For those seeking further background on the real-life 19th century history behind the hit AMC show Hell on Wheels, the book Hell on Wheels: Wicked Towns along the Union Pacific Railroad (2013) could serve as such a primer.

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Written by Dick Kreck and published by Fulcrum, Hell on Wheels: Wicked Towns explores both the context of westward Euro-American expansion that framed the building of the Union Pacific railroad and the resulting towns that sprang up along the line to meet the needs, both logistical and personal, of the work. AMC’s Hell on Wheels is based on the mobile town that followed the railroad westward, setting up camp to draw workers’ money with the attractions of saloons, gambling tents and dance halls offering female companionship.

The Union Pacific was in a race with the eastward-building Central Pacific railroad to lay the most track so as to receive government subsidies and control of adjacent land with each mile. Delayed by the US Civil War (1861-1865), the Union Pacific would begin to lay track by mid-1865 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The two lines would meet at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10th, 1869.

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In the AMC series, lead character Cullen Bohannon (played by Anson Mount), initially joins construction of the Union Pacific in Season 1 on a revenge mission. A former Confederate soldier, Bohannon seeks a Union gang that had murdered his family during the Civil War. Believing members of that gang have now gone West, he embeds himself in the railway work so as to find them. Bohannon’s leadership qualities and own dramatic character arc will see him advance to a position of authority on the railroad by the start of Season 3. Season 4 of Hell on Wheels will premiere Summer 2014.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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