Costumes from Hell on Wheels

Western series follows the transcontinental railroad

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Hell on Wheels (2011–2016), a television show in the tradition of gritty westerns, centers on the construction of the first transcontinental railroad during the 1860s. The series, which focuses on laborer Elam Ferguson and foreman Cullen Bohannan, portrays the men and women who worked for the Union Pacific Railroad and in the mobile camps that followed as its construction moved west. 

As portrayed by Common, Elam Ferguson is a formerly enslaved man working for the Union Pacific in an all-Black labor crew. Ferguson and his crew are supervised by former slave owner and Confederate officer Cullen Bohannan, the main character played by Anson Mount. Historically, tens of thousands of Black men worked to lay track, build bridges, and blast tunnels during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Despite low pay and long hours by the standard of the day, railroad jobs were highly sought after because they offered steady employment at higher wages than most jobs available to African Americans.

While grounded in the shared experience of Black men working for railroads, Common’s character was created specifically for the TV series. Bohannan, on the other hand, is based on two men who existed in real life – Union Pacific Railroad lead foreman John S. Casement and chief engineer Grenville M. Dodge. When the project was finished, Dodge moved to Texas to avoid testifying against Union Pacific vice president Thomas Durant, who was charged with fraud, bribery, and corruption associated with the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Durant’s real-life criminal activities are a central storyline of the show, with Bohannan similarly refusing to implicate him.

The show gets its name from the mobile camps of laborers that followed the railhead. Called hell on wheels, these camps included merchants, bars, brothels, doctors, churches, and everything else a small town would need. As the railroad expanded, the camps would fold up, travel a few miles down the line, and set back up. Some of the camps, however, remained and grew into towns. The transcontinental line was completed in 1869 when the Union Pacific Railroad met the Central Pacific Railroad in Utah and connected the existing eastern rail network from Iowa to California. Rail line connecting Texas to California was not completed until the 1880s.

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Costumes from Hell on Wheels Artifact from Austin, TX
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