The progress made was daily wired East and published in the principal newspapers. Thus in the “Chicago Tribune” items such as “One and nine-tenth miles of track laid yesterday on the Union Pacific Railroad” appeared in every issue.
During the construction of the line, headquarters were established at different points at the front, which were used as a basis of operations for the construction of the section beyond. These places enjoyed a temporary boom, some of them like Jonah’s Gourd to wither up and die away, others profiting by the start are today points of importance. The first of these was North Platte, Nebraska, its selection being caused by the delay incident to bridging the river. This was the terminus of the road during the fall of 1866 and up to June 1867. During this time it was the distributing point for all the country west. The mixture of railroad laborers, freighters, etc., all of them with more or less money, inaugurated a rough time and was the beginning of the wild scenes that attended the construction of the line. The town during the winter had a population of five thousand and over a thousand buildings.
With the completion of the line to Sidney, Wyoming, in June, 1867, the rough element left and established themselves at that point, leaving at North Platte about three hundred of the more sedentary law-abiding class who had determined on that point for their home. In moving to the front, houses were torn down, loaded on cars to be taken to the new site and there re-erected.
When it was known that Cheyenne was to be the terminus for the winter of 1867-1868, there was a grand hegira of roughs, gamblers, prostitutes from all along the line and from the East. The population jumped to six thousand. Dwellings sprang up like mushrooms. They were of every conceivable character. Some simply holes in the ground roofed over, known as “dug outs,” others of canvas, while some few were of wood and stone. Town lots were sold at fabulous prices. The only pastimes were gambling and drinking. Shooting scrapes with “a man for breakfast” were an every day occurrence, and stealing so common as to occasion no comment. It is said of old Colonel Murrian, the then Mayor of Cheyenne, that he advanced the City’s script eighteen cents on the dollar, by inflicting a fine of ten dollars on those who “made a gun play” i. e. shot at any one,– and that it was his custom to add a quarter to the fines he inflicted, making them ten dollars and twenty-five cents or twenty-five dollars and twenty-five cents, with the explanation that his was dry work and the extra quarter was to cover the stimulant his arduous duties required.
Such conditions brought about an uprising on the part of the more respectable element. Vigilance committees with “Judge Lynch” in command, took hold and from his Court there was neither appeal, nor stays. Witnesses were not held to be essential. The toughs were known and the judgments of the Court generally right. At least the defendants were not left in a condition to make complaint or appeal. The Vigilance Committee during the first year of its existence hung or shot twelve of the desperadoes, and were instrumental in sending as many more to the Penitentiary. The effect was to compel the tough element to either leave or abide by the laws and to put the decent element in control.
The next headquarters was Benton, Wyoming In two weeks (July 1868) a city of three thousand inhabitants sprang up as if by the touch of Aladdin’s Lamp.
It was laid out in regular squares, divided into five wards, had a Mayor and Board of Aldermen, a Daily Paper and volume of ordinances for the City Government. It was the end of the freight and passenger service and the beginning of the division under construction. Twice a day, long trains arrived from and departed for the East, while stages and wagon trains connected it with points in Idaho, Montana, and Utah. All the passengers and goods for the West, came here by rail and were re-shipped to their several destinations.
Twenty-three saloons paid license to the city, while dance halls and gambling dens were even more numerous. The great institution was the “Big Tent.” This was a frame structure, one hundred feet long and forty feet wide, floored for dancing, to which and gambling it was entirely devoted.
A visitor to the city thus described it: “One to two thousand men and a dozen or more women were encamped on the alkali plain in tents and shanties.” Only a small proportion of them had aught to do with the road or any legitimate occupation. Restaurant and saloon keepers, gamblers, desperadoes of every grade, the vilest of men and women made up this “Hell on Wheels” as it was most aptly termed. Six months later, all that was left to mark the site was a few rock piles and half destroyed chimneys together with piles of old cans. The city after a tumultuous existence of only sixty days had “got up and pulled its freight” to the next headquarters.
Green River, Bryan, Bear River City, and Wasatch were the headquarters successively. The first, owing to the railroad having made it the end of a division and located shops there, has survived; the other three are but memories.
At Bear River City, the tough element who had been driven out of the different points East, congregated in large numbers, proposing to make a stand, it being supposed it would become a permanent town. The law abiding element numbered about a thousand, the toughs as many more. Three thugs were hung for murder, and in a reprisal the town was attacked on November 19th, 1868, by the tough element. They seized and burned the jail, then sacked and destroyed the plant of the “Frontier Index,” a printing outfit that followed up the railroad, issuing a Daily Paper, and which had been particularly outspoken in its denunciation of the lawless element. They then proceeded to attack some of the stores, but were met by the townspeople and in the pitched battle that ensued, badly defeated. They made an undignified retreat, leaving fifteen of their number dead in the streets. From this time on the tough element fought shy of the city and with the extension of the road, its business left. Today there is not a thing to indicate that a town of four or five thousand had ever stood there.
The tough element started in to make Rawlins one of the “Hells” but the decent element had had enough and proceeded to clean up the town — showing they proposed to stand no foolishness.