Back of the Depot in 1908. Wyoming State Archives/courtesy 

Imagine Cheyenne without a house, store, street, or even a tree.

Add to that the absence of schools, churches and parks and the almost constant presence of the wind, and you’ve got a pretty good idea what Cheyenne was like when it all began.

On July 4, 1867, the spot that Gen. Grenville Dodge, a chief engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad, selected for the future railroad town was part of a vast expanse of windswept prairie.

“There was nothing here,” said Jim Ehernberger, a local railroad expert. “It was wide-open range land. A lot of maps showed it as a great American desert with few trees. And it was Indian territory.”

The arid desert plain was home to a few Native American Indian tribes, including the Cheyenne. But as far as the city of Cheyenne, it all began with the railroad.

If it weren’t for the railroad, Cheyenne wouldn’t be here today.

All about the railroad

The Union Pacific Railroad “was the reason for Cheyenne’s existence” and its first industry, according to Phil Roberts, a history professor at the University of Wyoming.

In 1867, thousands of men working for the Union Pacific Railroad laid tracks west across the country. They were part of a feverish race to establish the nation’s first transcontinental railroad with the goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean.

Union Pacific leaders sent Dodge to scout the vast prairies and peaks in the West. His job was to find the best cross-country route for the railroad west from the Omaha, Nebraska/Council Bluffs, Iowa, terminal.

Dodge and fellow surveyors in 1867 discovered an “amazing pass between Cheyenne and Laramie that would allow the railroad to get through the mountains faster and easier than anyplace else,” said Michael Kassel, assistant director/curator at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum.

The surveyors named the pass Sherman Hill, which is the highest point on the first transcontinental railroad.

The unique geography of the area provides a way for locomotives to cross the Rocky Mountains. The area is called “The Gangplank” because it provides a long, gradual grade from the Plains to the Laramie Mountains. Today, Interstate 80 runs parallel to “The Gangplank” from Cheyenne to Laramie.

Dodge envisioned Cheyenne as an important division point on the UP railroad line – a designation that meant a town had a good shot at permanence.

The place Dodge picked for his city is located in south Cheyenne and is easily visible in a wide-open area designated with a historic marker. The area can be reached from Dey Avenue south of West Jefferson Road, located on the south side of a flat pathway about 100 yards east of Dey Avenue.

Dodge selected the site largely because Crow Creek was nearby.

“He loved Crow Creek because of the constant supply of water,” Kassel said. Steam locomotives required large amounts of water to run successfully.

A few options were available for possible railroad routes west. But Dodge selected the best option, Ehernberger said. Dodge chose the route he wanted all along, one that goes through Cheyenne.

Physical obstacles made the other westward routes unworkable.

“They couldn’t go over the Colorado mountains. They couldn’t go up through the South Pass because they wanted to maintain a certain grade by not getting too steep,” Ehernberger said.

On July 4, 1867, about 400 men celebrated the nation’s birthday at an isolated spot on Crow Creek set up by U.S. Army soldiers, according to the book “Cheyenne: A Biography of the ‘Magic City’ of the Plains” by Bill O’Neal.

The celebration happened in what is now a part of modern-day Cheyenne. Most men who attended the holiday observance were soldiers, along with some railroad executives. Businessmen from Denver drove their wagons 100 miles to the new town, hoping the rumors about the new-found importance of Cheyenne were true.

Although there is some debate about who named the new boomtown, it’s likely the decision fell to those men gathered for the holiday.

Dodge did not attend, as he and others in his expedition group continued to survey the area.

The soldiers there had been assigned to protect Cheyenne, especially against the recent actions of the area’s Native Americans. The Indians had killed three surveyors working in Wyoming, including two who were not far from Cheyenne.

The soldiers soon would be stationed at Fort D.A. Russell, located near Cheyenne.

Construction of the fort, which became F.E. Warren Air Force Base, began in October 1867.

The Fourth of July celebration at Crow Creek in 1867 included speeches by UP officials. A sense of isolation was present, too, based on an account by Col. Silas Seymour, an executive with Union Pacific. Years later, he commented that there wasn’t a house on the empty prairie land or even enough lumber to build a house for at least 50 miles.

Still, any sense of loneliness would be gone quickly. Within a few days of the celebration, hundreds of people arrived in Cheyenne after news got out that the creation of a new railroad town was at hand.

When railroad crews finally reached Cheyenne on Nov. 10, 1867, crowds of people were waiting for them. Cheyenne’s population had jumped to 3,000 from the time the route was announced to the day the tracks arrived.

Almost overnight, tents popped up that housed grocery stores, banks, restaurants and laundries. Dentists and doctors hung out their shingles. Enterprising business people built hotels and boarding houses, some with wood false fronts and the rest made of canvas.

Many hastily built shanties covered the new town, all along what is now Lincolnway.

By October 1867, Cheyenne already had two printing houses, a post office and a telegraph shop. The town grew so quickly it gained the nickname of “Magic City of the Plains.”

To meet housing demand, carpenters transported wood from other towns and brought them to the new city.

UP also owned city lots selling for $150 each in July. But just three months later, the price had skyrocketed to $3,000 a lot.

In his book, O’Neal included a comment from William Kuykendall, one of Cheyenne’s earliest pioneers about the frantic pace of the boomtown.

“Houses were erected by day and night,” Kuykendall wrote. “Sometimes for two or three days, there’s not a break in the sharp sound of hammers.”

Lodging was at a premium, as guests at one Cheyenne hotel slept two to a bed, whether they knew each other or not.

On Aug. 10, Cheyenne elected H.M. Hook as mayor and filled many other offices.

By Feb. 21, 1868, there were 6,000 residents in town, the Daily Leader newspaper estimated. However, an optimistic Grenville Dodge suggested a census of 10,000 people.

Hell on Wheels

All railroad towns along the Union Pacific route had one thing in common: the prevalence of Hell on Wheels towns.

These were “portable” towns that followed railroad workers from one end-of-track location to another. Operators of Hell on Wheels towns would dismantle their businesses in one location when railroad workers moved out. They’d stow their buildings in their wagons and set them up again at the next town on the trail.

Cheyenne attracted plenty of honest businessmen, but the chance to make so much money so quickly from unsuspecting UP workers drew throngs of the desperate to town as well.

Murderers, gamblers, thieves, conmen and prostitutes followed on the Hell on Wheels circuit.

The Rev. Joseph W. Cook was alarmed when he arrived in Cheyenne just six months after its creation.

“The wickedness is unimaginable and appalling,” Cook wrote, according to a passage from O’Neal’s book. “Almost every other house is a drinking saloon, gambling house, restaurant, dance hall or bawdy.”

Railroad surveyor A.N. Ferguson had little good to say about Cheyenne during his visit in 1868. The account appears in the online Wyoming Tales and Trails publication.

Ferguson wrote that he saw a “high-carnival gambling saloon and other places of immoral character. Vice and riot had full and unlimited control,” he wrote.

Kassel said lurid stories about the city were common in the press.

“As soon as the railroad got to Cheyenne, so did the telegraph. And the newspaper reporters here loved to send stories back East for publication in New York, Washington, D.C., Boston and even London, England, newspapers,”  he said.

By August 1867, the town had a magistrate, a mayor, fire chief, three police officers and 900 residents. When the population exploded to 11,000 not long after, the police force could not keep up.

“Terrible things were happening to people who did not have their wits about them in Cheyenne,” Kassel said.

Murders were common.  “Pistols are almost as numerous as men,” the editor of the Daily Leader wrote in 1867. “It is no longer thought to be an affair of any importance to take the life of a fellow human being.”

Not long after Cheyenne’s creation, people could buy a drink in 70 places in town, according to www.wyohistory.org.

But soon, those from Cheyenne churches got involved, successfully supporting a city ordinance to close saloons for four hours on Sunday. The new law was enforced, but barely.

Still, signs of civilization were peeping through. The first school opened in 1867 with 114 pupils.

Tired of crime and mayhem, several men formed a Vigilance Committee in January 1868 to root out the riffraff.

“They didn’t keep a list of members; they wore masks, and they didn’t tell on each other,” Kassel said.

At first, these men tried to scare those who broke the laws. But later, vigilantes made good on promises to hang the offenders. They summarily strung up at least five men before they put away their masks. No vigilante was arrested.

Rise and fall of cattle barons

UP’s decision to locate its route through Cheyenne and not Denver helped establish the cattle industry in Cheyenne and the rest of Wyoming, according to www.wyohistory.org.

The cattle baron era in Cheyenne and other parts of Wyoming lasted from 1868-87 and created fabulously wealthy men, who showered collateral riches on Cheyenne.

Investing money in cattle was considered a safe, sure way to make money in the 1880s and 1890s. Someone who invested $4.50 in a full-sized animal, for example, typically could earn a return of $30 to $40.

The lure of easy money gave rise to cattle barons, many of whom moved here from the East and from other countries.

Their wealth contributed to Cheyenne becoming the richest city in the world per capita in the early 1880s. Eight of its 3,000 residents were millionaires at one time; most of them were cattle barons, who built lavish homes along what’s now Carey Avenue. Townspeople took to calling the area Millionaire’s Row.

All this ended during the devastating winter of 1886-87. Blizzards and subzero temperatures killed thousands of cattle. Many of their owners lost everything they had overnight.

Most of the mansions on Millionaire’s Row were torn down long ago. But the cattlemen’s legacy lives on in other ways. Cheyenne was one of the first cities in the United States to have electric lights, a perk that a poor municipality could not afford.

Such wealthy men built a first-rate opera house in 1881 for residents to enjoy, even those of meager means.

They also established an elite members-only fraternity called the Cheyenne Club, a huge building constructed in 1881. Here, gentlemen dressed in their formal best could sip only the best liquor, smoke expensive cigars and dine on cuisine prepared by French chefs. The club covered a block on 17th Street and Warren Avenue during its short-lived heyday.

Capitol construction marks a new era

For many years, many Cheyenne residents had wanted their city to be the seat of state government.

In 1886 – four years before Wyoming became a state – the Ninth Territorial Legislative Authority approved the construction of a state Capitol in Cheyenne.

On Sept. 9, 1886, supporters broke ground on the site. Hundreds of people crowded there to watch the cornerstone laying on May 18, 1887.

Local Masons and members of the 17th Infantry from Fort D.A. Russell took part in the festivities, according to the book, “The Magic City of the Plains.”

Construction of the center section of the state Capitol was finished on March 29, 1888. The two wings were added in April 1890, the year Wyoming became a state. Construction of the House and Senate chambers was completed in March 1917.

Frontier Day gives the city an identity

A spectacular modern event known as Cheyenne Frontier Days had its start in 1897 as a way to help a city that was down on its luck. After the cattle industry went bust in 1887, Cheyenne was doing its best to survive.

At the same time, the Union Pacific Railroad wanted to help itself by helping Wyoming and Colorado towns along its route. Railroad officials wanted to increase the number of passengers and hired travel passenger agent Frederick Angier to come up with a solution.

He helped towns develop festivals that visitors could reach by excursions on the railroad. Although accounts differ, it’s thought that he encouraged Cheyenne’s leaders to organize a rodeo that offered events like horse racing and bucking and bull riding.

Col. E.A. Slack, editor of the Cheyenne Daily Sun-Leader, supported the idea and encouraged other townspeople to do so, too.

What resulted was the first Frontier Day on Sept. 23, 1897. William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody led the parade.

About 4,000 people paid 15 cents for bleacher seats and 35 cents for grandstand seating. Admission to the park was free.

Today’s Frontier Days boasts the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and performances by musical superstars.

In 2016, for example, 259,193 people attended CFD events. Visitors also enjoy free pancake breakfasts, elaborate parades, art shows, an Indian Village and a free performance by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds jet flying team.

At the first CFD, cowboys had to bring their best bucking horse with them to compete. Now, professional cowboys vie for more than $1 million in cash prizes, riding roughstock provided by CFD under contract with a third-party contractor.

CFD helped Cheyenne establish an identity that is recognized throughout the world.

Others celebrating sesquicentennials

The city of Cheyenne isn’t the only local entity celebrating 150 years of existence in 2017.

First United Methodist Church, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, F.E. Warren Air Force Base and the predecessor to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle all had their start in 1867.

First United Methodist Church, located at 108 E. 18th St., is the oldest congregation of any denomination in Wyoming, according to Rev. Mark Marston, its senior pastor.

On Sept. 29, 1867, the Rev. W.W. Baldwin preached at what was then city hall, located at present-day Pioneer Avenue and 17th Street. (A traveling Baptist minister preached here before Baldwin, but he was not assigned to the area.)

Methodist Church members first built a white-frame church in 1870 at the current location. They later built a red sandstone church at the same location in 1892 or 1897.

The Daily Leader was the predecessor of today’s Wyoming Tribune Eagle. The newspaper published its first edition Sept. 19, 1897, less than a month after a young Cheyenne elected its first mayor and filled other offices.

Nathan Baker, who was 24 in 1867, was the newspaper’s first editor and owner. He came from Denver and brought his printing press with him to publish three days a week.

Baker called his newspaper the Cheyenne Daily Leader, which he published three times a week. He later changed the name to the Daily Leader, which eventually was published every day except Sunday. The Leader was the top paper in Cheyenne for many years, according to Nancy Weidel in her book, “Cheyenne 1867-1917.”

Baker was an unofficial cheerleader for Cheyenne, often writing stories that predicted a wonderful future for the “Magic City of the Plains.”

He sold the Leader shortly after a fire in 1870 destroyed his printing operations. Baker died in Denver in 1934.

Eventually, the newspaper was sold to Col. E.A. Slack, the owner was the editor of the Cheyenne Daily Sun. Slack combined the newspapers and created the Cheyenne Daily Sun-Leader in 1895.

The Cheyenne Daily Sun-Leader led to the Wyoming State Tribune in 1921.

The Wyoming State Tribune and The Wyoming Eagle operations merged, but the newspapers had separate staffs until the 1990s. Today, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle continues to cover Cheyenne and the surrounding area seven days a week, both in print and online at WyomingNews.com.

In 1867, Union Pacific Railroad officials pitched a huge tent in Cheyenne that served as a hospital. Doctors treated employees who were injured while working on the Transcontinental Railroad.

The city of Cheyenne bought the tent the next year for $125.

In 1883, St. John’s Hospital was built for $21,000 on land donated by Union Pacific. Memorial Hospital replaced it in 1922. After changes in ownership and a merger with DePaul Hospital, the name was changed to Cheyenne Regional Medical Center in 2006.

The evolution of these institutions is a testament that Cheyenne is a place where many people stayed and built their futures.

These institutions and the people of Cheyenne have contributed to the fabric of the community through the years. It’s expected that they will continue to do so for the next 150 years or more.

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus