Hell on Wheels Season 4: Truth or Fiction?

This week we sat down with Anthony Keith from Channel 5 News here in Cheyenne to talk about AMC’s Hell On Wheels up coming season 4, which is set in Cheyenne in the late 1860s during the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR). In preparing for the conversation, we dug out some material to review and thought it might be fun to share what we learned.

*** Check out our HOW: Truth or Fiction Update for more!***

Just 3 years after it was surveyed, Cheyenne had become a thriving community. Some of the street names have changed. For perspective, Hill is now Capitol Avenue. (WSA 1870 birds eye view of Cheyenne drawn by Augustus Roch)

Just 3 years after it was surveyed, Cheyenne had become a thriving community. Some of the street names have changed. For perspective, Hill is now Capitol Avenue.
(WSA 1870 birds eye view of Cheyenne drawn by Augustus Roch)

Why is Cheyenne called the “Magic City of the Plains”?

Cheyenne was called the “Magic City of the Plains” because it seemed to spring up practically overnight.

Almost a month before UPRR surveyor Gen. Grenville Dodge arrived in the area, rumors swirled that the next major “hub” of the railroad would be established along Crow Creek south of Fort Laramie and that the US Army was considering establishing a large fort in the area as well. By early July, Dodge had settled on the location for the new town and almost immediately settlers began arriving. John R. Whitehead claimed to be the first on the scene on July 9th while the stakes were still being set, but the story goes that three more families arrived within hours.

The Whitehead Block, built by

The Whitehead Block, built by “1st” settler John R. Whitehead, was located were the Dinneen building now stands, photo by William G. Walker (WSA Sub Neg 13293)

By mid-July, the surveying and staking of the new town was complete. “People in large and small parties had arrived from Julesburg and the Cache la Poudre, and many tents were now up, which gave the place much the appearance of a fairground.” The Union Pacific sold the initial town lots for $125 each, but within weeks these same lots were going for $1000, then in a couple months for $3000. (that would be the equivalent of $2,000, $16,400 and almost $50,000 today) And the first train hadn’t arrived yet!

The Union Pacific Depot and hotel in Cheyenne in 1869. (WSA Sub Neg 7927)

The Union Pacific Depot and hotel in Cheyenne in 1869.
(WSA Sub Neg 7927)

On November 13, 1867 that the first train finally made it to Cheyenne. By then, Cheyenne was a full-fledged town with a dozen saloons, several “hotels” and livery stables, warehouses and stores. Tents had quickly given way to crude wooden shacks and sturdier wooden structures. The majority of the “business district” was concentrated just north of the tracks on 16th and 17th streets, the area that is still the nucleus of downtown.

Were the streets really that muddy?

Probably not often, but after a week like this one, there were most likely some boggy spots. The dirt was churned up quite a bit by all of the foot and animal traffic on the new dirt paths which became the streets.

(WSA Sub Neg 4621)

16th Street in 1867 (WSA Sub Neg 4621)

The streets were also much wider and straighter than those on the set. Freight was moved by horse and wagon and these large teams needed space to maneuver themselves and the wagons. The town was set up in a grid, so you definitely would have been able to see open prairie at both ends of downtown.

Lacking sewers, water works, or even an organized disposal plan, the town was not very clean. Rubbish and waste was everywhere. This led to at least one severe cholera epidemic in the first couple years.

Did people actually live in and run businesses out of tents?

Absolutely. Canvas tents were easily packed and moved from railhead to railhead. In fact, the community of tents was known as “tent city.” Some of the business tents were quite large, almost like the event tents you rent today. These were mostly used as saloons, but some were hotels or restaurant or “warehouses”.

“Tent City” Cheyenne was set up in what is still downtown, along the newly surveyed 16th street, 1867
(WSA Sub Neg 977 & 8777)

Was there really a Cheyenne Leader newspaper?

The front page of the first issue of the real Cheyenne Daily Leader, published on September 19, 1967.

The front page of the first issue of the real Cheyenne Daily Leader, published on September 19, 1867.

Yes, the Cheyenne Daily Leader was a real newspaper and published its first issue on September 19, 1867, just 2 months after the town was surveyed.

Having full convictions of the destined importance of this point, we have come among you to print a newspaper and we ask, as the pioneer journal, that cordial support which we know will spring form persistent and effective labors for the commercial growth of our city. — Cheyenne Daily Leader September 19, 1867

But the Leader wasn’t the only paper in town. By early 1868, The Argus and the Rocky Mountain Star were also operating. Few issues now exist of either of these rivals, but a nearly complete run of the Leader can still be found in the Archives on microfilm or digitized in the Wyoming Newspaper Project. The roots of Cheyenne’s current newspaper, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, can be traced back to the Leader.

How does the Palmer House hotel compare?

Hotels in Cheyenne in the 1860s-early 1870s were no where near as nice as the Palmer House is on set. The first hotels were just large tents, but wooden structures went up as quickly as possible thanks to the Wyoming wind.

The Rollins House was the Ford House's main contender, thought they were only two of the dozen or so hotels that sprang up. (WSA Sub Neg 8846)

The Rollins House was the Ford House’s main contender, but they were only two of the dozen or so hotels that sprang up.
(WSA Sub Neg 8846)

In November 1867, Frenchman Louis L. Simonin traveled through Cheyenne on his trip along the railroad. He later published a memoir of his travels called The Rocky Mountain West in 1867, which was translated into English.

We inquired at Dodge House, or, if you prefer, Hotel, where we were offered lodging in the common sleeping room, if we were tired. There, there were no less than 30 beds, most of them occupied by two sleepers at a time. The democratic customs of the Far West permit this nocturnal fraternity, and the American endures it with good grace.

We found it more convenient not to share a bed with anyone; but in the common lounging room, were everyone made his toilet, one had to make use of the same brushes, the same combs, and yes, even the same towel. I rolled the soiled linen, spotted with dingy stains, until I found a clean place, and then bravely rubbed my face. What could I do? As they say in Spanish: Es la costumbre del pais, It is the custom of the country; and one should accept it like everyone else, for it would be tactless to pretend delicacy here.

By the mid to late-1870s, more luxurious and extravagant hotels, like the Inter Ocean Hotel, were definitely being built in Cheyenne.

Why were the railroad towns called “hell on wheels”?

The lawless, rowdy towns at the end of the tracks definitely earned their rough reputation and Cheyenne was no exception during the first couple years. These temporary settlements were essentially traveling man-camps (hence “on wheels”) for the railroad, filled to the brim with boisterous single, young men who made a good wage and wanted to play just as hard as they worked, unfettered by polite society. And the camp followers catered to their tastes. Saloons and bawdy houses (or tents in many cases) where liquor flowed – for a price – were a given, as were “stores” selling overpriced supplies and con artists and gamblers hoping to make an easy buck off an unsuspecting victim. Fights with fists and guns were common in the streets until a city ordinance was passed making it illegal to carry a firearm in town.

On March 21, 1868, the Laramie County Coroner's jury confirmed that Charles Martin had died by strangulation when he was hung on the gallows. Martin was hung for the murder of Andy Harris about a month earlier. (WSA Laramie County Coroner's Inquest Files)

On March 21, 1868, the Laramie County Coroner’s jury confirmed that Charles Martin had died by strangulation when he was lynched on the “gallows” by vigilantes. Martin was accused of murdering Andy Harris about a month earlier.
(WSA Laramie County Coroner’s Inquest Files)

The camps had very little law enforcement and crime was rampant. Cheyenne attempted to organized a police force and elected a City Marshall that first fall, but they had a hard time controlling the rowdy crowd. Finally, a group of citizens took the law into their own hands and organized a vigilante committee which proceeded to lynch, shoot and run out as many of the ringleaders as they could. By spring, the railroad had moved on and the criminals thinned. Things settled a bit and law enforcement was back in charge.

What about Gov. Campbell, Dale Creek Bridge, female newspaper editors, and burning presses? Check out our HOW: Truth or Fiction Update!

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6 Comments

Filed under In The News, The Rest of the Story...

6 responses to “Hell on Wheels Season 4: Truth or Fiction?

  1. historian2011

    I am of the opinion that Hollywood takes “Artistic Liberties” and many times decides for themselves what history was without ever consulting a historian. This is not saying “Hell on Wheels” has done this because I have never seen the series, but many times this is the case. Great article.

  2. Wow, sounds like a very interesting show.

  3. SladeFranklin

    The show is interesting…I wish it would better capture some of the uncontrollable difficulties in settling the town a little better…especially the wind. A also think the terrain on the show isn’t an accurate depiction of what the terrain was like in Cheyenne. Those are minor things…the show is still fun.

  4. Anonymous

    Funny that this topic appears as I had the same question of how closely the series follows actual history! My son is a dedicated viewer of this television series so when I heard the new season centered around Cheyenne I became interested. Thanks for the actual facts! Will be fun to compare fact with fiction! Great article! Keep up the good work!
    Terri Winter

  5. Steve Padilla

    I’m very intrigued with all the historical pictures of my home town Cheyenne, Wyoming. As a youth in the late sixties and early seventies I would shine shoes in down town Cheyenne. Thanks to a desk clerk that traded a shoe shine for a spot in the lobby in The Historical Plaines Hotel. I’ve shined shoes for Politicians, Judges, Attorneys and celebrities from the cast of Bonanza; Lorne Green, Dan blocker, Pernell Roberts. The Big Vally; linda Evans, Gun Smoke’s “Doc Adams” (Melburn Stone), and “Festus” (ken Curtis). Maby we should invite the cast of “Hell on Wheels” to partake as Grand Marshalls in one of our world famous Frontier Days Parade! Wont hurt to ask! Thank you for the trip down memory lane!

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