In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln made a personal request to Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames to take over construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. At that point, the project was just 12 miles along, with more than 1,000 miles to go before it would meet with the Central Pacific Railroad in Utah to form the Transcontinental Railroad.
Ames, a member of the House Committee on Railroads and a wealthy heir of the Ames and Sons shovel company, enlisted his brother, Oliver, to join him in the project. The two men undertook a successful fundraising effort and got the project back on track, and it was completed in 1869.
In 1879, Union Pacific purchased land at the highest point along the railroad — about 20 miles east of Laramie at 8,247 feet — and commissioned a monument in their honor. The railroad tracks have since been relocated a few miles to the south.
Architect Henry Hobson Richardson envisioned the 60-foot-tall granite pyramid, which today sits a stone’s throw from Interstate 80. The rough-hewn stones at its base weigh 1,000 pounds each. Nine-foot-tall portraits of the brothers decorate two sides.
Ethan Carr, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts, called the structure a timeless presence perfectly suited to its location in a treeless, rock-studded expanse.
“The monument’s perfect geometry is in complete harmony with its setting, extending upward in a primordial communion of earth and sky,” he wrote in 2015.
Carr cites historians who have called the monument one of the finest in the country and one of the best examples of a “new, distinctly American and modern approach to architectural design” developed by Richardson and influenced by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead.
Today, 140 years after it was completed, the monument’s impact endures, Carr writes, and “much of that effect is due to its remarkable setting in the high treeless plains, in a regional landscape that has altered little over millennia.”
The impact of the Transcontinental Railroad on American history can hardly be overstated, enabling settlement of the West and laying the foundation for rapid economic expansion. Laramie itself didn’t become a town until the railroad arrived.
But yesterday’s landscape-altering, industrial-sized projects are today’s historical monuments — and with time and progress come new technologies and new projects to take their place on the landscape.
The proposed Rail Tie Wind Project, with a project area that would cover 26,000 acres of public and private land south of Laramie, would be visible from the Ames Monument. The closest turbine would be located about 1.2 miles away.
Fred Ames, the great-great-grandson of Oliver Ames and the great-great-grandnephew of Oakes, who today lives in the house where Oakes was born, said the monument doesn’t belong just to Laramie or Albany County.
“It’s a significant piece of American architecture,” he said.
The monument underwent restoration in 2011 and was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 2016. Sara Needles, Wyoming’s state historic preservation officer, said historic landmark status is the highest status any historic property can attain in the United States, reserved for cultural resources of exceptional value.
“That takes it to a whole other level of importance and significance,” she said.
Fred Ames, who traveled to Laramie with dozens of family members for the historic landmark ceremony several years ago, said the Ames Monument can’t be separated from its setting.
“It’s not like a statue in park, which you could basically put anywhere,” he said. “It’s all about the landscape.”
At nearly 600 feet tall, the turbines proposed in the Rail Tie project would be 10 times taller than the monument itself, altering the horizon line for at least the next 30 years.
“It’s just going to make the monument look like a Lego toy,” Ames said of the wind project.
The Rail Tie Project, a proposal of Houston-based energy company ConnectGen, is in the midst of the permitting process. The project will require permission from Albany County and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.
Additionally, because ConnectGen is requesting to connect with a transmission line operated by the Western Area Power Administration, the project also must be evaluated under the National Environmental Protection Act. The administration released a draft environmental impact statement Friday.
“There are three pathways for review for this project, and we are essentially going through all three,” said John Kuba, ConnectGen’s director of environmental affairs.
As part of the federal process, including guidelines in the National Historic Preservation Act, ConnectGen is required to identify cultural resources in and near the project area, assess potential impacts from the project, and develop a programmatic agreement in partnership with the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, Native American tribes and other agencies. The programmatic agreement outlines how adverse effects to cultural resources will be avoided or mitigated.
“The law doesn’t say they can’t do it,” Needles said. “It says they have to mitigate any impacts they might cause.”
The process of surveying and evaluating cultural resources started several years ago, Kuba said.
“There are relatively few cultural resources on the site, but within the larger vicinity there are cultural resources that we need to consider and that there could be potential impacts to,” he said.
According to the draft EIS, cultural resources within the project area include the Lincoln Highway, Union Pacific Railroad and Overland Trail. Physical impacts to such sites can be avoided by routing roads and collection lines to avoid them.
“We do think in the end we will have no adverse effects associated with direct impacts to those resources,” Kuba said.
A wind project can also have nonphysical impacts on a cultural resource through noise or visual disturbances, and the federal NEPA process requires considering resources up to 10 miles away. The draft EIS identifies the project as having a strong nonphysical impact on the Ames Monument and segments of the Cherokee Trail, Overland Trail and Union Pacific Railroad.
“In the end, this site is going to be visible from a site like Ames Monument,” Kuba said. “We’re not able to hide those turbines, so we know those impacts are going to occur. We’re not going to be able to avoid them.”
Needles said the details of the programmatic agreement are still being developed.
“It’s a public process, and this is something we’ll get comment from the public,” she said.
Regarding the Ames Monument, Kuba said a mitigation option could be to work with local landowners to develop access to other historic sites on private lands, which are currently inaccessible.
“We’re hopeful there’s interest there, and we’re going to push forward from our side,” he said.
Another mitigation option could be to make a digital record of the landscape and historic resources in their current state. Kuba said such a video could also include narration and analysis, and it could be shared online and in schools. There also might also be opportunities to engage the public in surveys and documentation work as it occurs.
“We’re going to do the work — let’s use this opportunity to get the public involved and get school children involved and show them how our history is recorded,” he said.
Kuba said the goal with mitigation efforts would be to offset negative impacts by creating new opportunities that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.
“A wind project is one form of development, but it’s a form of development that’s going to come with mitigation offsets, whereas with other forms of development, there may not be any formal mitigation required,” Kuba said.
A 45-day comment period for the draft EIS is now underway and is scheduled to close May 17. Comments can be submitted by email to: RailTieWind@wapa.gov.
They can be sent by mail to: Mark Wieringa, Western Area Power Administration, Headquarters Office A9402, P.O. Box 281213, Lakewood, CO 80228-8213.
Public hearings are scheduled for 1 p.m., April 28 and 5 p.m., April 29.
Meeting registration links, an online comment form and all project documents are available at www.wapa.gov/transmission/EnvironmentalReviewNEPA/Pages/rail-tie-wind-project.aspx.