A monument to Union Pacific's birth

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, September 1, 2011

I’m just back to Cheyenne tonight from a visit I have come to enjoy: A trip to the Ames Monument. Most of you are probably asking, “What’s the Ames Monument?” Brothers Oakes and Oliver Ames were seminal figures in the early development of Union Pacific, whose 150th anniversary will be celebrated next year. I doubt that the Ames boys will figure high in UP’s justly deserved birthday celebration. But, oh, that monument.
First of all, forgive me for forgetting to bring with me Maury Klein’s first installment in his three-book history of Union Pacific. It went into great detail about the Ames brothers and their positive and negative contributions to the fledgling Union Pacific. But from what I gather, the Ames boys were born into a family in Massachusetts that went from blacksmithing to making shovels, many of which outfitted early California gold prospectors. The company flourished selling swords and such to the Union Army during the Civil War. From 1863 to 1873, Oakes Ames served in the U.S. House of Representatives from his home state, becoming a member of the committee on railroads. President Abraham Lincoln is said to have appealed to Oakes in 1865 to take control of the UP because construction was languishing. This he promptly did, ousting founder Thomas Durant in 1866 and installing his brother Oliver as president of the railroad. Oliver was acting president, then president, from 1866 to 1871.

Oakes at least was both saint and sinner. Prior to his involvement with UP, the railroad created a supposedly arms-length company, Credit Mobilier, to oversee and manage construction of its half of the first transcontinental railroad. Unbeknownst to most people, UP officers were the owners of Credit Mobilier, and they siphoned off tens of millions of dollars (to be exact, about $45 million in 1865 dollars) through inflated billings. Oakes didn’t have a hand in that, apparently. And, in fact, it could be said that Oakes and Oliver Ames jump-started the financing of UP after throwing Durant to the wolves and organizing the job, often meaning that Ames family companies were big subcontractors, providing construction equipment.

Anyhow, Oakes Ames got his comeuppance when it was revealed in 1872 that he had bribed fellow members of Congress by selling them shares of Credit Mobilier stock at far below market prices. The U.S. House of Representatives censured him.

So here I was, schlepping over washboard dirt roads off of Interstate 80, about 20 miles from Laramie, Wyo. I made a bet to myself that I would not be the only visitor to Ames Monument, and sure enough, I was not. The family already there lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo. On my most recent visit, one of several other visitors to the monument was from the Ames brothers’s hometown of Easton, Mass.

The monument itself is miles from anywhere, at the summit of the original UP grade over the gentle portion of the Rocky Mountains. UP built it during 1881-1882 as a tribute to the Ames brothers, perhaps wishing to burnish the reputation of the pair. Before the tracks were relocated several miles to the south, to gain the advantage of better grades, passenger trains used to stop beside the 85-foot-high obelisk.

That’s what I was doing, too, late this afternoon, stopping and gawking. The structure itself is like a miniature Egyptian pyramid.

As I drove back toward I-80, I passed a car with Virginia plates heading in. People sure love to see this monument. But I’m still conflicted about the Ames brothers. They got the Union Pacific built, sure. They did not participate in the most egregious aspects of the Credit Mobilier thievery. But there was Oakes, gaining friends in Congress by handing out shares of Mobilier (still in business at that time as a public company) at below-market prices. Maybe Oakes just reflected the moral standards of the time. Polls today suggest Americans hold Congress in low esteem. Maybe so, but we’ve come a long way. — Fred W. Frailey


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