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Museum History

The Union Pacific Depot in Cheyenne, Wyoming is a nationally prominent landmark that derives its significance from two principal areas:  transportation and architecture.  The Depot is the last of the grand 19th century depots remaining on the transcontinental railroad and one of the best articulated examples of the Richardsonian Romanesque style in the West, designed by one of America’s most distinguished architects at a pivotal point in his practice.  The Depot formed a strategic point along the Union Pacific Railroad, America’s first transcontinental rail line, and was easily the Union Pacific’s most grandiose facility west of its starting point at Council Bluffs.

As an integral part of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific played a central role in the development of rail transportation in America.  The transcontinental railroad marked the first large-scale, federally sanctioned construction in the aftermath of the Civil War.  More importantly, it represented a water-shed in American history:  the opening of the West to mechanized travel.  In this, the railroad’s economic impact upon the region, and upon the nation as a whole, can hardly be overstated.  The transcontinental railroad literally stitched the country together, making possible the development of the West. It’s politically charged conception, frenzied construction, ceremonious opening, and even the scandals and bankruptcy attendant to its operation, captured the imagination of the American public.  No other railroad has received as much attention in the national press as the transcontinental line.  140 years after its charter, the Union Pacific is still one of America’s most economically important railroads.  The Cheyenne Depot, in its placement at a strategic point along the railroad’s length, has functioned as a crown jewel in the Union Pacific’s extensive system. 

Completion of the depot in 1887 proved timely for the city and region.  As construction of the building was underway, Wyoming was experiencing the worst environmental disaster in its recorded history.  After years of range overgrazing by area cattle ranchers, the region experienced an extremely dry summer in 1886 that killed much of the forage.  This was followed by the worst winter on record, with snow, icy winds, and sub-zero temperatures that ravaged the northern plains.

Starving cattle drifted southward until they encountered fences, then they milled around without food or shelter until they froze to death.  The resulting carnage was unprecedented.  According to one firsthand account, a person could walk along the fence line of the Union Pacific from Ellsworth, Kansas, to Denver, stepping only on carcasses.  The die-off amounted to tens of thousands of cattle, with some ranchers losing up to 85 percent of their herds.  The cattle industry was decimated from Montana to Texas.  The bankrupting of such a large industry had a rippling effect on the territory’s economy that impacted the railroad, which relied heavily on revenues from livestock shipping, particularly severely.  With Wyoming on its knees economically, it is unlikely that the Cheyenne depot would have been built had it been undertaken a year later.

In 1993 the Union Pacific donated the building to the City of Cheyenne and Laramie County, and stabilization of the building began a year later.  Since then, the building underwent various stages of an extensive rehabilitation project.  The first floor now houses the Cheyenne Depot Museum and a brewpub/restaurant.  The upper levels house offices for various city and private concerns related to tourism, economic development, and the museum.

One of the most significant passenger depots in the American West and acclaimed one of the most architecturally distinguished buildings among Henry Van Brunt’s commissions, the Cheyenne Union Pacific Depot was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

Read the essay that was written by Clayton Fraser for the Union Pacific Depot National Historic Landmark  nomination in 2005!

Cheyenne Depot Museum; Union Pacific Railroad
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