With its upcoming episode on August 29th, AMC’s Hell on Wheels will pause its fifth and final season until the summer of 2016. Premiering in 2011, the Western series dramatizes the building of the first US transcontinental railroad in the post-Civil War years. That construction was effectively a race between the westward-building Union Pacific and eastward-directed Central Pacific railroads, as each sought to gain government subsidies and land grants with every mile of track laid. That race would conclude at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10th, 1869.
The term “Hell on Wheels” refers to the mobile tent towns that followed rail workers of the Union Pacific, offering the diversions of drinking halls, gambling, and paid female companionship. Anson Mount, as the former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon, leads the show’s varied and talented ensemble cast. The series is filmed in Alberta, Canada.
In the first four seasons of Hell on Wheels, story-lines were set within the framework of the Union Pacific but in the current season, the focus has shifted to include that of its competitor. Doing so allows viewers to learn of the contributions of Chinese workers, estimated to be as least as high as 15,000, who worked on the Central Pacific. Many of those workers gave their lives to do so, as they helped lay tracks from California thru the Sierra Nevada Mountains and onto Utah. In this AMC-produced clip, some of that history is discussed:
While Hell on Wheels is the first show to explore the role of Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad to such a degree, it is worth noting that another recent Western series also recognized the role of the Chinese toward the building of the settler North American West. Strange Empire, which ran for one season on the Canadian network CBC from 2014-15, and recently on LMN in the US, featured story-lines that acknowledged the pay disparity between white and Chinese workers (the Chinese paid less) and the role of a Chinese labor broker to deliver men for a given project. In Strange Empire, which is set in Alberta-Montana region of 1869, those projects included a railroad spur line and a coal mine. For introductory information about that show, visit the post Strange Empire – E1 Review.
The August 29th episode of Hell on Wheels marks the seventh of 2015, with a further seven to roll out in 2016 as the series concludes. The last installment of 2015 will be preceded by a Season 5 marathon of the previous six episodes on AMC.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)