Tie Hacking and Splash Dams

By Luke Anderson

August 3, 2016

The history of the railroad in Wyoming is not limited to the historic train depots in the numerous communities that sprouted up along the tracks that crisscross the state. While railroad towns like Cheyenne were already developing reputations and nicknames like “Hell on Wheels,” the railroad industry was also thriving in the mountains that span the vast spaces between those towns. In fact, the early period of railroad construction throughout the west formed a strong connection between interstate commerce and transportation and what would become our nation’s national forests. As with most new technologies, the unification of east and west through the railroad required a lot of resources. In addition to the steel of the tracks and spikes, the other primary material needed to build the railroad is timber. Tie hacking, the term used for the cutting of timbers to produce railroad ties, became an important industry in Wyoming’s forests. Today, many remnants of tie hacking from the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as cabins and splash dams still remain in Wyoming’s national forests.

A great example of one of these sites is the Muddy Park splash dam in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in southeast Wyoming. The splash dam was an innovative way to save energy while transporting timber from the mountain where the trees were to the valleys where the railroad was being built. A dam would be constructed of earth and timber on a small stream. Harvested timber for railroad ties would be piled below the dam. When the spring thaw came and stream flow increased, a reservoir would form behind the dam. When there were enough ties had been cut, the gates of the dam would open and the water in the reservoir would push the timber down the mountain to the railroad construction site. 

Currently, there is minimal interpretive work being done on historic splash dam sites in Wyoming, but the structures are sturdy and in relatively good condition. After all, they were intended to hold back thousands of gallons of water. These dams are extremely unique historic resources and speak directly to the distinctive historical development of modern life in the American west. Splash dams typically do not stand just on their own. They are often parts of larger districts that include cabins and other structures also associated with tie hacking. These potential historic districts and unknown cultural landscapes are special to Wyoming, and should be recognized for their contribution to the iconic railroads that built the west.  

Check out the gallery below to see photos of the Muddy Park splash dam. Special thanks to Kolleen Kralick with the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest for the photographs and splash dam history.

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