Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hell on Wheels (and Hurdy-Gurdy Dancing)


AMC premieres a new television series tonight, “Hell on Wheels.” Before I began work on my current project, Locomotive, I knew the phrase “hell on wheels,” but I didn’t know its origin. I think I associated it with motorcycle gangs. Incorrect! It comes, instead, from the 1860s, from the rowdy, ramshackle, dangerous towns — hell — that would spring up alongside construction of the eastern half of the transcontinental railroad and then, as construction moved on, pack up, pick up, and move down the tracks wheels — to keep up with the workers who kept the town’s bars and brothels running at a profit. 

(This was a phenomenon only of the eastern half of the line, where the workers were largely Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans. The western half of the line, built largely by Chinese immigrant laborers, progressed without benefit of the same quantities of liquor, murder, and prostitution.) 
Here are two good bits on hell on wheels towns, both of which I first read in Dee Brown’s Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Railroads in the West. The first is a contemporary description of Benton, Wyoming, by publisher Samuel Bowles. The town was, he wrote, “a congregation of scum and wickedness…almost everybody dirty, many filthy, and with the marks of the lowest vice; averaging a murder a day; gambling and drinking, hurdy-gurdy dancing and the vilest of sexual commerce, the chief business and pastimes of the hours,—this was Benton. Like its predecessors, if fairly festered in corruption, disorder and death, and would have rotted, even in this dry air, had it outlasted a brief sixty-day life. But in a few weeks its tents were struck, its shanties razed, and with their dwellers moved on fifty or a hundred miles farther to repeat their life for another brief day. Where these people came from originally; where they went to when the road was finished, and their occupation over, were both puzzles too intricate for me. Hell would appear to have been raked to furnish them….”

(An aside: It’s hard, for me, at least, to think of George Lucas ever writing the lines “wretched hive of scum and villainy” without Benton and Bowles having paved the way.)
The second story is set in the new city of Cheyenne when the line has just reached it, one hundred forty miles after leaving the town of Julesburg behind. Dee Brown writes, “The next day, the first passenger train arrived, and from it poured a considerable portion of the gamblers and dance-hall girls of Julesburg. A few hours later, a long train of flatcars rumbled into the station. Every car was loaded high with knocked-down buildings, storefronts, dance-hall floors, tents, wooden sidings, and entire roofs. According to legend, as a brakeman dropped down onto the station platform, he shouted to the waiting crowd: “Gentleman, here’s Julesburg!””
Sadly, none of this material will quite make it into Locomotive, which will be (someday, I promise) a picture book for the 6+ crowd. “Heck on wheels” just doesn’t have the same ring. It makes a fellow want to get into YA.


9 comments:

Julia Sarcone-Roach said...

This is very interesting, Brian, thanks for sharing it. And don't give up on "Heck on Wheels" so quick. I think it's got some excellent board book potential!

www.juliadenos.com said...

Intriguing post, Brian! (I second a "Heck on Wheels" board book...!) Looking forward to Locomotive.

Anonymous said...

The trans-continental railroad's moving village may be the original use of "hell on wheels" but I'm not convinced. If it was already a well-known phrase with some other meaning, it would be natural that someone might appropriate its use for the traveling town and the name would stick. I first read of that connection in "Nothing Like It In The World" (a book I enjoyed hugely). But I have a vague recollection of reading the phrase apparently meaning "someone you don't want to cross" in something written before the railroad.

Looking online, I haven't seen a fully-explained pre-trans-continental use of the phrase, but I do see one dictionary entry that claims the first recorded usage is from 1843 (see http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hell). That would be before the trans-continental railroad effort, but for all I know, it might possibly be for a similar town or train-car/saloon/brothal on an earlier railroad construction project. The source doesn't offer information other than the date.

Regarding appropriated terms, I'd guess this is common. For example, I distinctly remember being taught in school that the term "OK" was coined for a presidential campaign and originally meant Old Kinderhook. But now I read in the Wikipedia article on "okay" that the term was already in use, and the campaign simply used the term in their slogan. In fact, it makes much more sense that the campaign would use the term if everyone already knew it.

I surfed about all this tonight because my girlfriend asked me where the term "bitch on wheels" comes from. I'm positive the "on wheels" tag was borrowed from "hell on wheels".

P.S. I want that Locomotive book for my grandson.

Brian Floca said...

Thank you, Julia and Julia! And thanks, Anonymous. Interesting question. I feel I've read in the Ambrose book and also elsewhere that hell on wheels comes from the transcontinental railroad construction, but I've emailed the author of that etymology site to ask where the phrase appeared in 1843. You may be right, of course, about the existing phrase being attached to a new phenomenon. Thanks for the comment!

Brian Floca said...

Anon: I heard back from the author of the etymology post. I asked where the phrase appeared in 1843, and he writes, "The Dictionary of American Slang has 1843, but without a specific citation." He adds, "It certainly wasn't common in writing before 1869."

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