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By LuAnn Schindler

-Isms: Views on life in rural America

Hell on Wheels


December 31, 2020

History buff LuAnn is geeking out this week, racing to beat the clock to New Year’s Eve, when AMC-produced “Hell on Wheels” will be withdrawn from the Netflix repertoire.

I’d seen advertisements for the western history series but hadn’t committed to view it, until my father-in-law made the suggestion.

Scott and I have binge-watched four seasons and have 12 episodes to complete by Thursday.

Hopefully, we’re on track.

Even though my kids tell me I am older than dirt, I do not remember studying, in depth, the development of the transcontinental railroad, specifically, the race to complete the Union Pacific line.

I’m hooked. Sure, Anson Mount, who portrays Cullen Bohannon, the main character, is fun to watch, but the real draw is the historical accuracy and depiction of conditions in the rough-and-tumble wilderness.

Hell on Wheels describes mobile cities that popped up along railroad routes. Typically, Hell on Wheels was located at the end of the line, ever-moving west as construction progressed. Towns consisted of bars, casinos and brothels. Occasionally, a church steeple stood above the skyline of canvas tents workers called home.

The show, which includes several Nebraska locations, including bustling Omaha, the first Hell on Wheels, established in 1865.

The show also mentions Durant, an unincorporated village in Polk County and Ft. Kearney. Durant is named after Union Pacific vice president Thomas Durant, a scheming businessman who sidetracked the law to make money off railroad construction.

Although not mentioned in the television series, North Platte was the end of the line - or Hell of Wheels - by the winter of 1866. The town was infiltrated by scoundrels of all types who hoped to make money off railroad workers.

By then, trains traversed the rails on a regular basis, bringing commerce and debauchery to the Nebraska countryside.

By 1867, Hell of Wheels progressed to Julesburg, Colorado, before landing in Cheyenne, which was considered a den of sin until the first territorial governor, Joseph Campbell, established law and order. Eventually, Hell of Wheels passed through Utah and ended in Promontory, California, in 1869. Here, a silver and gold spike were driven into the ties and the Transcontinental Road finally stretched from coast to coast. A ride along the rails took 10 days.

Hell on Wheels, the series, doesn’t romanticize the wild west. It shows the grit and determination of the American spirit. It also presents the dirty underbelly of the frontier, grifters and the downtrodden who struggled to survive.

It’s the beauty of unspoiled land, a promise of hope and new beginnings.

It’s a story about immigration and the role immigrants played in shaping the history of this country. On the show and in real life, people from all walks of life sought a better life out west. Some succeeded, others failed.

It’s a cautionary tale of religion and the search for God and peace and acceptance.

It’s a reminder of injustices natives experienced as they were forced to assimilate to a new way of life.

Hell on Wheels is the story of Nebraska - well, for three seasons of the show. IRL, it’s a chapter of history worth studying, a lesson of thankfulness for the ingenuity necessary to develop the new frontier.

Now, it’s a race to finish and find out what happens to Cullen, Durant and all the other characters we’ve learned to love or despise.

Full steam ahead.


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