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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 20

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Great Iron Trail

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,
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Chapter 22
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p269  Section Five
The Race

We surely live in a very fast age;
We've traveled by ox-team, and then took the stage
But when such conveyance is all done away
We'll travel in steam cars upon the railway!!
Hurrah! Hurrah! for the railroad's begun!
Three cheers for our contractor, his name's Brigham Young.
Hurrah! Hurrah! We're honest and true
For if we stick to it, it's bound to go through. . . .
— The "Canon Song" of the Mormon Graders, James Crane, Sugar House, Utah. (First reported by Anon. from "The Head of Echo," July 31, 1868, and published in the Deseret News.)

 p271  Chapter XXI
The Sky Lines

These mountains are underlaid with gold, silver, iron, copper and coal. The timber ranges will develop an immense lumber trade, and the millions upon millions of acres of government land being brought into the market and rendered feasible for settlement will bring to the government more money than all the bonds amount to; and this land and these minerals never would have brought this government one cent if it were not for the building of these roads. The inaccessibility and the trouble and cost of developing the country through which they run would have cost ten times more under any other circumstances — These railroads, when completed, will build up an interest right in the center of that heretofore great unknown country, an empire that shall add to our wealth, population, capital, and greatness, from a source we never expected, and by no other means could we ever obtain. . . . Grenville M. Dodge, speech to United States House of Representatives (March 25, 1868).

January 8, 1868, was the fifth anniversary of the Central Pacific's groundbreaking ceremony at Sacramento. During a half decade the Associates had built 146 miles of track — an average of 29.2 miles a year. The cost had been about $20,000,000 "in cash and convertible paper," or about $14,000,000  p272 in gold. The death toll of Chinese coolies exceeded 500; was probably closer to 1,000.

Union Pacific, Seymour-frustrated a few miles west of Cheyenne, was 520 miles out of the Omaha Depot on January 8, four years and one month after its December, 1863, groundbreaking. (The Casement work train had averaged 24⅔ miles of track a month since April, 1866.) The actual construction costs were in the neighborhood of $25,000,000, but bookkeeper juggles of $10,000,000 of paper profits to Crédit Mobilier brought the "official" cost total to $35,000,000. Union Pacific's death toll totaled fewer than 25 with another 100‑150 murdered in the brawls at Hell on Wheels.

On January 8, 1868, Promontory Point, Utah, was a desert plateau on the California Trail route around the north end of the Great Salt Lake. But that day Central Pacific's easternmost railhead at Verde California, Nevada, was 557 miles from Promontory Point; and the Casement work train, at the foot of Evans Pass, was 550 miles from Promontory.

Central Pacific was snowbound. The Sierra blizzards were as devastating as they had been in 1867. Again thousands of coolies lived in shacks and ice caves down the east slope, working 12‑hour days on foundations and timber for the 37 miles of snow sheds. These vast, peak-roofed wooden tunnels, Crocker and Montague belatedly realized, were the railroad's only hope of maintaining winterlong traffic across the mountains. Some of the sheds required protective masonry walls, 50 feet uphill, to fend off avalanches and spring floods. These walls were built via the snow-cave system developed in 1867; the Chinese masons worked in eerie caverns gouged into the snow banks. Blasting crews and timber men continued work on tunnels down the east slope. The 7 miles of grade between the bores tilted 116 feet to the mile; Crocker decided not to lay rail on this stretch until the tunnels were finished.

[image ALT: A wooden bridge with a steeply sloping truss roof; the part in the background is completed, the part in the foreground has only its side walls, and several men work at raising a timber to the peak of the roof with a tack-and-pulley. A slightly curving railroad track enters the bridge. It is a snowshed under construction near Summit in the Sierra Mountains on the Central Pacific line in 1868.]

Snowshed under construction near Summit in the Sierras on the Central Pacific line in 1868. Southern Pacific Historical Collection

Union Pacific's winter at Cheyenne brought blizzards, gunfights, hangings by the Vigilantes, a period of martial law, and an all-out argument between Silas Seymour, James Evans and  p273 the Federal commissioners. They were simultaneous. Evans refused to give in to the Seymour-Durant edict on changing the grade up to Sherman Summit. Dodge backed Evans and briefed the Federal commissioners before they left for Washington for a midwinter inspection. The Evans grade, with two-thirds of its track laid, rose 90 feet to the mile; no curve exceeded 6 degrees. The route specifications sent out by Seymour and Durant in December reduced the grade to 80 feet a mile, but called for so many sharp curves that twice as much motive power would be needed to haul a train of the Black Hills. The commissioners snowshoed up and down the slopes and finally approved the Evans grade. Thus all Seymour achieved was to halt tracklaying on the east slope of the pass for the winter, thereby accommodating the vice and gun play that dominated Cheyenne between December and April.

The town had lustier transients that winter than North Platte and Julesburg had ever seen. Through it stomped thousands of lumberjacks headed for the Black Hills' forests. Many were shanty-boy veterans out of Wisconsin and Michigan, and scores were plug-uglies on the lam from East Coast police.

In toto these tie hacks were the fulfilment of the fears voiced by Bear's Tooth, Turkey Foot and Pawnee Killer at the fall peace councils. Their job was to raze the forests of the Black Hills. James W. Davis, a brother-in‑law of George Francis Train, went on Union Pacific's board in 1864, and was appointed to the committee on contracts. In December, 1867, Davis & Associates subcontracted with Crédit Mobilier to deliver a million ties, plus bridge, water-tank and station timbers to grade sidings across Wyoming; their contract rate for a finished tie was 69¢ to 90¢, depending on the haulage distance.

The gangs brawled in Cheyenne for a week or two, then sledged out to a dozen river valleys. From January on, the crash of falling trees echoed up the Big and Little Laramies, the Black Fork, Bear and Green. Spring floods would tumble the logs down to the booms being built near trackage. In February,  p274 ox teams began to haul portable sawmills over the mountains. Tie Siding, Dale Creek, Fort Steele, Piedmont and Green River became the big timber-storage depots for the hacks' handiwork.

A countertemptation for a winter in the lumber camp was the rush to the new gold fields of the South Pass region, 200 miles northwest in the Wind River Mountains. The best route to them ran north up the Bozeman Trail from Cheyenne, then west through South Pass, to the Sweetwater River Valley. In repetition of the California, Montana and Arizona "rushes," the Sweetwater Mines began as placer pannings along the creeks, expanded to high-pressure hydraulic washdowns of dirt banks, and within a year or two blasted on to the routine of hard-rock tunneling. Union Pacific's railhead winter at Cheyenne coincided with the Sweetwater's placer phase. Graders and teamsters who didn't return East for the winter layoff had the opportunities of a gold rush a mere two weeks away. Hundreds took the trip and assisted in the births of Atlantic City, South Pass City and Pacific Springs. A few found gold. Come April the Union Pacific's grading jobs were waiting 100 miles down Big Sandy Creek and Green River.

A third and more clannish profession explored Cheyenne that winter. Dr. Van Lennep, the geologist, discovered coal in the ridges 60 miles north of Fort Sanders. New York headquarters ordered Sam Reed to hire Cornish and Welsh miners and route them out there for test diggings. The chunk wood secured in trimming the Black Hills timber would fuel Union Pacific locomotives for years. But coal-burning grates were already on order. After 1871, trains would make smoother, faster runs over the Rockies because of coal's thermal superiority. The acrid black smoke would become a symbol of the United States' railroad saga, just as cinder walks, slag fill and cinder block would become standard materials for home and business-block construction across the West. During February the miners sledged over the mountains, blasted into the black rock, and founded Carbon — Wyoming's first coal town.

 p275  Each division point established by the Casements' work train became the new east terminal of stage lines and freight wagons. Cheyenne was the winter base for stages and bullwhackers. By January the young city had business blocks that, at first glance, were substantial brick and marble. But close examination revealed them to be the factory twins of Hell on Wheels. The "bricks" and "marble" were hand-tinted wood stamped out in prefab sections by Chicago mills, then shipped to railhead with do‑it-yourself instruction sheets.

Building the central government was a more difficult task. The thousands of mules, horses and oxen in the Union Pacific and freighter corrals were as tempting to some white men as they were to the Indians. Gangs organized to steal them and then smuggle them off to the Sweetwater and Denver auctions. Scores of pickpockets and gunmen rode in from Chicago and St. Louis to prey on the patrons of Hell on Wheels. The 200 girls employed by the brothels were now politely identified as "the Nymphs du Grade." Their madams hired burly Negroes or downcountry plug-uglies as bouncers; they were dexterous with blackjacks, sheath knives, rabbit punches and groin kicks. Madams and girls carried derringer-type or tiny Smith Wesson .22 revolvers, known as "whore specials," tucked into garters or worn as belt ornaments in beaded leather holsters.

In addition to these threats to law and order, arrivals who couldn't afford Chicago prefabs, or even tents, dug caverns into the banks of Crow Creek, hung blankets over the entrances, and moved in. Some of these places were commodious enough to house livestock too. At least one was a hideout for stolen horses and mules held there until rebranding scars healed.

Thievery, shootings and claim jumping became so routine that a delegation of merchants and railroaders rode out to Fort Russell for a conference with Colonel J. D. Stevenson. A few days later wagonloads of soldiers surrounded Hell on Wheels. Bayonets fixed, the infantry herded every barkeep, shill, dealer, madam and floozy onto the prairie. Colonel  p276 Stevenson lectured them from horseback. Cheyenne, he roared, would become Union Pacific property when the Department of the Interior turned over the land deeds to the Union Pacific. In the interim the city remained Federal property and could go under martial law whenever the fancy seized him. And it seized him now. Until further notice troops would patrol Hell on Wheels. If any fights broke out they were under orders to shoot first and ask questions later.

Martial law ended after a mayor and city officials were elected, a police force appointed, and a one-room slab-sided cabin converted into a city jail. The bosses at Hell on Wheels smirked and streaked back to the Julesburg and North Platte routine. The jail became a hobo flophouse. Mayor Luke Murrin added 25¢ to each fine he imposed, "to cover the expense of stimulants necessary to efficient administration of justice," then ordered a $10 fine for participants in any gun-play within the city limits "whether they hit their target or not." By February a secret Citizens' Committee was meeting nightly at the Casement warehouse. They made their first public appearance the night after Charles Martin's murder trial.

Martin and a faro dealer named Andy Harris had accumulated enough cash, via alley stick-ups and nicked cards, to buy a dance hall. Then they argued. Martin drew first and put five bullets into Harris. The police department escorted Martin to jail. His trial came up at the March session of the United States District Court; the jury freed him. Martin went back to his roominghouse, bathed and shaved, put on his best duds and set out for a night in Hell town. He was on his third or fourth drink when a man strolled in, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, "Fellows out there want to see you."

A moment later Martin screamed from the alley. Some of his cronies rushed to the door. A squad of men in black eyemasks was backing away, revolvers trained on the door. Martin, a rope around his gullet and hands pinioned, moaned in their midst. "Better get back inside," a voice growled. The next most a wagonman found Martin's body dangling from a  p277 tree limb at the east end of Main Street. An hour police found a note under the jail door announcing that the corpse of "Morgan the mule thief" was also available a mile up Crow Creek.

The Citizens' Committee operated for another six months and hung at least twelve men. A score more were horsewhipped out of town with threats that they would be shot on sight if they ever returned. The Committee backed the plea by Cheyenne churches that brothels and saloons be closed between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. on Sundays; Mayor Murrin proclaimed it a new city ordinance. By the summer of 1868, with Hell on Wheels across the Black Hills, the police department resumed as Justice's sole escort. The black masks were burned or tucked away in desk drawers for emergency reference. No speculations were voiced, at least in public, about the Committee's member­ship. The Casements, Sam Reed, and probably Durant, knew who were involved. Colonel Stevenson maintained an official hands-off policy throughout. Evidence suggests that the Committee was organized by Union Pacific's Town Lots Division, with the approval of Colonel Stevenson.

Successive Vigilante committees in Union Pacific's new towns paralleled the appearance and matched the techniques of the South's Ku Klux Klan. Legh Freeman became their noisiest Wyoming advocate. Freeman's volatile presence in Cheyenne during part of the 1867‑8 winter is a matter of record, since he moved the equipment for his weekly newspaper, the Frontier Index, from Julesburg to Laramie sometime between October, 1867, and March, 1868. As a vicious and thoroughly un-Galvanized Southerner, Freeman was a logical idea man and lieutenant for Cheyenne's Vigilantes. Moreover, there must have been substantiation for the charge of "King of the Vigilantes" later howled against him at Bryan and Bear River City.

A native of Virginia or Georgia, Freeman fought for one of the Secesh armies, migrated to Nebraska during 1866, and signed on as a telegraph operator at Fort Kearney. There he  p278 discovered a newspaper press abandoned in a warehouse and evolved a plan for a railroad newspaper that could cash in on the advertising of the merchants of Hell on Wheels. Yellow journalism, a generation ahead, was pallid compared to the vituperations Freeman flaunted in the news columns of the Frontier Index. From Fort Kearney to Bear City his editorial page carried a standing masthead slogan that read:

The Motto of this Column

Only white men to be Naturalized in the United States. The races and sexes in their respective spheres as God Almighty created them

(The most complete file of this "newspaper on wheels" is owned by the Bancroft Library on the Berkeley Campus of the University of California, but the first issue at Bancroft is datelined "Fort Sanders, Dakota Territory," on March 6, 1868. The Union Pacific Historical Museum at Omaha owns one copy of Frontier Index datelined "Julesburg, Nebraska" during July, 1867.)

Somehow the Frontier Index got its printing presses across the Black Hills during February. By April 21, the paper had moved another three miles north to publish a first edition at "Laramie City, Dakota Territory." Freeman may have put out several editions in Cheyenne. In any case, the Ku Klux Klan technique of the Vigilante committees coupled with Freeman's vicious editorial campaigns across Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Montana between 1867 and 1884 mark him a logical — and typical — organizer of this form of lynch law.

Jacob Blickensderfer and the Utah Division surveyors had crossed the Black Hills during the first week of February, staged into Fort Bridger, and pushed on into Echo and Weber canyons on snowshoes. "The drifts," Blickensderfer reported, "were over the top of the telegraph poles."

James Evans and the bridge crews cord to Dale Creek with portable sawmills and began to derrick green timber into  p279 position for the spiderweb bridge. "It went up in three weeks," Grenville Dodge would brag. The Federal inspectors accepted it as "temporary" but ordered that it must be rebuilt in iron "within a year."

The train crews had worked overtime out of Omaha all winter. Every mile of new track, Sam Reed and Herbert Hoxie had discovered, required 40 carloads of supplies. Oliver Ames and Thomas Durant, in agreement for once, were sputtering for "400 miles of construction or better during '68." The Casements' new contract was written accordingly, stipulating "$800 a mile for anything less than two miles a day; for over two miles a day, $1,200 a mile. For delays consequent upon an unfinished grade, $3,000 a day." The work train rode the iron men back up Evans Pass and laid the line to Sherman Summit over frozen ground. Alongside the portable warehouse in Cheyenne, car builders finished the water-tank cars and additional bunk cars to be added to the train before the assault on the Red Desert.

Skunk cabbage pushed green swords up through the skim ice on the creek banks. Workmen cussed the first buzzing of blackflies and sniffed suspiciously at the north wind. Then on the night of March 24 the winds keyed from tenor to basso. Snow hissed down from the Big Horn and fell in a blinding white curtain for forty-eight hours. Union Pacific trains stalled all along the Platte. Livestock froze to death in the corrals. Stagecoaches slithered down Cheyenne Pass a week late, their drivers' frostbitten legs green with gangrene. Sam Reed ordered grading crews back to the Summit to help the work train dig out the line. It took a week to clear enough ground to start hauling rail again.

Spring was a season of rain and floods again when a band of Sioux Dog Soldiers screamed over the tracks at Elm Creek, Nebraska, looted the station, and killed five section hands. The same day another Sioux war party looted Sidney, 202 miles west. Tom Cahoon, a freight conductor, fishing in Lodge Pole Creek, had his scalp ripped off. Cahoon, like Thompson, recovered  p280 but didn't find his scalp. (Transferred to Ogden, Cahoon spent another 20 years as a conductor on the Wasatch Division. He wore his hat tilted far back on his head to cover the bald spot. Cahoon Street, Ogden, is named for him.) The Sioux raids threw Platte Valley traffic into another snarl. Trains were held at stations until troops showed up to guard the trips between Grand Island and Cheyenne. The rumor of all-out Indian War echoed again. Sam Reed doubled freight-train schedules to make up the delay.

On the far side of Nevada, spring was a white witch too. Snows blocked 16 miles of Sierra trackage, plus the miles still to be laid on the Summit-Truckee slope. Engine plows sent out from Cisco growled and bucked until drift tops hissed down their smokestacks. In mid-March, Crocker ordered the coolies out of the tunnels, lumber camps, and snowsheds to clear the 23 miles with shovels, mattocks and blasting powder. Sunshine set off avalanches. But the Chinese hammered through. By late April their shovels were down to the yellow earth. Crocker and Strobridge rode over the hump and deployed 3,000 graders along the unrailed 7‑mile gap. Powder gangs moved ahead, shattering the frozen earth with half-keg blasts. Shovel crews followed and smashed the clods into a surface smooth enough to bed the ties.

[image ALT: A massive snowplow, about 5 meters tall and 7 or 8 m long, at the front of a small locomotive, which it dwarfs. The landscape is one of thick drifts of snow and thin pine forest. It is a snow plow of the Central Pacific Railroad at Cisco, California in 1867.]

Snow plow of the Central Pacific Railroad at Cisco in 1867. Southern Pacific Historical Collection

Crocker and Montague cantered through Truckee Canyon out into the green Nevada meadows. It was May 4. The East Slope rails ended at a cluster of shacks on the south bank of the Truckee River, across from the trading post and ranch of M. C. Lake. Comstock miners had named the place Lake's Crossing. The name wouldn't do, Crocker ruled; the land was now Central Pacific property by virtue of the Federal land grants and would become the junction for freight traffic to Virginia City, Carson City, and all the mines of the Comstock Lode. The new name should be patriotic and American.

One of Montague's assistants was a Mexican War veteran who had served with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jesse Lee Reno, a general later killed in the Civil War battle of South Mountain. Why not name the  p281 new town for General Reno? Crocker grinned and nodded. On May 9, the Associates' realty department held a public auction of Reno's lots. The first one brought $600, and two hundred more sold before sundown.

Crocker's white mare cantered across the desert to the grading camps being built at the foot of Pyramid Lake. The survey bosses rode in for conferences. Preliminary surveys were under way all across Nevada and Utah; location stakes would be pegged to the edge of the Salt Lake's western bluffs by midsummer. Union Pacific's crews were working out there, too, running parallel lines, the surveyors reported. "What was the decision about Salt Lake City?" Montague asked; it would certainly be cheaper to run the right of way north around the head of the lake. Crocker shook his head. This was politics. He'd urge Stanford to go to Salt Lake City, size up Brigham Young and the Mormons, and make the decision. It would be smart anyway to give some of the grading subcontracts to the Mormons.

On May 10, the day after the Reno lot auction, Hell on Wheels began its swarm over the Black Hills from Cheyenne to Laramie. Sam Reed and the Casements were ready. Troops from Fort Sanders patroledº the railhead. The prefab saloons and cribhouses were ordered out beyond the town plots. Reed groaned and the telegraph operator cursed again when a message clattered in that Thomas Durant and Silas Seymour were through Omaha and due at Laramie about May 15.

Next night more gossip clicked in from Cheyenne. Durant was ordering all work stopped on the Cheyenne shops and roundhouse. He had decided to move them over the hill to Laramie. Mayor Murrin had already wired protests to New York and Washington. And it seemed that Seymour had another trick up his silk sleeve. He was gunning for Evans and Dodge again. The grade west of Cooper Lake was to be abandoned too. Instead, the line would run up the valleys of Rock Creek and Medicine Bow River; Durant agreed with  p282 Seymour that the change would "reduce grading and save money."

Jack Casement snorted. Seymour's route was twenty miles longer than the one Evans and Dodge had plotted to Carbon Summit. Sam Reed paced the room for a moment, then strode back to the telegraph desk. "Grenville Dodge, U. S. House of Representatives, Washington, D. C.," he dictated. "Urgent you be Laramie May 16." He paused. "Better not sign it. Too many Durant ears between here and Omaha."

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Page updated: 26 Nov 16