Wyoming came into existence — first as a territory and then a state — because of the railroad.
Gov. John Campbell made that clear in his 1869 inaugural address to the Wyoming Territorial Legislature. “For the first time in the history of our country, the organization of a territorial government was rendered necessary by the building of a railroad,” he said.
Completed in 1869 — just days before Campbell’s address — the Transcontinental Railroad spanned southern Wyoming, giving birth to towns like Laramie, Rawlins, Green River and Evanston.
“It’s vitally important to Wyoming,” Stan Blake said, a former state representative and Union Pacific conductor. “It’s no coincidence that you look out from the State Capitol of Wyoming and you see the UP Depot out the window. It’s a straight shot right down Capitol Avenue.”
Trains made it possible for Wyoming’s cattle, coal and other mineral products to reach distant markets expanding opportunities for profit.
Despite the railroad’s prominence in Wyoming’s history and economy, Blake said, the workers — from those who built the track to those who engineer the trains today — are undervalued.
“People don’t understand the life of a railroader,” Blake said. “It’s like no other industry.”
The work schedule is unpredictable, Blake said, meaning workers can end up away from their families for days longer than expected.
“You miss everything,” he said. “Weddings, funerals, Christmas plays, baseball games, football games, because you’re working and you know, that’s part of the deal. They are compensated very well, but the lifestyle is horrible.”
Blake’s been closely following national railroad union negotiations that have been at an impasse for weeks. One sticking point is a demand for paid sick leave. Workers have threatened to strike beginning Dec. 9 if an agreement can’t be reached.
Knowing a national strike would hurt an already anemic supply chain and cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars, President Joe Biden called on Congress to intervene. A tentative agreement that would increase worker pay and a resolution to provide seven days paid sick leave passed the House on Wednesday.
U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) co-signed a letter early Thursday urging the Senate to pass the bill without adding paid sick leave to the agreement. By Thursday afternoon, the Senate approved the House’s agreement, likely averting a railroad strike. The Senate, however, rejected the measure to provide the paid sick days workers have been demanding.
Rail’s critical role in the U.S. economy gives Blake pride. When Interstate 80 is shut down because of weather, Blake said, the trains keep moving.
He has fond memories of passing through Wyoming towns and seeing kids hanging out on the pedestrian bridges that cross over the rail yards in Green River and Laramie. “I always honked my horn for the kids,” Blake said. That brought him a little bit of joy, “but the lifestyle has always been a tough lifestyle.”