Construction got a slow start in Omaha, Nebraska, eastern terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad. By April 1864 the jubilance of groundbreaking had long ago faded into the ether. Chief engineer Peter Dey continued to suffer setbacks in putting together his stalled project. Chief among these was a dearth of labor. Neither Dey nor the firms he wanted to reward with construction contracts could find enough men for the massive job. "It is impossible to do anything in the way of letting this work now without some provision for furnishing men," the engineer wrote to railroad executive Thomas Durant, adding that some provision must be made toward importing an army of men. Durant in turn asked the War Department to ship Dey some portion of those slaves freed by the ongoing Civil War. The government declined. Union General Grenville Dodge offered use of Indian prisoners from his winter campaign. But no practical solutions were forthcoming. By the end of 1865, only 40 miles of track had been laid across the inviting valley.
Veterans for the Railroad's Ranks
The end of the Civil War brought a change of fortune for the Union Pacific. Thousands of demobilized soldiers were eager for work. Additionally, by 1866 the railroad had managed to import Irishmen from the teeming cities of the eastern seaboard. Suddenly swarms of men surrounded Dodge, who had replaced the frustrated Dey as chief engineer. Joining him that winter in Omaha was construction boss Jack Casement.
Working in tandem with his brother, Dan, former Brigadier General Jack ran his men with a military precision that hinged upon the efficient division of labor. Teamsters piloted small horse-drawn carts along freshly-laid track. Men on either side of those carts unloaded rails and moved forward to place them parallel to one another on embedded ties. Gaugers stepped in to ensure the rails were the correct distance apart. Bolters knelt down to join the contiguous rails on either side of the track. Spike men followed behind, dropping spikes onto the grade. Hammer-wielders picked up the spikes, tapped them gently into the ties, then with three heavy strokes of the sledgehammer drove them home, securing the rail to its bed. Teamsters drove their carts forward along the new track, and the whole process repeated itself again and again, an assembly line moving forward on the product it assembled. Behind the workers followed flat cars loaded with supplies, and behind those the portable bunkhouses in which workers resided. On average Casement's men finished nigh on two miles a day. On occasion General Jack was known to complete mind-boggling stretches of much greater length.
Working on the Railroad
Pay varied according to responsibility. Teamsters and graders received the least, while the iron men got the healthiest sum of anybody save their foremen. Like their Irish counterparts on the Central Pacific, the Union Pacific men had a staple diet of beef, bread, and black coffee. Water-borne illness was often a serious concern. Personal hygiene was all but unheard of. The men slept together on bunks in the rolling fortresses Casement had designed for them the previous winter. They were tight quarters in which conditions could be squalid. "To tell the truth, we were troubled by 'cooties,'" remembered one veteran of the crews. Also troubling were fears of the Native Americans across whose land the laborers built their road. There were Native American snipers, raids, livestock rustlings, scalpings, and burnings all along the railroad right of way. Indian sightings sufficed to spook men, and line surveyors did not always return from their routes. News of the slaughter of troops at Fort Philip Kearny on December 21, 1866, "the Fetterman Massacre," was enough to convince many a worker there were better ways to earn a living.
Hell on Wheels
In the early days of construction there was little to keep the men entertained but liquor. Many attacked it with a passion. Purveyors of entertainment, including those who were in the business of selling vice, found a captive audience. As the railroad progressed westward, the phenomenon called Hell on Wheels followed in close pursuit -- saloons, gambling houses, and brothels opened their doors at the end-of-track towns that sprouted along the route, and prospered from the hard-earned cash of the Union Pacific laborers.
My American Experience
The Railroad revolutionized American travel. Many people ride trains today not just for transportation, but also as a way to see the country. What trains have you been on? Have you been in a Pullman car? Share your most memorable train ride.