WEATHER dominates everything. No matter if it is D-Day at Normandy, or the launching of a rocket into space, or an outdoor wedding, or the building of a transcontinental railroad, everything depends on the weather. The winter of 1866-67 was terribly severe in California, so, even though there were tunnels to dig, which the Central Pacific could pretty much do whatever the conditions outside, the weather stopped the forward progress of the railroad.
The winter from the Sierra Nevada all the way to the Atlantic was one of the worst in the whole of the nineteenth century. In the Rocky Mountains, it was severe beyond any living memory. In western Nebraska, there were “fantastic drifts” and the temperature dropped to forty degrees below zero. In New York City, the East River froze solid. In Chicago, the firemen had to give up, because the water froze in their hose lines. In Omaha, the Missouri River froze over. The weather stopped the Union Pacific in its tracks.
The Casement brothers wanted to go to work in February, but that month and nearly all of March were far too cold with too much snow, so they sat and waited at North Platte. The Missouri was still frozen as late as March 25. Samuel Reed wrote home on March 27 that he had just received a telegram from Grand Island: “We are out of luck in this country, wind blowing and snow drifting worse than ever, half men either blind or frozen, looks bad.” Reed wrote further, “There is an immense quantity of snow on the plains and in the mountains. I expect very high water and we may lose some bridges.”1
Reed’s telegrams to Durant are a nearly constant weather report. February 22: “Heaviest storm of the season. Road blocked.” March 21: “Severe snow storm strong wind road blocked badly.” March 23: “Six inches snow since last evening with strong north west wind road badly blocked still snowing.”
Then, in early April, came the rains. They destroyed twenty miles of the road east of Grand Island and damaged far more. Reed to Durant, April 9: “Flood whole length of line immense damage to road. Track at Loup fork repaired track washed away near Fremont, North Bend, Shell Creek, Lone Tree, Grand Island, Wood River and Willow Island.”2 General Jack Casement put his crews to work repairing track that he had already counted on. “We are all in a heap, generally,” he wrote.3
How big a heap was Arthur Ferguson’s concern. The young surveyor reported to work on April 15, 1867. The railroad was not running and he was stuck in Omaha. A week later, he was still there. “Water in the river still rising,” he wrote in his diary. “Track in places entirely out of sight—a good prospect of the depot grounds being drowned out.” A day later, “Water has risen four inches since last night. The bottom now presents a vast sea of rushing waters.” On April 24, he finally got out of town but was delayed at the Elkhorn River, where there was damage to the bridge. He and his party had to be ferried across the river, to a new engine that was waiting for them. “Road at places in very bad condition.”
The train was pulling baled hay in its cars. The morning of April 25, one of them caught fire from a spark from the engine. “It was a grand sight to see an engine rushing madly across the plains, followed by a car wrapped in flames and streaming sparks and fire in its path.” Then two other cars caught fire, “and we had to run with these burning cars some ten or twelve miles. Arrived at North Platte about 1 p.m.” On April 26, Ferguson got to the end of track on the “first through train from Omaha.”
The previous day, Reed had written his wife that no grading or track laying had yet been done. “Before the break, there was a prospect of rushing ahead more rapidly than last year. It gives me to blues to think that our road, which was in such good shape, should be at this season of the year so badly cut up.”
On May 1, Ferguson finally set off in a wagon to do his job, but “until nearly dark we were stuck in mud holes and had to unload and reload.” Finally, he got so badly stuck that he sent his man back to fetch more livestock to help pull him out. “I felt very lonesome. Alone with a loaded wagon, which was deeply imbedded in the mud—the dark and gloomy shades of night fast gathering and with the vast expanse of prairie, I felt truly desolated. There is an indescribable something, a feeling unspeakable, an utter desolation which creeps over a man on these vast plains.”
There was more. In a couple of days he got started on his work, mainly running levels for the graders. Among his diary entries for May are May 15: “About half-past one it commenced snowing and continued to snow hard for several hours. News was brought to camp this evening that the Indians made a descent on the ranches east of us yesterday and ran off with the stock.” May 17: “The weather is quite cold. I put on my greatcoat, draw my feet up to the fire, and read ‘Pickwick.’ About 2 p.m. the party returned, the weather being too inclement. While I now write, Clark is sitting by the stove with his greatcoat on. It has commenced to drizzle. The wind blows very hard and very cold, though we are very comfortable in our tent, with the exception of a few places where it leaks.”
May 22: “The Indians have killed four men. When the men go to work, even if they are in full sight of the camp, they go well armed. I counted ten guns, most of them breech-loading. Something like the times of 1776.” May 23: “Last night were startled by the howling of wolves…. There is reported to be a camp of 700 Sioux lodges on the North Platte. Indians are reported to have been seen in the bluffs today.” May 25: “A party of Indians dashed into the camp below us and ran off three head of stock, and then they came charging towards our tents but turned off into the bluffs in plain view of camp. The Indians were pursued and the stock retaken, with one head in addition, which was captured from the savages.”4
E. C. Lockwood was a lad in his teens working as a paymaster for the Casement brothers out on the line. One day he saw seventeen Sioux Indians under the leadership of Spotted Tail ride up to the tracks. Jack Casement received them cordially and showed them the process of track laying. At one point he took them through one of the cars with U.S. Army rifles stacked horizontally on one of the walls. Lockwood found it “interesting to see the expressions on their faces.” But then the impression turned; Casement had Lockwood put up a shovel sixty feet or so away, then challenged the Indians to show what they could do with their bows and arrows. Lockwood later wrote, “Sixteen of the Indians put their arrows through the hole in the handle, while the seventeenth hit the handle at the hole, knocking the shovel over. He felt quite disgraced.”
Next came a race between the Indians on their ponies and the locomotive. Spotted Tail got into the cab of the engine along with Casement and Lockwood, while the warriors lined up four abreast for the word to go. “Away they went. At first the Indians outdistanced the locomotive, which so pleased them that they gave their Indian war whoop. But presently the engine gathered speed, then overhauled them. The engineer as he passed opened his whistle, which so startled them that all, as if by word of command, swung to the offside of their ponies. Of course this ended the race.”5
DESPITE the weather and the Indians, Dodge had big plans for the railroad in 1867. So did Durant. In April, from Omaha, he telegraphed to Nebraska Senator John Thayer, “I will pledge myself to complete two miles a day for the first one hundred working days after the frost is out of the ground.” By April 20, the Casements were at work preparing for and laying new track. Their workforce was as big as and more complex than that of the CP.6
Dodge expected to push the end of track as far as Fort Sanders, Dakota Territory,* on the Laramie River, between the Black Hills and the Medicine Bows, west of the mountains and 288 miles beyond the North Platte River. The track would surmount the summit of the Black Hills at an altitude of 8,242 feet (the CP’s highest point was twelve hundred feet or so lower). Then down the mountains’ western slope, across Dale Creek, and a descent to the Laramie Plains.
When Dodge outlined his plan to Sherman, the general expressed wonderment: “It is almost a miracle to grasp your purpose to finish to Fort Sanders this year, but you have done so much that I mistrust my own judgment and accept yours.” He also told Dodge that, after the railroad had gotten across Nebraska and into Wyoming, Indians such as the Sioux and Cheyennes “must die or submit to our dictation.”7
“I hope you will have troops to give us ample protection,” Dodge wrote back. “We are going to be short of labor, and any lack of military protection, when Indians are at war, would render it almost impossible to keep men on the line.” Dodge knew the problems Grant and Sherman had, what with demobilization and reconstruction in the South and demands from all over the Western United States for protection, but “what you and I know is going to be hard to make a lot of Irishmen believe. They want to see occasionally a soldier to give them confidence.” Sherman wrote back, “I give you all that I possibly can.”8
One of Sherman’s handicaps was the slackness in enlistment. He had a demand for soldiers everywhere, but few were signing up. The army tried to get the newly freed slaves to join, but Sherman said they were slow to do so, which “limits our ability to respond.” Still, he signed off, “So far as interest in your section is concerned, you may rest easy that both Grant and I feel deeply concerned in the safety of your great national enterprise.”9
IN mid-April, the Casements had started their armies west. The numbers—from 3,500 graders working as far as 200 miles in advance of the end of track, to 450 track men, 350 men of the train force, 100 surveyors, several thousand tie cutters and lumberjacks, and as many as 1,000 shop men—approached 10,000. In addition, L. B. Boomer, owner of the Chicago Howe Truss Bridge Company, with well over 1,000 working for him, was supplying the UP with prefabricated sections for bridges. These were made of 12-inch-by-12-inch-by-16-foot lumber, sent out from Chicago, according to specifications sent to the bridge company by the UP engineers.10
Durant arrived in late April, to do an inspection. With him were the UP’s Acting President Oliver Ames and Director John Duff, and a government director. Reed, who picked them up on the east bank of the Missouri, wrote his wife, “I do not feel any trembling in my boots. Let what will, come. I have a clear conscience.”11
Dodge joined them and took them out on the line, and Durant said he and the others were “well pleased” with the road. Still, Oliver Ames was appalled to discover what Nebraska looked like west of Fort Kearney. He thought it a miserable waste, and said that if it were up to him he wouldn’t take all the land along the railroad as a gift.
The directors told Dodge to begin selling lots belonging to the railroad, and he did, with some success, matching the government’s price of $2.50 per acre. His best argument was that rain followed the tracks. Dodge thought that the rain belt moved westward at the rate of eight miles per year behind the tracks. Twenty-five years after the UP went through Nebraska, he declared that it now rained as much in the Plains as it did east of the Mississippi, and to such an extent that farmers in Colorado or Nebraska could raise fine crops without irrigation, “right up to the foot of the mountains.” This had been predicted, he claimed, by a “Prof. Agassis in 1867,” who said it would come by “the disturbance of the electrical currents, caused by the building of the Pacific railroad.”12
Durant and Ames were in the midst of a gigantic struggle. Durant believed that the road would never make any money, that the only chance for a profit in return for all their work and investment was in construction—i.e., with the Crédit Mobilier. Ames thought the opposite. Durant wanted to cheapen the construction as much as the UP could get away with, and lengthen the mileage. Ames wanted to make money from the road itself. Durant called him a “damn fool.”
On May 6, Reed told his wife that Durant and the other men had “broken up in a row and no one knows what will be the end.”13
The Casements and their men, meanwhile, continued to lay track, quickly making more than a mile per day. “That slender line of iron,” reported the Chicago Tribune, “goes constantly onward.”14 One mile per day, sometimes one and a half, even two miles a day. They were going across western Nebraska, toward Julesburg, just a couple of miles into northernmost Colorado, where they would break away from the Platte River and follow its tributary, Lodgepole Creek, into present-day Wyoming.
The crew chiefs lived as did their men. A Chicago Tribune reporter wrote: “The chiefs intend to have their men do a fair day’s work—that is business. But they also intend to make them as comfortable as possible. If a man is sick, they take care of him. If he dies, they bury him. He is as well fed as those who employ him, and is as well housed. He undergoes no more risks than they do.”15
The Casements and their men never let up, except on the day of rest. The construction train and wagons were twenty miles long. At the end of track, the cry of “Down!” rang out every thirty seconds. The wagons, when empty, were tipped over, and a teamster barked out his orders and his horse jerked forward, hauling the next load forward. Behind the men pulling off the rails and putting them into place came the gaugers, then the spikers and bolters, who all swarmed to the rail in rapid succession, measuring and squaring and pounding it into place. The drumbeat was the sledgehammers on the spikes. It was always there, monotonous but thrilling. The railroad was being built.
Alongside the various crews the foremen paced restlessly, spitting out orders, exhorting, pleading, cursing. Up ahead—sometimes far ahead, as much as a hundred miles—the grading parties worked, linked to the others only by the thin tentacles of telegraph wire, also far in advance of the work. Ahead of the graders, the surveyors were laying out the final line.
Arthur Ferguson was one of them. He recorded in his diary the way he and the others operated. July 24: “This morning, our party proceeded to change a portion of the line, opposite our present camp, for the purpose of avoiding some exceedingly rough and expensive work. After completing this we went to the end of our division for the purpose of changing the line which we completed this afternoon.” July 25: “Worked hard all the morning at staking out and running levels.” July 28: “After breakfast we staked out several hundred feet on the curve on the change of line opposite camp. We then recommenced work on our estimate of the 1st Div., 5th 100 mile and finished all with the exception of figuring out the cubic yards over a portion of it. We are now located in a wild and beautiful region. I finished reading the New Testament through this morning. Mr. Shannon sits by my side reading one of Sir Walter Scott’s works.”16
“What unites them all,” Maury Klein wrote, “is a fierce determination not to let down those coming on behind.” They were like an army in so many ways, but most of all in this epitome of friendship: they all knew and accepted that every man was dependent on every other man. “Every party is bent on holding up its end. The men will not be outstripped by those pushing on ahead or chasing from behind.” Like sergeants or junior officers, the crew chiefs knew their men’s determination and took full advantage of it. In Klein’s words, “No one will know the names of those thousands who provided the brawn, but the greatest accomplishment of all will be theirs: they built the railroad.”17
• • •
THE weather slowed the railroad down, and even stopped it for some time. The Indians threatened to put it out of existence. What the construction crews had, the Indians wanted. Livestock, rifles, ammunition, hats, jackets, food in cans. Much of it could be easily captured by a raiding party. Then there were scalps. Most of all there was the land, which the Indians regarded as theirs. One quick dash on the Casements’, working gangs, one pile of rails or ties set over a completed track, would bring riches such as never before known on the Great Plains. There for the taking. The soldiers seldom if ever could detect, prevent, or defeat an Indian raiding party.
On May 1, 1867, the Cheyennes eliminated a four-man mail party just west of Laramie. That was just a start. On May 18, Ferguson saw an Indian war party sweep by as it “pulled up one mile of Railroad stakes in sight of the party,” stakes he had helped place. The Indians cantered away without loss.18
Two days later, Dodge wrote to Sherman pleading for more protection. The Sioux had “cleaned out two of our subcontractors of everything they had and scared the workmen out of their boots, so they abandoned the work and we can not get them back.” The Sioux had also raided tie men cutting trees in the Black Hills, killing several, and hit a survey team, killing a soldier and a surveyor. After other complaints, Dodge told Sherman, “I have smothered all the recent attacks and kept them out of the press.”19
But Dodge was not so successful as he wished in keeping the Indian raids out of the newspapers. It became a major story, played up in all the papers, especially the New York, Chicago, and other big-city dailies. The scalps taken, the wounds inflicted, the savages’ practice of firing arrows into dead bodies or mutilating them in other ways, and many more atrocities were widely reported, with full details, some of them made up by the reporters. In a pretelevision era, the reports took the place of smoke, burning buildings, weeping victims, stabbing or shooting wounds, and other outrages that grab and hold the American viewing public in the twenty-first century.
As the weather improved, the raids increased. On May 25, 26, and 27, the Sioux and Cheyennes struck the line at various points, derailing a work train near the end of track, killing four UP workers, taking UP livestock. At another place a war party killed four graders and at yet another a six-man section gang. Dodge was traveling to the end of track with three government commissioners that spring when about a hundred Indians swept down on a grading party. Dodge’s standing orders to “every surveying corps, grading, bridging, and tie outfit was never to run when attacked.” The graders had their arms stacked on the cut where they were working. They rushed to them to begin shooting, but the Indians managed to run off some stock first. After that experience, according to Dodge, the commissioners “on returning to the East dwelt earnestly on the necessity of our being protected.”
Sherman did what he could to help. He visited the work site several times each year. Dodge wrote to him once a month or more. Dodge also wrote the commander-in-chief, General Grant, who “had given full and positive instructions that every support should be given to me.”20
Given the army’s size, that support often meant little or nothing. Or, as one trooper said, “It’s awkward as hell for one soldier to surround three Indians.” Indeed. On June 2, Ferguson recorded: “This morning, shortly after sunrise the camp was aroused by the cry of here they come! Here they come boys!” He and his tent mates grabbed their rifles and rushed out, “and there we saw the Indians charging down upon us from the northern bluffs.” The white men fired and the Indians pulled back, then retreated. “One of the engineers captured from the Indians a white woman’s scalp, which was quite green having been killed but a few days.”21
A few days later, Sherman was in Nebraska examining the line and pondering the Indian raids. He wrote to Grant. The Indian country was large, he said, as large as the whole settled United States. It posed enormous problems. But the railroad, when completed, would settle many of them. Supplies could then be hauled west in sufficient quantity to mount a real offensive action against the Indians. Military posts would be unnecessary, because the train could move the troops around.
The Indian guerrilla war continued. Two of Dodge’s surveyors, L. L. Hills in the mountains and Percy Browne west of the Rockies, were killed. They had been caught unaware. They should have been looking out for themselves, but there was something in the nature of these surveyors that made them careless of danger. Both men and their parties were entranced by the country around them. In June, it was in full bloom. Thick grass flowed in the wind, delicate white lilies sprouted through the grass. Even the cacti were covered with red and golden blossoms.
On June 18, Hills wandered away from his party and was caught by a band of Arapahos. He was riddled with arrows. One of his young helpers, nineteen-year-old axman J. M. Eddy, rallied the men and drove off the Indians. When Dodge learned that Eddy had served under him during the war, after enlisting at the age of sixteen, he promoted him and put him to work directly under himself. Eddy stayed with the UP until it was constructed, and continued to rise; eventually he became a general manager of the railroad, a position he held for the rest of his life.22 Hills had evidently ignored, or forgotten, Dodge’s orders, which were that “the chief of the party must absolutely command it, and at all times be ready to fight.” Another was “the importance of never slacking their vigilance no matter where they were, never being off their guard.” According to Dodge, those who followed his orders “generally took their parties through.”23
A month after Hills’s death, Browne was looking for the Continental Divide, west of Nebraska, but he found that he was in a great basin five hundred feet lower than the surrounding country. He and his party set off across it in search of water flowing west. The Sioux caught them. A long skirmish followed. Browne was hit by a ball in the abdomen. He staggered a few hundred feet before falling.
He begged his assistant to “Shoot me first,” before riding off. But his men would not abandon him. They let the horses go, hoping the Sioux would follow. They did, and Browne’s men improvised a litter by lashing their carbines together. They trudged down a ridge. Browne never groaned or complained. A half-hour after reaching a stage station, he died.24
Dodge could not afford to lose his best surveyors.
FIRES were another hazard. Engineer Robert Miller Galbraith ran a UP train from Sidney, Nebraska, west. He was burning a combination of cedarwood and Iowa coal, and pulling among other things two carloads of baled hay, uncovered. After a short run, he discovered that sparks from the fuel to run the boiler had set the hay on fire. He tried to ditch the burning cars by cutting them loose from the remainder of the train, but one of them fell onto the track. He ran the locomotive to the next station, where with a cold chisel and a hammer he cleaned out the grates on the engine, throwing the clinkers out onto the deck, which set it afire. Meanwhile, his brakeman took a pine tie out from under the track and cut it up for kindling wood. That enabled Galbraith to get up steam.
He set off, and had come to a little trestle bridge when a car loaded with mules jumped the track and tipped over. Galbraith ditched the car and went on to the end of track. After sleeping on the ground, he woke up and “found I had a fine herd of cooties.” He was called back to North Platte to pick up Dr. Durant and bring him west. And so it went for the early engineers. Galbraith would not have taken any other job.25
AS the end of track moved on west, it was accompanied by a scene that greatly pleased the workingmen and would later excite Hollywood and the book writers who made epics out of the Union Pacific, led by Cecil B. DeMille. Hell on Wheels—the man who came up with the phrase, which was universally adopted, is unknown—began at North Platte. The village had grown from almost nothing to five thousand inhabitants since the track stopped there for the winter of 1866-67. Most of the residents were workers waiting for warm weather. The village bulged with gambling dens, houses of prostitution, taverns, music halls, hotels, and an occasional restaurant. These establishments were run by sharks, from Chicago mainly, who had put up a small investment—canvas for a tent or for some split lumber, a bar full of liquor, some money for dancers and dealers, a little more here and there.
The sharks took in large amounts. Their customers consisted of young men with whatever they had saved from their wages, whether last year’s or last week’s, with nothing to do, far from home and family constraints. Their chief entertainment came from getting drunk, getting laid, and losing all their money to the gamblers. What the hell, there was nothing else to spend money on, and anyway they had a place to sleep and eat, and during the working season they would make more money the next morning.
Many of them, perhaps most, were young Irishmen. Stephen Vincent Benét wrote about them in his 1935 fable “O’Halloran’s Luck.” He opened, “They were strong men built the Big Road and it was the Irish did it.” The grandfather of the protagonist was “a young man then, and wild. He could swing a pick all day and dance all night, if there was a fiddler handy.” He and his buddies “had left famine and England’s rule behind.” He “liked the strength and the wildness of it—he’d drink with the thirstiest and fight with the wildest—and that he knew how to do. It was all meat and drink to him—the bare tracks pushing ahead across the bare prairie and the fussy cough of the wood-burning locomotives and the cold blind eyes of a murdered man.”26
They had served in the Union Army, for the most part, and were accustomed to the life. Whether many of them, or only a few, or none suffered from shell shock or other forms of postcombat trauma is not known, but for certain they were accustomed to pistols and rifles and artillery going off, to losing everything on one roll of the dice, to wounds and death.
Henry Stanley wrote of North Platte when it was at the end of track: “Every gambler in the Union seems to have steered his course here, where every known game under the sun is played. Every house is a saloon and every saloon is a gambling den. Revolvers are in great requisition. Beardless youths … try their hands at the ‘Mexican monte,’ ‘high-low’ ‘chuck-a-luck,’ and lose their all.”27
Sometimes they protested about being cheated. When they did, they were shot. One a day, or more. Hell on Wheels moved as the end of track moved. It could be taken down and set up again in a day. Its population numbered two thousand or so. By June, Hell on Wheels was in Julesburg, a town that, according to Samuel Reed, “continues to grow with magic rapidity. Vice and crime stalk unblushingly in the mid-day sun.”28 It had grown from forty men and one woman to four thousand.
Stanley visited the place and was amazed at what he saw: “I walked on to a dance-house. Gorgeously decorated and brilliantly lighted. I was almost blinded by the glare and stunned by the clatter. The ground floor was as crowded as it could well be…. Mostly every one seemed bent on debauchery and dissipation. The women were the most reckless, … expensive. They come in for a large share of the money wasted…. Soldiers, herdsmen, teamsters, women, railroad men, are dancing, singing or gambling. There are men here who would murder a fellow-creature for five dollars. Nay, there are men who have already done it. Not a day passes but a dead body is found somewhere in the vicinity with pockets rifled of their contents.”29
These places were built of the “most perishable materials,” Samuel Bowles wrote. They consisted of “canvas tents, plain board shanties, and turf-hovels.” The population was scum. “One to two thousand men, and a dozen or two women were encamped on the alkali plain…. 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 it irritated every sense and poisoned half of them.” Hell on Wheels was “a village of a few variety stores and shops, and many grog-shops; by day disgusting, by night dangerous; almost everybody dirty, many filthy, and with the marks of lowest vice; averaging a murder a day; gambling and drinking, hurdy-gurdy dancing and the vilest of sexual commerce the chief business and pastime of the hours.”
Where these people came from, where they went to later, “were both puzzles too intricate for me,” Bowles confessed. “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.”30
The so-called “Big Tent” was a hundred feet long and forty feet wide, covered with canvas but with a wood floor for dancing. The right side was lined by a splendid bar with every variety of liquors and cigars, with cut-glass goblets, ice pitchers, splendid mirrors and pictures. A full band played, apparently day and night. Gambling tables surrounded the dance floor. Fair women, in light and airy garments, mingled with the throng. Men paid 50 cents for a drink for their girl, 50 cents for themselves, with a dance thrown in. The whiskey for the men was watered, and it was tea for the girls, but no matter. Down it went.
One reporter noted that in such places “Madam Rumor has full sway. It reminds one of Washington during the war. There are as many reports as then. Every stage driver, every passenger, every ranchman, every railroad employee, has his little legend to tell.”
The UP officials tried to hold things down, however they could. Occasionally they would send out a Columbus priest named Father Ryan, who would put up a tent and ties for the congregation to sit on. According to the reporter who witnessed the scene, they listened devoutly to the sermon and shared in Communion, and sang a hymn or two. Then Father Ryan “talked to them about their profanity, their drunkenness, and their general waste of money. He urged them to be true to their faith, and to their employers, and to take a pride in their work on the great railroad.”31
Julesburg got so bad that Grenville Dodge, who had seen a lot of young Americans downing a lot of drinks during the Civil War, stepped in. He heard that gamblers had taken over and refused to obey the local UP officials. What bothered Dodge the most was that they had taken up lands he had set aside as belonging to the UP and refused to pay for them. He called Julesburg “a much harder place than North Platte.” Dodge told Jack Casement to take his train force into town and clean the place up.
Casement, who was a teetotaler, was ready. He marched into town that night with two hundred men. They met with the gamblers, who spat contempt at him and refused to pay up. With a quiet voice, Casement ordered his men to open fire, “not caring whom they hit.” When Dodge came to town and asked what had happened, Casement led him to a nearby hill full of fresh graves. “General,” he told Dodge, “they all died, but bought peace. Julesburg has been quiet since.”32 Among those with Dodge were engineers Evans and Reed, and General John A. Rawlins. Grant had asked Dodge to take Rawlins, who served as his aide and was one of Grant’s closest friends, along with him, in the hope that the pure mountain air would cure Rawlins of his consumption. Others included a geologist who was hoping to find coal on the lands given the UP by the government. Sherman provided two companies of cavalry and two of infantry for protection. Jack Casement joined the party.
One of Dodge’s first tasks was to get a surveying party to work. He discovered that the men who had been working for L. L. Hills were waiting for a leader. Dodge placed Evans in charge and put him to work on the land west of the summit of the mountains. Then he began to look over the ground around his camp. He had the authority to lay out town sites and take lots for the company’s use as depots, repair shops, sidings, and so forth. On this one, he came immediately to the conclusion that the railroad’s main shops should be precisely where his tent stood. So he laid out a town, claiming 320 acres for the railroad’s use. He honored the dominant tribe in the region by calling the town Cheyenne.33
On July 4, Rawlins gave a well-received speech. The next day, a band of Indians sprang on a grading crew and killed three men. Rawlins was astonished to see the Indians attack when there were four companies of U.S. troops camped in the area. Dodge had the dead men buried on the site of his new town, and Cheyenne had its first cemetery.
The city of Cheyenne is where the mountains meet the plains, on the southeastern edge of Wyoming, at an elevation of 6,062 feet. It is a natural crossing place. From Cheyenne today, one train track leads west across the state and on to California, another north to Montana and south to Denver; so too the interstate, with 1-80 going east-west and 1-25 north-south.
The Union Pacific is the main corporate employer in town. To the uncountable number of train buffs in the United States, and indeed around the world, Cheyenne is a Mecca. There the last steam engines purchased by the UP are housed. They were made during World War II and used well into the 1950s, and today they haul passenger trains to special events. The old depot has been turned into a railroad museum. Dodge’s tent site has a marker on it. Everyone with any connection to the UP or to trains knows the simple fact that Dodge picked well, and that Cheyenne remains, as it has been for nearly a century and a half, one of the premier railroad towns in the world.
DODGE stayed in Cheyenne for three weeks, long enough to see another Hell on Wheels roll into it. The army established a post just north of town, called Fort A. D. Russell. Dodge rode over the summit and on to Dale Creek, on the edge of the Laramie Plains. While his men went trout fishing, he studied the creek. It was a tiny stream that in July just barely trickled through a gorge that was 130 feet deep and 713 feet wide. It would take a trestle bridge 125 feet high and 1,400 feet long to cross it, plus some cuts before the bridge could be reached. Dodge studied it for several days and could find no other way to get across. It was a mighty puny creek to require such a terribly large bridge, but that could not be helped.
Dodge went on to Fort Sanders, where he stayed long enough to lay out another town, to be called Laramie (and eventually to be the site of the University of Wyoming). It was here at Fort Sanders that Dodge learned for the first time that Browne had been killed by Indians. Now he needed a new surveyor to mark out the region to the west.
He was tired, overworked, shorthanded, sick, and he had just lost two of his best engineers and surveyors. On the trip west he had suffered “everything but death from my rides—how long I can stand it God only knows.” But he had to continue, in order to do Browne’s work and lay out a line west of the Rockies. “I must push West,” he wired the company. “The Indians hold the country from here to Green River [in today’s western Wyoming] and unless I get out there, we will fail in all our plans for 1868.”34
That would not do. The railroad had captured the public, to the point where it dominated the news. Horace Greeley’s paper, the New York Tribune, declared that Casement’s men “are working upon a scale never before approached in railway history.”35 Harper’s Weekly pronounced, “No road of its length and magnitude was ever before contemplated, much less attempted…. The work is now one of such national importance that the people insist upon its vigorous prosecution as positively as they insisted on the prosecution of the late war.”36
The railroad to the Pacific may have been of the greatest importance, but riding on an 1867 train imposed a terrible price on passengers. Back east, and not infrequently in the West as well, at least according to Harper’s Weekly, the railroads used “abominable old-fashioned, low-roofed cars and there are still passengers who ignominiously submit to this and to every other kind of railroad tyranny.” The cars were subject to a constant “jerking and thumping.” Sometimes during this ordeal, “a brakeman thrusts his head into the car, shouts something, slams the door, and leaves the excited passenger to the wildest conjecture.” In addition there was the “misery of summer railway travel, including the heat, the glare, the dust, the cinders and the rattle, plus the flies.”37
Through the summer, the Indians continued to dispute the road. Ferguson noted on July 8, “In the past 48 hours, they have made dashes on both sides of us. Everything indicates lively times on the Lodge Pole line as regards Indians.” July 9: “Last night about midnight, three Indians rode up within gunshot of our tent.” August 5: “I have cleaned my carbine out today and got my ammunition, 74 rounds, in readiness.” A climax came on August 11: “The report has reached us that the Indians have thrown a train of cars off the track and after killed all on board except the conductor, piled ties around the engine and cars and destroyed them by fire. It is also reported that the Indians have carried off two white women.”38
That wasn’t rumor. On August 7, a party of forty or so Cheyennes led by Chief Pawnee Killer went after the railroad. Operating near Plum Creek, in central Nebraska, they cut the telegraph, then removed the spikes and bent the rails and waited for the next train to derail itself—just as the Confederates and Yankees had done to each other’s trains during the war. When the train hit the damaged rail, over the engine went. The engineer, fireman, two brakemen, and three telegraph repairers were killed. Behind that train came another freight train. It crashed into the wreck and was overturned. The conductor ran back down the track and stopped a third train, which backed up to the Plum Creek station. The Cheyennes meanwhile burned the trains and cars; they killed and scalped seven or eight people and threw their bodies into the flames.39
A relief train carrying workers armed with carbines went back to the scene before dawn. As the train approached, the engineer and others saw that the Indians had found some barrels of whiskey, got drunk, and set the wreck on fire. A Chicago Tribune reporter noted that the fire “lit the prairie for a considerable distance around. The dark forms of the savages were plainly seen dancing triumphantly around the scene of their atrocious work, while their fierce yells were borne savagely back to the train.” It was horrifying. The Tribune wrote: “The railroad men in Omaha, fresh from Cheyenne, filled with alarming rumors … have an infallible remedy for the Indian troubles. That remedy is extermination. These men, most of them tender and gentle with the weak of their own race, speak with indifference of the ‘wiping out’ of thousands of papooses and squaws.”40
It wasn’t just the ordinary railroad workers who felt that way. So did their leaders. “We’ve got to clean the damn Indians out,” Dodge declared, “or give up building the Union Pacific Railroad. The government may take its choice.” For his part, Sherman wrote at this time, “The more we can kill this year the less will have to be killed the next year, for the more I see of these Indians the more convinced I am that they all have to be killed or be maintained as a species of paupers.”41
AFTER going over the pass (called Sherman Pass by Dodge, a name it retains), examining Dale Creek, and laying out Laramie, Dodge and his group pushed on west, looking for water flowing toward the Pacific as a sign that they had passed the Continental Divide. After crossing the North Platte River (which flows out of the Medicine Bow Mountains nearly straight north as far as today’s Casper before it turns east), they set out to the west, “endeavoring to find running water.”
They were now in the Great Basin. The streams running into it sank, and one of Dodge’s party said the dry creek beds looked to him like the “shallow graves of deceased rivers.” (This area is today called the Red Desert. Here was where the Sioux had caught and killed Browne.) There Dodge discovered and helped a party of UP surveyors who had been without water for nearly a week. They were headed straight east, by compass, looking for water, and were in Dodge’s words “in deplorable condition.”
Dodge discovered a spring in a draw. General Rawlins, grateful for the drink, pronounced it the “most acceptable of anything he had had on this march.” He drank again and said that, if some spot was ever named for him, he hoped it would be a spring of water.
Dodge instantly replied, “We will name this Rawlins Springs.” And so it is to this day.* Dodge told his wife that Rawlins was “one of the purest, highest minded men I ever saw. That he must die with that dread consumption seems too bad.”42
THOMAS Hubbard was a surveyor helping make a line across Wyoming. His diary entries, although short, are vivid descriptions of the land. August 5, 1867: “The country over which we passed was a barren desert of alkali composition. There was not a spear of grass or a drop of water in the whole distance.” August 6: “Run about ten miles and quit work at six P.M. The country through which we run was if possible more barren than yesterday. There is no water within ten miles of our line. We have to haul our water in barrels. The team started tonight to get a fresh supply. The weather suffocatingly hot.” August 7: “The team returned with casks filled with water. But it was so full of all kinds of poison that we could not use it. It was as red as blood and filled with all kinds of vermin. The horses and mules as dry as they are would not drink it. We were compelled to return twenty miles to our old camp to get water.”43
Dodge went on to the Wasatch Range, then Salt Lake City, where he conferred with Brigham Young. In the Wasatch he had found Weber Canyon and marked it down as the place to get through the mountains and on to Salt Lake Valley. The geologist with him found immense coal deposits at a place Dodge called Carbon.
Dodge further discovered that he could follow any one of a number of streams into the Snake River Valley in southern Idaho. Thus “the entire feasibility of a railroad from several points on our line to Snake River Valley, and thence to Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington Territory, was fully demonstrated.” That was the line he wanted to build. “It would be by far the best line from the Atlantic to the Pacific, would avoid the high elevation of the Wasatch and Sierra Nevadas, with their heavy grades and troublesome snows, and no doubt ere long it will become the great through route.”44 He did eventually build along that line. The UP called it the “Oregon Short Line.” But in 1867, he was stuck with the Weber Canyon, around the Salt Lake, to meet up with the CP coming from the Sierra across Utah. That was the route dictated by Congress, and that was the route that was going to be.
DODGE found something else in Weber Canyon. There were CP surveyors there doing preliminary work for their railroad. It appeared that Huntington and his partners thought the CP would reach the Salt Lake first and take over the Mormon business, then extend to the Green River (which Dodge had just crossed). For his part, Dodge wanted the UP to get as far as Humboldt Wells. He had thought the CP had hoped to get as far as Ogden, on the east side of the Salt Lake forty miles or so north of Salt Lake City, but now he learned it was planning to go farther east than Ogden. The race was well under way.
Best of all for the UP, what Dodge found between Laramie and Utah was an open prairie of comparatively low elevation (about seven thousand feet). In two months his party had covered fourteen hundred miles on horseback. He had laid out a preliminary line for the surveyors from Julesburg to the Salt Lake, and in the process made the first map of the Great Basin and southern Wyoming. It was a country in which the UP could sink artesian wells to a great depth and keep the water tanks full by using windmills. “The work of building the road there was unexpectedly light,” Dodge later wrote, “and it almost seems that nature made this great opening in the Rocky Mountains expressly for the passage of a transcontinental railway.”45
The Sioux and Cheyennes thought the Basin and the Great Plains to the east had been made for them. They continued their raids, although nothing quite so big as the Plum Creek affair.
President Johnson appointed a Peace Commission, with Sherman on it. The commission went from tribe to tribe to parlay with the chiefs and sign treaties. A big conference was held in September at North Platte, with the railroad as the main subject. Pawnee Killer and others were there, and Sherman made a speech. He told the Indians, “This railroad will be built, and if you are damaged [by it] we must pay you in full, and if your young men will interfere the Great Father, who, out of love for you, withheld his soldiers, will let loose his young men, and you will be swept away.” That was blunt enough. So was what followed: “We will build iron roads, and you cannot stop the locomotive any more than you can stop the sun or the moon, and you must submit, and do the best you can.”
Pawnee Killer, who had stopped two locomotives, stomped out of the council in a rage. He swore to end the railroad building. Sherman was as determined as the Cheyenne chief “Whether right or wrong,” he wrote his brother the senator, “those Roads will be built, and everybody knows that Congress, after granting the charters, and fixing the Routes, cannot now back out and surrender the country to a few bands of roving Indians.”46
THE Casements and their men were almost at Nebraska’s western border, near mile 440. The company’s rolling stock had grown to fifty-three locomotives, eleven hundred freight cars, ten passenger cars, five baggage cars, and sixty handcars, plus one paymaster’s car, one cooking car, twenty-five caboose cars, twenty-five coal cars, one officers’ car, and one president’s car (the old Lincoln Car). The UP had 350 mechanics and carpenters working in Omaha and North Platte who could turn out twenty cars a week and do all the railroad’s mechanical repairs.”47
All this cost money. The UP had it. Commencing in July 1867, the promoters found a ready market for UP bonds. The Casement brothers and their workers, after all, had laid 260 miles of track in eight months and were surging forward. No such railroading had ever been dreamed of. Further, when the UP got to the mountains, not very far distant that summer, the government loan of bonds would rise to $48,000 per mile. In addition, the UP announced at the end of August that its earnings during the three preceding months alone had been nearly three-quarters of a million dollars; deducting expenses of a quarter-million dollars, the net operating profit was almost a half-million. The UP’s own bonds, equal in numbers and price to those loaned by the government, sold well.48
Also encouraging was that the Ames brothers and their Boston allies held 52 percent of the Crédit Mobilier stock, and had used their control to oust Durant from every office in the company. And Henry V. Poor, editor of the American Railroad ]ournal, had just written, “There is nothing connected with the Union Pacific that is not wonderful.” In an editorial, he added, “The Union Pacific bonds are the safest and best investment at the same price in the country. Their security is absolute.”49 Durant did hold on to his UP stock and his office there, but he and the Ames brothersremained at loggerheads, with Durant looking to milk the government through the construction charges while they wanted to build a railroad that would return profits of its own.
Bond sales continued to be solid. In October, $672,000 were sold; in November, it was $700,000; in December, $2,450,000, or a total for the three months of $3,822,000. The U.S. government had accepted 240 miles of track at $16,000 per mile, to a total of $8,160,000 in loaned government bonds, and the price per mile was about to go up. The UP earned $3,465,000 for the year 1867, with operating expenses, including taxes, at $1,404,000, making $2,061,000 in net earnings.
The profit went to the Crédit Mobilier, whose trustees on December 12, 1867, declared the firm’s first dividend: each holder of ten shares (at $1,000 per share par value) got $600 of the first mortgage bonds and six shares of UP stock, for a total cash payment of 76 percent on the investment. A handsome payoff, with more to come. Oakes Ames started to get congressmen to buy Crédit Mobilier stock. His motive, he later said, was: “We wanted capital and influence. Influence not in legislation alone, but on credit, good, wide, and a general favorable feeling.” He placed the stock with nine U.S. representatives and two U.S. senators, amounting in all to 160 shares for $16,000. Not much, considering the amounts the company was working with, but enough to threaten to set off the biggest scandal of the nineteenth century.50
AT the beginning of November, the Casements and their men had reached within a few miles of Cheyenne. The town had already held an election on August 10 and set up a city government. On September 19, Cheyenne’s first newspaper, the Daily Leader, had been printed. By October 12, the end of track was at Dead Pine Bluffs (now Pine Bluffs), within thirty-five miles of Cheyenne. By October 29, it was within seventeen miles, and the anticipatory tension mounted. The UP was nearly five hundred miles from Omaha.
Jack Casement, like Grenville Dodge, had hoped for more. He wanted to get over Sherman Pass and beyond Dale Creek down to Laramie, but it wasn’t to be. The biggest holdup was ties. Indians had chased tie cutters out of the canyons on the North Platte, so Reed had to buy ties from the Missouri River Valley and have them—inferior cottonwoods—shipped west by train.
Some directors boasted that the UP would finish by 1870 and a man could go from New York to San Francisco in a week. Horace Greeley’s newspaper commented, “It is hard to realise that so great a distance may be accomplished in so short a time.”51 But to the men on the spot, that 1870 promise sounded more like boast than fact. The supply line was longer and growing, thus the flow of material was tricky to coordinate and time. Dodge was hoping to pile in supplies at Cheyenne during the winter to prevent supply problems in the spring, but no one knew what the winter would be like.
On November 16, 1867, the lead article in the Chicago Tribune read: “Dated Cheyenne 11⁄14⁄67; Yesterday, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, track-laying on the UP was completed to the city of Cheyenne, and in a few moments the whistle of the locomotive was heard above the noise of the hammers and the rattle of wagons all over the bustling city.” The entire population “rushed wildly to the railroad track,” where there was a banner, “Honor to whom honor is due; Old Casement we honor you.” Jack Casement made a speech. “Before nightfall Cheyenne was left half a mile in the rear. Cheyenne is now connected by rail with Chicago and the rest of mankind.”52
Shortly thereafter, Casement went into winter camp, with Cheyenne as the end of track. Julesburg began moving its tents. Dodge quickly decided that Cheyenne was an even worse Hell on Wheels. He called it “possibly the greatest gambling place ever established on the plains and it was full of desperate characters.”53 But he had his own report to the directors of the UP for 1867 to work on, and cleaning up the town could come later. Much of his work was centered on the exploring he did west of the Black Hills and east of the Salt Lake, where he was the first to make maps, and for which he has never received the credit due him.
Nor has Dodge or his men received credit for what they did to improve the UP in the face of the storms and floods of the winter of 1866-67. But Dodge knew what had been accomplished. In his report he wrote, “The track has been raised, new bridges constructed, larger waterways built, and the old structures enlarged, as shown [necessary] by the floods of this year, the highest and most extensive ever known in the country, and it can now be safely said that a repetition of these floods will not materially injure the road or delay the running of trains.”54
A large part of his report was on the valley of the Snake River and how easily the UP could turn it to advantage, but when Dodge was writing, in 1867, most Americans would have been glad to have one line crossing the country, and few of them dared to think of any others. Not Dodge. And he never hesitated to point out why. “The Pacific slope to-day has less than 1,000,000 inhabitants,” he wrote, “and they are yielding $50,000,000 to $60,000,000 of bullion yearly, with grain plus immense yields of wool, hides, wines, timber, and everything that can be produced in that delightful climate and fertile soil.” He further stated that “the best vegetable productions of the Mississippi and Missouri valleys are dwarfed in comparison with those of California. The wheat crop of California and Oregon for 1867 was 25,000,000 bushels, and far exceeded in value the gold product of both States.” Just think, he concluded, what the product of those states would be when the railroad was completed. Why, they would need two, three, four railroads. “No man to-day can even estimate it.” Finally, he concluded: “Without the Union Pacific railroad the country west of the Missouri river would be a burden to the government, and almost an uninhabitable waste; with it, it will soon be an empire, and one of our principal elements of power and strength.”55
Dodge had never been a man to brag or exaggerate or try to sell something through inflated words. Here, to the men of his time, he appeared to come close, or actually to go over the line. To readers at the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, he appears modest. The reality far outstripped his prediction.
The same issue of the Chicago paper that announced the arrival of the first train to Cheyenne also noted that Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Miss Susan B. Anthony had come by train to Omaha, where they gave lectures “in favor of woman suffrage.”56
In politics, economics, culture, where and how people lived, America was changing.
* “Springs” has been dropped; the town is now Rawlins.
* When the track got beyond Laramie, Congress removed Wyoming from Dakota Territory and gave it a territorial status of its own. At the beginning of 1867, Wyoming had fewer than a thousand white inhabitants; by early 1868, thanks to the railroad, it was estimated to have forty thousand white people. The original idea was to name the territory “Lincoln.”