Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cool Words: Hell On Wheels


The phrase "Hell on Wheels" was originally used to describe the itinerant collection of flimsily assembled gambling houses, dance halls, saloons, and brothels that followed the army of Union Pacific railroad workers westward as they constructed the American transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. The followers were called "hangers-on" according to Samuel Bowles.

The huge numbers of wage-earning young men working in what was a remote wilderness, far from the constraints of home, proved to be a lucrative opportunity for those with expertise at separating such men from their money.

One early documentation of the term "Hell on Wheels" being used to describe the phenomenon was by Springfield, Massachusetts Republican newspaper editor Samuel Bowles.

The phenomenon is documented as far east as North Platte, Nebraska. As the end of the line continually moved westward, Hell on Wheels followed along, reconstructing itself on the outskirts of each town that became in turn the center of activity for the Union Pacific's construction work.

All manner of criminal activity was rampant in Hell on Wheels, with murders occurring on an almost nightly basis. Frequently, the more respectable element of a town temporarily hosting Hell on Wheels became fed up with the crime and organized to combat it. For example, in Laramie, Wyoming, a conflict between town vigilantes and a Hell on Wheels criminal gang culminated in a protracted street battle.

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