One hundred fifty years ago, in August 1868, the Union Pacific Railroad’s tracks in Wyoming extended almost seven hundred miles west from Omaha, Nebraska. End of track was now thirty miles beyond the new bridge over the North Platte River near Fort Fred Steele. The nearby hell on wheels town of Benton turned out to be among the worst ever erected. Because of a lack of potable water, it was one of the shortest-lived.
Hell on Wheels
In late July, General Grenville M. Dodge, UP’s chief engineer, had convinced General Ulysses S. Grant, republican presidential candidate, to support him in his argument with Thomas “Doc” Durant, UP’s general manager, about where and how to lay the rails. Doc Durant did not cease sending conflicting instructions from his New York headquarters to Silas Seymour, his consulting engineer, who remained in Wyoming. Dodge and Seymour remained at odds until the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.
Central Pacific Railroad
Out west, the Central Pacific picked up its pace after completing the arduous task of crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In western Nevada, the new town of Wadsworth sprang up to serve as the supply base for the work across the Nevada desert. Charles Crocker, construction supervisor for the CP, had to tackle a workforce problem in late July that had threatened to bring CP’s tracklaying to a halt. Rumors circulated that in the Nevada desert fifty-foot snakes and twenty-five-foot tall Indians would devour the Chinese workers. About a thousand “celestials” walked off the job before Crocker sent a delegation of Chinamen into the desert to meet real Indians and disprove the fake news.
On August 14, 1868, General Dodge met with Lewis M. Clement, the Central Pacific’s chief engineer, in Salt Lake City, Utah. This was the first official meeting to discuss where the two railroads should join. The next day, Dodge met with Mormon leader Brigham Young and informed him the railroad would not pass through the capital city. Young was not pleased. On Sunday, August 16, Dodge and his wife and children, who had traveled west with him from end of track by stagecoach, sat beside Silas Seymour in the New Tabernacle and listened to Young berate the railroads. Mormon workers held grading contracts with both the Union Pacific and Central Pacific. Young and his church elders had expected a better outcome from their efforts. Young eventually took the position that the decision to route the railroad north of Great Salt Lake was God’s will.
In Bear Claws, The Iron Horse Chronicles, Book Two, Will Braddock witnesses the debauchery in Benton, lends a hand to Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad, and meets Brigham Young in Salt Lake City.
Bear Claws won the Silver Will Rogers Medallion for Younger Readers in 2016, and the Wyoming State Historical Society awarded the book first place in fiction in 2016.