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Culture in Transcontinental Railroad

Hell on Wheels: What the Transcontinental Railroad Gave the Mythic West

The American West was never wilder than in the days when the Union Pacific was pushing through it. As the end of the line made its daily advance toward the Pacific, along with it came a mobile scene of whiskey-fueled debauchery that would rival anything in Hollywood's westerns. Here, history and myth converged in a spectacle of vice, violence, and of course, entertainment widely known as Hell on Wheels.

The first Hell on Wheels town was North Platte, Nebraska, where the Union Pacific had stopped for the 1866-1867 winter. Practically overnight, the little town ballooned to a settlement of about 5,000 souls, a great many of whom were young, male, and ready to burn through any money they had saved working on the rail in the warmer months. Entrepreneurial hustlers of all stripes (mostly from booming Chicago) descended on North Platte to help them do just that. The spirit of the place was well captured by the journalist Henry Stanley. "Every gambler in the Union seems to have steered his course here, where every known game under the sun is played," he wrote. "Every house is a saloon, and every saloon is a gambling den."9

The Hell on Wheels towns were made to go up and down in the space of a night. Hastily erected structures of canvas and split lumber became theaters, brothels, dance halls, taverns, and sometimes a combination thereof. Violence was endemic and gunfights so common that during the Hell on Wheels heyday of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the local paper ran a column called Last Night's Shootings.10 As Stanley put it: "There are men here who would murder a fellow-creature for five dollars. Nay, there are men who have already done it.""

This was indeed a Wild West—one of outlaws and claim jumpers, cardsharps, and the women called "soiled doves" who made their living working the rough towns. The men of the Union Pacific, many of whom were not long out of the Union army and were far from the watchful eyes of wives and families, kept Hell on Wheels hopping night after night, pouring their wages into booze, song, women, and the deep pockets of the professional gamblers in one town after another.

The atmosphere of lawlessness eventually got to be more than the UP could tolerate. In the Hell on Wheels town of Julesburg, Colorado territory, chief engineer Grenville Dodge finally had his track laying boss, Jack Casement, impose order through force. Casement, a Union vet who had helped Dodge bring military efficiency and discipline to UP construction, complied. When Dodge later came through Julesburg, he reportedly found a hill of fresh graves and an altogether quieter town. But while the Union Pacific may have managed to curb some of the worst excesses of Hell on Wheels, it could never stamp out the debauchery entirely. Indeed, Hell on Wheels traveled with the UP line all the way through Corinne, the last rail town on the westward route to Promontory Summit, where the line met the Central Pacific in May of 1869. Interestingly, the Central Pacific had no sideshow equivalent to the UP's Hell on Wheels. By all accounts, the thousands-strong Chinese workforce of the Central Pacific was a quieter, thriftier, and more sober bunch.

When construction on the Union Pacific wound down and the workers began to drift on to other things, Hell on Wheels finally died out, but not before one last, vicious gasp at Blue Creek, a one-street shanty town on Promontory that one writer described as "morally nearest to the infernal regions of any town on the road." After Blue Creek, Hell on Wheels passed into legend, its spirit perhaps circulating through some of the rough and tumble mining and cattle towns before coming to rest, prominently, in the half-true silver screen mythology of frontier life and the American West.11 The historically specific culture of several thousand railroad workers—and the men and women who entertained and swindled them—became part of the popular culture shared by millions of Americans.

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