Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cheyenne, Wyoming (mile 4,800)

June 29

As we approached Cheyenne, first we passed a bison ranch, then the road rose high, the lanes split, and a Union Pacific control tower stood between the ribbons of roadway. Looking down from our lofty perch, we counted at least 36 tracks, a third of them with trains on them, plus acres of sheds and shelters in the rail yards below.

As we learned later, this was the main line of the transcontinental railroad—the lifeline that shaped much of Cheyenne's early history. Union Pacific still stores its collection of operational steam locomotives in a massive roundhouse here—when they are not out being displayed at railroad events around the country or pulling special excursion trains.

The Union Pacific tracks arrived in Cheyenne in 1867, and the cattle barons arrived in force not long after that. With relatively mild winters and abundant short grass on the plains that stretched for endless miles in every direction, cattle could remain on the range year-round here. With the railroad, the cattle could easily be shipped anywhere east, and all the luxuries the barons—and the bankers and merchants who followed on their heels--craved from the east could be easily shipped to them. Within ten years, the thriving cattle industry in Cheyenne and surrounding Laramie County made it the wealthiest county per capita in the country.

We took a trolley tour of historic Cheyenne, and learned about its Wild West history. There were over 50 bars and bordellos near the railroad tracks—we ate lunch in a restaurant in one of those infamous buildings. But, the city had a much more refined history, and a rich cultural life as well, with an opera house built in 1883, sixteen music halls, and the first county library built west of New York City. South Dakota was first in the country to give women the right to vote—but only because it was a territory at the time and didn't have enough voters to qualify to become a state without padding the voting rolls with women. South Dakota was also the first state to elect a woman governor.
This is a picture of their beautiful capitol building—it is one of ten state capitols in the country with a gold-gilded dome.

The town celebrates its Wild West heritage with Frontier Days, held the last week in July. The event features nine days of rodeo events, games, musical entertainment, food and lots more. One of the highlights of Frontier Days is a free pancake breakfast put on by the Kiwanis Club of Cheyenne. This event is of special interest to Dick, since he is a Kiwanian, and his club does a (much smaller scale) pancake breakfast every year, too. According to our tour bus driver, the Cheyenne Kiwanis is the second largest chapter in the country, with 400 members. Their Frontier Days pancake breakfast serves 39,000 pancakes to 13,000 people. They mix their batter in a brand new cement truck.

Since we ate lunch in what used to be a saloon, we decided to have dinner at the Plains Hotel, built in 1911, the finest hotel in Cheyenne both then and now. Ever since its opening, it has been the place where the cattle barons, politicians and the other power brokers around town meet and mingle. And, if they want to meet and mingle with the show girls, there's a little place out back called Peacock Alley where they can enjoy a backstage visit.

In the early days, a respectable man could walk in the front door of the Plains Hotel, take a tunnel that led to the disreputable saloon section of town, enjoy some tawdry amusements, return through the tunnel, and walk out the front door of the Plains, with hardly anyone the wiser. The tunnels are no longer are in use for pedestrian traffic (or that's the story anyway, and they're sticking to it).

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