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Hell on Wheels History: Rowdy Railroad Towns Across the Plains

hell on wheels railroad towns
Union Pacific workers laying rail. Source: Wikimedia Commons / University of Washington

Building the Transcontinental Railroad was one of America’s biggest triumphs. At its completion, Captain John Currier beamed: “Thus is the greatest undertaking of the 19th century accomplished. All honors to the resolute men who have ‘put it through.”

Such an accomplishment sounds glamorous, but the day-in, day-out reality of 10,000 sweaty men swinging hammers and slinging back whiskey was a little grittier. Such was life as a railroad man in the 19th century.

These days, work crews are flown to and from oil fields, power plants, and coal mines, where they’re put up in a Motel 6 and handed vouchers for Five-Dollar Footlongs. There’s always a nearby town for them to hang their hats and a brick-and-mortar inn to lay their weary heads.

But in the 1860s, railroad men laid track across land that had barely ever seen non-Indigenous footsteps. There wasn’t a town for nearly 2,000 miles, so they had no choice but to make their own town – and carry it with them.

Known as “Hell on Wheels,” the transient town housing and feeding the Union Pacific railroad workers could be taken down and set up again in a day.

When the tracks got too far down the line from the town’s location, they folded it up and sent it to the end of the tracks, where they pitched their tented saloons and raised their shacks anew.

Hard Work for Hard Men

While the Central Pacific side of the transcontinental railroad – the company laying the tracks from California to Utah – was built largely by the Chinese, the Union Pacific side, from Nebraska to Utah, was built by European immigrants  – mainly Irish, African Americans, and Civil War vets.

Author Stephen Vincent Benét wrote: “They were strong men built the Big Road and it was the Irish did it.”

According to Benét, after having left tyrant rule and famine-ridden farmlands, the Irish “could swing a pick all day and dance all night, if there was a fiddler handy.”

book about hell on wheels

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Nothing Like It in the World

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The men fresh from battlefields were similarly eager to work on the railroad. After four years of being shot at with nothing but a gut full of moldy hard-tack and dysentery water, railroad camp life must have been a reprieve.

As historian Stephen E. Ambrose puts it: “For certain they were accustomed to pistols and rifles and artillery going off, to losing everything on one roll of the dice, to wounds and death.”

dale creek railroad union pacific
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For ex-soldiers, Union and Confederate alike, the transition to railroad life was an easy one. As for what railroad life was truly like at Hell on Wheels, nobody puts it better than journalist Samuel Bowles.

One to two thousand men, and a dozen or two women were encamped on the alkali plain…not a tree, not a shrub, not a blade of grass was visible; the dust ankle deep…a village of a few variety stores and shops, and many grog-shops; by day disgusting, by night dangerous; almost everybody dirty, many filthy, and with the marks of lowest vice; averaging a murder a day; gambling and drinking, hurdy-gurdy dancing and the vilest of sexual commerce the chief business and pastime of the hours.”

Hell on Wheels: Wicked Towns Along the Union Pacific Railroad, Dick Kreck, David Halass

BYOT (Bring Your Own Town)

As they moved west, the railroad workers encountered no grocery stores, cafés, or fuel stations. Everything they would need they had to carry with them. As always, shrewd businessmen took advantage of the opportunity to provide thousands of ruffians with something to eat and someone to hold out on the lonely plains.

Big city “sharks” like Thomas C. Durant put up big money to back gambling halls, hotels, restaurants, and whorehouses (or rather, whore-tents). Hell on Wheels featured nearly everything a man could want, including a newspaper run by two ex-Confederate brothers. The Press-on-Wheels (a.k.a. Frontier Index) printed the goings-on at the end of tracks as well as a substantial amount of white supremacist propaganda and political ramblings.

Thomas C. Durant
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Press-on-Wheels (which was later burned down in a classic Hell on Wheels town riot) once called President-Elect Ulysses S. Grant a “whiskey bloated, squaw ravishing adulterer.” But there was no such thing as libel in Hell on Wheels, nor was there any law and order; but according to General Grenville Dodge, that wasn’t much of a problem.

There was no law in the country and no court. We laid out the towns, officered them, kept peace, and everything went on smoothly and in harmony. Two or three times at the end of the tracks a rough crowd would gather and dispute our authority, but they were soon disposed of.”

General G. Dodge, Union Pacific Chief Engineer

Work Hard, Play Harder

The crime rate, however, tells a different story. There was at least one poor fellow shot every day, and journalist and explorer Henry M. Stanley reported:

“There are men here who would murder a fellow creature for five dollars. Nay, there are men who have already done it, and who stalk abroad in daylight unwhipped of justice. Not a day passes but a dead body is found somewhere in the vicinity with pockets rifled of their contents.”

After a long day of backbreaking labor, the workers couldn’t wait to cut loose and drink their earnings away. The gambling dens and “ladies of the evening” were ready and waiting to relieve them of their hard-earned pay. 

When the whistle blew, men swarmed to the “Big Tent.” The 100-foot-long canvas tent featured an elaborate bar, a wooden dance floor, gambling tables, and scantily clad friends-for-hire.

About the town’s inhabitants, Samuel Bowles remarked:

Hell would appear to have been raked to furnish them; and to it they must have naturally returned after graduating here, fitted for its highest seats and most diabolical service.”

Nothing Like It in the World, Stephen E. Ambrose

Swift, Sturdy, and Savage

The men swung hammers all day and partied all night. As long as the work didn’t suffer, nobody cared. The men became so adept at their work that they could lay track nearly at a walking man’s pace.

Astonishingly, neither the drunkenness nor the speed with which they worked resulted in much shoddy work. In 1868, a New York Tribune correspondent noted:

Can a road built with such tremendous speed, and that, too, in a district where every tool, every laborer, every appliance to aid in the work, has to be brought hundreds of miles from the Eastern manufactory, be well built? This is a vital question, and one upon which the people want the most unequivocal information. I have seen and examined more than 700 miles of this road, and I believe it thoroughly built and fully equipped…the road was easily built, but nowhere indifferently or slovenly.”

Of course, when the all-night carousing began to affect the quality and speed of the work, railroad contractors Jack and Dan Casement wasted no time in correcting the situation.

Occasionally, they dispatched Father Ryan, a Columbus Priest, to shame the workers into better behavior. When that didn’t work (surprise), the Casement brothers addressed the problem with bullets.

union pacific railroad map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At Julesburg, Hell on Wheels had gotten significantly out of hand, so the Casements and their 200-man band chased the gamblers and prostitutes out of town and open fired on them. When General Dodge asked how General Casement had gotten the town to turn around so quickly, he replied, “General, they all died in their boots, but brought peace.”

That “peace” never lasted long, though. Hard work, unfortunately, is frequently accompanied by even harder hearts.

In 1868, the Philadelphia Bulletin commented on these hard-hearted men building the railroad:

This army of men, marching on foot from Omaha to Sacramento, subduing untried obstacles, and binding across the broad breast of America the iron emblem of modern progress and civilization. All honor, not only to the brains that have conceived, but to the indomitable wills, the brave hearts and the brawny muscles that are actually achieving the great work.”

Nothing Like It in the World

In November of 1867, the Hell on Wheels town of Cheyenne had become so fiendish that General Dodge had to call in reinforcements. General Stevenson from nearby Fort D.A. Russell ran the hell-raisers out of town a whole mile, where, according to historian Nellie Snyder Yost, “he held a parley and made arrangements for more orderly conduct in the future.”

Brave and brawny they were, indeed, but nobody was perfect. Colonel C.R. Savage, U.P. Photographer wrote:

“Certainly a harder set of men were never congregated together before [a bold statement following the Civil War]…Every ranch or tent has whiskey for sale. Verily, men earn their money like horses and spend it like asses.”

Hell on Wheels’ hellishness was allegedly unique to the Union Pacific railroad camps. According to Central Pacific boss General Strobridge, the C.P. workers were tame by comparison:

One reason for our success was the absence of the saloon. Don’t ask how we kept them out. It has always been a great mystery. We were away out by ourselves, far from courts or sheriffs, and it was remarkable…that our men were so orderly and so uniformly opposed to immoral resorts.”

Epic of the Overland, Robert Lardin Fulton

The C.P. men may not have been lions, but they certainly weren’t lambs either.

Strobridge also reported, “You cannot talk to them as though you were talking to gentlemen, because they are not gentlemen. They are about as near brutes as they can get.”

No Man Left Behind

On the U.P. line, once the “brutes” were finished with them, towns were either abandoned or left in the hands of hookers and highwaymen.

After the railroad crews had moved on, a few towns remained, although significantly reduced in size. Others simply disappeared like whisps of smoke.

D.L. Harris, president of the Connecticut River Railroad, wrote about one Utah town:

The town will fade away speedily. There are from 200 to 300 people (of whom 4 are women) and I was told that everyone was waiting for the railroad companies to fix the permanent place of junction of the two roads that they might remove there and start a new city. One thing is certain, they cannot live here a day after the road is completed for there is no other business going.”

North Platte was another town that nearly disappeared. When the Union Pacific rolled in, what had previously been a tiny town of a few log shacks boomed. Over 3,000 men (and a few women) swarmed the joint, swallowing up the little town’s meager resources like a plague of locusts. 

transcontinental railroad
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Hell on Wheels relocated from North Platte to Julesburg, only a handful of railroad men were left behind to run the roundhouse and machine shops. But for a while, it was “a gay frontier hamlet,” according to Henry M. Stanley.

Its citizens are a motley crowd of construction camp denizens, roughs, toughs, gamblers and emigrants but a few months from the countries of the Old World. Women from the dance halls, bullwhackers and teamsters line the tracks to see the train come in. Timid passengers, fearing to face so desperate appearing a multitude, were glad to follow hotel runners to a hastily constructed hostelry that charged a lot but gave little in the way of comfort. A gambling establishment was conducted in a large tent where games of chance never seemed to stop.”

Henry M. Stanley

Some towns, like Laramie and Cheyenne, flourished, even after the end-of-tracks moved on. Today, Cheyenne is still one of the nation’s premier railroad towns, boasting a population of nearly 100,000, many of whom still work on the railroad.

The University of Wyoming makes its home in Laramie, the state’s third largest city. These now respectable cities never forgot their hellish and humble beginnings.

The Taming of the “Brutes”

utah railroad
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Once Hell on Wheels reached Utah, the Mormons inundated their camps, bringing with them a rather wet-blanket effect. End-of-tracks towns like Echo City became quite civilized, the Mormons having infiltrated and implemented regular worship and social groups, including a men’s choir.

At Promontory Summit, Utah, the last Hell on Wheels town folded up its tents when the last spike was driven in May 1869, completing the nearly 2000-mile track joining east to west.

These feral, fleeting towns formed the backbone of America’s latest advancement and the countless opportunities it would provide for her citizens. Hell on Wheels may have disappeared, but it left its untamed tang infused in the dirt.

golden spike hell on wheels
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It would be a long while before the Great American Desert was considered habitable, but that didn’t stop the bravest pioneers from riding the rails to the harsh open prairie (heavily armed, of course).

The inhabitants of this country go armed to the teeth and life is of little value. Accustomed to life among the savages and men recently the Employees of the road, mainly Irish, these hardy pioneers don’t feel cosy without a revolver at their sides. Whether asleep or awake the hand leaps instinctively to the knife or pistol at the slightest warning sound.”

Captain Charles Currier, 21st Infantry bandmaster, somewhere between Nebraska and Wyoming

S. D. Page agreed:

Wherever regular trains stop, and goods are transferred to wagons for further transportation – there the thieves, gamblers, and prostitutes swarm for their prey. There is no attempt to conceal vice; the faro table is as public as the workman’s bench, and more frequently seen, and the current saying is that there is not a virtuous woman west of Cheyenne is fearfully near the truth.”

The west was still plenty wild, but the completion of the transcontinental railroad was the first step in taming it – a feat that never would have been accomplished without thousands of rowdy railroad men and the lawless little towns in which they lived.


Read more about crossing the American frontier:

Molly Jacobson is a freelance journalist based near Miles City, Montana, where she wrangles five babies, twenty chickens, and one emotionally unstable dog. She has a B.A. in Psychology from Gonzaga University and writes for mental health blogs, history websites, two local newspapers, and anyone else who doesn't mind her flagrant abuse of the maximum allowed word count.

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