Hell on Wheels: Temporary Cities of the Transcontinental Railroad

“Hell on Wheels” was an itinerant tent city that included a collection of gambling houses, dance halls, saloons, and brothels that moved from place to place in the 1860s as it followed the army of Union Pacific railroad workers who were constructing the First Transcontinental Railroad in North America. It also formed mushrooming municipalities and as town after town arose as the track advanced, each one of these Hell on Wheels was livelier, wickeder, and more reckless that the preceding one. Of these places, the Alexandria Gazette described them in 1868 in the following manner:

“The history of any one of these places is the history of them all … It was entirely formed of large tents. Every other tent was either a gambling den, or a ‘drinking saloon,’ or a dancing hall – with adjoining chambers that go down to hell. There were sixty woman in the town, not one of them virtuous, all of them belonging to the vilest grade of criminal life.

Every night in the large tents (they are a hundred feet long by sixty wide) there are lewd dances, and drinking and gambling, and every variety of obscene and criminal indulgences. Every man goes armed; every man and every woman drinks; every one of both sexes gambles, and, of course, fights, are frequent and murders not uncommon.”[1]

Hell on Wheels route

Route to finish the Transcontinental Railroad through the west. 1863–1869: Union Pacific built west (blue line), Central Pacific built east (red line) and Western Pacific built the last leg (green line) to complete the first transcontinental railroad to the Pacific. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another description of these temporary and movable sites was given by author Samuel Bowles, an American journalist born in Springfield, Massachusetts, who beginning in 1844 was the publisher and editor of the Springfield Republican. In addition, he published a book around 1869 called Our New West that was a record of his travels between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean and was published in Hartford, Connecticut by The Hartford Publishing Company. He is generally the person cited as establishing the moniker “Hell on Wheels” for these upstart towns. Of them he stated:

“As the railroad marched thus rapidly across the broad continent of plain and mountain, there was improvised a rough and temporary town at its every public stopping place. As this was changed every thirty or forty days, these settlements were of the most perishable materials, ― canvas tents, plain board shanties, and turf hovels, ― pulled down and sent forward for a new career, or deserted as worthless, at every grand movement of the Railroad Company. Only a small portion of their populations had aught to do with the road, or any legitimate occupation. Most were the hangers-on around the disbursements of such a gigantic work, catching the drippings from the feast in any and every form that it was possible to reach them. Restaurant and saloon keepers, gamblers, desperadoes, of every grade, the vilest of men and of woman made up this ‘Hell on Wheels,’ as it was most aptly termed.”[2]

Samuel Bowels. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The main reason these temporary towns existed was to drain the money out of the pockets of the hardworking railroad workers. They had to spend what they earned somewhere, and the Hell on Wheels towns provided just the right outlet. As there was little for the railway workers to do and because they were a captive audience, it was easy to entertain them through rot-gut liquor and loose women. Thus, it was saloons, gambling halls, and brothels that followed the railroads and preyed on the worker’s pocketing their hard-earned cash.

One Hell on Wheels town was in Julesberg, Colorado where it served as the end of the Union Pacific Railroad for some months. During that time, it boomed. It was nearly an all-male population and was reported to be “perhaps the most debauched and the most bloodstained little moral pesthouse the Far West ever saw.”[3] Some said it deserved such a reputation because besides the immorality, disputes were settled by guns and justice was in the form of a lynch law. However, in the fall of 1867, after the railroad and its workers left for Cheyenne, Wyoming, Julesberg returned to being just another small innocuous town.

The railroad soon made Cheyenne one of the most well-known of the Hell on Wheels towns. Cheyenne was chosen on 5 July 1867 by General Grenville M. Dodge and his survey crew because it was the point at which the Union Pacific Railroad crossed Crow Creek, a tributary of the South Platte River in Dakota Territory (later Wyoming Territory). Cheyenne quickly became filled with lawless individuals and in fact there were many stories about what it was like for law abiding citizens to live there during this time. For instance, the Chicago Tribune stated:

“Train robbers and horse thieves roamed the streets [in Cheyenne] and it was dangerous for a ‘tenderfoot’ to be out after dark with money in his pockets. … It was no uncommon thing for a half dozen men to be shot or hanged after bedtime within the town limits. Mr. Adams [a Methodist preacher] said that he had frequently seen a man or two hanging from the telegraph poles on his way to church in the morning. … It was like running a circus in a blizzard to conduct church service in those never-to-be-forgotten days. Saturday nights were given over to wild revels.”[4]

In 1868, on a trip to Colorado Bowles was accompanied by his eldest daughter Sally and joined by the Illinois Lieutenant Governor William Bross and Schuyler Colfax, an American journalist, businessman, and politician who served as the 17th vice president of the United States. Along the way Bowles attempted to protect his impressible daughter from all the immorality, but it was difficult. He noted how one town served as a temporary Hell on Wheels and how it was one of the worst of these sites:

“When we were on the line, this congregation of scum and wickedness was within the Desert section, and was called Benton. One to two thousand men and a dozen or two women were encamped on this alkali plain in tents and board shanties; not a tree, not a shrub, not a blade of grass was visible; the dust ankle deep as we walked through it, and so fine and volatile that the slightest breeze loaded the air with it, irritating every sense and poisoning half of them; a village of a few variety stores and shops, and many restaurants and grogshops; by day disgusting, by night dangerous; almost everybody dirty, many filthy, and with the marks of the lowest vice; averaging a murder a day; gambling and drinking, hurdry-gurdy dancing, and the vilest of sexual commerce, the chief business and pastime of the hours – this was Benton. Like its predecessors it 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 further to repeat their life for another day. Where these people came from originally; where they went to when the road was finished, and their occupation was over, were both puzzles too intricate for me. 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.”[5]  

Hell on Wheels

Group portrait of Samuel Bowles (Editor from Springfield, Mass.), William Bross (Lieut. Governor of Illinois and Editor of Chicago Tribune), Schuyler Colfax (Speaker of the House and subsequently Vice President), and Albert D. Richardson (New York Tribune war correspondent and author). Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society.

Although masquerade balls in the eighteenth century in England and France were said to be “carnivals” with dancing, drinking, and gambling, they appeared to be calm affairs in comparison to some of the out-of-control parties held in the Hell on Wheels places like Cheyenne. In addition, frontier dances held in Cheyenne were sometimes so well publicized they drew hundreds of undesirable people such as the following event reported by the Chicago Tribune:  

“On one occasion at a monster dance the scum of the earth came long journeys to participate … Dissolute men and women from Australia, New Zealand, San Francisco ― in fact, from all parts of the globe ― were there … Whisky ran like water. Two thousand men and women danced all nights. Every man was loaded with revolvers, had dirks and bowie knives in his boots, and spurs on his heels ready to mount a bronco pawing at the door. The women, two were armed with their fashion, and nearly man was cutthroat, a gambler, or a politician ― usually all three.”[6]

Some of the temporary Hell on Wheels settlements became permanent. In these towns respectable citizens began to tire of all the immorality, property depredations, and murders. This resulted in vigilante committees forming and witnesses being considered unnecessary because the victims were usually known. In addition, “Judge Lynch” began to determine the outcome with “the judgements of the courts … [considered] unerring and generally righteous.”[7] In fact, townspeople often did not even erect gallows but instead carried out the convicted person’s sentence of hanging by using a telegraph pole or railroad bridge overpass.

An example of how people in these towns viewed justice can be further explained by the following story that appeared in the Rutland Weekly Herald in 1870:

“During a Wyoming murder trail the murdered man appeared in court alive and well. The trial, however, went on, and the jury brought in a verdict of guilty. ‘How’s this?’ says the judge; ‘there has been no murder, the man is alive in court.’ ‘Well, your honor,’ said the foreman, ‘the jury is convinced that the prisoner did not murder this man, but he is a dangerous person. I am sure he stole my gray mare, and we believe that hanging him is necessary for the peace of the country.’”[8]

To create the Transcontinental Railroad the two railroads were to meet. The Pacific Railroad was heading west after leaving from its eastern terminus at the Missouri River settlements of Council Bluffs and Omaha, Nebraska while the Central Pacific Railroad was heading east. In the beginning the Central Pacific experienced all sorts of problems but after crossing the Sierras it was full steam ahead. As for the Union Pacific Railroad they experienced just the opposite: it was easy at first and then they faced problems after leaving the Platte Valley.

Eventually, the two railroads met at Promontory Point in Utah. There the “last spike,” a golden one, was driven by Leland Stanford, an American industrialist and politician who with his wife founded Stanford University. Of this meeting at Promontory Point Salt Lake City’s Weekly Telegraph reported:

“Like two impulsive and determined lovers, rushing into each other’s arms, with the fervid abandon of perfect love and ardor and persistence of unquenchable mutual affection, which neither mountain, nor ocean, nor time, nor distance, nor difficulty could weaken, or divert, or prevent the ultimate happy consummation therefore, the Central and Union Pacific rushed together at the head of the Great Salt Lake, clasped each other in a warm and lasting embrace and were duly and formally and ceremoniously united in honorable and indissoluble bonds of lawful wedlock, on the long-to-be remember tenth day of May, 1869, amid the hearty congratulations and enthusiastic acclamations of the people of Salt Lake and of the whole Union.”[9]

Hell on Wheels - promontory point in Utah

The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869; completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. At center left, Samuel S. Montague, Central Pacific Railroad, shakes hands with Grenville M. Dodge, Union Pacific Railroad (center right). Courtesy of Wikipedia.*

The driving of the spike was one of the world’s first live mass media events. To ensure everyone from coast to coast participated the hammers and spike were wired to the telegraph lines so that when the hammer stroke was made, it would be heard as a click at telegraph stations nationwide. Unfortunately, Stanford missed the spike and so the clicks were sent by the telegraph operator. Then after the golden ceremonial spike was replaced with an ordinary iron spike, the telegraph operator transmitted a message to both coasts that read, “DONE.” Travel from coast to coast was reduced from six months or more to just one week.

The original golden ceremonial spike. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

With the Transcontinental Railroad completed, people like Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, noted that he could barely comprehend the amazing changes that had happened related to speedy train travel. He also compared an 1861 300-mile trip accomplished by a mule-drawn express coach that took fifty-six hours against a nearly identical train trip ten years later that culminated in fifteen hours and forty minutes. The speed of the railroad also helped settle the frontier quicker and the notorious Hell on Wheels towns soon faded away. This was noted by one American journalist who traveled throughout the Far west in 1887 and provided his observations in the Indianapolis Journal:

“From Denver we journeyed to Cheyenne, ‘The Magic City of the Plains’ of to-day, and the ‘hell on wheels’ of other days. The dance-houses, the wide-open gambling saloons, the free-and-easy dives that once gave to Cheyenne its distinctive appellation of ‘hell on wheels,’ have disappeared. The airy, breezy cowboy no longer rides his pony into the bar-room; the festive rustler is not now allowed to lassoo the ‘plug’ hat of the traveler from the effete East, and the touching appeal ‘Please don’t shoot the piano-player; he is doing the best he knows how,’ is no longer in use in the variety-halls. … No lavish display in architecture or in adornment of houses and grounds is seen in proof of this assertion, however, and to the casual visitor the town has a ‘dead-and-alive’ appearance.”[10]

*This photo was staged to purposely exclude the Chinese workers who contributed so much to the Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinese workers represented a large portion of the western-end workers and they performed extremely dangerous work such as tunneling, laying ties over dangerous terrain, and  blasting through mountains. When they died, their bodies were not sent home. Instead they were buried next to the tracks without a ceremony and with no headstone marking their graves. You can learn more about their contributions by clicking here.


  • [1] Alexandria Gazette, “Christianity on Wheels,” August 17, 1868, p. 1.
  • [2] The Guardian, “The True Far West,” March 3, 1870, p. 7.
  • [3] J. Knowles, ed., The Nineteenth Century (New York, 1892), p. 244.
  • [4] Chicago Tribune, “A Methodist Rustler,” July 19, 1888, p. 9.
  • [5] The Guardian, p. 7.
  • [6] Chicago Tribune, p. 9.
  • [7] H. T. Williams, ed., Pacific Tourist (New York: Adams & Bishop, 1881), p. 65.
  • [8] Rutland Weekly Herald, “Condensed News,” March 24, 1870, p. 3.
  • [9] Weekly Telegraph, “The Pacific Railroad,” May 17, 1869, p. 1.
  • [10] The Indianapolis Journal, “Through the Far West,” June 5, 1887, p. 11.

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