#Lookback: How Many Ties Does It Take?

A series where we take a #lookback at the stories and history of our community

brought to you by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

The story of the tie-hacks and their tie-camps are a prominent feature of the Wind River Valley. Tales abound of the strong men who split railroad ties with broadaxes high in the mountains around the Upper Wind River and its tributaries, earning 10 cents a tie at the turn of the century and later 50 cents a tie by WWII. In the 1920s, the Dubois-Riverton railroad tie industry was the largest in the nation, producing 670,000 ties a year. But why? And for what?

The story of the tie-hacks begins with the story of the railroad, specifically the Chicago & North Western railroad which was chartered by the legislatures in Wisconsin and Illinois in 1859. Five years later, in 1864, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad (C&NW) bought out and absorbed the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad (G&CU). It was a landmark merger eagerly watched by investors on the east coast as the Civil War raged in the southern states.

Flush with money from wealthy investors and the “uncivilized” residents of the prairies who desired railroad depots in their towns to bring jobs and goods, the C&NW expanded west rapidly, laying track and absorbing smaller railroad companies. In 1903 the C&NW absorbed Wyoming’s main railroad company, the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad (FE&MV) and extended their railroad lines to Riverton, in 1905, and Lander, in 1906. Although the C&NW had plans to reach the west coast, their westward push more or less ended at Lander.

Having expanded so quickly, the C&NW was steadily increasing its demand for replacement railroad ties. On average, approximately 3,000 railroad ties are needed for every mile of track that is laid, and due to decay, those ties needed to be replaced every four to six years. Since the C&NW had extensive railroad lines across the center of the country, they needed railroad ties desperately. Tie yards in Riverton were the major industry from 1914 to 1946 and it was here that tie pilers stacked and counted the ties being sent down the Wind River from Dubois. The tie camps around Dubois and the upper Wind River Valley produced replacement ties to maintain the almost 700 miles of track from Lander, Wyoming to Blunt, South Dakota. With 700 miles of track to maintain, at 3,000 ties per mile, it is no wonder that historic photos can be found which show hundreds of thousands of ties crammed into the holding boom at the tie yard in Riverton.

As automobile travel became increasingly popular and the once indomitable railroad companies began to suffer bankruptcies and mergers, the demand for railroad ties drastically decreased. The problem was further compounded by advancements in mechanization like portable gasoline-powered mills, and new chemical treatments to the ties which slowed their decay. By the late 1940s, the golden age of the railroad and the age of the tie-hacks, two vastly different but closely intertwined industries, came to a close.

Next up for the Fremont County Museums

Fremont County Museums will reopen to the public Tuesday, May 26th. We will resume our regularly scheduled hours Monday-Saturday from 9-5.

Upcoming Programs

June 13th, 2 pm at the Riverton Museum “Dutch Oven Bread and Homemade Butter”

Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

June 17th, 9 am at the Dubois Museum, “Kids Corner: Mountains & Valleys”

Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

June 18th, 6:30 pm at the Riverton Museum “Family Document, Book & Artifact Preservation”

Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

June 20th, 10 am at the Pioneer Museum in Lander “Virtual Lander Petroglyph Adventure Trek”

Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek (go to Pioneer Museum Lander FB page to view)

Consider supporting The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander or the Riverton Museum with a monetary donation. The museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide quality programs, collections management, exhibits, and services that have become their hallmark. Please make your tax-deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.