Capitols & churches: Cheyenne crossing

capitols and churchesBy Gary Flanagan

My trip to all 51 U.S. Capitols and their closest churches was at another crossroad. It was Saint Patrick’s Day and I was in Buffalo, Wyoming where Interstates 25 and 90 meet. Should I head for the Dakotas to the east or down the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains to the south? The strong wind and weather forecast indicated another winter storm coming from the northwest. A favorite Irish blessing came to mind:

  May the road rise up to meet you.

  May the wind be always at your back.

  May the sun shine warm upon your face;

  the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,

  May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

That settles it. Southeast to Cheyenne we go. The Dakotas will have to wait.

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Chief Washakie statue/photo by Gary Flanagan

It wasn’t long until I doubted my decision. Warning signs greeted me at every exit. “High winds of 60 mph expected. Light vehicles use caution.” 300 hair-raising miles later, I entered Cheyenne looking for shelter.

I passed the large Buffalo statue on the east lawn of the Wyoming Capitol and turned right to the Cathedral of St. Mary at the corner of 21st and Capitol Ave. It was a Sunday afternoon and the streets were empty. I walked up the front steps to the door of St. Mary’s. This time it was open.

I entered and had the entire church to myself. Outside the wind was howling, but the sanctuary inside was still and quiet. I said a prayer for my mother, who had passed almost 33 years earlier, and lit a candle. It was a peaceful, much-needed moment.

I soon left for the Wyoming State Capitol. It was easy to find the closest church, namely First Presbyterian, as it was only three blocks away from St. Mary’s. The First Presbyterian community was the first church in the area, having migrated from the original location near the railroad and center of town to the current location two blocks from the Capitol steps. I then continued along Capitol Ave. to the front entrance of the Capitol.

Two distinct statues, Chief Washakie and Esther Hobart Morris, stood at the entrance. Given that discovery leads to more discovery, I wondered how these two churches and people came to be at the Cheyenne Capitol. My curiosity dug deeper.

Chief Washakie was born around 1800. His father was a Umatilla native, his mother a Shoshone native. As a teenager, he chose his mother’s tribe and by 1840 rose to be chief of the Wyoming Shoshone.

Washakie assisted many early white travelers passing through the territory he controlled. A settlement was reached in 1868 to provide a right of way for Union Pacific Railroad. A year earlier, the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the world had reached the area now known as Cheyenne.

Chief Washakie’s biography is a fascinating study in itself. His early names included “Smells of Sugar,” “Shoots the Buffalo Running” and ”Gourd Rattler” before becoming known as Washakie. In his later years, he became a Mormon (after befriending Brigham Young) and chose episcopalism as his faith until death at the age of 100.

Esther Hobart Morris, the first female Justice of the Peace, came from New York by rail in 1869. She was instrumental in securing women’s suffrage, as Wyoming was the first government in the world to grant women the right to vote. She arrived during the rapid growth of Cheyenne after the railroad brought economic prosperity in 1867.

It was also 1869 when the first church in Cheyenne was established. It was named Krebs Memorial Presbyterian Church because Dr. Krebs’ original church, Rutgers Presbyterian of New York, contributed the majority of the funds to the original building on 18th St. This same community moved to a new building in 1925, on 22nd street, closer to the Capitol and is now known as First Presbyterian (FirstPresCheyenne.org).

The Cathedral of St. Mary (StMaryCathedral.com) was built between 1906 and 1909. 5,000 people witnessed the laying of the cornerstone and then Governor Brooks stated, “Our hearts throb with pride at the thought that this beautiful stone was quarried from Wyoming ledges; that the brain, the brawn, the money with which is to see that the capstone is in place, are all Wyoming. Upon this cornerstone will be a grand cathedral.”

Grand and beautiful indeed … I also found it to be a simple place for a weary traveler to rest on a Sunday afternoon.

I found Cheyenne, way out there in Wyoming, to be an efficient transportation hub. The transcontinental railroad, airport, two major interstate roads, local churches and the state capital are all neatly tucked into a five mile square in the SW corner of the state, the perfect place for a Cheyenne crossing. In a blink of the eye with the wind still at my back, the state border appeared and I was bound for the Colorado State Capitol in Denver, the 16th stop of the tour.

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