Cheyenne Depot Museum

Construction

Built in 1886-1887, the Cheyenne Union Pacific Depot is widely acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful railroad stations in North America.  Constructed from polychromatic sandstone quarried west of Fort Collins, Colorado, the 3-story Depot is a major historical structure in the Rocky Mountain area.  Major renovations of the building occurred in 1922 when the structure was extended to its present 331-foot length, and again in 1929 when the interior was modernized to reflect the then current art deco style.

Early in March 1886 the Union Pacific began shipping materials for the depot to Cheyenne.  The railroad loaded flat cars with red- and buff-colored sandstone blocks quarried near Fort Collins, Colorado, to be used for the building’s foundations and exterior walls.  On March 15 a small work force comprised of railroad section hands and local day laborers began excavation for the foundations.  Three days later the men went on strike, demanding higher wages.  While they struck, the contract to build the structure was awarded to J.F. Coots of Kansas City.  Just as the Union Pacific used Henry Van Brunt’s firm to design several of its buildings, the railroad hired John Coots for many of its construction projects.  The contractor was at the time working on an addition to the UP headquarters in Omaha and several other smaller projects.  For the Cheyenne depot, Coots would combine laborers and subcontractors from Cheyenne with his own crew. Late in April the men moved part of the old frame depot containing the passenger section and ticket office to a new location west of the Pacific Hotel. The express ofice remained in place east of the hotel, and the lobby of the hotel itself functioned temporarily as the passenger waiting room.  In May Coots’ crew resumed excavating for the foundation walls, as subcontractor Akroyd of Denver undertook the stonemasonry, using blocks shipped up from Colorado on board UP trains.  The contractors built a looped track around the foundation pit, over which they ran small flat cars loaded with stone and mortar.  To enclose the site, they constructed a high wood plank fence.  “The deep trenches were being rapidly filled up with the foundation stones, and presented a very solid appearance,” the Cheyenne Leader reported in June.  “A large pile of the beautiful red stone to be used in the facings and trimmings of the building was placed at one end of the yard.  No finer stone ever entered into a building’s composition than these, nor any capable of adding a more finished appearance.”

By the end of the month the foundation walls had been extended above the ground line, and the railroad and city could begin planning a ceremony to lay the cornerstone. The Wyoming Lodge of Masons presided over the celebration, held on July 19.  The date was an auspicious one—the 19th anniversary of the surveying of Cheyenne.  A parade of masons, firemen, politicians, city and railroad officials and onlookers marched ceremoniously to the site and watched as the stone was wheeled into place from a derrick.  As Territorial Governor Francis E. Warren and others looked on, the masons anointed the 2500-pound block with wine, oil and corn and pronounced it square and plumb.  The crowd then endured speechmaking from the politicians before returning home satisfied that the depot would ultimately be “the largest and grandest structure in the territory.” Construction on the depot continued through the rest of the year with the destruction of the Pacific Hotel by fire in November as the only reported incident. The contractors increased the size of their work force with an eye to completing the structure by May 1887.  By March the stonework was largely complete, and the men were framing the floors and roof.  After encountering difficulties with settlement of the tower, they worked through the spring and summer on the building’s exterior trim and interior finishes. 

In September a Cheyenne Sun reporter visited the site and described the building as “palace-like.”  “One would almost forget himself and think that he was in the Crystal Palace of old, that formerly adorned the city of London,” he stated, “while taking a stroll up and down its ample halls and corridors.”  Compared with the press coverage given to the depot during its planning and early construction, the building was put into service with relatively little fanfare.  The railroad moved into the upper-level offices in September; two months later the first-floor public spaces were opened and the building complete.  The Sun was ebullient in its praise for the new depot:

Between Omaha and San Francisco on the line of the Union Pacific railway, there is not to be found a depot equal in size, style or elegance to that which the Union Pacific railway company has just completed—or will be very soon complete—in Cheyenne.  The erection of this magnificent building was commenced in the fall of 1886. . . and the company was induced to commence its erection at that time from two considerations.  First, that such a building as this proves to be was needed by the Union Pacific at this point; and second, the company desired to do whatever it could consistently to advance and promote the material interests of the City of Cheyenne.
When the depot opened in 1887, one construction detail remained unfinished,  the Union Pacific would wait for three years before installing a clock in the prominent clock tower.  Finally placed in the tower in January 1890, the clock featured four faces, each six-feet-four-inches in diameter, that faced in the cardinal directions.  The prominent timepiece had been manufactured by the Seth Thomas Company and weighed some 1000 pounds.  It immediately became a landmark in downtown Cheyenne.  “A person whose eyesight is unimpaired can tell time by the depot clock, when ten blocks away,” stated the Leader.  “It will be lighted at night.” During this period, the Cheyenne Depot remained essentially unchanged, with improvements to the park out front as the only incremental changes undertaken to the facility.  In 1922, the railroad built a 114-foot-long addition onto the east side of the building to house a dining room and kitchen. Designed by the Union Pacific Chief Engineer’s Office in Omaha, the new wing increased the building’s footprint by some 40 percent.  It followed the same general lines as Van Brunt’s original west wing and sensitively mirrored Van Brunt’s original design with its long hipped roof, heavy stone exterior walls and Romanesque window and door openings.

The new wing was built by Utah contractor H.W. Baum, who reopened the Bellevue quarries in Colorado to obtain stone for the exterior walls.  Dubbed “The Beanery” by locals, the restaurant was operated by the UP’s Dining Car and Hotel Department.  It soon proved popular for travelers and residents.  Ernest Hemingway dined there in 1940 after his third marriage, which took place in Cheyenne.   With its bi-chrome stone construction, hipped roof and large-scale, semicircular-arched windows, the restaurant wing mirrored Van Brunt’s  design for the original west wing.  The addition actually improved the building’s proportions by softening the somewhat abrupt eastern end and serving as a counterbalance for the west wing.  The dining room featured ceramic tile floor, dark paneled wood walls and coffered plaster ceilings.   In 1929 the railroad undertook further changes to the building.  The breezeway at the base of the tower was enclosed to form a new entrance, many of the original wooden columns in the basement were replaced with steel members, and many of the first-floor public spaces were rehabilitated. Other, subsequent alterations to the building have been comparatively minor.  In 1937 the railroad built covered train sheds and a subway linking them with the station. In 1940 the depot park was covered with a bus terminal for the Union Pacific Stages (later Greyhound Bus Lines).   In 1948 the restaurant was closed.  Part of the space was converted into offices; the remainder was used as a meeting hall for railroad employees.  In 1971 Amtrak took over the passenger service into Cheyenne and that year demolished the train sheds.  The Union Pacific moved the last of its offices from the building in 1990.