The Ames Pyramid: A Monument to The Forgotten Brothers

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Standing utterly alone in the windswept plateau of Albany County, Wyoming, a couple of miles off Interstate 80 and accessible only by a dirt road, is a 60-foot tall stone pyramid. The rock hewn structure was erected by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1880 to honor the brothers Oakes Ames and Oliver Ames, Jr., who were instrumental in building the United States' First Transcontinental Railroad.

Oliver Ames was the president of the Union Pacific Railroad, while his brother Oakes was a Massachusetts congressman. But before they assumed their respective positions, the brothers ran a successful business selling axes and shovels to gold-seekers in California, and making millions in the process. The duo later supplied shovels to the government during the Civil War, for excavating the Panama Canal, for mining Pennsylvania coal fields, and for digging the New York subway system.

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During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln became convinced that building a transcontinental railroad was critical in holding the fragile Union together. But with track-laying progress impossibly slow, President Lincoln took Congressman Ames into his confidence and reportedly told him that if he could get the transcontinental railroad built then he would be "the most remembered man of the generation."

Oakes seized the opportunity and using his influence as a congressman, ousted the president of the Union Pacific Railroad (who was also the founder of Credit Mobilier of America —  the construction company who earned the contract of building the railroad) and made his kid brother Oliver the head of responsibility. With big brother Oakes twisting arms in the Congress and kid brother Oliver calling the shots in the Union Pacific, they succeeded where others failed and completed the transcontinental railway.

Behind the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, however, was a nasty scandal. Credit Mobilier was a not a real company, but a sham created by the officers of the Union Pacific to provide a false impression that a corporate enterprise, independent of the Union Pacific Railroad, was the principal construction contractor of the project. The Union Pacific then billed the U.S. Government extortionate fees and expenses during construction of the line on the pretext of paying Credit Mobilier. In this way, the Union Pacific made some $44 million in illegal profits.

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When the fraud was uncovered in 1873, Oakes was censured by the Congress. He died in disgrace two months later, and his brother Oliver followed within four years.

The dust that rose from the scandal had barely settled when the Union Pacific decided to erect a monument honoring the Ames brothers, in the hope of reclaiming some of the company's lost reputation. The pyramid was designed by noted American architect H. H. Richardson. The monument is 60 feet square and 60 feet tall and constructed of light-colored native granite. Two 9 feet tall bas-relief portraits of the Ames brothers adorn the east and west sides of the pyramid’s top. It originally featured an interior passage, but this is now sealed.

When it was completed, the pyramid stood on the highest elevation and close to the original transcontinental route. Trains made brief stops near the monument so that people could get out and visit. Unfortunately, the Ames brothers’ fame was short-lived. In 1901, the tracks were moved 3 miles south to a less expensive route. Having lost its audience the pyramid was soon forgotten.

The Union Pacific eventually donated the monument to the state of Wyoming in 1983, and is now maintained by the State Parks. The structure is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Sources: Wikipedia / Roadside America / Strange But True, America by John Hafnor

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