By Greg Rasanen
Just a few miles west of Buford is a six-story pyramid on the site of another bygone railroad town named Sherman. I found this strange pyramid in the middle of nowhere interesting as a kid, but would have never guessed that there was once a small town surrounding the site. I also had no idea that there could be a quite a bit of controversy about the site, if anybody knew much about it.
It stands on a knoll about a mile south of I-80, but you have to watch carefully as you drive by, or you might miss it. The original railroad line ran 300 feet north of the monument, and early train passengers gawked at the towering pyramid and some even were hoisted to the top of it, before the tracks were rerouted three miles south. The monument was built to honor Congressman Oakes Ames, and his brother, the Union Pacific (UP) President, Oliver Ames.
The Oakes family had made their millions starting in shovels and moving up to larger earth moving projects like the building of the NYC Subway. So it makes sense that President Lincoln would turn to him to revitalize the transcontinental railroad project, when it looked like construction was grinding to a halt. Ames invested a million dollars of his own money into the project, and was a driving force behind the eventual completion of the transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869.
So, what’s the controversy? Is it the fact that the monument is in the middle of nowhere and cost $65,000 to construct in 1880 (equal to about $1.4 million today) and was shaped like a pyramid from Egypt? Nope, the issue is that the men were honored for completing a project that turned out to be one of the greatest cases of political graft in American history!
Turns out the UP created a satellite company, Credit Mobilier of America, and they subcontracted the construction of the railroad to them/itself. Credit Mobilier then charged the UP almost twice the actual construction costs, which UP turned around and charged the government, and they pocketed the $44 MILLION in overcharges (equal to about $673 million today)! Thirty-two politicians were given shares of Credit Mobilier stock at discounted prices with hefty dividend returns, to include the Vice President, Secretary of the Treasury, and Congressman Ames. The fraud and graft were uncovered in 1872, but Ames was not even removed from office (he did resign)! Instead, the men he made rich built him a monument eight years later to shift the nation’s focus from great controversy to great accomplishment!
In 1885, a man tried to buy the land the monument was on and planned to plaster the monument with ads, but the UP was deeded the land to preserve the monument in 1889 and turned it over to the state in 1983. In 2016, the monument became a National Historic Landmark, and new historic plaques all echo the UP’s sentiment that the Ames brothers were great patriots and the railroad’s construction was a grand accomplishment.
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