Ames Monument

"Murphy's Law" and the history of Ames Monument

As Delivered on July 17, 1999 at the Ames Monument
© Jim Hand

(Ames Monument is located between Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyoming near I-80)

In 1882, after much planning and great expense, the Union Pacific Railroad dedicated, at the highest point on the transcontinental route, a huge granite pyramid, specially designed and built to honor the Ames brothers who helped finance the railway venture. Noted architect, Henry Hobson Richardson gave the monument a "special design" which (to this speaker) from almost every angle looks very much like a shovel blade. If the resemblance to a workingman's spade sticking out of the ground was the designer's intent, the design is certainly appropriate. The Ames boys started out with a shovel factory back in Massachusetts (and Ames is still a respected brand on shovels and garden tools).

Think of it a minute--if you have the plan and the dedication, and you attach a shovel blade to a stick and attach a hungry Irishman to the other end of the stick, you can accomplish the impossible--you can build a railroad across a vast wild continent. A shovel design would honor the marriage of physical labor, financial genius, and the right tools! Perhaps Ames monument could be respectfully sub-titled "A Monument to the Shovel."

Unfortunately, for over a hundred years the edifice has been called the Ames Monument, with no subtitles. Most residents and passing motorists never heard of the Ames boys or their shovel factory or their pyramid, and almost everyone drives right past the turnoff. Re-naming it a "monument to the Shovel" probably would not increase its visitor attraction, however.

One the other hand, because the following incident is true and documentable, the monument could indeed be sub-titled--

"The Birthplace of Murphy's Law."

I'd bet the visitor count would more than double is signs directed highway travelers to a monument marking the "Birthplace of Murphy's Law!"

Here is how "Murphy's Law" began: In 1885, a few years after Ames Monument was dedicated, an elected Justice of the Peace names "Billy" Murphy in Laramie, Wyoming talked to Albany County Surveyor W. O. Owen, and learned that the monument had been built on "vacant" government land, not on a railroad section. Encouraged by Owen and by lawyerly advice from "Bill" Nye (the humorous founding-editor of the Laramie Boomerang newspaper), Murphy went to the land office in Cheyenne and filed a Desert Land Homestead claim to get legal right to the land where the monument stands.

Murphy then wrote for outdoor advertisers to bid on leasing spaces on "his" pyramid. He also gave notice to the railroad company that its "rock pile" was trespassing on his "farm" and gave them a deadline to move it or lose it.

At first embarrassed railroad principals could not believe they had built and publicly dedicated their glorious monument on government land or that Murphy could now own it and lease advertising space on this monument. However, checks of documents and records soon convinced them that all the law was on Murphy's side. The red-in-the-face railroad authorities realized that everything that could have gone wrong, certainly had gone wrong!

A top-level railroad lawyer was sent with a black valise, from Omaha headquarters to Laramie, with order to get clear title to the monument at any cost. The U.P. lawyer was joined by lawyer John Riner of Cheyenne, lawyer John Symons, Laramie City land agent, and railroad detective Nate Boswell, the former sheriff of Albany County, law-men all!

Murphy was tricked into meeting alone with the four powerful railroad negotiators who locked the door when he entered the room. The four legal experts then frightened Murphy into thinking he had broken the law by filing a homestead on the land. They told him all the witnesses who signed his homestead claim could be charged with perjury. They told Murphy he would surely lose his J. P. position, ruin his reputation, and risk prison.

Then they switched tactics and "generously" promised Murphy they would try hard to keep the matter quiet and save him from all those troubles--if only Murphy would just sign a relinquishment of his homestead claim and promise to never tell anyone. Their bluff worked fine.

In the shadow of the four lawmen, Murphy signed the relinquishment of his claim. In exchange, the railroad gave Murphy the deeds to two vacant residential lots on South 8th Street in Laramie, worth about $385.00 as "legal consideration."

Alas, mild-mannered Murphy (who left Laramie soon thereafter), later learned that the railroad lawyer had been carrying $15,000 in cash in his black valise to pay for the relinquishment, and had authority to pay twice that amount if necessary. Murphy had the law on his side and could have profited monumentally. Even for Murphy, everything that could have gone wrong, had gone wrong!

The story of Murphy using the law to tease the giant Union Pacific corporation spread on whispers across the continent from one railroad worker to the next. It was a great story: Murphy paid his $9.75 homestead fee and, with the law on his side, got a good laugh, a good scare, and two residential lots worth $385.00 (then)--but also lost a fortune!

The words "Murphy's Law," eventually became code-words for the story's moral: "Everyone must expect, and accept in good humor, that 'Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.' "

Commentary footnotes:
  • Deeded by the U.P. on November 23, 1885, the two town lots in Laramie City are now 410 and 410 South 8th Street. On each lot is a modest 19th century style frame residence.
  • The U.P. railroad filed an "indemnity entry" covering the monument site and other nearby lands. A U.S. Land patent was issued to the U.P. May 31, 1900 and, on September 7, 1983, the U.P. quitclaimed about 8 acres at the monument site to the State of Wyoming.
  • Ironically, soon U.P's railbed was re-located and its great pyramid was left standing in obscurity.

    Comments Continued
    Murphy's Law was NOT born in Edwards A.F.B. in California in 1949. The internet showed an article (no longer available) excerpted from The Desert Wings, March 3, 1978, by Ted Bear, Flight Test Center Historian, claiming that "Murphy's Law ('If anything can go wrong, it will') was born here (Edwards Air Force Base) in 1949 at North Base. It was named after Capt. Edward A. Murphy, II, an engineer working on Air Force Project MX981,(a project) designed to see how much sudden deceleration a person can stand in a crash."

    The 1949 claim was based on a minor incident involving the mis-wiring of a transducer. Ed Murphy was heard to curse the technician and say "If there is any way to do it wrong, he'll find it." The contractor's project manager kept a list of "laws" and added this one, which he called "Murphy's Law."

    However, the historian admits, "Actually, what he did was take an old law that had been around for years in a more basic form ("If anything can go wrong, it will") and give it a name."

    Therefore the 1949 claim was limited and virtually withdrawn.

    On the other hand, Wyoming's 1885 incident involving Laramie's William L. Murphy and the Union Pacific Railroad's Ames Monument (1) occurred over fifty years earlier (and was published as early as 1918, giving time for frequent and widespread reference to it by name); (2) involved a Murphy directly with laws and legal effects; (3) impacted organized planners and schemers; (4) involved a significant, astounding historic happening; (5) was an incident which was itself characterized by the humorous maxim (i.e. something special and well-planned ended up unexpectedly and laughingly wrong, not just an irritating error with a humorless ending).

    In addition, Wyoming's Murphy's Law 1885 birth date involved an incident which (6)participants kept secret fearing personal embarrassment, professional ridicule, or legal repercussions; and (7) ended with an uncertainty of repercussions that silenced other involved persons (U.P. officials, W. S. Owen, humorist E. W. "Bill" Nye, etc).

    In conclusion, perhaps Wyoming should lay public claim to the birthplace of "Murphy's Law" and consider adding some signage on Highway I-80, state maps, and at the site of the monument.

    All material and photographs are copyrighted, and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. If any of the "Ames Monument" information is used anywhere other than the author's original system, the author must be notified in writing and the copyright notice must remain intact. This material is further copyrighted by Jim Hand.

    Send comments, suggestions or inquiries: Overland Trail

    [Overland Trail | Links |

    Created and maintained by Elizabeth Larson
    Copyright 1996-2000