Before I visited, I had seen the pyramid of H.H. Richardson’s rugged Ames Monument for years—in photographs. Rough hewn, steeply angled in the low perspective, it appeared in architecture books, such as Henry Russell Hitchcock’s famous book on Richardson, surveys by Vincent Scully of Yale and many others. Richardson’s rugged Ames Monument has been called the greatest monument design in the country, but few have seen it in person. It sits alone on a windswept high plain in Wyoming, near the highest point on the transcontinental railroad and also on today’s I-80---elevation 8835 feet--between Laramie and Cheyenne.The monument commemorates the brothers Oliver and Oakes Ames, who were leaders in arranging for the financing of the transcontinental railroad—the Project Apollo of its time. Oliver was president of the Union Pacific Rail road, Oakes a Congressman who pushed through the legislation for the railroad.
They were also scions of a wealthy Massachusetts family whose firm built its fortune on shovels---shovels for digging the Erie Canal, shovels for the gold miners of the 1849 rush to Sutter’s Mill. Abraham Lincoln is said to have personally enlisted Oakes Ames to push the railroad, which was paid for with grants of Federal lands to railroad companies, through Congress. "The road must be built, and you are the man to do it,” Lincoln is said to have told Ames. “Take hold of it yourself. By building the Union Pacific, you will be the remembered man of your generation."
But the Ames were caught up in the Credit Mobilier scandal. The name comes from a firm through which money for building the railroad was diverted to Congressmen and fat cats. It was the Enron or AIG or Teapot Dome scandal of its day. It was as if the head of NASA had been caught bribing politicians.
A Congressional investigation in 1873 implicated Oakes Ames in feeding stock under the table to Congressmen. Censured by Congress, he died later that year. The brothers were nicknamed the “Kings of Spades” in the press and more memorably as far as posterity goes, caricatured by the great political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
But the Union Pacific clung to assertions of their innocence and planned a monument in 1875. Nothing was done until a court decision early in 1879 marked the end of the scandal—outrage was deep but memories were short in those days as well---and essentially cleared Oakes Ames. The railroad hired H.H. Richardson to design a monument. The choice came at the behest of the family, for whom Richardson was not only the best architect in the country but the family’s virtual house architect.
His notable Ames Gate Lodge displays huge boulders and a similar sense of ambiguity between found forms and created forms as does the monument. The site chosen was the highest point on the railroad, a pass in the mountains which had also carried the Oregon trail, the Mormon trail and the Pony Express.
Richardson’s favorite builders, the Norcross brothers of Worcester, Massachusetts, were hired to build the structure. Between1880-1882 they quartered some eighty men on the site, and it was a notable enough exception to standard practice that histories record drinking and gambling were forbidden on site. The men used oxen to drag stone a half mile to the site. The granite blocks were about five by eight feet at the base and each weighed several tons each.
The pyramid is a form associated with persistence and memory at least since the Egyptians. But Richardson’s design is more than a simple pure pyramid, however. The first angle of its rise is interrupted by an offset, well above the heads of viewers, and by a smaller pyramid that tops the whole. The effect it to create a visual thrust upward, suggesting to the modern eye a sense of space rocket staging. On the side are two bas-relief sculptures of the Ames brothers by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and inscription in foot high letters reads "In Memory of Oakes Ames and Oliver Ames."
Richardson’s use of simple bold forms, rough stone and massive forms suggested the roughness and power of America after the Civil War.
By the time the monument was completed in 1882 the reputation of the Ames brothers had been sufficiently rehabilitated that President Rutherford Hayes attended the dedication. But in fact the monument was really much more about commemorating the builders of the railroad than just the Ames.
Passengers on the Union Pacific could look out and see the pyramid a hundred yards away.
In 1885, a politician in Laramie named Murphy learned from the county surveyor that the railroad had never obtained proper title to the land. It stood on Federal land. In one of those pranks that enliven the dullness of small towns and give local characters their character, Murphy filed a homestead claim to the site and for $9.50 became its owner. At first he ordered the Union Pacific to “remove their rock pile” from his land. Then he announced in the Laramie Boomerang, the local newspaper that he planned to sell advertising space on the pyramid, tweaking the noses of the railroad executives. He was paid off in cash and land after having his fun.
Within a few years after the monument was completed, surveyors discovered better routes through the mountains and the railroad was moved twice. The monument was left stranded, landlocked and invisible. In 1918, the town of Sherman was shut down, leaving a ghost town, then just a cemetery and a name.
Today the road builders are better memorialized in the area than the rail builders. The Lincoln Highway, U.S. 30 and finally Interstate 80 found their way through the same pass that Gen. Grenville Dodge chose for the railroad. It was the best natural gateway through the mountains. Even early airliners crossing the continent flew through this pass, I learned. Until pressurized cabins came along after World War II they were limited to altitudes of 10,000 feet.
The photographs I had seen had all been closely framed around the monument. I half assumed that I would find it in the midst of some sort of development. But I learned it was set alone on the plain when I visited the site not long ago. At the pass, a bust of Lincoln—rough and weathered—stand beside a visitor center and overlook off the Interstate. Lincoln is the symbol of union, of course, and the Union Pacific railroad and the Lincoln Highway. Henry Joy, the champion of the Lincoln Highway, gets more play than the Ames brothers.
The monument sits well off the highway, alone on a slight rise. In the spring, the plain can be bright with wild flowers but in the summer, when I stopped it is a dusty and windy place, and the winter a snowy one. A motel where I stayed nearby offered complimentary earplugs: “Use if distrubed (sic) by wind.” Elaborate snow fences and snow breaks are visible all along I-80 through the state.
I drove off the interstate at exit number 329, marked Vedauwoo Rocks, drove along a quiet two lane road for a couple of miles and then onto a gravel road. Dust flew up in a cloud behind me and prairie dogs kept disappearing into their holes as I drew near. No one else was there. I looked up at the pyramid looming overhead on its knoll and it seemed huge. Far away I could see a house trailer and then the distant mountains.
I stood at the base of the monument. It loomed impressively above me, feeling much larger than it had appeared from the distance of the road. Its rough surface and sheer, radiant sense of power recalled other Richardson works I had seen back east.
From the monument I drove across the highway to the Vedauwoo Rocks. Driving away, I was amazed at how soon the monument in the mirrors appeared small and lost again on the high plain.
The rocks by contrast, towered powerfully ahead and as I approached the rocks looked taller and richer in shape. The name Vedauwoo, I read, comes from an Arapaho word for earthborn and the tribe believed the rocks had been created by sprits, both animal and human. It was a scared are, where young men went on the rites of passage, fasting “vision quests.”
The various shapes of the rocks, like cumulus clouds frozen into granite, would surely have provided sufficient inspiration for association to young minds. But to me, visiting after looking at the Ames monument, the rocks seemed to mock that structure as small in stature and simplistic in shape. It was as if God or the Arapaho spirits were showing off, piling boulders lightly and precariously in a way no architect or builder could.
When I got home I looked at the area of the monument through Google map and its satellite images At the five hundred yard resolution scale, you could see the pyramid from above, a tiny reddish gray crystal on the reddish gray scruff, the way you can see NASA's Mars lander in photos taken from the Mars orbiter circling overhead. At two hundred feet it is clear, so is an automobile captured beside it.
The historian James O’Gorman, in his essay "Man-Made Mountain: 'Gathering and Governing' in H.H. Richardson's Design for the Ames Monument in Wyoming," says that in all likelihood, Richardson never visited the site. Instead, he apparently learned about it—as most of us learn about the monument itself—from photographs. The images he used probably included those of A.J. Russell, the great photographer of the transcontinental railroad project and of expeditions into the West. O’Gorman reproduces Russell’s photograph of the town of Sherman in 1868, a desolate, snowy ground with a strip of false front stores and hotels along the railroad. He also includes recent images of the monument by Jean Baer O’Gorman, which offer rare views of the landscape around the structure. They show the line of rocks and ridges much closer to the monument than I recall from my visit.
The images raise questions. Could the photographs of Russell and others have conveyed to Richardson the sense of space and sky one feels at the site? Having visited, I doubt it. Did Richardson think consciously or not of designing a structure that would look impressive in photographs, since most people would see it that way? Did he know of the nearby rocks and think of matching nature?
O’Gorman argues that Richardson’s design was inspired in part by rock formations of the west—astonishing towers of boulders, piled seemingly by intent, often photographed with pioneers standing on top. Richardson always like to explore the ambiguity of natural materials and artificial creation, as seen in the boulders he famously used at the Ames family gate lodge.
Indeed, O’Gorman reports that the stone for the monument was quarried from one of the natural towers of stones in the area. The so-called Reed Rock as named after another man who built the railroad, the construction manager named Reed.
Oliver and Oakes Ames are now largely forgotten by the public, but those few who come across the pyramid are forced to consider their identity. The monument is testimony to the frailty of historical memory—and its power. For the millions who will see its image and the mere thousands who see it in person, the monument is also testimony to both the limits and the powers of photography.