There was a time when Laramie residents took their lives in their hands to cross from one side of town to the other.
Laramie rail crossings were called “grade level”, because there was no overpass. Then, as now, many accidents on grade level crossings were caused by drivers starting out after one train passed, not realizing that one was coming from the other direction.
Another common cause of accidents resulted when impatient drivers felt they could outrun an oncoming train. In 1903, the Boomerang reported that “Mr. John Clark, accompanied by Miss Amy Hurl was driving in a buggy toward West Laramie, and attempted to cross the tracks ahead of Passenger Train No. 5 which was late and just pulling into the station.” Mr. Clark felt he could beat the train. Both passengers escaped with their lives, but the horse was killed and the buggy demolished in the accident.
When the Union Pacific Railroad arrived in Laramie in May of 1868, the town had been planned as a refueling, crew change and passenger stop, so a number of parallel tracks were required. Pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles could cross all five tracks at Grand and Fremont Streets. These linked the residential and commercial areas to the east and the west. Unlike most other railroad towns, Laramie had “front” streets on both sides of the tracks.
It would have made sense for Laramie’s main residential area to be west of the tracks. Prevailing winds would have taken the steam locomotive smoke and cinders to the east. But the west side was hemmed in by the Laramie River with its tendency to flood. The 1885 “Whiting” map of Laramie at the Laramie Plains Museum shows that many more houses and businesses had developed on the east side of the tracks even by that early date.
Until it burned in 1917, the depot was located at First and Thornburg (later renamed Ivinson Avenue). A train stopped at the station could easily block both downtown crossings as passengers disembarked. The new depot at Kearney and First Street opened in 1923. It may have alleviated blocked streets, though there continued to be accidents at the crossings.
There were two other grade level crossings in Laramie, one near Spring Creek, and another on the north, approximately where Lyons Street is today. Both of those gave access to businesses and wagon roads west of Laramie, not to the residential areas west of the tracks.
There were so many accidents that something had to be done. In February, 1910, the City of Laramie petitioned the UPRR to pay for a “watchman” at the Fremont Street crossing, “in much the same manner as the one at the Grand Avenue crossing”.
A photo in the collection of the Laramie Plains Museum shows a long-armed crossing gate at Grand Avenue, just beside the Johnson Hotel, which had been built in 1900. It may have been operated automatically. If there were crossing gates before electricity, they may have been operated manually by the watchman. However, the distance across what eventually became seven tracks in the Laramie yards is too great for one person to have sprinted across the tracks in front of an oncoming train to operate a gate on the other side. Clearly, a bridge for vehicles was needed, but it did not come until 1930.
By Judy Knight
Postcard of Passenger train engine UPRR #7022 around 1920, stopped just short of a grade level crossing in Laramie, with the west side of the Johnson Hotel in background. The photographer was standing on Grand Ave., looking northeast. An engineer is oiling the cylinders as passengers get on and off at the temporary station at First and Ivinson (the original station burned in 1917). Note the two crossing gates that are up, to allow traffic to proceed across the tracks as the engine idles. Photo courtesy Laramie Plains Museum