While some in the 21st century find train travel antiquated, it is worth reflecting upon the impact that the transcontinental railroad had upon the North American continent in the 19th century. AMC’s Western series Hell on Wheels is framed by that very project – the creation of a railway link between East and West in the immediate post-Civil War period.

The eventual railway link – the continent was first joined on May 10, 1869 with the driving of the “last spike” in Utah – would reduce land travel from the US Atlantic coast to the Pacific from approximately six months to one week. This new infrastructure would increase the pace of US expansion and settlement westward.

That accelerated expansion would bring into collision a predominantly Christian Euro-American society with Indigenous peoples, territories and traditional ways of living. The United States would seek to claim that Indigenous territory through treaty and/or armed force and the cultural assumption that framed much of that acquisition was the notion that the United States had a “destiny” to spread from coast-to-coast. Within this assumption – drawing on an exclusionary interpretation of both faith and Darwinian science – was a biased dismissal of Indigenous land rights, traditional Indigenous spiritual practices and connection to the land.

The actual work to build the railway itself also saw former opposing groups collide. Racial and social class tensions underlined the work gangs that included former African-American slaves and Irish immigrants. Former Union and Confederate soldiers who had so recently fought one another were now brought together for reasons of employment and forced to work together within the resonating resentment of the US Civil War.

A number of these ideas are explored in the video material that AMC created to support and contextualize Hell on Wheels as it launched its first season in 2011; specifically a short segment entitled The Meaning of the Railroad: Inside Hell on Wheels. While acknowledging the technical achievement and human effort to construct the railroad, this short video also recognizes a number of human costs to its creation.

AMC has renewed Hell on Wheels for a second season – the first season will be available on Blu-Ray and DVD on May 22.

(Copyright: Chad Beharriell)

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