Category Archives: In The News

Hell on Wheels: Truth or Fiction — Update

Last year, we answered some questions about A&E’s Hell on Wheels, a television series with the backdrop of the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. Season 4, which was set almost entirely in Cheyenne (though it was filmed in New Mexico), wrapped up earlier this year and Season 5, set in California and Laramie, Wyoming, premiered last Saturday. Thanks to Netflix binge watching and series marathons preping for the new season, we’ve seen quite a bit of interest in our last fact or fiction and thought it might be time revisit HOW to update the Q&A in light of the events of Season 4. So before we say good-bye to the train and crew and get back to civilizing the plains…

Was John A. Campbell really governor? What was he like?

Wyoming's first Territorial Governor, John A. Campbell. (WSA Sub Neg 1519)

Wyoming’s first Territorial Governor, John A. Campbell.
(WSA Sub Neg 1519)

Yes, John A. Campbell was appointed Wyoming’s first governor, but the transcontinental railroad was already completed by the time he arrived in Cheyenne and he was really nothing like HOW’s Campbell.

Governor Campbell arrived in Cheyenne in May 1869, and the Territory was officially organized on May 19 when all of the appointed officers were sworn in. Read more about Campbell’s first days here.

Campbell was a gentleman and former military officer and worked hard to set a firm foundation for the new territory. He had his job cut out for him bringing order to the wilds of Wyoming. That being said, there is very little evidence that he interfered with local law enforcement nor that he participated in lynchings, fought with the railroad, was a land speculator, or was ever in jail in Cheyenne. In fact, beyond setting up a sturdy foundation for Wyoming’s government, he is most remembered for securing women’s suffrage in the state by vetoing a bill that would have reversed the law in 1871.

Was Sherman Hill as big an impediment to the railroad as they portray?

The original Dale Creek bridge with the man camp on the valley floor. (WSA Sub Neg 16005)

The original Dale Creek bridge with the man camp on the valley floor.
(WSA Sub Neg 16005)

Yes, Sherman Hill was a very big challenge for the Union Pacific Railroad in Southeast Wyoming. The route had been chosen to avoid as many large mountains (and thus tunnels) as possible. The railroad preferred to build bridges rather than blast tunnels as bridges were much faster and less hazardous.

The 50 miles west of Cheyenne through the Laramie Range would be some of the most technically difficult miles of the route. Not only did this include the highest in elevation (8,236 feet above sea level), but they would need to cross a 127 foot deep, 1,400 feet wide canyon at Dale Creek after digging through solid granite for nearly two miles. While many of the major towns on the railroad had been set up 100 miles apart to provide water and coal for the engines, the towns of Laramie and Cheyenne are only 50 miles apart to account for the large amounts of coal and water needed to pull a train across the summit. It took a month to build the bridge using wood transported all the way from Chicago.

The wooden structure was replaced in 1876 by a stronger, more fire resistant iron bridge. But strong winds were still a problem. (WSA Sub Neg 9779)

The wooden structure was replaced in 1876 by a stronger, more fire resistant iron bridge. But strong winds were still a problem.
(WSA Sub Neg 9779)

The challenges were only beginning when the tracks were completed. The winds, normally steady and strong in southeast Wyoming, would scream down the Dale Creek Canyon causing the tressel to sway, despite guy wires that were attached not long after completion. The sway understandably unnerved the crews and passengers and would often halt traffic while they waited for the winds to calm. Even during relatively calm days, trains slowed to just 4 miles per hour. The UPRR also set up a watchman’s hut at the bridge to look out for sparks coming from the engines that could set the wooden tressel on fire. The bridge was replaced in 1875 with a spidery iron system. The girders were replaced with more robust versions in 1885. Ultimately, the tracks were rerouted through a less dramatic portion of Dale Creek and the iron bridge was dismantled. The piers are still visible on private land.

Was the Cheyenne Leader edited by a woman?

In our last truth or fiction piece, we established that yes, the Cheyenne Leader was a real newspaper, but alas, it was not edited by a woman. The editor was a man by the name of Nathaniel A. Baker. The other two Cheyenne papers were similarly published by men: The Argus by Lucien Bedell and the Rocky Mountain Star by O.T.B. Williams.

The first female editor in Wyoming wouldn’t make her debut until 1890, when sisters Gertrude and Laura Huntington purchased the Platte Valley Lyre in Saratoga. [1]

The Rocky Mountain Star printing house published a newspaper of the same name in early Cheyenne. Unlike the story in HOW, none of the three papers were run by women. (WSA Sub Neg 8780)

The Rocky Mountain Star printing house published a newspaper of the same name in early Cheyenne. Unlike the story in HOW, none of the three papers were run by women.
(WSA Sub Neg 8780)

Were newspaper pressed burnt?

Yes, but not often and not the Cheyenne Leader. Fire was always a danger for printing offices with their stacks of paper and inks in wooden buildings heated by coal or wood stoves. One stray spark could set the whole place on fire. But that was true for most of the wooden buildings in the early towns.

The Frontier Index was a traveling press that followed the railroad and printed from the end of the tracks towns. When the railroad crews moved camp, the press was moved, too. Brothers Frederick and Legh Freeman ran the paper from 1866-1868 under the name the Kearney Hearld. After moving the paper from Kearney to North Platte, they changed the name to The Frontier Index.

Frontier Index set up shop in several Wyoming towns including Fort Sanders (just south of Laramie), Laramie City, Green River City, South Pass City, Fort Bridger, Bryan and Bear River City. (Frontier Index March 6, 1868)

The Frontier Index set up shop in several Wyoming towns including Fort Sanders (just south of Laramie), Laramie City, Green River City, South Pass City, Fort Bridger, Bryan and Bear River City.
(Frontier Index March 6, 1868)

The Freeman’s reporting style was rather biased and controversial, stirring up the already rough element in many towns. The end finally came in Bear River City (Uinta County, Wyoming) in November 1868. The town was so notorious it was said to be the worst of the hell on wheels towns. The press was burned during the Bear River City Riot which also claimed the life of at least 16 people and torched almost all of the buildings in town. The particularly opinionated issue that had come out the day before probably did not help the situation. Legh Freeman resurrected the paper as the Frontier Phoenix in Montana a few months later, saying it would “rise from the ashes.”


1. The “Lyre Girls:” First Women Newspaper Owners in Wyoming, by Lori Van Pelt, WyoHistory.org. (accessed July 2015)

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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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