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Transcontinental Railroad

Transcontinental Railroad

Transcontinental Railroad Trivia

Brain Snacks: Tasty Tidbits of Knowledge

Violence was a fact of life in the Hell on Wheels towns that followed the Union Pacific's end of track. During the Hell on Wheels heyday of Cheyenne, Wyoming, gunfights were so common that the local paper took to running a column called "Last Night's Shootings."22

Surely one of the more bizarre items among the collections of American Museums is the scalp of the Englishman William Thompson that rests at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Thompson was a telegraph repairman on a UP handcar that was derailed and ambushed by a group of Cheyenne. Thompson, shot in the arm and clubbed to the ground, kept quiet and still as his scalp was removed and then dropped by one of the Cheyenne attackers. Thompson managed to grab the scalp and eventually make his way back to a station for help. He arrived in Omaha with his scalp in hand, hoping in vain to have it surgically re-attached.23

Before experimenting with nitroglycerine, the Central Pacific's work on blasting tunnels through the granite walls of the Sierra Nevada progressed at between twelve and sixteen inches per day, working around the clock.24

One of the wilder stories in the lore of the Central Pacific concerns a mule skinner (or driver) named Missouri Bill, ten yokes of oxen, and an old twelve-ton locomotive called the Blue Goose. The CP wanted the Goose taken over 75 miles of rugged mountain trail through the Sierras. Missouri Bill and his oxen seem to have pulled off something of a miracle with their success. When Hollywood tried to reproduce the feat decades later with a smaller locomotive, they gave up after about 500 yards.25

On his way to the ceremony marking the joining of the Union Pacific with the Central Pacific, Doc Durant was taken captive, supposedly by railroad workers demanding $200,000 in back pay. No one is quite sure about the episode, but both Oakes Ames and Grenville Dodge suspected that Durant set the whole thing up himself. Apparently, the Doctor owed a large sum to one of his subcontractors and may have needed the money to pay the firm off.26

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