On May 4, 1868, the first locomotive steamed into Laramie, Dakota Territory, over newly laid rails on a roadbed that had been prepared months before. The fact that the new tracks passed over the Laramie Plains was no surprise. Surveys completed by James Evans for the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) in 1864 made that a certainty.
The new town site was chosen by UPRR Chief Engineer, Grenville Dodge three years later. Laramie would be a minor stop on the rail line.
Samuel Reed, Superintendent of Operations, recommended on January 17, 1868 two main repair facilities in the southeastern portion through what would become Wyoming—most likely at Cheyenne and Rock Creek, about 45 miles north of Laramie.
Instead, they were first constructed in Laramie. That was due to Thomas Durant, vice president and manager of the UPRR. Durant was a controversial figure in UPRR construction from its inception in 1862 until he was ousted from its board of directors in 1869 for financial improprieties.
His history with two Iowa railroads may hold the key to why he chose Laramie for the shops. Earlier, Durant was involved in the construction of those railroads. He instigated a scheme to line his own pockets based on which railroad would be the connection to the Union Pacific, starting in Omaha.
He manipulated the stock prices of the two by alternatively announcing which one would be chosen, depressing the stock of the other which he would then buy. Then he would announce that the other would be the connection, increasing the price of its stock, which he would then sell. It worked like a charm, gaining Durant a fortune.
A similar scheme may have been at work in Laramie. It was clear that Cheyenne was to be a major UPRR stop on the way to Utah. Shortly after the railroad arrived in Cheyenne in November 1867, the Cheyenne Leader carried announcements attributed to Dodge saying that “machine shops, round houses etc.,” would be built in Cheyenne. A branch line would connect Cheyenne with Denver. The price of real estate shot up immediately.
This seemed to indicate that similar facilities would not be built in Laramie, confirming Reed’s earlier recommendation. But then in April, Durant made a surprise announcement that Laramie would host the major machine shops and roundhouse. Historians speculate that Durant was investing in real estate behind the scenes and made the change to again line his own pockets.
In quick succession, the UPRR started selling lots in Laramie, which had been laid out in February. Contracts for the Laramie machine shops and roundhouse were let on April 23rd according to the Frontier Index, which had just moved its printing press into Laramie from Fort Sanders. In addition, the UPRR would begin work on a power plant for the machine shops and a combination hotel and depot.
Stone for the roundhouse and machine shops was brought in from north of town near what would become a railroad stop called Miser; construction started immediately. The Frontier Index reported in May that the foundation for the hotel/depot was nearly complete.
Cheyenne lamented the apparent loss of the facilities to Laramie. Newspapers there repeatedly indicated that similar shops and a roundhouse would be soon be built in what they dubbed themselves, the “Magic City.” That would not happen until nearly the end of 1868.
Once the Laramie buildings were finished, they required the labor of hundreds of men to maintain locomotives and cars. The 1870 census of Laramie showed 118 men working for the UPRR. There were engineers, brakemen, firemen and conductors along with machinists who worked in the shops. Together they had 51 family members. Another 20 or so worked at the UPRR hotel and an additional 60 laborers/carpenters also likely worked for the railroad. Considering that Laramie’s entire population was only 788 people, those dependent on the railroad was substantial.
The vital role of the UPRR in the local economy would increase in 1874 when a rolling mill was built on the north end of town to recycle worn rail. The plant eventually employed more than 300 men.
Other UPRR facilities were an ice storage facility to service cars transporting fresh fruit and vegetables. In 1878, stockyards were built (near the K-Mart parking lot today on N. 3rd St.) to ship local cattle, bringing more UPRR related jobs. A facility to treat ties with preservative was constructed south of town, known locally as the “tie plant.”
Many families became railroaders, generation following generation. Many started at a very young age. My grandfather started with the UPRR in 1915 at age 13 as a “call boy” riding a bicycle to notify train crews at their homes of upcoming duties in the days before everyone had a telephone. He retired at age 65 after many years as an engineer of the switch engines in the Laramie yards. In those days, you worked for the railroad, you knew someone who worked for the railroad or your business depended on the railroad and its employees.
All of those good jobs, and the importance the UPPR to the local economy began to wane in the 1950s when the railroad converted from steam to diesel locomotives. Because the diesels required far less maintenance, the work force was dramatically reduced. By 1964 the machine shops, the roundhouse and the power plant were demolished.
Today there are only a few UPRR jobs in Laramie; that we were once a railroad town has largely been forgotten. When passenger service stopped for good in the 1990s, Laramie’s transition to a university town was complete. The 1923 depot remains, however, now as a special events rental center, with plans for a portion to become a museum.
By Kim Viner
Caption: UPRR windmill and water storage tank at Laramie City, 1868. It represents another money-making scheme by Thomas Durant who owned stock in the company that prefabricated these windmills. Durant ordered them for the watering stops along the railroad, thereby enriching his pockets. Photo taken looking north from about where East Park Street meets the tracks today. Laramie railroad shops are in the right side distance. Photo by A.J. Russell, official Union Pacific Railroad photographer, courtesy of the Library of Congress.