the cheyenne depot museum & cowgirls of the west

Our first morning in Cheyenne, we slept in until 7:00.  I remember the days when “sleeping in” was closer to 10:00 or later! Breakfast in the classy dining room at the Plains Hotel consisted of eggs, bacon and French toast.

We overheard that someone who goes by the name of Astrid bought the Plains Hotel at auction in 2015.

We walked to the Cheyenne Depot to start our day, passing the boots “made for talking” and the bright red Wrangler store.

We spent some time in the Cheyenne Depot Museum.  Formerly the Union Pacific Depot, it has been restored to its original glory.  The museum is rich with railroad history and exhibits.

The Union Pacific Depot replaced a small 1867 wooden structure that sat on the same spot.  Due to the influence of the cattle barons, the railroad built one of the finest depots in America, finished in 1888. Of Richardsonian Romanesque styling, it used polychromatic stones – two colors of sandstone from the same quarry, a rarity.

In 1889, it was decided that the central repair shops for the entire Union Pacific system would be located in Cheyenne. Over 3,000 people would live and work for the railroad in the town.

The Seth Thomas clock in the tower was added in 1890; it still only loses about a minute a month.  The lobby was redesigned in 1929 in Art Deco style.  Completely restored in 2004, the depot is now a National Historic Landmark.


The Cheyenne Depot

The Union Pacific Railroad would be a prominent player in Wyoming’s Statehood, soon to follow (July 10, 1890), and the future of Cheyenne.

In 1862, the Pacific Railroad Act was approved by Congress and signed into law by then-President Abraham Lincoln, an enthusiastic supporter of railroads. Congress had finally decided on a route following the Platte River Valley and two railroad companies were chartered.  The Union Pacific (UP) would lay track westward from Omaha, while the Central Pacific (CP) would lay track eastward from Sacramento and they would meet someplace in between. Nearly 1800 miles separated these two points. A contest quickly developed to see which company could lay the most track the fastest.

Workers did not lay the first rail in Omaha until 1865 due to a shortage of money, materials and men due to the U.S. Civil War. In 1867 a base or “division point” for the railroad was selected, and it was called “Cheyenne” in honor of a fierce Indian tribe of the area. This location was chosen because it was where the gradual slope of the prairie met the steepening grades of the Laramie Mountains (previously known as the Black Hills).

During the winter of 1867-68, the Union Pacific Railroad ended at Cheyenne. Barracks were built for the workers, who set about working on the railroad facilities in Cheyenne and working their way up the daunting grade toward Sherman Pass.  With the addition of the railroad workers, the town’s population boomed.  Many estimates put the population of the town during this time at 7,000-10,000 people. Even with the building boom, space was at a premium.  The image below shows what 16th Street in Cheyenne looked like a couple of months after the railroad had arrived.


Cheyenne after the arrival of the railroad

The two railroads met at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869. A ceremonial golden spike celebrated the completion of the first transcontinental railroad that crossed America.

It was intended that Cheyenne should be one of the most important railroad cities in North America. It has often been said that if not for the Union Pacific Railroad, the City of Cheyenne would not exist.


Train model in the museum

Cheyenne has had a close connection with the Union Pacific’s passenger service from the time the first passenger train arrived in 1867 until Amtrak moved out of the city in 1979. A passenger’s experience varied by what he could afford. First class passengers received the best cars, the best meals, and the best accommodations at the Union Pacific’s depots.  Migrants or people without money were often treated little better than human freight with uncomfortable cars and equally uncomfortable accommodations trackside.

Emigrants who were not able to pay higher fares for first class accommodations found themselves in the emigrant cars.  These cars got minimal attention from the railroad.  They were hot in summer and freezing in winter and generally unpleasant. Passengers on these cars made the best of things by bringing their own food, blankets and anything else that might make their trip more comfortable.

Between November 1948 and March 1949, a series of blizzards struck the West.  Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming bore the brunt of these storms as winds often reached 80 mph (128 kph) forcing the temperatures down to -51°F. Over 100 citizens perished and livestock losses topped half a million head. With drifts approaching 50 ft., citizens from nine states were completely isolated.

For the railroads, the storms were devastating. The Union Pacific’s lines were at the epicenter of the blizzards.  The railroad would call in over 14,000 men, 180 bulldozers, 48 snowplows, and every rotary that could be found and moved to fight the storms.  Despite their efforts, 44 trains were frozen to their rails and hundreds of travelers were stranded.


The Blizzard of ’49

The Burlington track, now referred to as the BNSF Railroad, continues to run north and south through Denver into Texas and north to the Wyoming coal fields and connections into central Wyoming and on into the northwest through Montana. Today, a sophisticated dispatch system is used to control the trains.

The upstairs of the museum had a huge model train setup that was captivating.

Leaving the Depot, we strolled around the town on the way to our next destination. We encountered more of the “boots made for talking,” some buildings with fading ads, and street murals.

We found a great mural about the suffragette movement in Wyoming. The passage of Wyoming’s Suffrage Law in December 1869 was over 50 years before the enactment of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution that was passed on August 26, 1920 giving all women in America the right to vote.

Apparently, one of the main reasons for the passage of Wyoming’s suffrage law was intended as a public relations gesture to attract more settlers into the Wyoming Territory. Although the new law also gave women the right to hold public office, most of the men assumed that the women would have no interest in territorial politics and would choose to stay home. Instead, the newly enfranchised female voters promptly demanded a more active role for women in territorial government.  This so upset the all-male legislature, that in 1871 they tried to repeal the 1869 suffrage bill.  It failed to pass legislation by only a single vote.

When Wyoming entered the Union in July of 1890, it was the only state to have given women the right to vote. Colorado became the second state to pass a suffrage bill in 1893, and they were followed by Utah and Idaho in 1896.


suffragette movement in Wyoming


suffragette movement in Wyoming


suffragette movement in Wyoming

We arrived at the Cowgirls of the West Museum close to 11:00.  We watched a short film about a famous female rodeo rider.  There were displays of cowgirl clothes and framed stories about famous women cowgirls.


Cowgirls of the West Museum

Cowgirls of the West Museum, founded in 1995 by a group of trailblazing women, is dedicated to telling the remarkable stories of pioneering women who worked hard, right alongside men, to create the American West.

Women preparing for a move to western ranches and farms were advised to take no fine clothing, only “things suitable for everyday wear,” such as “calico frock dresses, plainly made, with no hoops, and sun bonnets.”

Back in the days when the sidesaddle ruled the female equestrian world, if a woman appeared in trousers because she was riding her horse in the astride style, she could be arrested and jailed for indecent exposure.

When it became socially acceptable that women could ride astride and wear split skirts, the Shipley Saddle Company of Kansas City, Missouri, found new customers.  Early women’s astride saddles were compact and nearly 10-12 pounds lighter than the standard’s men’s stock saddle.

The museum tells stories about Willa Cather, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of over 15 books; Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose prairie life was portrayed in the popular TV series Little House on the Prairie. Evelyn Cameron, Montana’s frontier photographer; Mardy Murie, Wyoming’s Grandmother of Nature and Conservation; Prairie Rose Henderson, Champion Bronc Rider; Mabel Strickland, “The Cowgirl’s Cowgirl;” Dale Evans, who co-starred with Roy Rogers in The Cowboy and the Señorita; the “unsinkable” Margaret Tobin Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912; Oveta Culp Hobby, who organized and commanded the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II and who instituted the nation-wide inoculation program of Dr. Jonas Salk’s newly developed polio vaccine; and Mary O’Hara, who wrote My Friend Flicka.


Women cowgirls

There was a display of “Western Ladies of Questionable Moral Character,” “soiled doves who worked at Josephine Hensley’s Hurdy-Gurdy.” These included Pearl Hart, the last stagecoach bandit.

There were magazine covers showing girl champion buffalo and steer riders.


101 Ranch: Girl Champion Buffalo and Steer Riders

Miss Annie Oakley was known as “Little Sure Shot.” She was a performer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s immensely popular Wild West Show.


Miss Annie Oakley, the Peerless Lady Wing-Shot


A Bevy of Wild West Girls

The Sears Roebuck & Company catalog and store were featured, with its 1880s Rocker Style Washing Machine, based on the washing motion of a gold miner’s rocker box. These early washing machines were used well into the 20th century by mating them with an electric motor. Another display told about Wyoming’s first J.C. Penney store in Kemmerer. Others told of the domestic lives of cowgirls.

By the dawn of the 20th century, America’s era of westward expansion was nearly over.  Towns, homesteads and ranches flourished.  The invention of the telephone in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell would forever alter the lives of people in America. This invention would be responsible for the influx of over 300,000 women into the American labor force as switchboard operators. One phone call could go through four (or more!) switchboards.


switchboard operator in cowgirl garb

After saying our goodbyes to the cowgirls of the west, we returned to the Plains Hotel to eat leftovers from last night in our room.


The Lincoln

After lunch we went back out to explore more of Cheyenne.

*Tuesday, September 24, 2019*