Death At The Station
By Robin B Westover
There were thousands of deaths along the Transcontinental Railroad route in
the Mountain West. The first deaths pertaining to the railroad in Utah were on Oct.
6 1853, Paiute Indians attacked U.S. Army Captain John W. Gunnison and his party
of 37 soldiers and railroad surveyors near Sevier Lake, Utah. Gunnison and seven
other men were killed.(1)
In 1865 The Union Pacific’s crew consisted of 500 or so soldiers from the civil
war, 200 or so convicts, 500-1000 freed negro slaves and 1000 or two of Irish and other immigrants . (2)
They were laying tracks, blasting through mountains, and grating the land along the
surveyed route from Omaha through Wyoming and Utah territories . End Point. . . .
Promontory Summit in Utah territory. (3) These men worked hard, and played even
As The railroad marched rapidly across the broad Continent of plain and mountain,
there was a rough, Improvised and temporary town at every stopping place.
Robert Louis Stevenson described the camps as “roaring, impromptu cities full of gold,
lust and death.”(Across The Plains Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) )
Only a small portion of their population had any thing to do with the railroad or any
legitimate occupation(3) These temporary cities of the "hangers-on" , with canvas
tents, plain board shanties, and turf-hovels, followed right along with the construction
They were made up of gambling houses, saloons, dance parlors, general stores, and
‘ladies’ that would show you a good time . . If you paid them. (4) Desperadoes of
every grade, the vilest of men and of women made up "hell on Wheels". (5) Dens of iniquity.
was what Alexander Toponce said of the camps, “It seemed for a while as if all the
toughs in the West had gathered there. Every form of vice was in evidence.
Drunkenness and gambling were the mildest things they did. It was not uncommon for
two or three men to be shot or knifed in a night.” (6) (7) “I verily believe that there
are men here who would murder a fellow creature for five dollars. Nay, there are men
who have already done it, and who stalk abroad in daylight unwhipped of justice. Not
a day passes but a dead body is found somewhere in the vicinity with pockets rifled of
their contents. . . . “(8)
One to two thousand men, and a dozen or two women , were encamped in the make
shift shelters. By day disgusting, by night dangerous; gambling, drinking, hurdy-gurdy
dancing and the vilest of sexual commerce; the chief business and pastime of the
hours, “it fairly festered in corruption, disorder and death.” That was how Samuel
Bowles described the temporary cities that would set up for 30-60 days or so then
break down and move along with the progression of the rails. (9)
More joined the prostitutes, gamblers, bartenders, pimps and shills that were in Hell
on Wheels for "big money" during the progression through Wyoming and Utah
The men chosen to keep the peace were called Ironmen. They would stay at the
construction sites during the week and on Saturdays they made their way back to the
temporary cities of Hell on Wheels. The Sunday night roundups had familiarized,
those in charge of keeping peace, with the worst toughs and the filthiest bawds. The
raids were a foretaste of the Vigilante hangings and gun battles that would torture
every town founded along the Union Pacific in 1868‑69. The ironmen stalked in, shot
down the toughs who pulled guns, marched "the worst ones" out to the cottonwood
grove and hung them. "When I was West, I received a dispatch that a
crowd of gamblers had taken our terminal point at Julesburg and refused to obey the
local officers we had appointed over it. I wired General Casement to take back his
track force, clean the place up, and sustain the officers. When I returned to Julesburg I
asked General Casement what he had done. He replied, 'I will show you.' He took me
up to a little rise just beyond Julesburg and showed me a small graveyard, saying,
'General, they all died in their boots, but it brought peace.' " (10)
Sunday nights the foremen moved from saloon to saloon in squads, guns ready, rousting out the workers to go to their beds; Monday , it was work as usual at sunup.(11)
The UP’s advance westward spawned some rough towns. Among them was Beartown Wyo Territory, Bear River City,just over the Utah border, Wasatch, Echo, Ogden and Corinne Utah. (12)
When the railroad moved on past Echo seven skeletons were found under an Echo saloon, among the whiskey bottles. (14)
As for Uinta, located at the mouth of Weber canyon and about 7 miles from Ogden, it seemed every building
was either a grog shop, gambling den, or what might loosely be termed a restaurant. “Uinta in fact,” Jaques
concluded as he was passing through to catch the stage to Salt Lake “is one of the most repulsive looking places I ever saw" (15)
“The child is born, and her name, as you see, is Corinne.” The Salt Lake Reporter headlined the
announcement. The selection of the last town on the long line of the Union Pacific Railroad. Other camps in
the west were to be temporary construction camps.(16)
Corinne, Box Elder County, Utah, was about the most famous city west of St. Louis, and East of San
Francisco. The boom struck the town before the railroad had reached Ogden. Immorality ran very high in
Corinne in boom days. They had twenty-eight saloons and gambling houses. Along with crimson lights,
moral laws of decency were not observed very well.(17) One of the observers writing to the Deseret News,
drew the conclusion that Corinne was “fast becoming civilized, several men having been killed there already,
the last one was found in the river with four bullet holes through him and his head badly mangled. (18)
Telegraph dated April 10, 1869: John Barry, shot at the Promontory, removed to Brigham city and had bullet
removed by dr. Ormsby; recovering.
Telegraph dated April 13, 1869 from Sharp & Young Camp, On Tuesday night two men were killed two miles
from here. “Lucky Bill” shot John Berry through the arm: Berry then shot his assailant in the abdomen and
he died Yesterday.”(19)
The transient population of the tent Cities moved into Ogden and Corinne before the railroad and they
stayed many years after and It was just as vile, disgusting and deadly. (20) A correspondent from the New
York Herald, visiting Corinne in May 1869, thought the town not much better than Deadfall*** in appearance
and in the character of its population. In fact he was so frightened by the faces of the community that instead of spending the night there as he had planned, he hired a “pine box on four wheel” and left for Brigham City,breathing a sigh of relief when Corinne was behind him. (21)
Uinta County, Wyoming, states in their history:
It is believed that the cost in lives during the construction of the grade through Uinta County (to the Utah
border) was ten men to a mile. Often their bodies were buried, without ceremony, in the roadbeds.” (22) In
his personal diary of the summer of 1868, surveyor A.N. Ferguson noted 45 men killed by Indians, six
drowned, one construction worker killed falling off a bridge, 10 shot dead in robberies or fights and one killed
by a stray bullet, while sitting in his tent. ( 23) "Every gambler in the Union seems to have steered his
course here. Every known game under the sun is played here. Every house is a saloon and every saloon is a gambling den. (24)
The Central Pacific had lost many men in the blizzards, the avalanches and the blasting with black powder and nitroglycerin (25) at the tunnels near Donner Summit and across Nevada, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Chinese workers died while building the line. (26) In the tunnels, particularly the 1659 foot Summit Tunnel, it was Chinese work crews who were responsible for the blasting. The rock was so hard that only about seven to eight inches of progress were made in a day. That is, until they began to use
nitroglycerin in 1866. With the nitroglycerin, progress was made much faster, but at a greater expense of life.
Between the blasting on the cliff face and the blasting in the tunnels, numerous Chinese workers perished.
The "Central Pacific did not keep record of coolie casualties" (24)
Work continued through the winters, which in the high Sierras were rough and cold and full of snow and
blizzards. The work continued under the snow. The work crews lived like "arctic moles", only seeing daylight
when they poked through new air holes and smoke vents. (25)The engineers wrote "In many cases, the road
between camp and work was through snow tunnels, some of them 200 feet long. The construction of
retaining work in the canyons carried on through the winter. A great dome was excavated in the snow, where
the wall was to be built, and the wall stones were lowered through the shaft in the snow to the men working
inside the dome... There were many snowslides. In some cases entire camps were carried away and the
bodies of the men not found until the following spring." (26) in one snowstorm A fully loaded work train slid
off the mountain, crashing in the valley below, track and all.
Both Central Pacific and Union Pacific manufactured Nitroglycerin in log-cabin factories deep in the
wilderness. Then the deadly "stuff" was carried pack-a‑back, or by mule cart, up the mountains to the bridge
gangs and tunnelmen. Chinese laborers learned to fire it by trial-and‑error methods that maimed or killed
hundreds of them. Some of the rock cuts and tunnels still used by Union Pacific and Southern Pacific across Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California are monuments to the unknown dead of nitro's terror reign across the vanishing "Desert." ( 27)
These were the deaths that were caused by accidents, nature and each other. This doesn’t include the
1000’s of deaths from Indian raids and plagues. Indians were angry, the giant locomotive scared off the
buffalo, elk and antelope in the native american hunting grounds. Their attacks were swift and very deadly.
The braves would sneak into the livestock areas and spook them so they would stampede uncontrollably
through the temporary city and camp. With the commotion of the livestock the other warriors would ride in
from other directions on horses or run in groups carrying tomahawks, spears and using bow and arrows.
The casualties were immense, camps were burned, heads were scalped, bodies piled up. (28)
As the two railroad companies advanced closer to Promontory Summit, the men from several countries
came within sight of one another. The civil war soldiers, free black slaves and Irish camps from the East
working for the Union Pacific and the Chinese camps from the West working for the Central Pacific.
(29) "Crocker's Pets" is what the Chinese were dubbed by the Irish, so named because of Charles Crocker,
who recruited the 12,000+ Chinese. The Irishmen hated the little yellow men. When the gangs met, the Irish laid a "grave" of dynamite on the Central's tracks, and a whole crew was killed. The Chinese wisely laid a "grave" on the Chinese line, and the fun was stopped by mutual consent.“(30) Overworked and unused to the rigors of the climate, the Chinese died like flies when smallpox struck the camps in the winter and fall of 1868-69. Hundreds of their graves are scattered among the sage along the right of way through Nevada and western Utah. (31)
At Promontory after the last spike was driven, the celebration over, and the dignitaries were gone, the men
stayed and continued to work on the rails. The UP & CP hadn't settled on the price for the line from
Promontory to Ogden, so Promontory continued as the junction where travelers changed trains. It was this
way for almost a year. During this time, only ONE man per night was killed and buried in unmarked graves.
This was the end of the Hell on Wheels that had followed the UP west from Omaha.(32) But not the end of
the deaths . The transient population of the tent cities dispersed slowly during that year, Settling into
Corinne, Ogden and other railroad towns. Ogden had rumors of Chinese Hatchet men that would literally
chop up a Chinese man if he was found not following the ta.(33)
The Chinese had introduced opium to the railroad workers. It’s use spread like wild fire. (33a) Drug dens
were found in the basements and dark corners of the businesses on Ogden’s 25th street. Brothels
occupied the second floor in almost every building down two bit street and along Washington. While
Legitimate businesses occupied the street levels (34)
The same year a Cholera epidemic swept the railroad camp at Promontory due to the unsanitary conditions that spread into the water supply. Countless men were buried in mass graves.(35)
It is difficult to estimate how many deaths there would have been during the construction of the railroad
through Weber County to Promontory Summit in Box Elder County, but the above narratives let us know
there were thousands.
The Deseret News was the only newspaper in print from 1850-1870. The Salt Lake Tribune was
established in the early 1870’s. Ogden did not have a news paper until 1879. ( 36) News was slow to arrive,
most of the news was either word of mouth or by telegraph and not always accurate.
*** Deadfall was a temporary construction camp between Corinne and Promontory.