The Real Hell on Wheels 1 - Life in the Real Hell on WheelsThe Real Hell on Wheels 1 - Life in the Real Hell on Wheels

While many of the events and characters of AMC's Hell on Wheels are fictional, "Hell on Wheels" encampments were a real-life part of America's westward expansion. One of the earliest known appearances of the term "Hell on Wheels" was from newspaper editor Samuel Bowles, who used the phrase to describe the collection of gambling houses, dance halls, saloons, and brothels housed in flimsy canvas tents that accompanied the army of Union Pacific railroad workers westward.

Ever wonder what the railroad workers' encampments looked like? Click through this gallery of archival photos (provided by the University of Iowa's Levi Leonard Libraries) depicting what life building the rails was like in the 1860s.
Photo by Levi Leonard Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries

The Real Hell on Wheels 2 - Life in the Real Hell on WheelsThe Real Hell on Wheels 2 - Life in the Real Hell on Wheels

The caption on the back of this photograph says, “Beartown, 1867 -- Site of the fight between a bunch of drunken graders and old-timers in log store. Tradition says 19 men were killed in the fight and nothing was ever done about it.”
Photo by Levi Leonard Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries

The Real Hell on Wheels 3 - Life in the Real Hell on WheelsThe Real Hell on Wheels 3 - Life in the Real Hell on Wheels

Engineer’s camp: Engineers were in charge of the surveyors who measured and mapped the landscape through which the railroad was constructed. The rough terrain behind the camp suggests this image was taken further west along the route in Wyoming or Utah.
Photo by Levi Leonard Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries

The Real Hell on Wheels 4 - Life in the Real Hell on WheelsThe Real Hell on Wheels 4 - Life in the Real Hell on Wheels

Grader’s Camp: Graders were teams sent ahead of the track-laying workers to even out the ground that the line would pass over and through. These teams had to fend for themselves on the vast prairie, lacking any support or community, as can be seen in this photograph taken west of Nebraska.
Photo by Levi Leonard Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries

The Real Hell on Wheels 5 - Life in the Real Hell on WheelsThe Real Hell on Wheels 5 - Life in the Real Hell on Wheels

An overview of one of the main camps as the line pushed west. The presence of crude wood buildings in addition to tents suggests more infrastructure is being sent to this point, which indicates a longer stay for a larger number of residents.
Photo by Levi Leonard Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries

The Real Hell on Wheels 6 - Life in the Real Hell on WheelsThe Real Hell on Wheels 6 - Life in the Real Hell on Wheels

The image is blurry, but this photograph, taken somewhere in Wyoming or Utah, depicts a classic scene along the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Workers lay track while horse-drawn carriages bring supplies alongside.
Photo by Levi Leonard Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries

The Real Hell on Wheels 7 - Life in the Real Hell on WheelsThe Real Hell on Wheels 7 - Life in the Real Hell on Wheels

The main party has left to go further down the line, and those who remain have the unenviable task of cleaning up after breakfast. Note the rough wood fence in the background.
Photo by Levi Leonard Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries

Archival photos of actual Hell on Wheels camps
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