The first wild west show was a complete surprise to its audience. The incentive for staging that performance was not to sell theatrical tickets. The show was gratuitous. It was a celebration for having won a race—the first race in the competition to build a transcontinental railroad. The 1862 Railroad Act, as amended by the 1864 Railroad Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, contained a provision awarding the right to build the eastern portion of the cross-country railroad to the first company to lay track to the Hundredth Meridian. The winner could continue westward to join with the Central Pacific coming out of Sacramento, California.
Two companies competed for the prize: the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) starting from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Union Pacific Eastern Division (UPED), originally named the Leavenworth, Pawnee & Western Railroad, beginning in what is now Kansas City, Kansas. The UP began construction in December 1863, while the UPED got a head start by laying its first track in September 1863.
The demands of the Civil War limited access to equipment and materials, the Indians on the plains repeatedly attacked construction crews, and turmoil in upper management resulted in confused directions to field supervisors. The manipulative leader of the UP, Thomas “Doc” Durant, was savvy enough to realize construction was proceeding too slowly to win the race. In February 1866, he hired the Casement brothers, Jack and Dan, to take responsibility for laying track. Jack Casement, a brevet brigadier general during the war, stood only five feet four inches, but he commanded everyone’s respect because General “Jack” established military discipline in the track laying force. Durant’s crowning management decision was to entice General Grenville M. Dodge to resign his military commission and accept the position of Chief Engineer in May 1866. Dodge immediately structured the entire UP organization in a military fashion.
General Dodge and General “Jack” worked well together, and despite continued interference from Durant, the UP won the race on October 6, 1866, reaching the Hundredth Meridian near present-day Cozad, Nebraska. The UPED, which later changed its name to the Kansas Pacific Railroad, shifted its efforts toward building to Denver.
Sensing the promotional benefit to sell UP stocks and bonds, which were not the most demanded investment at the time, “Doc” Durant decided to celebrate his victory by hosting a Grand Excursion to the Hundredth Meridian in December 1866. Durant sent out three hundred invitations to a specially selected group, including President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet, all members of Congress, and many military commanders and foreign dignitaries. President Johnson declined, but among the two hundred who accepted were Robert Todd Lincoln, recently graduated from Harvard, Rutherford B. Hayes, who would become the nineteenth President, and George Pullman, who lent Durant four of his special passenger coaches. To document the festivities Durant brought along numerous newspaper reporters and two photographers, one of whom was John Carbutt from Chicago. To entertain the guests, “Doc” also included two musical bands.
Once the entourage had congregated at Omaha, two locomotives pulled nine cars westward. In addition to the four Pullman cars, there were a baggage/supply car, a mail car, a kitchen car, the Lincoln Car, and a specially designed “directors’ car.” One has to wonder what Robert Lincoln thought when he saw Durant using as his personal coach the car that had transported his father’s body from Washington, DC, to Springfield, Illinois.
After a leisurely 100-mile ride from Omaha to Columbus, Nebraska, the guests were offered the opportunity to sleep that night in a tent camp. Following dinner provided in a circus-sized tent, Durant entertained the gathering with the opening act of his wild west show. General Dodge had arranged for several Pawnee Indians from a nearby reservation to perform a war dance. Dodge knew these peaceful Indians from when the Pawnee Scouts provided protection for the Army troops he had commanded on the western frontier. Now, these same scouts were protecting the UP’s construction teams from raids by the Sioux and the Cheyennes, the habitual enemies of the Pawnees.
The next morning, the Pawnees woke the campers with act two of the show. Dressed as Sioux warriors, they raced through the campsite in a mock attack. After the guests’ screaming diminished, Durant provided a refreshing breakfast in the dining tent. Then, it was back aboard the special train which stopped later at an elevated point from where the spectators witnessed act three, a simulated battle between the Pawnees and the Sioux, with the Pawnees again playing both parts. That night the train stopped opposite Fort McPherson, near present-day North Platte, Nebraska. From there, a work train took the more curious the next day to the end of track ten miles farther west, 290 miles from Omaha, to witness the Casement brothers’ crew at work.
On the return journey eastward, the travelers stopped at the Hundredth Meridian for photographs. Later, the train paused to allow the passengers to traipse through a large prairie dog village. As a final encore act, that night Durant concluded the celebration by having the prairie set on fire, the flames racing twenty miles along the horizon.
The UP gained substantial publicity from Durant’s Hundredth Meridian Excursion, allowing the company to sell additional shares and more bonds to finance early work on building the first transcontinental railroad. This did not solve all the UP’s financial problems. Durant and the board of directors constantly scrambled to find financing.
Seventeen years later, in 1883, following the “subduing” of the Plains Indians, many of the Pawnee “actors” from the Hundredth Meridian Excursion joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. This time, the Pawnees joined with their traditional enemies the Sioux in entertaining the world. But, the lucky excursionists who accepted Durant’s invitation had witnessed the first wild west show.
Will Braddock would have been delighted to be among those excursionists, but he did not come on the scene until the following year when The Iron Horse Chronicles gets under way. If the UP had not won the race, however, Will’s adventures might not have occurred.