Railroad Workers Help Build a Community: A Look at the UP in Sweetwater County

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Railroad workers go on with their work even during the bitter cold of winter.

Today, we celebrate the laborers who work day after day to make contributions to our community. Labor Day is a national holiday dedicated to honoring the American labor movement and you, the workers.

According to an article titled, Have we forgotten the true meaning of Labor Day?, the founders of the holiday “were looking for two things: a means of unifying union workers and a reduction in work time.” The laborers had to strike to celebrate the first Labor Day.

In honor of Labor Day, SweetwaterNOW, with the help of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum, is looking back at the industry that helped to put our communities on the map, and grew Sweetwater County into what it is now. The Union Pacific Railroad runs right through our towns, and without the railroad, the West would not have been settled quite so quickly.

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According to the Sweetwater County Historical Museum, prior to the railroad’s arrival in 1867, fewer than 1,000 non-Native Americans were settled in Wyoming Territory. Just 23 years later at Wyoming’s statehood in 1890, over 60,000 people lived in Wyoming. The majority of those people lived in towns that were located along the railroad’s tracks.

Building the Railroad

The Union Pacific began in Omaha, Nebraska, and thousands of men were hired to excavate dirt, cut through ridges, fill gorges, and blast tunnels through mountains to get ready to lay the tracks.

Most of the workers were European immigrants, civil war soldiers, former slaves, and later Chinese laborers. In 1866, over 8,000 workers were building the railroad.

With mining and railroad going hand in hand, the railroad followed Captain Howard Stansbury’s 1850 survey of coal deposits across southwest Wyoming, according to the Sweetwater County Historical Museum. We’ll talk more about coal in a bit.

Workers in the 1870s work on laying the rails. Photo courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum.

The Birth of Our Little Railroad Town

Some clever entrepreneurs realized that the railroad would have to parallel Bitter Creek to the Green River in order to secure a dependable water source for it’s locomotives. Therefore, they bought the land on the north side of the river from the Overland Stage Company, according to the Sweetwater County Historical Museum, and built a town that would be right in the railroad’s path. This is what we now know as Green River.

When the tracklayers arrived on October 1, 1868, Green River was a bustling little town of 2,000 people.

However, due to the Green River flooding the city often, the Union Pacific decided it would be safer to bypass the city and built the town Bryan. While Bryan’s population quickly grew to 5,000, Green River’s fell to about 100 in just a month.

In 1872, a severe drought dried up the Black’s Fork River and the railroad had to move its division back to Green River so it could use the river for a water source.

Some railroad workers in 1910. Photo courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum

Changes in the Railroad Affects Jobs

During World War II, over 100 trains a day passed through Green River. However during the 1950s, diesel engines started replacing steam engines, and this marked the beginning of the end of the railroad era.

People started traveling by plane and trucks began hauling cargo that was previously shipped by train.

Brie Blasi, Sweetwater County Historical Museum Director said the biggest change to railroad jobs happened in accordance with the changes in the railroad itself.

“There were firemen, for example, in the early days whose job it was to feed the firebox with coal to keep the engines running. That job changed when the railroad switched to diesel engines,” Blasi said.

With passenger trains decreasing, passenger train employees such as porters, stewards, cooks, ticket and baggage clerks, and so on were no not needed as much. In addition, workers such as teamsters and herders were no longer needed either.

The last regularly scheduled passenger train that passed through Green River ended in 1983.

“Things changed again pretty significantly in the 1980s when they automated a lot of jobs on the railroad. That’s really when the railroad stopped being the major employer here that it used to be because they laid off or didn’t replace thousands of jobs along the main line that were then being done by machines,” Blasi explained.

Up until the growth of the trona mining industry in the 1970s, the railroad was the primary employer in Green River.

Workers with the UP’s Big Boy engine in 1940.

Coal and Railroad Create Economic Boom in Rock Springs

The first coal mine opened in Rock Springs in 1868 by brothers Duncan and Archibald Blair. This was just as the railroad arrived.

According to Sweetwater County Historical Museum, Rock Springs’ coal mines provided a vital source of the railroad’s daily operations and provided thousands of local jobs. These jobs were filled by laborers who were recruited from all over the world. This made Rock Springs the most ethnically diverse town in the state, earning it’s title of “Home to 56 Nationalities”.

In the 1874, the Union Pacific Coal Company was formed, and they controlled most of the mining operations in the area.

Rock Springs was nationally renowned for its high-quality coal. Between 1868 and 1939, Rock Springs produced over 50 million tons of coal shipped across the nation on the Union Pacific.

A railroad worker during the cold winter.

The Railroad Today

The Green River rail yard is still used by the Union Pacific today, though it’s been greatly reduced. According to the Sweetwater Historical Museum, in 2003 remote controlled switch engines began to replace man operated engines in the yard.

According to Union Pacific’s website, in 2018, Union Pacific had 1,058 employees in Wyoming. The number of U.S. jobs supported by the UP in Wyoming is 9,522. According to UP, each American freight rail job supports nine jobs elsewhere in the U.S. economy.

The top five commodities shipped out of Wyoming using the railroad in order are coal, soda ash, fertilizer, sodium products, and cement/roofing materials and miscellaneous minerals.