Hell on Wheels and the Big Four

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A photo of Union Pacific Railroad construction employees. Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society via the Mountain West Digital Library.

The Union Pacific Railroad Company quickly laid track and racked up milesand government money. Under the leadership of Thomas Durant, they altered the original transcontinental route to add more miles for profit. Durant also had a habit of withholding wages from the men working on the railway, leading to strikes. It is only fitting that the Union Pacific developed a scandalous reputation and the infamous nickname “Hell on Wheels” for Durant’s tactics, as well as the saloons, brothels, and gambling houses that followed the laborers as they built the railroad.

The Central Pacific was a different kind of hell. The “Big Four,” a group of big businessmen, philanthropists, and railroad tycoons at the helm of the Central Pacific, were looking to turn a big profit, and wanted to ensure that their railroad would connect California to the East Coast. This was by no means an easy task. The Central Pacific was only able to put down 100 miles over the first five years of the project as the steep and treacherous Sierra Nevada mountain range proved to be a formidable obstacle.

Both companies were guilty of trying to lay as much track as possible in order to earn more money—neither wanted to lose even a mile to the competition. However, the race was ultimately a runaway victory for the Union Pacific, which was able to lay 1,085 miles of track to the 690 miles put down by the Central Pacific. Ultimately, the 1,900 miles of track challenged the strength and courage of the tens of thousands of men who laid it hand by hand through rough terrain, difficult climates, and the often unwelcoming populations who lived along its path.