Armchair travel goes historic in Denver author's railroad book

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“The first question, of course, is why did they do it?”

Dick Kreck’s opening sentence in “Hell on Wheels: Wicked Towns Along the Union Pacific Railroad” is followed by all sorts of reasons, with original quotes from railroad developers, writers, some adventurous women, vigilantes, preachers and more.

Kreck retired from the Denver Post after 38 years as an editor and columnist (he still writes a beer column) and he has published six books, including this new history about the march of the Union Pacific Railroad across the West.

Kreck’s deep knowledge of Western history and his extensive collection of resources, including old newspaper accounts and historic photographs, give a reader a real feel for what towns that grew up in a day looked like, sounded like — and smelled like.

Also, once the trains were running, he takes one aboard various classes of cars for a trip — including the elegant dining cars for the first-class passengers.

Tales of pleasant climate in California and Oregon, finding gold in Colorado and California and for some, the lure of access to the Orient, drew many folks to consider a journey west after about 1840. Calling themselves emigrants, they were a mixed bag ethnically and in many cases had failed at farming or in business. Yet they managed to scrape enough together to outfit themselves for a very long trek across the country.

Kreck describes details in the very difficult lives of those first, often unprepared travelers, citing accounts from diaries that also described rough boomtowns that grew up to supply provisions. All started from a handful of locations, he says: Omaha, Neb./Council Bluffs, Iowa; St. Joseph/Independence, Mo.; or Leavenworth, Kan.

Stagecoaches came next, for those who could afford them, carrying passengers and mail from the Missouri River to Sacramento, Calif., in 20 days, with frequent changes. Those drivers, called “bullwhackers,” were rock stars of their day.

Forts grew up to protect travelers from Indians, who saw their land being taken from them.

Talk of a transcontinental railroad began in the 1830s, as Eastern railroad systems were growing fast. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific began talk of a path that would start in both directions and meet. Kreck documents writers, such as Horace Greeley, businessmen, surveyors and more. Ultimately Grenville M. Dodge and Dr. Thomas C. Durant focused and gathered investors.

Money was a problem across the miles and Kreck’s account describes questionable Credit Mobilier financing, as well as the railroad’s sale of land to settlers. A goal of a mile a day of track laying was set. “One mile of track required 40 cars carrying ties, fastenings, rails, fuel and supplies for crews and animals, all of it hauled from the Missouri River. … Crews laid a rail that was 30 feet long and weighed 560 pounds every 30 seconds,” Kreck reports.

Towns popped up almost overnight. The authors describes a collection of tent-like saloons, gambling halls and accommodations for prostitutes that would be packed up at one site and in business at the next in record time as the rails crawled west — accompanied by a roster of shady characters who would prey on the railroad workers, with money to spend.

The second half of the book focuses on towns and folks who lived and died there: some towns prospered and became cities while others disappeared in the dust: Omaha, Milepost 1.1; North Platte. 291.0; Julesburg, 377.4 (particularly interesting); Cheyenne, 516.4; Laramie, 572.8; Bear River City, 946.0; and finally Promontory, 1084.4, where there was a ceremony to drive the final spikes on May 10, 1869.

A colorful description of that day and its participants is followed by the fact that cross-country trains were running within a week, cutting the time involved to about seven days. Sometimes, the going was rough, and repairs and rebuilding started quickly.

Accommodations ranged from first class to tourist to immigrant, and towns and farms sprung up across the West. Restaurants, especially the Fred Harvey chain, grew up. Travelers had 20 minutes to eat.

For readers who want to delve into more material, Kreck ends his book with an extensive bibliography for each chapter.

Just published by Fulcrum Publishing in Golden, “Hell on Wheels: Wicked Towns along the Union Pacific Railroad” is a trade paperback, available in bookstores at $16.95. Watch for an opportunity to hear this skillful writer speak locally. (Dates are not yet firm.)

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