Railroad Industry in Cheyenne, WY

On Monday, June 20, 2011 - 21:03

Cheyenne and the railroad lines that run through it are inseparable.

The railroads are the reason for the town's existence and continue to be a major player in the area's economy. The fabled history of rail transportation to and through the area, visible at the Cheyenne Depot Museum and other sites, is a major tourism draw for the city. Factor in the potential for light rail and the return of regular passenger service, and it's easy to see how all roads lead to rail as Cheyenne plans for the future.

"Cheyenne is here because of the railroad," says Randy Bruns, CEO of Cheyenne LEADS. "A lot of communities are settled for some geological feature or other rationale, but there was never anybody here until the railroad showed up. It really founded Cheyenne when the surveyors laid it out, and it's been central to the development of the city. Our history is absolutely tied to the history of the transcontinental line."

Cheyenne is the intersection of two major rail lines, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe. Over the years, major roadways such as Interstate 80 have followed the path laid by the railroads, maintaining the city's status as an important economic hub within the region's transportation network.

"It's a part of our economy at all levels," Bruns says. "The railroad is still one of the largest employers in town. A lot of Wyoming's coal moves through Cheyenne, and the railroads are increasingly bringing in products from the West Coast ports."

One way the railroad hasn't kept up is passenger service, but that may be changing as well. The Wyoming Legislature has funded a study of the proposed Rocky Mountain High Speed Rail Corridor, which would stretch from Casper to Belen, N.M., and include Cheyenne. If the project comes to fruition, it could be up and running by 2016. It would connect Cheyenne to cities all along the Rockies, with as few as six stops before reaching Denver. And just the idea has local tourism officials thinking ahead.

"We're excited about the possibility of light rail, which would link us to the larger population bases to our south," says Darren Rudloff, president and chief executive officer of the Cheyenne Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Being linked to more heavily populated areas would make us very accessible to those people for Frontier Days, weekend getaways, everything."

Whatever the future holds for all things rail-related, the past will continue to be big business for Cheyenne's tourism industry. And much of that traffic can be found in and around the Union Pacific Depot, a railroad hub in its heyday and a tourism destination as a museum today. The building was designated as a National Historic Landmark in March 2006, and renovations and improvements always are under way, says Pam Crochet, events coordinator.

"They're working on the subway lines right now, so we'll have limited access to the subway that goes under the railroad tracks and be able to look down the tunnel," Crochet says. "That was how people went out to the different trains. We can't go onto the UP property, but people will be able to look down the tunnel."

That project further enhances the museum's status as a destination for train buffs.

At the CACVB, Rudloff and his staff have created a tour brochure specifically for train enthusiasts, highlighting everything from attractions and historical sites to current-day spots for train watching. Among the most interesting sites is the Ames Monument, a granite pyramid constructed in 1882 between Cheyenne and Laramie, at what was then the highest point on the transcontinental railroad. The monument was constructed to honor brothers Oakes Ames and Oliver Ames II, who were key players in the construction of the line.

"The railroad is one of our main tourism products, no ifs, ands or buts," Rudloff says. "It is integral to everything we do here. It's astonishing to go to our visitors center and chat with the rail fans. I remember once meeting two German gentlemen who were following the entire transcontinental rail route, and they knew every detail. They didn't know a lot of English, but they knew all about Cheyenne. We celebrate, honor and partner with the railroad, past, present or future, whenever we can."

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