the store will close its doors unless the town’s owner can find a new tenant. 
Me and Buford's one resident.

The owner, Mr. Nguyen, is a Vietnamese investor and coffee roaster, and he bought the whole town in 1999 for a cool $900,000 in an online auction.  He had grand visions of the town being the US hub of Vietnamese imports in the US, but the main product sold is his line of Phin Deli Coffee.  It has a unique flavor thanks to being roasted with soy and butter. 

Mr. Nguyen bought the town from Don Sammons, who is quite the character, as you can read in his book “Buford One.”  He writes about making Buford a town, his shoot-out in the parking lot, fires, Buddhism, and the bidders from 110 nations and 30 news outlets that took part in the auction.  On the cover it says ‘Don Sammons, former Mayor of Buford, Wyoming, but in the book he is makes a point to note that, “I didn’t call myself Mayor of Buford.”  Quite the character, story and ‘town.’

Ames Monument

Just a few miles west of Buford is a six-story pyramid on the site of another bygone railroad town named Sherman.  I found this strange pyramid in the middle of nowhere interesting as a kid, but would have never guessed that there was once a small town surrounding the site.  I also had no idea that there could be a quite a bit of controversy about the site, if anybody knew much about it. 

It stands on a knoll about a mile south of I-80, but you have to watch carefully as you drive by, or you might miss it.  The original railroad line ran 300 feet north of the monument, and early train passengers gawked at the towering pyramid and some even were hoisted to the top of it, before the tracks were rerouted three miles south.  The monument was built to honor Congressman Oakes Ames, and his brother, the Union Pacific (UP) President, Oliver Ames. 

The Oakes family had made their millions starting in shovels and moving up to larger earth moving projects like the building of the NYC Subway.  So it makes sense that President Lincoln would turn to him to revitalize the transcontinental railroad project, when it looked like construction was grinding to a halt.  Ames invested a million dollars of his own money into the project, and was a driving force behind the eventual completion of the transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. 

So, what’s the controversy?  Is it the fact that the monument is in the middle of nowhere and cost $65,000 to construct in 1880 (equal to about $1.4 million today) and was shaped like a pyramid from Egypt?  Nope, the issue is that the men were honored for completing a project that turned out to be one of the greatest cases of political graft in American history! 

Turns out the UP created a satellite company, Credit Mobilier of America, and they subcontracted the construction of the railroad to them/itself.  Credit Mobilier then charged the UP almost twice the actual construction costs, which UP turned around and charged the government, and they pocketed the $44 MILLION in overcharges (equal to about $673 million today)!   Thirty-two politicians were given shares of Credit Mobilier stock at discounted prices with hefty dividend returns, to include the Vice President, Secretary of the Treasury, and Congressman Ames.  The fraud and graft were uncovered in 1872, but Ames was not even removed from office (he did resign)!  Instead, the men he made rich built him a monument eight years later to shift the nation’s focus from great controversy to great accomplishment!

In 1885, a man tried to buy the land the monument was on and planned to plaster the monument with ads, but the UP was deeded the land to preserve the monument in 1889 and turned it over to the state in 1983.  In 2016, the monument became a National Historic Landmark, and new historic plaques all echo the UP’s sentiment that the Ames brothers were great patriots and the railroad’s construction was a grand accomplishment.

Fort Steele

I always drive past Old Fort Steele, which isn’t much more than a rest stop now.  However, on the south side of the highway, is an old gas station that I thought was photogenic in its decay, so this year I stopped to snap a quick photo.  As I was snapping the picture, I wondered what the story behind the name was, and as I was pulling back out to the highway I saw the answer in a sign for a historic site.

I like the sense of humor in the graffiti: "Armed Guard on Duty (took rest of year off)"

Fort Steele also traces its origins back to the transcontinental railroad.  The military fort was established on the North Platte River, to protect the strategic river crossing and as a supply depot, for receiving military supplies by rail to support other forts throughout the region.  It was established in 1868 and abandoned in 1886.  The local community took over the buildings primarily supporting the timber and sheep grazing in the area, but it had a second transportation boom in the 1920/30’s with the building of the Lincoln Highway.

Today, there is little more than a few buildings and a few more foundations remaining.  However, the state has done a good job refurbishing the remaining structures to create a museum.  I found it particularly interesting to read about the officers that were stationed here, to include Arthur MacArthur Jr. (Douglas MacArthur’s father) and several West Point graduates. 
Foundations and chimneys are all that remains of two enlisted barracks.  They were converted to hotels for Lincoln Highway travelers before vandals burnt them down on New Years Eve 1976

Troops from the fort protected settlers and the railroad from Indians in the area, and also were dispatched to quell labor riots as far afield as Chicago.  They also quelled local labor clashes like the Chinese Massacre in Rock Spring, Wyoming in 1885. 

Rock Springs was a coal mining/UP company town and Chinese labor had been brought in to replace white workers because they would work for less.  The riots left 28 dead, 15 wounded and 78 homes Chinese homes burned.  Local officials and citizens supported the white miners, and not a single person was convicted for the crimes committed.  In addition to the Ft Steel troops, there were six companies sent to Wyoming from Utah, and a military camp remained outside Rock Springs until 1899.

Point of Rocks Stage Station

This stage station is another poorly marked historic site.  It dates back to 1862, when “Stagecoach King” Ben Holladay took over the transcontinental stagecoach business and United States mail contract.  Ben decided to use the more southern route through Wyoming and Colorado, rather than the Oregon Trail route, which followed the North Platte river out of Nebraska toward Casper and then over South Pass and on to Fort Bridger, where the two trails reconnected. 
What remains of the Stage coach stop, and my modern coach parked where the Overland Trail was located.

During the Civil War, Lincoln believed it was imperative to maintain communications with the west coast in order to keep them in the Union.  The Pony Express and these Stagecoach lines were key to that effort.  However they quickly fell out of favor when the Railroad was completed in 1869, but pioneers continued to use the Overland Trail and Stage stations like this into the early 1900’s. Much of the Overland Trail route was also chosen by the railroad and later the Lincoln Highway as the preferred route west across Wyoming.

Green River

Just west of the coal town of Rock Springs is my hometown, Green River.  It also got its start as a stage station on the Overland Trail. When the railroad was built though town it became one of the major hubs for rail routes on the western side of the continental divide. 
View of town looking NW.  Castle Rock is in the upper right and the palisades are in the upper left.

The railroad hub also made it a convenient stepping off point for several expeditions, to include early trips into Yellowstone, and the first rafting expeditions down the Green/Colorado Rivers and Grand Canyon by John Wesley Powell in 1869 and 1871. 
One armed John Wesley Powell stands in front of the Museum, which was the originally a Post Office

Thomas Moran, a famous American painter started his trip to Yellowstone from Green River and painted some of his most famous paintings, based on sketches he did in Green River, to include several of the Palisades. 
One of several paintings Thomas Moran did of the Palisades in Green River

The Lincoln Highway ran through Green River, and I-80 still runs along the north side of town.  However, don’t just drive by, stop and enjoy the same buttes that so impressed Thomas Moran, and visit the County Museum or Expedition Island where you can learn more about the Powell Expeditions, railroad history, wild horses and more. 

Fort Bridger

As a kid I remember visiting Fort Bridger on school trips and with my family for the Fort Bridger Rendezvous.   The fort is a great spot to learn about the long history of migration across Wyoming and pioneers the settled here.  The fort was established in 1842 by its namesake, Jim Bridger, a famous mountain man and trapper.  In the early days, the fort was a trading post for trappers and mountain men who would rendezvous here to trade and ship their beaver and other fur pelts back east.
Entrance to the replica of the original fort

Jim Bridger is one of the men that are credited with finding south pass route later used by settlers traveling the Oregon Trail, as well as the pass leading to Salt Lake that bears his name, and is still used as part of the I-80 route.  The fort became the hub for the California, Oregon, Overland and Mormon trails, making it a key fort for resupply for settlers heading west.  

In 1847, there was a dispute between Mormon settlers and Jim Bridger because Jim was selling alcohol and firearms to the Indians.  By 1853 the Mormons had formed a militia to arrest Jim, so he left the area.  In 1855, the Mormons bought the property to expand their own settlement and supply post, although Jim Bridger denied he ever agreed to the sale. 

However, they hadn’t even paid it off before the military arrived in 1858 and took over the fort, which the Mormons actually burned as they left the area.  After the military left in 1890, the post and buildings were bought up by locals, and parts became milk farms, motels, cafes, and stores to support the new Lincoln Highway traffic.  Finally, in 1928 the site was sold to the state to establish a museum and historical site. 
One of the oldest remaining building from the military days, this cabin was an officer quarters duplex, built in 1858.
Black and Orange Cabins was built outside the fort grounds as Lincoln Highway traffic increased.  It is an early example of the motor hotel, or motel, with carports next to each cabin.

Today, you can relive some of the historic glory during the Fort Bridger Rendezvous, where traders hawk their western wares, participants dress in authentic pre-1840 clothing and camp in tents and tee-pees from the period as well.  It is held at the fort every year around Labor Day weekend.
Teepee city at the edge of Fort Bridger Rendezvous
Native dance demonstrations

There’s much more to see in Wyoming and along I-80, much of it I haven’t even explored myself.  I hope the next time you’re traveling across the country you think back on the long history of migration across the United States.  And if you’re driving the historic route of the Oregon Trail or Lincoln Highway seek out some of the historic sites along the way.  After all, what once took 20 sleeps now takes one day, so spend a little of that time saved, off the path now paved.  


  1. Thanks for the history lesson. There was alot I did not know about the interesting history of the I-80 corridor!

  2. Greg brings new interest to a familiar route. Thanks!