Sunday, May 07, 2006

Futility, Thy Name is Ames

Everyone loves a good story. So do I, and I have one to tell. It has nearly all my favorite elements: Crooked contractors and Republican politicians, railroads, a great American architect, corporate presidents, bribery and federal land, Abraham Lincoln, famous towns in Iowa, the birthplace of Murphy's Law, a well-trod tale of American can-do, a ghost town, and lots of futility.

"Wow, Howard, what doesn't this story have?," you may ask? The only thing this story lacks is sex. Not for lack of trying, I'm sure. Oh well. Let's just pray that I can tell the story well. If I misstate or leave out any important details, please let me have it in comments...

Brothers Oakes and Oliver Ames were shovel manufacturers from Massachussetts in the mid-1800's. Oakes was influential in the establishment of the Republican Party and was duly elected to represent Massachussetts in the House of Representatives in 1862. There he soon found himself a member of the committee on railroads. In 1865, after the transcontinental railroad project bogged down by the Civil War, building only 12 miles of track, Lincoln personally asked Oakes Ames to take over the project. He accepted.

Oakes Ames began to worm his way into a corporation that had numerous contracts overseeing and administering much of the construction work for Union Pacific,
Credit Mobilier Company of America. After ousting the corporation's founder, who was also the Vice President of Union Pacific -- let that soak in a second... the VP of Union Pacific owned and ran a company that contracted significant work for the UP -- and after taking over control for himself, Oakes began to sell shares of Credit Mobilier to his fellow congressmen for pennies on the dollar in exchange for ever more outrageous piles of cash for Credit Mobilier.

Also along the way, Congress approved a massive cushy land deal handing over millions of acres of Federal land to the Union Pacific -- land not needed for easements or right-of-ways to build the transcontinental railroad, but huge swaths and sections of land as bonus compensation to the Union Pacific for building the railroad. Of course, these huge swaths were subdivided and sold at very profitable markups (remember, initial cost = $0) to become the cities and towns that sprouted up all along the new transportation corridor. Oh, and did I mention that in 1866, Oakes's brother Oliver became the President of the Union Pacific? Oops, sorry for the oversight. Important detail.

Congressman Oakes was eventually censured for bribery by his fellow congressmen and was nicknamed, "Hoax Ames" prior to his death soon afterwards.

A few years later, partially motivated by the desire to build something for their transcontinental passengers to look at while making a quick stop at the town of Sherman, Wyoming [warning: link has western music], the highest point of elevation along the rail line, the Union Pacific decided to build a monument to the Ames Brothers. They commissioned Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson to design a stone monument. H. H. Richardson, one of America's most prominent architects of his day and a designer of many buildings and houses for the Brothers Ames, never saw the completed monument he designed: completed in 1882, it was a four-sided pyramid built of native granite, 60 feet wide at the base and 70 feet high. To see it would have required a cross-country trip for H. H. from Massachussetts to Wyoming. So not worth it, he probably calculated.

Ironically, a few years after monument construction and dedication was complete, the Union Pacific decided to relocate the train's main line a few miles south, so Sherman quickly became a ghost town. Years later, when a state highway was constructed between Cheyenne and Laramie, which became Interstate 80 a few decades later, it too was located a distance from the Ames Monument. Thus, the Ames Monument had only a dirt road for access, few visitors, and really no reason to exist, save for a few locals forever on the lookout for unique places to drink beer.

As a matter of fact, your very own Howard, as a very young and thin teen in the early 1970's, crawled through a series of tunnels that wormed their way through the base of the pyramid. Access to the tunnels was closed off shortly afterwards, probably because some not-so-thin teen got stuck and had to diet his way to freedom.

And did I mention a tie-in to a famous town in Iowa? It's true... Ames, Iowa was named after the Brothers Ames.

What else did I forget? Oh yeah, Murphy's Law.... Guess what? The origin of the law stating that "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong" finds its start at Ames Monument. When Justice of the Peace Billy Murphy of Laramie learned that the Union Pacific didn't build the monument on its own land, building on vacant government land instead, Murphy filed a Homestead claim to the land in 1885 and received it. When the Union Pacific learned of this, they dispatched an attorney to offer Murphy a valise filled with $15,000 cash to relinquish his claim. However, the Union Pacific chose the strategy of first attempting to intimidate the Judge with legal threats followed by the lawyer offering Murphy $385 to give up the claim. Murphy fell for it and signed. Only later did he learn that his Homestead claim was indeed rock solid, and that if he had been a better lawyer, he would have realized this and received a subsequent offer of $15 large -- or even twice that amount! Read more about it here. No shit.

Update: Thanks to devoted reader Anonymous, who pointed out in comments that $15,000 in 1885 is equivalent to over $300,000 today. Of course it is. For Murphy's Law to have taken such a prominent chair at the table of American culture, it had to have at least six-figure birth pains. Heck, that's a missed opportunity equivalent to the worst episode of Deal or No Deal.


Blogger Cara Lietuva said...

Absolutely fascinating. I love the tie-ins with Richardson, the architect, and the true Murphy of Murphy's Law.

10:47 AM, May 08, 2006  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

I still wish the story had some sex. Then it would be complete.

Maybe I'll add some in a bogus update...

10:54 AM, May 08, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

$15000 in 1885 comes out to $307876.28 in 2005. you can check out the inflation calculator at

that's a big chunk of change.

4:25 PM, May 08, 2006  

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