The year was 1862. The nation was unsettled; it was in the middle of a Civil War. The southern states and California were threatening to secede from the Union. Travel and shipment of goods between the east and west coasts required a sailing ship traveling around Cape Horn. The trip took 100 days, and it was an indirect route due to the wind and ocean currents that were needed to move ships.
President Abraham Lincoln knew the importance of a transcontinental railroad and the vital role it would play in uniting and industrializing the nation and settling the west. It would make traveling between coasts a one-week trip.
On July 1, 1862, Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. This provided federal land grant deeds to Union Pacific and Central Pacific for rail construction. Five square miles of land was to be deeded on each side of the tracks for each mile of track laid. With the signing of this act, the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) was born. UP would build the rail from Omaha, Nebraska, to Promontory, Utah, (a vast frontier region spanning 1,037 miles) where they would meet the rail constructed by Central Pacific, which was building from the west coast. The monumental challenge and massive construction effort would ultimately change the United States forever.
Years were spent surveying to find the shortest route with the least amount of elevation changes. Once surveys were complete and route selected, men, grading equipment, tools, ties and rail had to be brought from various locations to the remote rail route. Lumber mills, blacksmith shops, oxen, cattle, water, food and other resources were required to keep construction in progress.
The first rail grading was done in fall of 1864. In 1865, 40 miles of track were laid west of Omaha. In 1866, a great army of workmen were making their way westward. Two hundred and sixty miles of track was built in 1866, 240 in 1867 and 555 miles built in 1868-69. By this time, railroad tracks were laid for several miles each day. Each river crossing, cut, canyon and wash held its own set of challenges. Construction did not stop in winter months. The push to complete the railroad was constant, and as winter set in, more effort was demanded of the railroad construction crews.
Evanston City was established in 1868. The city was named after James A. Evans. Some counts list Evans as a UP engineer, others say he was a prominent surveyor for the Union Pacific who surveyed the Wyoming portion of the line. Either way, his efforts contributed greatly to the rail route and its construction.
The first train arrived in Evanston on Dec. 4, 1868. The golden spike connecting the east and west was celebrated at Promontory, Utah, in May of 1869.
Soon after the transcontinental construction was complete, Evanston was selected as a maintenance and fuel depot for UP. With this designation, a railroad maintenance infrastructure would need to be established. The engines and technology of the time took constant effort to keep the trains running. For every hour a steam engine spent on the track, it required two hours of maintenance.
A roundhouse would be needed to service the trains, along with men and equipment. Construction on the first (all stone) roundhouse was completed on July 4, 1871. It consisted of 20 bays, and it was located in proximity to the current Evanston City Hall location.
According to WyoHistory.org, Chinese contract laborers were among the earliest residents of Evanston. Many Chinese men helped build the railroad. They also worked on section crews and as coal miners at the UP mines at Almy, about seven miles to the northwest — down the Bear River — from town. The 1880 census listed more than 100 Chinese in Evanston.
All of the heavy work associated with maintaining and repairing steam engines was done by men using primitive rigging methods, as this was a time before electrical power and limited power machinery. Natural lighting during the day was required, and lighting at night was primarily from fuel oil lamps. Men powered the first roundhouse turntable manually.
With the increase in size and power of steam engines and the growth of the UP, construction began on a new Roundhouse and Railyards in 1912. The many structures in the yards included a machine shop, carpenter’s shop, powerhouse, cafeteria, oil house, mineral building and a four-section, 28-bay roundhouse. The roundhouse’s electric motorized turntable was finished in 1914. At its peak, the railyards employed more than 300 people.
As technology advanced, so did the challenges for the Evanston railyards. When diesel engines replaced steam engines, the need for maintenance and fuel stops became less frequent. In 1926, UP decided to close the site, but after significant citizen opposition of the closure, UP reopened the roundhouse as a reclamation plant, which operated for another 45 years. In 1971, the Roundhouse and Railyards officially closed.
Through the effort and support of many, renovation started on the Evanston railyards in 1991 and continues to this day. The renovation and preservation of the Depot, Machine Shop, Roundhouse and other historic buildings leave a lasting tribute to the hardworking individuals and visionaries who made the great transcontinental line possible.