Ames Brothers Pyramid
The odds are remote that you'll ever visit a solitary ruin left by unknown entities on an abandoned planet. But the Ames Brothers Pyramid? It's the next best thing, and it's only a couple of miles off of Interstate 80.
Rough-hewn and rune-cryptic, accessible only by a dirt track, the pyramid stands alone on a treeless, windswept plateau of Wyoming sagebrush. It was built when the only roads out here were railroads, and 80-year-old postcards show it to be just as empty then as it is now.
Who were the Ames Brothers, and why did they get their own pyramid?
Oliver Ames was the president of the Union Pacific Railroad. His brother Oakes was a Massachusetts congressman and the Railroad's point man in Washington. The two made millions selling shovels to gold-seekers in California, then used the profits to take control of the Railroad, then wildly inflated its construction costs to bilk taxpayers out of an estimated $50 million. Oakes secured Washington's cooperation by bribing his fellow congressmen. When the fraud was uncovered in 1872, Oakes quickly died and Oliver followed a few years later.
The pyramid was the Union Pacific's way to polish the tarnished reputations of its ex-officials. Built in the early 1880s -- after the scandal had subsided -- it stood near a remote railroad town where passengers were encouraged to get off (and look at the pyramid) while the engines were changed. The Railroad hired big-deal architect Henry Hobson Richardson to design it, and a sign at its base proclaims it to be, "perhaps the finest memorial in America." Sculptor August St. Gaudens chiseled large portraits of Oliver and Oakes that were set into the pyramid near its apex (St. Gaudens was in line to design the Lincoln penny, too, but he died too young). Oliver faces west toward California, Oakes faces east toward his pals in DC.
The pyramid is 60 feet square and 60 feet tall, a pink granite pile with an angle-bend halfway up the side. Richardson got the necessary rocks by hacking off pieces of a nearby outcropping. No one knows how much the thing weighs. There might have been plans to dig up the brothers and entomb them here (the pyramid reportedly contains a narrow corridor, with niches in the inner core) but that did not happen; the Ames remain buried back East. It cost $65,000 to build -- $1.4 million in today's dollars -- and it was so famous in its time that ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes came out to attend its dedication ceremony.
Posthumous immortality, however, eluded the Ames Brothers. The Union Pacific went bankrupt in the 1890s, and its tracks were moved south to a less expensive route. The pyramid no longer had a captive audience -- or any audience. The Lincoln Highway was later built along the old rail bed, but it was rerouted in 1920, leaving the pyramid abandoned for good. Now bird poop stains the faces of Oliver and Oakes, and in recent years both of their noses have partly fallen (or been shot) off.
The railroad eventually gave the pyramid to Wyoming's park system. Over the years there's been talk of installing a radio transmitter at the site, broadcasting a dramatic re-telling of the Ames Brothers tale to visiting motorists, with actors and sound effects (Similar to the audio calamity box at the Ashtabula Horror). But the funds have never been made available.
Bill Conner, the local parks superintendent, told us that aside from putting up signs cautioning people not to climb the pyramid, and replacing the signs that get riddled with bullet holes, there isn't much for Wyoming to do at the Ames Brothers Pyramid. "It's not really a problem for us," he said, "because most people don't know about it."
Ouch, Union Pacific. That's gotta hurt.