Death At The Station
By Robin B Westover
There were thousands of deaths along the Transcontinental Railroad route in the Mountain West.
The first deaths pertaining to the railroad in Utah were on October 6, 1853.
Paiute Indians attacked U.S. Army Captain John W. Gunnison and his party of 37 soldiers and railroad surveyors, near Sevier Lake, Utah. Gunnison and seven other men were killed.
Between 1865 and 1869 The Union Pacific’s crew consisted of. 200 or so ex-convicts and men trying to avoid capture by legal authorities. At least two-thirds of the crews 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.
They were laying tracks, blasting through mountains, and grading the land along the surveyed route from Omaha through Wyoming and Utah territories. Destination. . . Promontory point in Utah territory. These men worked hard and played even harder.
As The railroad marched rapidly across the broad Continent of plain and mountain, there was a rough, Improvised and temporary town at every stopping place.
Robert Louis Stevenson described the camps as "Roaring, impromptu cities, full of gold, lust and death.”
Only a small portion of their population had anything to do with the railroad or any legitimate occupation.
These temporary cities of the "hangers-on", with canvas tents, plain board shanties, and turf-hovels, followed right along with the construction gangs.
They were made up of gambling houses, saloons, dance parlors, general stores, and the soiled doves, ‘ladies’ that would show you a good time . . If you paid them. Desperadoes of every grade, the vilest of men and of women made up "Hell on Wheels”. ( A name attributed to Samuel Bowels.)
Dens of iniquity. was what Alexander Toponce said of the camps, “It seemed for a while as if all the toughs in the West had gathered there. Every form of vice was in evidence.
Drunkenness and gambling were the mildest things they did. It was not uncommon for two or three men to be shot or knifed in a night.”
Henry M Stanley stated “I verily believe that there are men here who would murder a fellow creature for five dollars. Nay, there are men who have already done it, and who stalk abroad in daylight unwhipped of justice. Not a day passes but a dead body is found somewhere in the vicinity with pockets rifled of their contents. . . . “
“One to two thousand men and a dozen or two women were encamped in the makeshift shelters. By day disgusting, by night dangerous;
gambling, drinking, hurdy-gurdy dancing and the vilest of sexual commerce;
the chief business and pastime of the hours, it fairly festered in corruption,
disorder, and death.”
That was how Samuel Bowles described the temporary cities that would set up for 30-60 days or so then break down and move along with the progression of the rails.
More joined the prostitutes, gamblers, bartenders, pimps, and shills* that were in Hell on Wheels for "big money" during the trek through Wyoming and Utah Territories.
The men chosen to keep the peace were called Ironmen. They would stay at the construction sites during the week and on Saturdays they made their way back to the temporary cities of Hell on Wheels. The Sunday night roundups had familiarized, those in charge of keeping peace, with the worst toughs and the filthiest bawds. The raids were a foretaste of the Vigilante hangings and gun battles that would torture every town founded along the Union Pacific in 1868‑69.
The ironmen stalked in, shot down the toughs who pulled guns, marched "the worst ones" out to the cottonwood grove and hung them.
Once General Dodge received a dispatch that a crowd of gamblers had taken the terminal point at Julesburg and refused to obey the local officers that had been appointed over it.
"I wired General Casement to take back his track force, clean the place up, and sustain the officers. When I returned to Julesburg I asked General Casement what he had done. He replied, 'I will show you.' He took me up to a little rise just beyond Julesburg and showed me a small graveyard, saying, 'General, they all died in their boots, but it brought peace.' " (10)
Sunday nights the foremen moved from saloon to saloon in squads, guns ready; Monday , it was work as usual at sunup.(11)
In his personal diary of the summer of 1868, surveyor A.N. Ferguson noted 45 men killed by Indians, six drowned, one construction worker killed falling off a bridge, 10 shot dead in robberies or fights and one killed by a stray bullet, while sitting in his tent. (12)
Uinta County, Wyoming, states in their history: “It is believed that the cost in lives during the construction of the grade through Uinta County (to the Utah border) was ten men to a mile. Often their bodies were buried, without ceremony, in the roadbeds.” (13)
Alaxander Toppence wrote about the battle of Beartown wyo. [a railroad construction town just over the border from Utah.]. "When I still had the beef contract, I was camped on the south side of the track at a sulphur spring across from Beartown. Down the track east about 600 feet was a cold water spring and there the editor of the Beartown paper had his tent.
One of the contracting firms was Cheeseborough & Magee. They had a grading contract and the toughest gang on the road. Magee was hard boiled and when a bunch of the men saw him coming they would say to each other, 'Lookout, here comes Cinny,' and then they would make the dirt fly. Magee would size up the work done and if he was dissatisfied he would knock a pick off the handle and use the pick handle as a club, and knock two or three of them down. They were nearly all Irish and they seemed to think it was all right.
One day a gang of graders came to town and got drunk and raised such a row that the city marshal arrested three of them and put them in the lock-up, a little new cabin just built of green logs. Next day the paper come out with an article saying that 'Beartown had stood enough from the rowdy and criminal element and it was time to call a halt.' And more just like it.
Beartown Wyoming 1868
The next morning I saw about fifty of the Cheeseborough and Magee outfit coming along the track. They had read the paper. The leaders had ropes in their hands and they called out as they passed me that they were going to hang the editor. There was a mule standing ready saddled at the door of my tent and I jumped on him and raced down to the editor's tent. The crowd got to the front door as I got to the back of the tent. I cut a long slit in the back of the tent with my knife and got him out on the mule and he escaped. They simply ruined that printing office and you can depend on it, I did nothing to interfere further.
Then they went across the grade into town. The business men locked their stores and about a dozen got together in Nuckles store with rifles to defend themselves. The leader of the mob was a man named Tom Smith. He led them to the lock-up and they tried to liberate the prisoners. They tried to bum the jail but the logs were too green.
The mob run the town from eight o'clock to four in the afternoon, getting drunker and more dangerous all the time.
About four, Smith knocked on the door of Nuckles store and when the proprietor opened the door a little and advised them to get out of town Smith shot him in the leg. Then the shooting became general. It was a regular battle. The men with rifles barricaded in the store opened up and swept the streets.
Seventeen men were killed in the mob and as many more were wounded, some of whom died. Some people called it a massacre, but it had a good effect and just as in the case of the "Vigilantes" in Montana there was an end to the rough stuff on the Union Pacific.
The graves of those killed in the Beartown fight, are still to be seen on the south side of the Union Pacific track just east of Hilliard Station. In regard to the Vigilantes, in the early days in Montana. I don't think they made any mistake in hanging anybody. The only mistake they made was that about fifty per cent of those whom they merely banished should have been hung instead, as quite a number of these men were finally hung on the Union Pacific road, during its construction. I got up one morning at my camp near Beartown, Wyoming, and noticed something hanging from a tripod near the railroad track, and I walked down to see what it was. It was three of those fellows, who I knew had been banished from Montana in 1864, with a little tag pinned on their coat, which read, "Warning to the road agents." (14)
The UP’s advance westward spawned some rough towns. Among them was Bear River City,just over the Utah border, Wasatch, Echo, Ogden and Corinne. (15)
At Wasatch located just inside the Utah Territory, Union Pacific paymaster O.C, Smith recorded in his diary, 29 June 1869,
“There was a man shot and hung at Wasatch tonight, Reason given, He is a Damned Nigger.” Violence and prejudice ran uncontrolled. (16)
Correspondent Henry Morton Stanley wrote "Every gambler in the Union seems to have steered his course here. Every known game under the sun is played here. Every house is a saloon and every saloon is a gambling den.”(17)
When the railroad moved on, past Wasatch and Echo, seven skeletons were found under a saloon, among the whiskey bottles. (18)
In it’s early days, Uintah Utah was also called Easton, and this village near the mouth of Weber Canyon served as the departing point for Salt Lake City.
“It seemed every building was either a grog shop, gambling den, or what might loosely be termed a restaurant. Uinta in fact,” John Jaques concluded “is one of the most repulsive looking places I ever saw" (19)
(Corinne ) “The child is born, and her name, as you see, is Corinne.” The Salt Lake Reporter headlined the announcement. The selection of the last town on the long line of the Union Pacific Railroad. Other camps in the west were to be temporary construction camps.(20)
Corinne, Box Elder County, Utah, was about the most famous city west of St. Louis, and East of San Francisco. The boom struck the town before the railroad had reached Ogden. Immorality ran very high in Corinne in boom days. They had twenty-eight saloons and gambling houses. Along with crimson lights, moral laws of decency were not observed very well.(21)
One of the observers writing to the Deseret News, drew the conclusion that Corinne was “fast becoming civilized, several men having been killed there already, the last one was found in the river with four bullet holes through him and his head badly mangled. (22)
Telegraph dated April 10, 1869: ” John Barry, shot at the Promontory, removed to Brigham city and had bullet removed by dr. Ormsby; recovering.” Telegraph dated April 13, 1869 from Sharp & Young Camp,”On Tuesday night two men were killed two miles from here. “Lucky Bill” shot John Berry through the arm: Berry then shot his assailant in the abdomen and he died Yesterday.”(23)
J. H. Beadle a New York Correspondent wrote Nineteen saloons . . . two dance-houses amused the elegant leisure of the evening hours, and the supply of “sports” was fully equal to the requirements of a railroad town. . . At one time, the town contained eighty “nymphs du pave,” popularly known in Mountain English as “soiled doves.” (24)
A correspondent from the New York Herald, visiting Corinne in May 1869, considered Corrinne the worst town he had ever entered. The appearance and the character of its population were frightening. In fact he was so fearful looking at the faces of the community that instead of spending the night there as he had planned, he hired a “pine box on four wheels” and left for Brigham City, breathing a sigh of relief when Corinne was behind him. (25)
The Central Pacific had lost many men in the blizzards, the avalanches and the blasting with black powder and nitroglycerin (26)
At the tunnels near Donner Summit and across Nevada. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Chinese workers died while building the line. (26)
In the tunnels, particularly the 1659 foot Summit Tunnel, it was Chinese work crews who were responsible for the blasting. The rock was so hard that only about seven to eight inches of progress were made in a day. That is, until they began to use nitroglycerin in 1866. With the nitroglycerin, progress was made much faster, but at a greater expense of life. Between the blasting on the cliff face and the blasting in the tunnels, numerous Chinese workers perished.
The "Central Pacific did not keep record of coolie casualties" Work continued through the winters, which in the high Sierras were rough and cold and full of snow and blizzards. The work continued under the snow. The work crews lived like "arctic moles", only seeing daylight when they poked through new air holes and smoke vents.The engineers wrote "In many cases, the road between camp and work was through snow tunnels, some of them 200 feet long.
The construction of retaining work in the canyons carried on through the winter. A great dome was excavated in the snow, where the wall was to be built, and the wall stones were lowered through the shaft in the snow to the men working inside the dome... There were many snow slides. In some cases entire camps were carried away and the bodies of the men not found until the following spring."
In one snowstorm A fully loaded work train slid off the mountain, crashing in the valley below, track and all. (27)
Both Central Pacific and Union Pacific manufactured Nitroglycerin in log-cabin factories deep in the wilderness. Then the deadly "stuff" was carried pack-a‑back, or by mule cart, up the mountains to the bridge gangs and tunnelmen.
Chinese laborers learned to fire it by trial-and‑error methods, that maimed or killed hundreds of them. Some of the rock cuts and tunnels still used by Union Pacific and Southern Pacific across Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California are monuments to the unknown dead of nitro's terror reign across the vanishing "Desert." ( 28)
These were the deaths that were caused by accidents, nature and each other. This doesn’t include the 1000’s of deaths from Indian raids and plagues. Some Indian tribes were angry, the giant locomotive scared off the buffalo, elk and antelope in the native american hunting grounds. Their attacks were swift and very deadly. The braves would sneak into the livestock areas and spook them so they would stampede uncontrollably through the temporary city and camp. With the commotion of the livestock the other warriors would ride in from other directions on horses or run in groups carrying tomahawks, spears and using bow and arrows. The casualties were immense, camps were burned, heads were scalped, bodies piled up. (29)
As the two railroad companies advanced closer to Promontory Summit, the men from several countries came within sight of one another. The civil war soldiers, freedmen (freed negro slaves] , Irish and Mormons from the East, working for the Union Pacific and the Chinese and Mormon camps from the West, working for the Central Pacific.
"Crocker's Pets" is what the Chinese were dubbed by the Irish, so named because of Charles Crocker, who recruited the 12,000+ Chinese.
The Irishmen hated the little yellow men. When the gangs met, the Irish laid a "grave" of dynamite on the Central's tracks, and a whole crew was killed. The Chinese wisely laid a "grave" on the Chinese line, and the fun was stopped by mutual consent.“(30)
On may 6th, 1869 The San Francisco Evening Bulletin reported a Chinese Tong war: "A battle has occurred between two rival companies of Chinamen, several hundred in number, laborers of the See Yup and Teng Wo companies. They have been idle at [camp] Victory,eight miles from here, for a number of days past. The row occurred about $15 Due from one camp to the other. After the usual braggadocio, both parties sailed in , at a given signal, armed with every conceivable weapon. Spades were handled and crowbars, spikes, picks and infernal machines were hurled between the rank of the contestants. Several shots were fired and everything betokened the outbreak of a riot. At this juncture, Superintendent Strobridge with several of his men, rushed into the melee and with the assistance of the leading “Chinamen,” who were more peaceable disposed, he succeeded in separating the combatants and restoring order. . . . The casualties include the shooting, fatally it is supposed of a Chinaman. The ball penetrated his left side, tearing the flesh and inflicting a very ugly wound. If this man dies, another encounter will certainly follow and much bloodshed will doubtless ensue. Dr. Blackwood has rendered surgical attendance to the wounded man. (31)
Overworked and unused to the rigors of the climate, the Chinese died like flies when smallpox struck the camps in the winter and fall of 1868-69. Hundreds of their graves are scattered among the sage along the right of way through Nevada and western Utah. (32)
In 1869 a Cholera epidemic swept the railroad camp at Promontory, due to the unsanitary conditions that spread into the water supply. Countless men were buried in mass graves, at Brigham city’s cemetery. (33)
Alex Toponce noted in his autobiography: At Promontory after the last spike was driven, the celebration over, and the dignitaries were gone, the men stayed and continued to work on the rails. The UP & CP hadn't settled on the price for the line from Promontory to Ogden, so Promontory continued as the junction where travelers changed trains. It was this way for almost a year. During this time, only ONE man per night was killed and buried in unmarked graves. This was the end of the Hell on Wheels that had followed the UP west from Omaha.(34) But not the end of the deaths .
The transient population of the tent cities dispersed slowly during that year, Settling into Corinne, Ogden and other railroad towns. Ogden had rumors of Chinese Hatchet men that would literally chop up a Chinese man if he was found not following the law of the Tong. The pieces of the unfortunate man’s body would be hidden in the walls of the opium dens and gambling establishments underground.
The Chinese had introduced opium to the railroad workers. It’s use spread like wild fire. Opium dens were found in the basements and dark corners of the businesses on Ogden’s 25th street. Brothels occupied the second floor in almost every building down two bit street and along Washington Ave. While Legitimate businesses occupied the street levels. (35)
It is difficult to estimate how many deaths there would have been during the construction of the railroad through Weber County to Promontory Summit in Box Elder County, but the above narrative lets us know there probably were hundreds. .