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Cheyenne: Where the Railroad Meets the West

Let’s set the record straight. Cheyenne, Wyoming, is not a day trip from Denver and squeezing it in before you head home from a Colorado vacation, just so you can mark another state off your list, is just…well, it’s simply wrong. The good citizens of Cheyenne frankly deserve better. They’ve worked hard to maintain their heritage so that folks can come and genuinely share in their history. To truly experience the Old West requires a bit of time.

If you drive up Interstate 25 from Denver, the rocky terrain to the west diminishes and the land transitions into high plains. Open land that rises and falls among large squared off boulders. Some contain fields of wheat, while others - too rocky to till - serve as grazing land for cattle. Scattered here and there is scraggly vegetation, perhaps if uprooted, it will become tumbleweed.

A Love Affair with the Railroad
Once in Cheyenne, take a trip back in time at the former Union Pacific (UP) train station in downtown, home to the visitor center, a restaurant and the two-story Cheyenne Depot Museum. The structure, a national historic landmark built from 1886 to 1887 in Richardsonian Romanesque architectural-style, took ten years to renovate - a testament to the tenacity of its residents.

Walk inside and have a seat on one of the long, high-back wood benches and soak in the depot’s character including the art-deco features added during the 1920s. If you close your eyes you can almost imagine the sound of steam spewing from engines out back, the smell of coal billowing from a smoke stack, people standing in line at the ticket window and families saying goodbye to loved ones traveling back east. Sadly, those days no longer exist. Passenger traffic ceased operation in 1972, steam engines were long ago converted to diesel locomotives and in 1985 the UP moved from the building, although they continue to utilize the adjoining tracks.

In 1862 during the Civil War, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act that was subsequently signed by President Abraham Lincoln. It created a transcontinental route with corresponding right of way and authorized the Union Pacific (UP) and the Central Pacific to begin building railroad tracks. According to the National Archives, “Beginning in 1863, the Union Pacific, employing more than 8,000 Irish, German, and Italian immigrants, built west from Omaha, Nebraska; the Central Pacific, whose workforce included over 10,000 Chinese laborers, built eastward from Sacramento, California. Each company faced unprecedented construction problems - mountains, severe weather, and the hostility of Native Americans.” On May 10, 1869, the two lines connected in Utah.

Located 500 miles due west of Omaha, Cheyenne was known as Crow Creek Crossing back when the railroad created its mountain region headquarters. On the same date, the military was brought in to protect the crews - July 4, 1867. As workers moved west, and with the rail lines in place, the city began to grow and prosper. Trains became the lifeblood of Cheyenne.

The Cheyenne Depot Museum does an excellent job of transporting visitors from the area’s pre-railroad era through present-day by highlighting the history of the railroad, its impact on the community and the importance of railroading in the Old West. Children will enjoy clicking-out messages on telegraph equipment, yesteryear’s version of a texting. Get a sense of the types of people and goods that moved across the rails in the second story cargo exhibit. The museum is open daily with extended hours during the summer.

In front of the train station is Depot Plaza, home to several pair of eight-foot high cowboy boots. Local artists painted the public art project, “These Boots Are Made for Talking.” An aspect of local and state history is incorporated into each pair.

TThis is also the departure point for several city tours - the trolley, carriage rides and self-guided. Tickets and brochures are available at the visitor center. Additionally, it is the staging area for concerts, and the huge pancake breakfast held during the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days celebration each July.

Touring the City
For an overview of Cheyenne, sign on for a one and a half-hour trolley tour of the city through Cheyenne Street Railway that operates daily from May to September. Fortunately their schedule complements the antics of the gunslingers (more on this below). Ticket holders receive access to other Cheyenne museums too.

Weather permitting narrated horse drawn carriage rides of historic downtown Cheyenne are given Thursdays to Mondays each June to August. Donations accepted.

The Old West
In June and July visitors-turned-innocent-bystanders may be embroiled in perilous exploits as the Cheyenne Gunslingers take to Old Town Square early each evening from Monday to Friday and again on Saturdays at high noon. They promise a family-oriented program that begins with a safety demonstration and culminates in an exceptional Wild West experience. Make sure you’re not featured on any “Wanted” posters scattered around town before you go.

 Walk one block north of the square to discover an exceptional Old West collection. With 11,000-square feet of gallery space, the sizable Nelson Museum showcases western art, fine cowboy and Native American objects including weapons from the 1800s, outlaw memorabilia and rodeo items. Exhibits have included: Art of the First Americans, Kids' Stuff, “and I don't wear bloomers,” They Saddled the West, Artistry in Silver and Steel, Trail Dust, The Ute Chieftain and The Army in the West. The museum is open Monday to Friday from May to October, plus Saturdays during the summer.