The Checkerboard

The transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, passes through southern Wyoming. It was financed in part by land grants to the railroad under the Union Pacific Act of 1862. In that Act, Congress granted every other section (one square mile) of land within ten miles of the railroad to the Union Pacific, which tried to sell it to raise capital for the venture. When sales proved less than brisk, Congress doubled the area to 20 miles on each side of the railroad. Congress believed that the coming of the railroad would greatly increase the value of the land retained by the government. The land could then be sold at a profit at a later date. This scheme, used successfully in the East, was not practical in the vast semi-arid rangelands of the West. Many sections in remote areas remained unsold and in government possession. When homesteading and government sales of land ceased, many areas were left in a permanent checkerboard pattern of alternating public and private land.