History & News

The Union Pacific Checkerboard

A square grid of 36 numbered tiles depicting a township, a fundamental unit of land measurement.A map depicting the Union Pacific Railroad route through Wyoming marked with the available and sold lands indicated as marked squares. Most of the squares are marked as unsold.The section of the previous map zoomed in on Sweetwater County. Most of the marknigs indicate that the section is 'All or Part for Sale.'The legend for the map indicating which sections are unsold and that Rand McNally created the map in 901.A map of colorful squares representing Sweetwater County. The colored pattern looks like a colorful checkerboard, indicating who owns what square

Graphic #1 - The township of 36 square miles is a fundamental unit of land area measurement, and was used to create the Union Pacific Checkerboard


Graphic #2 - The Union Pacific Checkerboard, as it extended along the Transcontinental Railroad across Wyoming


Graphic #3 - The Checkerboard in Sweetwater County. The 1901 map’s legend marks the majority of its townships as “All or Part for Sale.”


Graphic #4 - The 1901 Rand McNally map’s legend


Graphic #5 - The Union Pacific Checkerboard today, as it appears on the Sweetwater County website as a detailed interactive map


(Sweetwater County, Wyo. - July 23, 2022)     A vintage railroad land grant map recently examined by the staff at the Sweetwater County Historical Museum is a reminder of how the events of a century and a half ago still effect our lives today. Case in point:  the Union Pacific Checkerboard.  

The Transcontinental Railroad, extending across the American west from Omaha, Nebraska, to San Francisco, was officially launched on July 1, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act. On paper, the plan was simple:  the Central Pacific Railroad of California would lay track east from California, and the newly-created Union Pacific Railroad would work west from Omaha, Nebraska, until the two met on May 10, 1869, at what would become famous as Promontory Point, Utah, thereby linking the east and west by rail. The Union Pacific line passed across the entire length of southern Wyoming, from Cheyenne to Evanston. Ultimately, the Central Pacific constructed 690 miles of track and the Union Pacific 1,085 miles.

The project was enormous in its scale, arguably the most iconic construction operation in American history, with a cost to match. In addition to a $27 million government loan - over $783 million in 2022 dollars - the railroads were granted first 10, then 20 one-square-mile sections of land for each mile of track laid, creating a checkerboard of odd-numbered sections for an average of 20 miles on each side of the tracks. In this manner, in Wyoming alone the Union Pacific was ceded in excess of 4,500,000 acres.

The graphic shown here helps explain the process. A basic unit of land survey area measure is a township, a square of six miles by six miles for a total of 36 square miles, or 36 sections. Each one-square-mile section contains 640 acres. A township’s sections are numbered from 1  to 36, from east to west, then west to east, then repeated twice more. The odd-numbered sections went to the Union Pacific, while the U.S. government retained the even-numbered sections. When the U.P.’s sections are shaded, the areas so mapped resemble a checkerboard.  

The map examined at the museum was published in 1901 by Rand McNally, and depicts what Checkerboard lands were available from the Union Pacific at the time. “Farm Lands” in lots of 160 acres and up were listed for $5.00 to $12.50 per acre, “Ranch Lands,” 640 acres and up ran $1.50 to $5.00 per acre, and “Grazing Lands” were the cheapest of all, at $.50 to $1.50 per acre.

The Union Pacific Checkerboard continues to exist today as it was originally laid out, though most of the land ownership, aside from Bureau of Land Management sections, has changed.

Today much of the Checkerboard acreage belongs to agricultural interests or oil and gas industry operations.

Sweetwater County maintains an excellent, extremely detailed interactive online county map that clearly illustrates the Checkerboard, at


The Sweetwater County Historical Museum is located at 3 E. Flaming Gorge Way in Green River. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and there is no charge for admission.

Excellent turnout for “Family Fun Friday - Fabulous Fossils” at County Museum

Public Engagement Coordinator Aidan Brady stands at a table of items under a canopy. An audience of people gathers around the canopy.Left groups of children dig in sandpits under canopies. Right, real paleontologists dig at a dig site.People of all ages mingle around the Museum's gallery.

Photo #1 - Aidan Brady of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum describing prehistoric life in Sweetwater County at Friday’s “Family Fun Friday - Fabulous Fossils” event.


Photo #2 - Children at the Museum’s special event on Friday got hands-on experience in digging their own fossils, just as paleontologists do at actual dig sites.


Photo #3 - Many who attended Friday’s event toured the Museum afterward. Gallery exhibits include prehistoric life in Sweetwater County, Native Americans, the mountain men, frontier-era emigrants, ranching, coal and trona mining, the Lincoln Highway, the Chinese in Rock Springs, the railroad, and John Wesley Powell’s expeditions down the Green and Colorado Rivers and through the Grand Canyon.


(Sweetwater County, Wyo. - July 19, 2022)    The Sweetwater County Historical Museum’s latest special event was attended by over a hundred people.

On Friday, the Museum hosted “Family Fun Friday - Fabulous Fossils,” an outdoor event. Public Engagement Coordinator Aidan Brady spoke about Wyoming’s prehistoric and geological history, and described the dinosaurs that once roamed Sweetwater County.

Children at the event got to handle and explore variety of fossils, including Knightias, which are Wyoming’s official State Fossil, and learned firsthand how paleontologists use trowels, brushes, and screens to dig and sift for fossils in a dig pit.

Other family-friendly events are planned at the Museum for the near future, including gold panning, adobe brick making, and Native American basket weaving.

The Museum is located at 3 E. Flaming Gorge Way in Green River. Hours are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is free.

Black Buttes Snapshot

Left: a black and white photo of men dressed in suits in front of a building labeled 'Bitter Creek' Right: people in various outfits stand around and inside a horse drawn wagon. Text reads:'located about 27 miles East of Rock Springs, the tiny hamlet of Black Buttes was once an overland stage station, a Union Pacific Railroad stop, and home to several coal mining operations. From 1890 to 1919, it had its own post office. During its stage stop years it was noted that 'creek water here so bad that oatmeal was added by the station cook to hide the alkali taste.' Nothing is left now of Black Buttes but the remains of a few building foundations.'

A Rock Springs Snapshot

A man stands in front of a vintage vehicle on a street in a suit. text reads: 'Jack Taucher, a Union Pacific Coal Company Pit Loader at No. 8 Mine in Rock Springs with his UPCC Grand Prize Safety Award for the last 6 months of 1940. A brand new Chevrolet Master Deluxe sedan. According to an April, 1941 article, Taucher, 53 years old at the time, 'has never owned a car before and has never driven one, but he says he is really going to enjoy this one.' The article went on to say Taucher was 'married with two children, Fred and Katherine.''