A Prairie Railroad

A Prairie Railroad: Burlington's line from Sterling to Cheyenne connected Weld to the rest of the country

By Jack H. Gillette.
Originally published November 21, 1998 in the Weld County Past Times, Greeley Tribune.

The first time I saw a train on the railroad between Sterling and Cheyenne was in the fall of 1945.

We had gone to Grover to get the mail. The train had just come into town, and we had to wait until the mail was unloaded and then sorted at the post office.

I can remember how the town seemed to be swarming with people waiting for the mail, shopping at one of the two or three grocery stores or visiting in the drug store.

With a toot of the whistle, the train disappeared down the track. At that time, the railroad had been in place for more than half of a century and would survive for another 30 years.

When this line was constructed, it was the west end of the Burlington Railroad’s mainline from Chicago to Cheyenne. It was a first class railroad with Pullman service and all the amenities. It could rival the Union Pacific in both time and service.

When the Burlington decided not to build farther west, the section of railroad between Sterling and Cheyenne was reduced to a “branch line.” There were times when the railroad wanted to abandon the line, but the people along the way protested enough that it was kept in operation.

In the early years before an organized system of country roads, it was an important transportation link to the mainlines and was a necessity in the development of that part of Weld County.

Homesteaders, lured by the promise of land promoters, would load all their worldly goods into emigrant cars, and the railroad would take them wherever they wanted to go. Their car might have been sided off in a town or pushed onto a siding in the middle of nowhere.

From there, the emigrants would move to their homestead. It’s been said there were times when the emigrants would gaze over the prairie and quickly decide to have their car coupled to the next train back to “civilization.”

But there were those who stayed, built towns and developed good farms and ranches. The homesteading did, however, bring an end to the open grazing lands and ultimately the big cattle spreads.

One of the founders of Buckingham kept his family living in the emigrant car while he was out promoting the sale of lots in the future town. His wife finally got fed up with being switch around the rail yard every day as train crews were bringing in more cars and hauling away others.

A few words from her and the husband went to work getting their home built.

During the two dominant periods of homesteading, in the late 1880s and early 1900s, the railroad was kept busy bringing the people what they needed and carrying to marker and fruits of their labors.

Our home was about a mile from the tracks. We could watch the little train go by everyday if we were there to see it. Sometimes the smoke would be black as night. On a cold clear day, the whistle could be heard at a crossing north of Keota or near Sligo. It never went fast, and since it was the only train on the track, the crews would occasionally stop to go rabbit or antelope hunting.

Even though it wasn’t an elegant train, one of the old conductors treated it as such and wanted everything to be as right as possible. One day an awful commotion arose when a woman was in the rest room.

The conductor and the brakeman looked at each other wondering what was wrong. The lady exited the restroom with composure and went to her seat. As soon as they dared, they ventured to the restroom and saw the problem.

From a stool a curved tube descended beneath the car, directing “whatever” toward the rear of the train. Somehow this tube was turned toward the front. As the train traveled through some deep snow the tube scooped the snow right to the top of the stool and up against anyone sitting on the seat, which happened to be that lady.

The Cheyenne Line survived the Dust Bow and The Great Depression of the 1930s. They lost the mail contract, and service was greatly reduced until the last wheat train pulled out of New Raymer in 1976. The train is gone, but that little railroad provided a good, needed transportation system until it had to step aside for the rubber tire.

Want To See More?

1922 Railroad crossings in Northern Colorado courtesy of Weld County Public Works Department.(PDF, 11MB)