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Chapter 15

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

by
Robert West Howard

G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 17

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p200 Chapter XVI
Hell-on‑wheels

Captain D. B. Clayton, superintendent of laying the track, showed your reporter a specimen of what could be done. He gave his men the hint, and in the space of exactly five minutes, as timed by the watch, they laid down the rails and spiked them for a distance of seven hundred feet. The rails are twenty-eight feet in length. There was fifty rails laid down, of course one on each side of the track. At that rate sixteen miles and a half of track could be laid down in one day. . . . Henry M. Stanley, My Early Travels and Adventures, Julesburg, Colorado (September 17, 1867).

On June 9, 1866, Samuel Reed issued the Construction Train Schedule between Omaha and Columbus, Nebraska, then a trackage distance of 100 miles. When the schedule went into operation, on June 11, railhead was another 3 or 4 miles west of Columbus. During the eight weeks since the Casement Brothers' gargantuan train first creaked onto the line, Union Pacific had added a mile of track a day. It was neither luck nor accident.

[image ALT: A printed mid‑19c timetable for the Union Pacific Railroad, showing two westbound and two eastbound trains stopping at seven stations: Omaha, Papillion, Elkhorn, Fremont, North Bend, Shell Creek, and Columbus (Nebraska).]

Timetable for the Union Pacific Railroad, 1866. Union Pacific Railroad

Only six years before, along much of the same route, Alexander Majors and Ben Ficklin had set up the 163 relay stations that made the Pony Express possible. Between February 8 and p201April 11, 1866, the Casements built a train of 12 to 15 cars that incorporated all of the Pony Express stations' essentials for survival on the Great Desert, plus an assembly-line technique that enabled speedy distribution of ties, rail, spikes, fishplates and bolts. Bunkhouses, kitchens, dining rooms, a blacksmith shop, offices, storerooms, toolhouses and arsenals were built into the cars.

The most comprehensive description of the train, from the millions of words filed by "Correspondents to the Pacific Railroad" between 1866 and 1870, is the April 23, 1869, dispatch sent to Salt Lake City's Deseret News by Edward L. Sloan, the brilliant young Irish Latter-day Saint who signed his dispatches with the by-line of "Anon." By that time the train had expanded to 22 cars. He wrote, from the Casements' office car:

Far in front of the boarding-train may be described the advance of the track-laying forces, a group of some twenty men, armed with picks, shovels, road-gauges, pounders, spike-mauls, etc. They work in sets of two, a man on each side the track; who scientifically bend a tie every fourteen feet. These are called the "joint-tie men." Next come the "fillers" who bed the intervening ties. The "iron-men" follow, ten in number, five stalwart fellows to each rail. With a loud "Away she goes" from the foreman, the two rails, each weighing some 700 pounds, are drawn forward from the truck and, at the word "down" dropped with a precision only acquired by long practice, one at each side, in their place on the ties.

Following the iron-men come the "head spikers" who gauge the width and drive six spikes into each rail. The "back spikers" and "screwers" come next, who finish spiking the rails and screw up the fishplates, heavy iron clamps on each side the rail, thoroughly bolting the joints — a recent excellent invention much superior to the old "chair" splice . . . The spikers are preceded by a set of "spike peddlers," one on each side of the track . . . Next follow the "track liners" who, with crowbars, put the track in perfect line. In rear and directly in front of the huge outfit termed "the boarding cars" are the "back-iron men" who load the rails upon trucks from the side of the grade, where they are thrown from the flatcars upon which they are shipped from the East . . . Water carriers . . . with pail and cup in hand, stand ever near to "cool p202the parched tongue" of the feverish tracklayer . . . "Champion Tom" [is] the noble full-blooded American equine who pulls the front truck, in cooperation with the "iron men." [Tom was blind!] . . . practice has made him perfect in his role . . .

The front of Casements' train is a truck laden with such sundries as switch stands, targets . . . timbers for truck repairs, iron rods, steel bars, barrels, boxes . . . straightedges, wrenches . . . cable, rope, cotton waste . . . mattresses and an indefinable lot of dunnage . . . with a blacksmith shop in full blast in rear . . .

In the second car is the feed store and saddler's shop. The third is the carpenter shop and wash-house . . . The fourth is a sleeping apartment for mule-whackers. Fifth, a general sleeping car with bunks for 144 men. Sixth, sitting and dining room for employees. Seventh, long dining room at the tables of which 200 men can be comfortably seated. Eighth, kitchen in front and counting room and telegraph office in rear. Ninth, store car. Tenth through sixteenth, all sleeping cars. Seventeenth and eighteenth, Captain Clayton's cars: the former his kitchen; the latter his parlor . . . Nineteenth, sleeping car. Twentieth, supply car. Twenty-first and twenty-second, water cars.

This immense train had two engines and its "staff" included two conductors, two engineers, two foremen, a wagonmaster, financial manager, storekeeper, a physician and surgeon, and a chief steward with 16 assistants. The civil engineer for the end-of‑track had 7 assistants. There was also a telegraph operator and a draughtsman.

The Casement work train not only perfected the standard American system for railroad construction and maintenance, but introduced the assembly line, the sleeping car, the dining car, the lounge car and the portable smithy to the West.

The Casements also bought a herd of Durham Shorthorn and Galloway cattle that ambled alongside the iron trail from Nebraska to Utah, so provided fresh beef all the way. Although millions of cattle and sheep, and even some pig herds (each following a drover-led blind boar), crossed the California-Mormon Trail between 1847 and 1870, all of these were trail drives pushed through during the summer months. But the Casements' "Diamond" herd endured three winters on the p203High Plains and pioneered the Cowboy Era that, between 1870 and 1900, transformed the Northern Rockies into a vast cattle domain and provided both the locale and the incidents for the Western-art classics of Frederic Remington and Charles H. Russell and the cowboy prototypes in the books of Theodore Roosevelt, Stanley Vestal, Emerson Hough, Andy Adams, etc.

The majority of the Casements' workmen and foremen were Civil War veterans. The memoirs of Grenville Dodge and the letters of Samuel Reed agreed with Edwin L. Sabine, in Building The Pacific Railway, that "Military the work was, in its organization . . . ex-bluecoats and 'Galvanized Yanks' labored with transit, rod, chain, pick and bar and spade and sledge." "Anon" furnished another clue when he referred, in that May 5, 1869, dispatch to the "mud-sill co-laborers." The phrase "mud-sill" is a semantic invention of Georgia and South Carolina hillmen, and refers to Southerners raised in log cabins that had puncheon floors and "mud," or adobe, sills.

All of these facts flourish a large question mark against the folklore assumption that "the Irish built the Pacific Railroad." The evidence is that at least two-thirds of Casements' bully-boys, as well as the grading gangs and the bridge crews laboring 10 to 200 miles west of them, were "Galvanized Yanks" from the South, Union veterans from the prairie states, Swedes, Danes and "Finlanders" recruited in Chicago, plus 300 to 1,000 Negroes who chose mulewhacker and shovel jobs on Union Pacific as the most exciting way to "Get over the hill and see the elephant."

Most of these crews were familiar with military discipline and at the first thud of an Indian arrow could toss work tools, grab rifles, and go into action as "skirmishers." Consequently, the Casement work train was also a mobile fortress and veteran fighting force invading the red man's Great Desert empire.

This was the epochal assault force that Durant launched when he gambled his personal investments and the future of Crédit Mobilier on the conviction that the Casements' behemoth would beat both "Eastern Division" and the Congressional p204deadline to the 100th meridian. Overall, then, this work train was as meaningful to the final conquest and mechanization of the West as the steeple-tall, galvanized windmill invented at Beloit, Wisconsin, in 1867 by L. H. Wheeler; the railroad refrigerator car invented in 1868 by William Davis of Detroit; the barbed wire developed by Joseph F. Glidden of Illinois in 1873; and the electric light perfected by ex-train butcher Thomas A. Edison in 1879.

The winning of the West was a victory of technology over topography, climate, and the red man's desperate "last stand." The West's conquerors were — with due respect to the cavalry, the cowboys, the lawmen, et al. — the railroad, the steel plow, the windmill, barbed wire, dynamite, and electricity. Through them the Great American Desert and the red man's empire became a gigantic producer of the cereal grains, livestock, citrus fruits, vegetables, metals, coal and petroleum that enabled the United States to weather the industrial depression of the post-Civil War period and grow into a world power. After 1870 the exports from the West provided much of the nation's trade balance in Europe and Asia.

The pace that the Casements established up the Platte Valley ran the railhead past Fort Kearney in late July. Samuel Reed and Grenville Dodge fell into the quickstep. Reed coordinated the advance gangs who dug and blasted a ten-foot roadbed under the direction of location survey engineers, the bridge gangs building wooden spans across the feeder creeks on the Platte's north bank, the tie hacks beavering through every midvalley forest, the relay crews routing hardware supplies via St. Joe, and the mechanics installing car-building and overhaul equipment in the new roundhouse and shops at Omaha.

In mid-August, Grenville Dodge led Silas Seymour, Government Director Jesse Williams and David Van Lennep, a geologist, on a survey exploration to the Rockies' crest, then east via Denver. Van Lennep's assignment was to locate deposits of coal (for the inevitable shift of locomotive fuel from wood to coal), and iron and copper (for mineral-rights' sale p205to J. Edgar Thomson, Andrew Carnegie and other processors) plus rock formations that would be durable enough for use as track ballast. Williams went along to give government approval to route plans, and quite probably to act as a "friend in court" when it became necessary to announce the fact that Union Pacific intended to by-pass Denver.

The foursome, with a small cavalry escort, relocated the Lone Pine Pass through the Black Hills and sent word back to Evans's survey crew. A plat of the east slope confirmed that Union Pacific could cross to the Wyoming Great Basin and the Continental Divide on a grade of ninety feet to the mile.

The ride south to Denver, enlivened by hunting and a skirmish or two with Indians, established the advisability of a terminal junction for a branch line to Denver on the shore of Crow Creek near the foot of Evans Pass. This was ancient hunting ground for the Cheyenne; any town located there could logically be named for them.

On September 18, Government Inspector Williams hunched on a rock in Berthoud Pass behind Denver, and wrote the editor of his home-town paper, the Fort Wayne, Indiana, Sentinel: "The Union Pacific Railroad is under rapid progress. In November next the locomotive is expected to cross the bridge over the North Platte, two hundred and eighty-five miles from Omaha. The opening of this work across the Plains, will soon make the people of the States more familiar with this Rocky Mountain range and its grand scenery; and what is more important, will afford ready access to a new field of enterprise in the work of developing its vast mineral wealth."

Similar letters, written "back home" by the work crews, were turned into front-page stories with the local angle beloved of every editor. The Chicago Tribune began carrying a daily report about the length of the track laid during the Casement train's previous work day. It was two generations before big-league baseball and the box score, but Union Pacific's track score caused similar betting pools in the saloons and bawdyhouses along Chicago's Clark Street. This in turn stimulated the concern p206of the madams, pimps and professional gamblers for the "lonesomeness of them poor fellows out there in the wilderness." By September, plans were completed for a "joy and social welfare expedition" of bartenders, monte and faro dealers, madams and "girls" to the winter camp the Casement work train would establish — probably near the junction of the North and South Platte rivers.

[image ALT: A desolate landscape, not a bit of vegetation in sight, but a stretch of railroad track heading straight into the background, toward the foot of a tall hill; with by its side on the viewer's right, a train of at least eight boxcars, of ramshackle appearance, on a parallel track. Between the two tracks some loose railroad equipment and five men: a group of two in the right front and three men standing by themselves in various places. It is a construction train on a siding in Wyoming around 1867.]

Casement train on a siding either at Cheyenne or Laramie, 1867‑1868. Union Pacific Railroad

The plans being shaped by Thomas Durant and George Francis Train during the same weeks were just as spectacular and similarly impelled by the profit motive. Train rode out beyond railhead in late spring. He exulted at the prairie near the junction of the Platte and Loup rivers, and gave the name "Columbus" to the tiny community. Columbus, Train decided, would be the initial "great city of the West" developed by his Crédit Foncier. He borrowed a survey team from Dodge, laid out home and industry sits along the Platte's north bluff, then hurried East to write newspaper articles and lecture lyceums and church suppers about "Columbus, the new centre of the Union and quite probably the future capital of the U. S. A."

Durant, from June on, worked on plans for a "Grand Excursion" that would boost Union Pacific stock sales and enable a first dividend for the investors in Crédit Mobilier. Construction costs to 100th meridian were totaling more than $12,000,000. The Federal loans on the 247 miles of track would net only $3,000,000. Now was the time for a master promotion stroke that would put Union Pacific on every newspaper front page in Europe and the United States and break through the passive cynicism of millionaires and bankers. During August, clerks at the New York office labored over hundreds of letters to a select list of the New York, Boston and Philadelphia "elite" and to each member of Congress. They requested the honor of the recipient's company on a two weeks', no-expense journey of that 100th meridian via special train. Departure from New York City was scheduled for the afternoon of October 15.

Herbert Hoxie turned his St. Joseph duties over to an assistant p207in order to devise an elaborate progress of "Western Excitements" for the guests. Durant jittered about the dangers of yellow fever and cholera in the work camps, and hired physicians in Chicago to make an inspection trip to the proposed camp sites for the Grand Excursion.

The Indian attacks feared by Dodge had not materialized. The grim efficiency of the Casement work train made it foolhardy to launch an attack with fewer than 1,000 warriors. Moreover, the War Department had assigned Major North and his Pawnee Scouts to the exclusive task of patrolling Union Pacific's serve route. The simplest object for assault then, in the reasoning of the young braves and subchiefs among the Cheyenne and Sioux, was the locomotive itself. After all, this was the monster that frightened the bison, elk and antelope away from hunting grounds, made a noise like forty-seven devils, and vomited the columns of smoke and flaming cinders that started prairie fires. The halfbreed traders and reservation agents all referred to the monster as "the iron horse."

From June on, parties of young braves circled east behind the work train, each intent on capturing an iron horse. A few efforts were made to lasso locomotive stacks. These succeeded in tilting one or two stacks, but at the price of broken ribs and scarred buttocks. Succeeding raiders decided that a rawhide trip rope would be more effective. Four husky bucks were chosen as anchor men. The medicine man gave them a 40‑foot strip of rawhide that he had imbued with powerful magic. Then the party hid behind the sand ridges until a supply train wheezed into sight. When the locomotive was 25 or 50 yards away the anchor men howled their death challenge, leaped to opposite sides of the track, and gripped the rope — taut and waist high — between them. The rest of the raiders concentrated their fire power of arrows and a few muskets at the engineer and firemen. The lead anchor men were catapulted under the engine wheels. This plan, too, was abandoned.

In early August a group of Sioux did succeed in halting a p208train near the Plum Creek trestle, 220 miles west of Omaha. They ran off the crew, built a bonfire, and fired every boxcar in the train. Grenville Dodge was still at railhead, readying for the Transcontinental Divide survey with Seymour, Williams and Van Lennep. Dodge's biographer claimed that he led a rescue party of 20 ironmen back 10 miles from the work train. The Sioux fled after a first volley.

Blind Tom hauled the railcar across the 100th meridian on October 5. Down south in the Kansas River Valley, Eastern Division abandoned the race, reorganized as the Kansas Pacific and veered back to Samuel Hallett's route through Fort Riley to Denver. Thus, because of the Casement work train, Chicago became the wholesale, manufacturing and shipping center for Union Pacific's territory and was assured of trade supremacy over St. Louis. The Chicago & Northwestern, now in obvious teamship with Durant and the Crédit Mobilier clique, announced that it would complete trackage into Council Bluffs "before 1867."

On October 17 officials of the Chicago & Northwestern left Omaha on a special train "laden with demijohns, cases, canned meats, fruits and pickles, rolls of buffalo robes and blankets; together with almost any number of breechloading carbines and revolvers." The train sidetracked for hunting expeditions two or three times en route to end-of‑track. A wagon train carried the party the remaining 300 miles to Denver for the "Grand Opening" of Chicago & Northwestern's ticket and freight offices over "Union Pacific's Great Connecting Link" to Chicago.

Silas Seymour included a description of this excursion in a dispatch to The New York Times. At Durant's suggestion, the portly Consulting Engineer had temporarily become Union Pacific's first public-relations man. The Times agreed to publish his dispatches "From the Far West," highlighting the survey trip with Dodge, Williams and Van Lennep and the "great Union Pacific Railroad Excursion." In February, 1867, D. Van Nostrand p209published the series in book form. Union Pacific's stock salesmen distributed thousands of copies to prospective customers.

More than a hundred of the guests invited to the Grand Excursion showed up at trainside on October 15. These included Great Britain's Earl of Arlie, the Marquis Chambrun of Paris, M. O'Dillon Barrot, Secretary of the French legation and a score of Senators and Congressman. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.S. R. Curtis headed the delegation of Government commissioners. George Francis Train brought his wife Wilhelmina and her French maid.

Durant stood at Jersey City trackside frowning at a telegraph message from Omaha. Sam Reed was delirious with a fever. It might be cholera; the doctors were in consultation at his bedside. He delayed the train until a second wire arrived. The diagnosis was typhoid fever. Durant sighed and gave the nod to take off.

The Grand Excursion routed through Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. At Chicago, on the evening of the 17th, Mayor J. B. Rice and a delegation of the Board of Trade stood at trainside, top hats over breast pockets, to announce that the excursionists were accorded the freedom of the city. Next morning Abraham Lincoln's son Robert, Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune and George M. Pullman joined the majority of the excursion guests who chose to follow the St. Joseph relay route to Omaha. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy assembled a half dozen of Pullman's hulking new Palace cars at its Water Street Station. A. J. Vaas and his Great Western Light Guards band came aboard. A caterer was arranging a buffet of "roast antelope, Roman goose and Chinese duck" and a resplendent back bar of champagnes, wine and vintage whiskies in the car assigned to the directors and Government commissioners. In the baggage car the Chicago photographer, J. Carbutt, tallied the boxes and tin trunks holding the equipment needed on his assignment as "official viewist" of the excursion. During the prairie run across Illinois and Missouri, S. R. Wells marched p210between cars to demonstrate his knowledge of phrenology and wisdom bumps. With tracks cleared for a "highball" run, the Grand Excursion Special clipped a half hour off the record.

The beam on Herbert Hoxie's face was broad. The Denver and Colorado, each freshly scrubbed to the keel, were at the Railroad Packet Line pier. Another band, flanked by children holding "mineral-oil" torches, swung into a waltz as the train hissed into St. Joseph's Patee House curve.

[image ALT: Two steamboats, tied up to a quay, seen flankwise and parallel to each other and thus the smaller one obscured behind the larger Each has two smokestacks about 10 m and 7 m tall respectively. They fly the Stars and Stripes fore, aft and amidships, and a vast crowd of people is onboard, as well as a group of some twenty people, mostly men, standing on the bank posing for the camera. It is a portrait of the Grand Excursion to the Hundredth Meridian Party at Omaha in 1867.]

The Denver and the Colorado tied up at the Omaha wharf, after the trip up the Missouri with the Grand Excursion to the Hundredth Meridian Party. Union Pacific Railroad

The "Evening Repast" in the steamers' dining rooms offered "Tenderloin of venison, brazed a‑la‑Italian — Bear, brazed, Port Wine Sauce — Mallard Ducks, Teal Ducks, Malaga Wine Sauce — Grouse, larded, Madeira sauce — Quails on toast — Wild Turkey — Rabbit Pot Pie, Boston Style — Prairie Chicken, larded, Tomato Sauce" plus thirty other entrees and cold dishes. Each table had a "pasties" centerpiece of "Pyramid of Sponge Candy, Pyramid of Rock Candy — Gothic Style, Ornamented Fruit Cake with Nougat Vase" or a "Pyramid of Macaroons." At eleven o'clock, Hoxie took a torch to the Denver's prow and wagged it above his head. Up and down the Missouri's shore his stevedores set off festoons of rockets, sky bombs and Roman candles. The bands, each clustered on a hurricane deck, swung into a grand march. The steamers cast off, chuffed their own cottonwood-chunk fireworks into the moonlight, and churned upstream.

That night, too, Vice-President Perry H. Smith of Chicago & Northwestern ushered the rest of the excursion's guests into sleepers for the "Great Connecting Link" railhead. The group reached Council Bluffs on the morning of the 22nd, soon after the Colorado and Denver whistled up to the Omaha landing. Hoxie's former domain, the ancient steamboat Elkhorn, was still the only transriver ferry. Perry Smith, as eager for publicity gimmicks as Durant, led his group into the Elkhorn's saloon and initiated each, with a "brandy libation," into the "Ancient and Honorable Order of the Elkhorn Club." Its "bucks" elected officers, set up a schedule for "most exercises and p211ablutions in the Platte," and announced exclusive hunting parties for "the week in the Western Wilderness."

Durant excused himself after the pierhead greetings to hurry Dr. Alexander, the excursion's physician, to Sam Reed's sickroom. Dr. Alexander confirmed the diagnosis of typhoid and announced that the sturdy engineer had passed the crisis.

That afternoon stagecoaches carried the party up the clay ruts on an inspection trip to the Union Pacific's shops and roundhouse and the burnetizer machine. At the Grand Ball in the Hernden House that evening, peppery General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Philip St. George Cooke — who had commanded the Mormon Battalion on its 1846‑7 march to the Pacific — and all his staff for the Army's Department of the Missouri marched in in full dress.

The rail journey to the 100th meridian began on the morning of Tuesday, October 23. The nine-car train, drawn by two locomotives draped in bunting, contained one of the Hannibal & St. Joseph mail cars — redecorated as a bar on wheels — a cooking car, a baggage-and‑supply car, four coaches newly built at the Omaha shops, the "Abraham Lincoln" car — reserved for the use of Durant's personal party — and a new Directors' car. Senators, Congressman and Federal commissioners were assigned to the plush chairs of the Directors' car at the rear of the train so that they might have a "satisfactory view" of trackage, bridges and way stations. As the train chuffed up the Missouri-Elkhorn Ridge, a dozen waiters relayed tray luncheons down the aisles. The conductor was under orders to hold the run to twenty miles an hour with five-minute inspection stops at the Papillionº and Elkhorn bridges and the Fremont and North Bend stations.

At sunset, the train reached the tent city that George Francis Train's crews had erected alongside the Columbus station. Its street was dominated by a mammoth dining tent. The sleeping tents, each labelled with name tags, were outfitted with sweet-grass mattresses, bison robes and homespun blankets. Durant's instructions called for an after-dinner Indian war dance p212by a troupe of Major North's Pawnee. The Major held the rest of the Scouts in an up-track camp, under orders to have their war paint on by 4 A.M. At 5 A.M. on the 24th, the Major led them in a false "dawn raid" through the tent city. There were no late sleepers. The train headed west again at nine.

[image ALT: A classic old locomotive, small and pulling only one boxcar. It is the Union Pacific Railroad's Locomotive Number 1 in a photograph taken around 1865.]

The Union Pacific Railroad's Locomotive Number 1, later named "The General Sherman."a Union Pacific Railroad

A larger version (0.5 MB) is also available.

The trip operated on the same leisurely schedule, with a two-hour halt at the Loup Fork Bridge for a sham battle between one of North's Pawnee's companies, dressed in the war costumes they had worn for the morning's "raid," and a second company dressed as Sioux. Superb actors, the Pawnee charged headlong at their "enemies," shot blank cartridges and barbless arrows, heeled ponies into collision and jabbed spears the one another so viciously that the ladies of the excursion fled back to the cars. (In 1880, "Buffalo Bill" Cody hired the Pawnee Scouts for his "Great Wild West Show." Their mock battle, first produced for the Grand Excursion to the 100th meridian, became a favorite of audiences throughout the United States and erroneous.)

The train reached the 100th meridian in late afternoon. The Casements had erected a wooden arch and sign across the track at the spot. But there had been six months of crackdown, with "General Jack" jogging up and down at the head of the line on his black stallion, his tongue-lashings almost as biting as the blacksnake whip curled across his saddle, his eyes scowling after every needless work gesture. Tracklaying moved as flawlessly as pistons of a locomotive; railhead, moving west at an average pace of 1½ miles a day, was now 40 miles up the Platte. The 100th meridian stop, then, served only a publicity highlight, permitting "Viewist" Carbutt to set up the camera and photograph successive groups of Government officials and guests posed in front of the wooden arch.

The western terminal of the trip, designated Camp No. 2, was across the Platte from Fort McPherson, 279 miles west of Omaha. The tent layout was similar to George Francis Train's creation at Columbus, plus a barbershop, a telegraph office and a newspaper tent where compositors and printers were p213working on the first edition of the Railway Pioneer, a newspaper being published daily for excursionists. Troops commanded by Colonel J. K. Mizner patrolled the grounds. North's Pawnee went out on scout that night; there were reports from upriver that bands of Cheyenne or Sioux were in the area. Nevertheless, the first issue of Railway Pioneer carried the announcement that, "Gentlemen wishing to go on a buffalo or antelope hunt will please report to Captain Hollins at headquarters. Captain H., with an experienced hunter, will accompany the party. Buffalo are said to be in abundance on the Republican, and Antelope nearer camp. The party will be absent about four days. Horses and ponies will be provided."

On the 25th, the train chuffed another 10 miles to end-of‑track. The tiemen, ironmen, screwers and spikers put on an exhibition. Ladies were permitted to feed sugar lumps to Blind Tom. The work train was host for a rollicking frontier luncheon of baked beans, fried steak, jellied buffalo tongue and sand-cherry pie topped by (New England's choice) a dollop of pan gravy.

Camp No. 2 folded tents on the 27th. Most of the party returned to Chicago for a banquet and interminable speeches at the Opera House. Durant pounded his last "Western Excitements" in a two-hour stop near Kearney to inspect a prairie-dog village; and a second stop at dusk to view the 20mile front of a prairie fire he had ordered to be set off, "an hour after the Excursion leaves Kearney."

A second special train, trailing in from Omaha, was placed at the disposal of General J. H. Simpson, General Samuel R. Curtis and Major M. W. White, the three Government commissioners, for use in their track inspections. The trio stayed on the prairie for another month. On Christmas Eve, General Simpson wrote the editor of The Washington, D. C. Chronicle from the new city of North Platte: "All along the road, where the Company has established its stations, settlements are springing up rapidly; and here at this point whence I write, North Platte Station, where three weeks ago there was nothing are p214already some twenty buildings, including a brick engine roundhouse, calculated for forty engines . . . a water tank of beautiful proportions . . . a frame depot . . . a large frame hotel nearly finished, to cost about $18,000; a long, spacious movable building, belonging to General Casement and his brother, Daniel Casement, the great tracklayers of the continent, calculated for a store, eating-house and for storage purposes; together with sundry other buildings."

The "sundry other buildings," so delicately circumvented in the General's description, were also "movable." Like the Casements' commissary warehouse, they had arrived via boxcar from Chicago as "prefabs." All were one story, oblong, and with canvas tent extensions. A few arrived complete with mahogany bars, back mirrors and bottled goods. Others were accompanied by cases of roulette wheels, faro tables, cartons of loaded dice, and several sets of carefully nicked playing cards.

A third type of building had a satin-draped front parlor — with a bar in one corner. A mineral-oil lamp with red bull's-eye shade sat in one of the windows. Out from the parlor ran a dim corridor with curtained cubicles five feet wide on each side. Each cubicle contained a straw mattress, a rocking chair, a commode, and a young woman.

These saloons, far joints and cribhouses were investments by some of the derby set along Chicago's Clark Street. Jack Casement ordered them off railroad property. The newcomers smirked, built at the edge of right of way, and began snugging in for the winter. They were under orders to "stay with the work train" and leech every dollar they could from the crews. Jack Casement himself, growling his worries to Dodge and Reed, gave the settlement the name of "Hell on Wheels." It would cause more trouble, he prophesied, than the Indians.

The week after Christmas, leaving North Platte settled in for the winter, Simpson, Curtis and White rode back to Omaha. For General Curtis the past five weeks had been the proudest of his life. As an Iowa Congressman, he had p215labored for passage of a Pacific Railroad Act from 1855 on. He encouraged Ted Judah to open the Pacific Railway Museum. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, based largely on his 1860 bill, passed the House only a few weeks after the Union Army he commanded defeated Van Doren's Confederates at Pea Ridge. In the summer of 1863 he had to dab his eyes and swallow before starting his acceptance speech as chairman pro tem of the Union Pacific commissioners convention at Chicago. Now he had seen almost 300 miles of Pacific Railroad glimmering up the Platte, and every inch of it enthusiastically acceptable to his fellow commissioners. The old gentleman sighed as he followed Simpson and White into the carriage at the Omaha Depot, then staggered and slumped to the floor. The doctors pronounced him dead of a heart attack. He was still smiling.

In New York that week, Durant purred over the hillocks of press clippings and correspondence that the Grand Excursion had generated. Sidney Dillon and Oakes Ames were due in that afternoon for a conference. The time was ripe to launch a public offering of Union Pacific's first-mortgage bonds.

In Omaha, Sam Reed, sat up in bed, scowling over his backlog of correspondence and work sheets. One letter puzzled him. He reread it. New York was routing out a new type of explosive known as "Patent Blasting Oil." It was a veritable hell broth, according to reports; sometimes the stuff exploded for no apparent reason. The bridge engineers wanted to try it out. Best to take it up the line by special train, "and SLOW."


Thayer's Note:

a This locomotive is mentioned nowhere in the text. Various sources online state that it was the first locomotive to cross the Colorado, into Columbus in 1867 — which could only have been on the Union Pacific. Some of these sources claim it was named after Union general William Tecumseh Sherman; others that it was named after Republic of Texas general Sidney Sherman, which on the face of it seems less likely.


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Page updated: 10 Mar 13