Wyoming doesn’t offer much in the way of man-made wonders. There are plenty of natural sights in the state, but this is not a place that you’d expect to find, let’s say, a giant pyramid standing in the middle of nowhere. And yet, such a perplexing structure exists, just off Interstate 80 (and mostly out-of-sight). The story behind it is even more bizarre, and somehow, it ties together otherwise unrelated topics such as government corruption, the first transcontinental railroad, and of course, shovels.
Before we get into all that, let’s take a moment to simply appreciate this out-of-place stone structure.
The Ames Pyramid Memorial is located off Interstate 80, at exit 329. There are signs pointing to the memorial, and you have to drive down a couple of dirt roads to get there. The 60 foot tall pyramid rises abruptly from the treeless plain. If you’re looking for it, you can’t miss it, but if you don’t seek it out, you’ll never know it’s there.
The pyramid didn’t use to be so lonely. Before Interstate 80 arrived, the old Lincoln Highway ran nearby. And even before that, the pyramid stood next to an old alignment of the Union Pacific Railroad. The monument marked the highest point on the old railroad line, and it gave travelers something to look at, when the trains stopped here.
All that explains the what and the where of the Ames Monument, but it doesn’t explain the who. This is where shovels come in. There’s a fairly good chance that the last time you dug a hole, you used an Ames shovel. Back in the 1800’s, two brothers, Oakes and Oliver Ames made their fortune, one spade at a time. The wealthy brothers then turned their attention to the transcontinental railroad, which only made sense, since their company provided many of the tools used in its construction. Oakes and Oliver were actively involved in raising the money necessary to complete the rail line. Oakes also used his fortune to help secure a spot in congress.
This is where the tangled web of corruption begins. Oakes used his job as a lawmaker to pass railroad-friendly legislation, and Oliver served for a while as president of the railroad. But after the golden spike was driven, and trains began to roll to the west coast, the railroad fell on hard financial times. Workers weren’t paid, while investors in the railroad’s construction company became rich. An investigation revealed that the construction company had charged charged Union Pacific too much, and the railroad paid the bills with government funds. Oakes became known as “Hoax”, and took most of the blame for the scandal. He died of a stroke, months later.
In 1882, the railroad completed construction on the memorial, placing a bas relief bust of Oakes and Oliver on two of the pyramid’s four sides. It cost $65,000, which was quite a bit of money to spend in the 1800’s. Now that so much time has passed, it’s hard to tell if the Oakes brothers were good guys or bad, but it’s a question that doesn’t really matter anymore. For the most part, they are both forgotten. The highway and the railroad abandoned this remote piece of land long ago, and now the only people who seek it out are curious road-trippers, who are drawn to strange things such as mysterious, abandoned pyramids in the middle of nowhere.
I didn’t spend a lot of time pondering the lost legacy of the Ames brothers, since it started to rain, just as I arrived at the monument. I would have liked to have tried to climb it (even though signs warn that climbing is strictly prohibited) or perhaps try to find the opening that allowed access to the pyramid’s hollow interior (although I’ve read that it was sealed years ago). Instead, I turned my attention to the strange mountains to the north, on the opposite side of Interstate 80. This landscape looked much more interesting than the flatness of the freeway, so I decided to detour over to Happy Jack road, via the unusual landscape of Vedauwoo.
Note: This trip was first published in 2008.