Hell on Wheels

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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 First Transcontinental Railroad in 1860s North America. 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. 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.[1][2]


In 1869, the use of the term "Hell on Wheels" to describe the phenomenon was documented by Springfield, Massachusetts Republican newspaper editor Samuel Bowles.[3]

In popular culture[edit]

John Ford's silent film The Iron Horse (1924) portrayed an idealized image of Hell on Wheels.

AMC's television drama series, Hell On Wheels (which premiered in November 2011), centers on the settlement that accompanied the construction of First Transcontinental Railroad, consisting of the Union Pacific company men, surveyors, support workers, laborers, prostitutes, mercenaries, and others who make the mobile encampment their home, beginning in 1865 in Season 1 and 1869 in Season 5.[4][5]

Other uses[edit]

The 2nd Armored Division of the United States Army adopted the nickname "Hell on Wheels" during World War II.[6]


  1. ^ Klein, Maury (2006) [1987]. Union Pacific: Volume I, 1862–1893. U of Minnesota press. pp. 100–101. ISBN 1452908737.
  2. ^ Ambrose, Stephen E. (2000). Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 217–219. ISBN 0743210832.
  3. ^ Frederic L. Paxson: The Last American Frontier. Simon Publications, 2001 (reprint), ISBN 9781931313544, p. 332 (online excerpt (Google))
  4. ^ Seidman, Robert (July 28, 2011). "AMC Announces Premiere Date for 'Hell on Wheels'". TVbytheNumbers. Retrieved November 21, 2011.
  5. ^ Solomon, Brian (2000). Union Pacific Railroad. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Co. p. 24. ISBN 0-7603-0756-3.
  6. ^ "Special Unit Designations". United States Army Center of Military History. 2010-04-21. Archived from the original on 2010-06-09.


External links[edit]