Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Presentations and Activities > Timeline
Timeline Home Page
Rise of Industrial America
Railroads in the Late 19th Century
Building the Transcontinental Railroad

The Union Pacific Railroad, stretching from Chicago, Illinois, to Promontory Point, Utah, was built one track at a time until eventually it covered nearly 1500 miles. In the following excerpt from Chapter 3 of his book, Samuel Bowles, who had traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad, describes the process of laying tracks and life in the railroad construction camps. How was the existing railroad used to build new sections of the same railroad? Why do you think so many "hangers-on" lived in and around the railroad construction camps? Can you think of other examples in history of the "hanger-on" phenomenon?

View the entire book from Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.

We witnessed here the fabulous speed with which the Railroad was built. Through the two or three hundred miles beyond were scattered ten to fifteen thousand men in great gangs preparing the road bed; plows, scrapers, shovels, picks and carts; and, among the rocks, drills and powder were doing the grading as rapidly as men could stand and move with their tools. Long trains brought up to the end of the completed track loads of ties and rails; the former were transferred to teams, sent one or two miles ahead, and put in place upon the grade. Then rails and spikes were reloaded on platform cars, these pushed up to the last previously laid rail, and with an automatic movement and a celerity that were wonderful, practiced hands dropped the fresh rails one after another on the ties exactly in line, huge sledges sent the spikes home, the car rolled on, and the operation was repeated; while every few minutes the long heavy train behind sent out a puff from its locomotive, and caught up with its load of material the advancing work. The only limit, inside of eight miles in twenty-four hours, to the rapidity with which the track could thus be laid, was the power of the road behind to bring forward the materials.

As the Railroad marched thus rapidly across the broad Continent of plain and mountain, there was improvised a rough and temporary town at its every public stopping-place. As this was changed every thirty or forty days, these settlements were of the most perishable materials,-canvas tents, plain board shanties, and turf-hovels,-pulled down and sent forward for a new career, or deserted as worthless, at every grand movement of the Railroad company. Only a small proportion of their populations had aught to do with the road, or any legitimate occupation. Most were the hangers-on around the disbursements of such a gigantic work, catching the drippings from the feast in any and every form that it was possible to reach them. Restaurant and saloon keepers, gamblers, desperadoes of every grade, the vilest of men and of women made up this "Hell on Wheels," as it was most aptly termed.

When we were on the line, this congregation of scum and wickedness was within the Desert section, and was called Benton. One to two thousand men, and a dozen or two women were encamped on the alkali plain in tents and board shanties; not a tree, not a shrub, not a blade of grass was visible; the dust ankle deep as we walked through it, and so fine and volatile that the slightest breeze loaded the air with it, irritating every sense and poisoning half of them; a village of a few variety stores and shops, and many restaurants and grog-shops; by day disgusting, by night dangerous; almost everybody dirty, many filthy, and with the marks of lowest vice; averaging a murder a day; gambling and drinking, hurdy-gurdy dancing. Like its predecessors, it fairly festered in corruption, disorder and death, and would have rotted, even in this dry air, had it outlasted a brief sixty-day life. But in a few weeks its tents were struck, its shanties razed, and with their dwellers moved on fifty or a hundred miles farther to repeat their life for another brief day. Where these people came from originally; where they went to when the road was finished, and their occupation was over, were both puzzles too intricate for me. Hell would appear to have been raked to furnish them; and to it they must have naturally returned after graduating here, fitted for its highest seats and most diabolical service.
top of page

View the entire book from Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.