Wyoming Railroads In "The Equality State"

Perhaps more than anywhere else Wyoming railroads are all about the coal, although that wasn't always the case. This is Powder River Basin (PRB) country and you can literally watch (if you’re up for the drive) trains follow one another, elephant style, to and from the mines in the region.  Through the mid-2010's, PRB coal became so highly demanded that BNSF Railway and Union Pacific would dispatch a combined 85 trains a day from mines in Wyoming and Montana.  With coal's decline in recent years, however, this number has declined somewhat.  Historically, the state was home to Union Pacific's main line and key maintenance facility in Cheyenne.  In addition, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy maintained a through route here (now operated by BNSF).  

For a state of its size, Wyoming has surprisingly lost almost none of its rail infrastructure, only short abandonments here and there.  Today, Cheyenne remains an important location for UP.  This is also the point where the railroad's steam fleet is maintained; 4-6-6-4 #3985 (since retired), 4-8-4 #844, and 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy" #4014. So, if you enjoy gorgeous scenery, trains battling Mother Nature and lots of coal then Wyoming railroads offer it all!

Union Pacific 4-8-8-4 "Big Boy" #4017 is west of Cheyenne, Wyoming with a long manifest freight on September 8, 1958. Richard Wallin photo.

Wyoming railroads date back to the Union Pacific when the railroad reached the state’s eastern fringes in 1862 en route to its eventual meeting with the Central Pacific Railroad in May of 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah to complete the famed Transcontinental Railroad. Interestingly, the state of Wyoming became an important state to Union Pacific as Cheyenne was a major hub where its two eastern main lines converged (and still do). Additionally, its main line to the Pacific Northwest (Idaho, Oregon, and Washington), much of which was controlled by its former subsidiary the Oregon Short Line, diverged from its main route to Los Angeles in western Wyoming. While the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and Chicago & North Western would also have a presence in Wyoming the Equality State was almost entirely, and always has been the realm of Union Pacific. 

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Surviving Wyoming Stations

Colorado & Southern 2-10-2 #900 (Class E-5A) steams along the western end of Chicago, Burlington & Quincy's system with a short freight train near rural Horse Creek, Wyoming on October 25, 1957.

While Union Pacific still mostly dominates Wyoming's rail network, the West's other major Class I, BNSF Railway also retains a presence in the state operating former CB&Q/C&S lines. Of course, both companies control the lucrative PRB coal, which now is a four-track main line shared by the two western giants. Interestingly, with Canadian Pacific now owning the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern it will be curious to see if it will attempt to complete the regional's extension into the Powder River Basin and compete for the lucrative coal. CP has shown no such interest in doing so to date but who knows what the future may bring.

Several Burlington Northern SD40-2's and a fuel tender hustle empties back to the mine south of Donkey Creek, Wyoming in July, 1991. Warren Calloway photo.
In this scene Union Pacific's, eastbound "City of Los Angeles," was captured at Dale Creek, Wyoming outside of Laramie circa 1950.

Aside from these Class Is serving Wyoming today, there are also a few shortlines operating in the state including the Bighorn Divide & Wyoming Railroad and the Colorado & Wyoming Railway.  Today's Wyoming railroads operate over 1,850 route miles, which interestingly has not significantly changed over the years due to the surging demand for the clean-burning PRB coal. During the late 1990s the state actually saw its peak mileage at over 2,050 miles and still retains much of this infrastructure. For more information on Wyoming railroads, in terms of route mileage over the years please refer to the chart below.

* Wyoming's first railroad was the Union Pacific as it built west to meet the Central Pacific in establishing the nation's first transcontinental railroad.  In his book, "The Men Who Built The Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869," author Stephen Ambrose provided an excerpt from the Chicago Tribune's November 16, 1867 edition in which the lead article noted: "Dated Cheyenne 11/14/67; Yesterday, at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, track-laying crews on the UP was completed to the city of Cheyenne, and in a few moments the whistle of the locomotive was heard above the noise of the hammers and the rattle of wagons all over the bustling city."  It marked the initial 43 miles of railroad serving what was then Wyoming Territory (Wyoming after July 10, 1890).  Union Pacific would, of course, go on to meet Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869.

Historically, Wyoming lay right in the heart of Union Pacific's classic streamliner fleet, the City trains such as the Portland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. With Amtrak not retaining even one of UP's revered City trains the national carrier currently provides no service to the state of Wyoming. However, to learn more about these classic UP streamliners please click here.  If you’re interested in railroad museums and tourist railroads, while Wyoming railroads do not feature much there are a few things to see. First is the Douglas Railroad Interpretive Center, maintained by the Douglas Area Chamber of Commerce in Douglas, Wyoming. The chamber includes a small collection of equipment, such as a Burlington 4-8-4 steam locomotive, which is housed at the restored Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad depot.

A Union Pacific FA-1/FB-1 set, led by #1606-C, at Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1964. Mac Owen photo.

There is also the Cheyenne Depot Museum (also known as the Wyoming Transportation Museum) housed in the beautiful Union Pacific railroad depot in Cheyenne.   Also, for great reading about a few now-abandoned Wyoming rail lines please click here. In all whether you enjoy Mother Nature’s beauty, main line railroading, or large steam locomotives that put on quite a show, Wyoming railroads offer it all. And remember, if you tire of the railroading just head up to Yosemite National Park to see some of the most spectacular natural wonders in the country. It alone is well worth the drive to see, railroads or no railroads!

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Header Photo: Drew Jacksich


Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource in the study of steam locomotives. 

The amount of information found there is quite staggering; historical backgrounds of wheel arrangements, types used by virtually every railroad, preserved and operational examples, and even those used in other countries (North America and beyond). 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.  It is a must visit!

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that. 

If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer

It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!