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.