Wyoming: The Unlikely Land of Lincoln

Posted on October 25, 2015

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There’s a lot of ‘Lincoln’ in this spectacular, sparsely-settled state.

image blm.gov

image blm.gov

While Abraham Lincoln never slept here, or even stepped foot over the territorial line, much of Wyoming’s present-day economic success can be attributed to Lincoln’s influence, or to the perpetuation of his memory.

Abraham Lincoln’s strongly believed in the railroad as a means to open the west to settlement.

In 1862, as President of the United States, Lincoln promoted and signed into law the Pacific Railroad Act. This set the stage for the single most important economic event in Wyoming’s history – the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Lincoln also wanted to make certain the Federal government had control of the far-flung western territories as the Civil War progressed.

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This winter, as we followed I-80 through Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming, the railroad was almost always in sight.

But Wyoming was impacted by another Lincoln-related transportation marvel – the Lincoln Highway.

Once more or less followed by US 30, and today, more or less, followed by I-80, the Lincoln Highway Association was started in 1912.

Their goal was the same as that of the Transcontinental Railroad supporters 50 years earlier – joining the  country’s east and west coasts, Times Square to the San Francisco Bay, with a ribbon of asphalt to complement the existing ribbon of iron.

IMG_2242Predating the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC by nearly 10 years, the Lincoln Highway was the country’s first memorial to the nation’s 16th President. For many years the distinctive blue L on a white background marked the way for automobile travelers across 14 states and through over 700 cities, towns and villages.

Wyoming welcomed the Lincoln Highway in 1913 with ceremonies in the state capital, in which the City of Cheyenne memorialized the event by re-naming its main thoroughfare ‘Lincolnway’.

But that wasn’t enough.

In 1958 University of Wyoming professor and sculptor Robert Russin was commissioned to create a monumental Lincoln sculpture to adorn US 30, the old Lincoln Highway. He was asked to complete the work in time for Lincoln’s 150th birthday in 1959.

IMG_2246Russin completed the cast bronze head in 11 months, working in the more climate-friendly environs of Mexico City. He shipped it to Wyoming by rail, then it was transported by truck, in the middle of a snow storm, to its intended erection site on Sherman Summit beside US 30.

However, when Russin and the head arrived, he found the base for the thing was not finished. Workers toiled around the clock cutting Wyoming granite and assembling the 35-foot monolith – which they finished in one week.

Perhaps the rush job explains why the whole thing looks so strange – kinda like Old Abe’s head is sticking out of a chimney.

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This bust of Lincoln, done by Russin as a study for his monumental undertaking, stands in the State Capitol building in Cheyenne. One wonders why the head-in-a-chimney along I-80 differs so much from this earlier work.

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10 tons of clay was used to create the mold. The head alone weighs 4,500 pounds and was cast in 30 pieces then bolted together.

By the time I-80 was finally finished in 1969, US 30 – the Lincoln Highway – had been relocated to correspond to the new route, and Abe and his chimney was moved from the old Lincoln Highway to the NEW Lincoln Highway.

Today, the sun glints off his craggy head as he glares down on the never-ending nightmare of traffic that streams along the old/new highway that bears his name.

He doesn’t look happy, but then we wouldn’t either if we were destined to spend our life on I-80.

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