Sunday, December 31, 2017

Union Pacific From Point of Rocks to Granger: Wherein Mighty Dog Clashes with the Serpent

In September of 2017, Bear the Mighty Dog and I set out to explore the Union Pacific Overland Route in southern Wyoming.  We had previously scouted the line from Altamont and Aspen Tunnels to Ogden, Utah, so on this trip we shifted our focus from Point of Rocks to Granger, where the mainline divides – one line heading to the Pacific Northwest, the other following the route of the Mormons toward the Great Salt Lake and places beyond.

If you have not visited this portion of Wyoming, I urge you to make the trip.  Driving along Interstate 80, you feel as though you have been transported to a mountain range on the Moon.  At every exit and entry ramp stand large gates that the Wyoming Department of Transportation can close in the winter when storms move in.  You are consistently above 6000 feet, except in the river valleys, and the snow fences on the north side of the highway testify to the extreme weather when the days are short.

Westbound Stacks Approaching Point of Rocks, Wyoming

The speed limit signs are all electrically controlled, so that the limits can be changed remotely, depending on the weather.  In high summer, the speed limit on straight stretches is 80 miles per hour, and no one drives that slow.  In the winter, after a storm has moved in, the speed limit on the same stretch might be 40 miles per hour, and no one drives that fast.

Wyoming has the fewest residents of any state in the Union, mostly because of the high elevations, lack of water and fierce winter weather.  The University of Wyoming is located in Laramie, elevation 7,165 feet – about 2000 feet higher than Denver.  On average, the first frost-free day in Laramie starts June 13.  The last frost-free day is usually around September 2, for a total growing season of only 81 days!  If you are a vegetable gardener in Laramie, life is difficult, because you must start all vegetables in a green house, then move them outside in mid- to late-June when the soil has warmed to about 60 degrees.  You cannot sow any vegetable seeds directly into the ground, because by the time they germinate, the weather will already be cooling, and they will freeze and die before producing anything.
UP 8690 East, an SD-70ACe, Glides Down Peru Hill Into Green River, Wyoming 
An Empty Coal Train Begins the Climb West out of the Green River Valley

My first trip to southern Wyoming occurred in 1987, when my friend Carl Graves and I visited Sherman Hill – back in the days when you could explore the area at will and not worry about being arrested.  The thing I most remember about 1987 in Wyoming was eating lunch at a restaurant in Laramie and biting my tongue so hard that it bled.  I also remember my car’s beginning to misfire, as though it might quit running at any moment.  Carl and I eventually cut our trip short and headed back to Oklahoma, which was a good idea, because soon thereafter, the vehicle died, and I spent several hundred dollars resurrecting it.
An Eastbound Loaded Coal Train Whines Down Peru Hill 

I also remember one morning when the fog was so thick that birds stopped flying and began walking on the rails.  Really!  People don’t believe this, but I swear it is true.  Carl and I were sitting in my car, cursing our bad luck, when we looked out the window and saw several birds walking along the rails.  Later that day, the fog lifted.  I assume that the birds began flying again.

This post will take you from a place in the middle of nowhere called Point of Rocks all the way to Granger -- also in the middle of nowhere.  The trip will include the UP’s crossing of the Green River in a spectacular canyon, plus the westbound climb out of the river valley on Peru Hill. 
A Westbound Mixed Freight Climbs Peru Hill

Point of Rocks

As the name implies, Point of Rocks is desolate and barren.  Originally a stage coach station on the Overland Route, it is located on the south side of the appropriately named Bitter Creek in the inappropriately named Sweetwater County, about 25 miles east of Rock Springs, the first town of any size west of Rawlins.  At various times, the station has served as a stage stop, general store, country school, ranch headquarters and a private home.  The original station still stands, its roof intact, and can easily be reached by taking the Wyoming State Highway 84 exit off of Interstate 80 and heading a short distance south. 

The Union Pacific mainline runs north of the creek.  Shortly past the old station to the east, the tracks turn south and run beside bluffs carved by Bitter Creek over the millennia.  The state highway closely follows the tracks, but a word of warning.  The road sees little if any maintenance and quickly becomes a mud trap when wet.  I drove along it in September, after about two months without a drop of rain, and large mud pits, now dry, were scattered across the road like bomb craters.
Below:  Eastbound (Compass South) Mixed Freight Leaving Point of Rocks

Westbound Stacks at Point of Rocks, Wyoming
UP 8095 West Approaches Point of Rocks Between Ancient Bluffs and Wyoming State Highway 84

The stage coach station was operated from 1862 to 1868 by Hollady’s Overland Stage Company and later by Wells, Fargo and Company.  Late in the 19th century (I have been unable to find a specific date), Point of Rocks was the site of a robbery and the murder of the all the stagecoach passengers and crew.  At least one source claims that the perpetrator was Jack Slade, a stage driver and later superintendent for various companies, who was lynched by vigilantes at age 34 and who, if accounts can be believed, was drunk most of his adolescence and adulthood.  Other sources, however, claim that Slade killed only one man in his life and was nowhere near Point of Rocks during the massacre.  
An Eastbound Potash Train Rolling Compass South at Point of Rocks

The truth is now lost, if anyone other than Slade ever knew it.  Following is an excerpt of Slade’s life that can be found at:

“At an immigrant ford on the South Platte, called the California Crossing, the company had established a station to serve the stages it had acquired from Hockaday.  A Frenchman, named Jules Beni, who had previously settled there and was conducting a profitable trade with travelers, was appointed station keeper, and the place came to be known as Julesburg.

“Jules was a man of innately vile character and his ethics in business belied him not. Lying, cheating and caveat emptor were his accustomed tools of trade.  Horses which he swapped to immigrants often found their way back to his corral in the dead of night, and goods that he sold were robbed from the buyer to be sold again.  His iniquity, compounded with fraud in company affairs, was discovered by Benjamin Ficklin while traveling through on an inspection trip. He ordered Slade to replace the rogue and arrange with him a settlement on missing company property.
Mid-Trains at Point of Rocks
Another Potash Train at Point of Rocks

“That idea didn't appeal to Jules. When Slade appeared to carry out his instructions, he was met by the blast of a double-barreled shotgun. Either Jules' aim was off or he skimped a few shot in loading, for Slade was carried away, not quite dead, to recuperate. On the next stage, the story goes, Ficklin arrived, saw his duty, hanged Jules, and promptly departed again. But cohorts of the Frenchman, in the nick of time, cut him down, and the outlaws went into hiding.

“When Slade had recovered, he returned to the scene with revenge in his heart and lead in his gun. He is said to have cornered the would-be killer at Pacific Springs. Disabling him with a ball in the thigh, he trussed him up to a corral post.  Jules lived a long time as Slade moved back and deliberately used him for target practice. When it was all over, Slade drew a knife and sliced off his ears. One of them he is reported to have used as a watch fob and the other as a macabre saloon stunt, in which he casually tossed the shriveled appendage on the bar and asked for change.”

I don’t know if I believe any of that, but it makes a good story.
UP 8187 West (Compass North) Approaching Point of Rocks

Construction of the UP reached Point of Rocks in July of 1868.  In 1877, a UP section foreman named Lawrence Taggert moved his family into the old station, where his wife opened a school and served as teacher.  Mrs. Charles Rador, a daughter of the Taggerts’, moved into the building with her husband in 1897, where they raised sheep until about 1910.  The State of Wyoming acquired the site in 1947, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.  Today, Point of Rocks is one of a handful of stations remaining intact on the Overland Trail.

During the week that Bear and I were along the tracks, Amtrak rerouted the California Zephyr across the Overland Route due to track work along the UP mainline in Colorado.  Above, Amtrak No. 5 is racing toward Point of Rocks late in the day.

The Green River and the Utah and Wyoming Towns of the Same Name

The Green River, chief tributary of the Colorado River, is 730 miles long, beginning in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming and flowing south mostly through Wyoming and Utah, except for about 40 miles in northwestern Colorado.  It is only slightly shorter than the Colorado River where the two rivers merge in Cayonlands National Park in southwestern Utah.  Many years ago, the Colorado River began at the confluence of the Green River.  Above the confluence, the Colorado River was called the Grand.  This was changed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1921, when the Grand River was renamed the Colorado River – over the objections of Wyoming, Utah and the United States Geological Survey.
An Eastbound Manifest in the Green River Valley

Several of the most spectacular canyons in the United States are carved by the Green River.  For example, in Colorado it passes through Dinosaur National Monument and then the Canyon of the Lodore.  Then the river swings back west along the southern edge of the Uintas Mountains into Whirlpool Canyon.  South of the Yampa Plateau, the Green River enters the Roan Cliffs, then turns south through Desolation and Gray Canyons – a 120 mile stretch of absolutely spectacular scenery.
UP 7881 West Above the Valley of the Green River
Eastbound Stacks Above the Green River

Before it joins the Colorado River, the Green River is crossed by Interstate 70 and the Union Pacific (former Rio Grande) mainline from Denver to Salt Lake City.  This route also passes some wonderful landscapes but, alas, sees little traffic today, other than two Amtrak passenger trains.  Where the railroad crosses the water is the town of Green River, Utah.  

Far to the north, the river’s source is in Sublette County, Wyoming, in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.  It flows south until it is joined by the Big Sandy in Sweetwater County, then creates the Fontenelle Reservoir above the dam by the same name.  Below the damn comes open prairie where, in years past, the Green River was crossed by the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails.  Next comes Green River, Wyoming, where the Union Pacific Overland Route made its crossing in 1868.  Thus, two towns – one in Wyoming, the other in Utah – bear the river’s name.
Eastbound Potash In One Of The Many Canyons of the Green River

The newly created Wyoming town hoped to become a division point on the railroad, but the U.P. chose to build its yard and roundhouse 13 miles west in Bryan on the flatlands above the valley of the Green River and along the banks of the Black’s Fork River.  Thus, Green River, Wyoming, shriveled and was virtually deserted when John Wesley Powell launched his boats there to start his expeditions of 1869 and 1871.   

However, in 1872, the Black’s Fork River dried up, making Bryan an unsuitable division point – in part because it was no longer a reliable source of water for steam locomotives.  So the Union Pacific moved the division point, including the yard and roundhouse, to Green River, which quickly became a major railroad town.  In 1875, the town became the County Seat of Sweetwater County.
More Eastbound Potash at the Ghost Town of Bryan, Wyoming

In 1931, Green River, Wyoming, prohibited door-to-door selling unless the salesman was invited to a home – thus to protect sleeping railroad workers.  The law became a model for other communities, and today such laws are called Green River Ordinances.

Peru Hill

Peru, Wyoming, was a stagecoach stop on the Overland Route at the top of the grade out of the Green River Valley.  Later the Union Pacific constructed a maintenance building near the tracks, plus an outhouse.  Eventually, the westward climb came to be known as Peru Hill.

UP 7638 West Climbing Peru Hill with CSX Power
A Potash Train Rolls Downgrade, With the Top of Peru Hill in the Background

In 1887, the two buildings at Peru burned.  Following is a short article from the Green River Daily Boomerang, dated January 28, 1887 (with all original punctuation):

“Yesterday about noon the startling report reached Green River that the town of Peru, eight miles west had been totally destroyed by fire.  Later information made this report a certainty.

“It appears that the fire originated in a defective flue leading from the kitchen of the railroad section house.  The flames spread rapidly, and in spite of the utmost efforts the fire speedily communicated with the only other building in the town, a small outhouse, and in half an hour from the discovery of the flames, the fire fiend had got in a complete job of work, and Peru was in ashes.

“The Union Pacific was by far the largest loser by the sweeping conflagration, and is probably out hundreds of dollars.  However, the Green River section boss, will fully investigate the cause of the calamity, and ascertain the value of railroad property cremated.  The company is practicing resignation, pending his report.”

I know you are going to ask me what “practicing resignation” means.  I don’t have the slightest idea.
A Westbound Loaded Potash Train Struggles Into the Grade Beneath a Small Rain Shower 
Westbound Stacks on Peru Hill

I do know that the Union Pacific’s climb out of the Green River Valley provides many excellent locations for railroad photography.  Also, most of the land in the bluffs south of the tracks is publically accessible – owned by either the federal government or by the town of Green River or the small settlement of James Town just to the west.  Roads in this area are primitive but passable to four-wheel drive vehicles.  The best times of year for photography are fall and winter, when the sun is south of the tracks all day.

If you cross south of the Green River in town, then take River View Drive back to the northwest, the road will lead down a steep grade to the entrance to the city’s water purification facility.  At this point, the road turns to rough gravel and crosses a small creek on a one-lane bridge.  Soon the gravel turns to rutted dirt, but you are now following the Union Pacific tracks to the northwest.  Several excellent shots will present themselves as you continue northwest.  When the tracks turn due west, a Jeep Wrangler will follow the road, now little more than a goat trail, as it curves precipitously upgrade onto the bluffs high above the river.  If heights bother you, avoid this area.  The best shots are in the morning.
Eastbound as Seen from the Heights Above the Green River
Eastbound Stacks

Another excellent location for photography can be found by following Wyoming State Highway 374 west out of Green River.  The road climbs the same grade as the tracks, as well as Interstate 80 to the north.  At several locations, very primitive dirt trails lead off the pavement into the hills.  Again, four-wheel drive is a requirement, but if your vehicle is capable, you will be rewarded with several excellent locations to photograph Union Pacific freights struggling into the grade – or whining down in dynamics.

At one of these locations, Bear the Mighty Dog was digging beneath light brown sandstone rocks, looking for food and small critters.  My tripods were set up nearby, waiting for a UP freight.  The sky was clear and bright, as is often the case in Wyoming, punctuated with large cumulous clouds scrambling rapidly southwest.

Suddenly, Bear yelped.  I turned and saw a snake slithering beneath a rock where Mighty Dog had been digging.
Westbound Stacks Climbing Peru Hill, Taken at Location Where Mighty Dog Encountered the Serpent

“Bear,” I said, “you all right?”

He looked up at me with wide eyes, his way of saying, “I don’t understand.”

I bent down to pet him (he weighs only ten pounds and is smaller than a loaf of bread), and I felt him relax.  He looked okay.  He felt okay.  Bear is the greatest railfan dog in the word.  He sat down in the dirt and closed his eyes.  I decided that I had panicked unnecessarily.  He had not been bitten by the snake.  He had yelped because he was scarred, nothing more.  I exhaled slowly.  In about fifteen minutes the next train arrived, struggling upgrade as it climbed the hill.  I took the shot.  We had dodged a bullet.
The Next Train

And the Next

We waited another half hour or so.  The clouds were growing thicker from the northwest.  I was not familiar with that country, but it looked like a storm was moving in.  Soon the sun was obscured. I packed my tripods, loaded my camera bag on my back and said to Bear, “Let’s go; we’re headed back to the Jeep.”

Usually, at the sound of “Let’s go,” Bears leaps to his feet.  He loves vehicles; I think he would spend the remainder of his life in the Jeep if I would allow it.

This time, however, Bear did not move.  He looked up at me with drooping eyes, and I saw that his snout was swollen.  I reached down to examine him.  His nose on the left side was swelling rapidly.

“My God,” I thought.  “He was bitten by that snake.”  Waves of guilt washed across me, because I had waited far too long on the hillside, looking for one last train.
Last Train Before Rush to the Veterinarian

Somehow, I managed to carry Bear, my two tripods and my camera bag back to the Jeep.  I was close enough to Interstate 80 to obtain a signal for my cell phone, so I went on line and looked for a veterinary’s office in Green River.  I found one and roared back to town.

Bear was lying in the front seat, eyes almost shut.  “Stay with me, buddy,” I said, echoing Anakin’s plea to his mother in Episode Two (Star Wars, for the uninitiated).

When I arrived at the vet’s, Bear was almost asleep.  I rushed inside and said that I thought my dog had been bitten by a snake.  The young woman behind the counter looked at me with sympathy and said that the vet was out of the office and would not be back for two hours.

“Well,” I said, almost shouting, “I cain’t wait that long!”  (“Cain’t” is not misspelled.  That is how we talk in Oklahoma.)
Mid-Trains Climbing Peru Hill
Westbound Stacks Climbing Peru Hill Past Eastbound Manifest Gliding Downgrade
Below:  Another Meet on Peru Hill

She said there was another veterinarian in town and gave me directions.  I thanked her quickly, jumped back in the Jeep and roared away.  That was when it started raining, a cold rain, a Wyoming late September cold rain, the kind that soaks your clothing and makes you shiver.

We drove up to a converted house on East Second Street, directly across from the Union Pacific yard.  A sign above the front door read:  “Animal Clinic of Green River.”
Light Engines Climbing Peru Hill
Auto Racks at Same Location

Inside I discovered the kindest veterinarian I have ever met – Doctor Dawn Ward Bowdin, a grey-haired woman about five feet five inches tall with a love of animals that radiated from her like a sunrise.  She took one look at Bear and said, “Oh, my precious darling, what’s wrong with you?”

She told me that the hills around Green River were inhabited by Pygmy Rattlers, and that their bites could be lethal to small mammals like Bear.

“How long ago do you think he was bitten?”

“At least an hour and a half ago,” I said.  “Maybe two.”

Bear was sitting on the small examination table.  The smells of all the other dogs who had inhabited that same spot seemed to have rejuvenated him.  He was sniffing like crazy.  If his nose has been a cannon, he would have been firing madly.
More Auto Racks Climbing Peru Hill
Eastbound Manifest Coming Down From the Top of Peru Hill

“I don’t think he was bitten by a rattler,” she said.  “If he had been, we would already see necrosis around the nose.”

Her best professional guess was that Bear had been bitten by a bee.  “That’s not uncommon in these parts.”  She looked at Bear lovingly.  “Do you suppose I could take him home with me?”

So Bear was okay after all.  She prescribed a steroid and asked me to bring Bear back the next morning.  I complied.  By then, the swelling in his nose was gone, his eyes were wide and he was eager to jump back into the Jeep.

So thank you, Doctor Bowdin.  The next time we are in Green River, Bear and I will drop in and say hello.  But you can’t take him home with you.  He’s my dog!
Westbound UPS and Other Trailers Begin the Climb up Peru Hill


This post ends at Granger, Wyoming, an anticlimax.  Granger sits in an open prairie at 6,273 feet.  The population in the 2010 census was 139.  There is a small school which appeared to be operational when I drove through in late September, 2017.  This was originally where the Overland and Oregon Trails intersected on their way west.  A stagecoach station was built in the 19th century; its remains stand today if you know where to look.  As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Granger is where the Union Pacific line to the Pacific Northwest diverges from the line to Ogden, Utah, and points west.

That anyone still lives in Granger is, to me, a miracle.  I am hard-pressed to think of a more desolate location.  The afternoon that Bear and I drove through was overcast with thick, purple clouds almost touching the ground.  As we arrived, we saw a westbound freight waiting for a signal.  All at once, the sun appeared through a hole in the clouds.  I took a shot.  Then another westbound roared around the stopped train.  The sun was still out, so I took another shot.  
Westbound Stopped at Granger
Westbound Stacks Running Around Stopped Westbound Auto Racks at Granger
Below:  Rear of Westbound Stacks Running Around Auto Racks

Then a pair of light engines approached from the village and stopped just short of the stopped westbound.  Then an eastbound came through.  The sun popped out again, and I took a shot of the two mainline freights with the light engines framed in between – the cover photo of this post.  Finally, the stopped westbound received a clear board and headed toward Ogden.  By then, the sun was engulfed in clouds.  Bear and I were tired.  We headed back to our motel in Rock Springs, Wyoming, wondering what the next day would bring.   

We bid you adieu with two additional shots taken during our week in southern Wyoming, a week in which Mighty Dog slew (or at least tried to slew) the Serpent.  For extra points, conjugate "to slew."  
Amtrak No. 5 Climbing Peru Hill -- Another Reroute from Colorado
Double Stacks at Sunset

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