Burlington Railroad

The Burlington Railroad completed its line into Cody in 1901. The depot was located on the north side of the Shoshone River one mile from town. Trains were met by these stages. (Image courtesy of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Original Buffalo Bill Museum Collection P.69.1415)

“All aboard. Let the Eagles scream.”

That banner headline greeted readers of the Cody Enterprise, on Oct. 31, 1901, in anticipation of the arrival of the first official train of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The service from Montana to Cody would bring prosperity, praise and plenty of tourists, according to the newspaper.

The paper’s founder and owner, William F. Cody, however, did not lead the successful campaign to settle the Big Horn Basin. Top billing goes to the CB&Q. The railroad, in turn, was lured by the prospect of profit from serving Yellowstone National Park, providing access to big-game hunting and populating the Basin.

The story of the CB&Q was related by Rex Meyers, PhD, a part-time history and geography teacher at Northwest College, at the Park County Historical Society meeting April 19 in Cody.

The relationship between Buffalo Bill Cody and the railroad began in 1872, when the CB&Q hired him to guide a buffalo hunt for a group of Englishmen. Meanwhile, railroad officials started evaluating the potential of the Basin.

“Chicago was the key word” in the railroad’s name, Meyers explained. The Midwestern city served as a connection that other lines envied. From there, the CB&Q track eventually headed through the Black Hills to Billings.

CB&Q President Charles Perkins knew that Yellowstone was a money-maker for other railroads, Meyers said. To mine that resource, the railroad hired Edward Gillette to survey the best, cheapest route to Cody with easy grades, short distances and a location on the sunny side of the valley. Cuts were to be avoided, and the tracks stayed north of the river.

The railroad rewarded Gillette by naming a town after him, not with money. Meyers indicated the surveyor would have preferred the latter.

One route Gillette explored ran down the Big Horn River Canyon, which he walked in the winter of 1891. Rejecting that option, he explored other alternatives. That same year, Buffalo Bill visited the Basin from Sheridan to see what Gillette was doing, Meyers said.

Others were paying attention to the project, including Mormon colonizers who in 1893 named their town Burlington in order to entice the railroad to serve them. The settlers worked on irrigation projects, Meyers said, since visitors knew that the Basin was a desolate, godforsaken area that wouldn’t work without water.

The “Billings Gateway” opened when the CB&Q arrived there in May 1893. It had gained access to the Northern Pacific and Great Northern lines and granted them access in turn. With that deal, CB&Q didn’t need to build to the West Coast and could focus on the Basin.

Because Buffalo Bill knew the railroad’s plan to provide a terminus for an eastern path into Yellowstone, he picked a settlement site. With partners, he formed a land company and also filed for irrigation rights to the Stinking Water River in 1895. Yet the town and canal struggled.

“It became obvious to the railroad that Buffalo Bill would not be able to pull it off,” Meyers said.

Meanwhile, the CB&Q had decided to run the spur to Cody from the Toluca cutoff north of Hardin, through the Pryor Mountains on the Crow Indian Reservation. In its negotiations with the Crows, the railroad offered them free rides on a

space-available basis. They accepted.

Around the same time, Mormons were colonizing the area of Lovell, Byron and Cowley and expanding the irrigation system around 1900. That progress encouraged the railroad.

Crews employed scrapers, picks and shovels, and teams of horses to build the roadbed. One of the few times they resorted to using dynamite was to bore a 300-foot tunnel through the Pryors. During winters, they lived in camps under difficult, frigid conditions as stove pipes blew off, sand filtered into their food, and diseases like typhoid and small pox attacked the men.

Lucky workers resorted to wool “German socks” that were ¾-inch thick, Meyers said. Others used burlap to wrap their feet and legs.

“The crews really suffered,” he added. “That was not a pleasant place to be, building the railroad.”

The CB&Q started promoting the Cody route to Yellowstone. Meyers believes that the railroad struck a deal with Buffalo Bill for him to build a hotel and transport tourists to the park but has no evidence. Yet, he noted, the railroad built a hotel by its terminus north of the river the year after Cody died.

Along with many dignitaries and guests, Buffalo Bill rode the first train into Cody on Nov. 12, 1901. He paid for the celebration – a Billings brass band and roasted ox, along with free drinks, free cigars and free hotel rooms.

The train service was “wretchedly irregular,” Meyers said, even halting for hunting expeditions. One female passenger who gave birth during the trip claimed she wasn’t pregnant when she boarded. The 130-mile trip theoretically took eight hours. The problems didn’t deter the CB&Q.

“The railroad set out to hustle the Basin,” Meyers said. “The railroad jumped in to sell land.”

The CB&Q also lobbied for the dam in the Shoshone River Canyon, “though Buffalo Bill may take the credit,” he added. The railroad acquired property from Buffalo Bill and in 1904 hired a promoter.

“Clem Deaver sold the Basin like you wouldn’t believe,” Meyers said. “He was a hustler, but he gave good information.”

Deaver told prospects that they could settle in the Basin successfully if they irrigated the land. He offered them reduced fares on the train and even gave the names of the prospects to Basin residents so they could write letters to them encouraging them to come. In 1914, Deaver took credit for 5,000 of new residents.

“Buffalo Bill doesn’t even count,” Meyers noted.

Subsequently, the CB&Q decided to relocate the route from the Pryors and abandoned Toluca for Silesia. It ran a line to Warren and then south, providing a link to Denver, but the spur into Cody remains in use today.

“The railroad did it to open up the area and make it profitable,” Meyers said. “It’s a big, big legacy for the CB&Q.

“The reason we have tracks in Cody today is the CB&Q wanted access to Yellowstone.”

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