OLD SHERMAN, Wyo. — One of my favorite places on the first Transcontinental Railroad is Sherman Hill.
It was the first big obstacle in Union Pacific’s way when the railroad built west in the 1860s. Even though it is one of the lesser crossings of the Rockies, it has been an operating headache since day one, 150 years ago. That is why there are tracks 1 and 2, which pretty much follow the original grade — with some modifications — and track 3, also known as the Harriman Cutoff, added in 1953.
Noted UP historian and photographer Jim Ehernberger wrote about Sherman Hill and its challenges in our special issue, Journey to Promontory, available now.
The main line was rebuilt in 1901 and the route via Sherman Hill relocated. Today, there are no tracks at the original site of Sherman Hill. The original line across Sherman Hill departed from the existing main line at what is now Buford and followed Interstate 80 to a point where there is a tree growing out of a rock. Wyoming’s transportation department maintains a small rest area where the tree in the rock is located.
From there, it struck out to Old Sherman, the top of the grade. Years ago, Union Pacific hosted a small yard and a turntable for helper locomotives.
Only indentations in the earth remain of those fixtures, but high on a hillside overlooking it all, is the Ames Monument. The monument is a pyramid standing 60-feet tall that was built in 1882 to honor the Ames brothers who were financiers of the Union Pacific portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. When the railroad still ran in this location, it was a tourist attraction for trains that paused.
I like to come here at dusk when the western sky lights up with the final rays of sun. All the better if there’s a Wyoming thunderstorm. If you listen carefully, you can hear the ghosts of railroad workers, 4-4-0s shuffling in the yard, or yet another modern eastbound straining up grade, trying to reach the summit a few miles to the south.