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Real History of Hell on Wheels – A Transcontinental Railroad

In 1864, under the Pacific Railway Act, the federal government allotted $100 million worth of capital to complete a transcontinental railroad line west from the Missouri River. This meant building 1,750 miles of road through desert and mountain, at enormous freight costs for supplies, with frequent bloody encounters with Indians and no probable early business to pay dividends.

This Herculean task was taken on by two companies: The Union Pacific Railroad in the east, headed by Thomas “Doc” Durant, and the Central Pacific Railroad in the west, headed by the “Big Four”- Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mary Hopkins.

An enormous undertaking for any company, the government offered to assist with subsidies of $16,000 to $48,000 a mile according to location, over $60,000,000 in all, and a land grant of 20,000,000 acres, worth upwards of $100,000,000. The construction of the railroad was a race: each rail laid was one more government subsidy acquired and one less mile the opposition could complete. But while one railroad company laid 50 miles of track in 1865, the other was primarily concerned with lining pockets with government funds.

Check back tomorrow to learn about another real-life inspiration behind Hell on Wheels, AMC’s newest original series.

Hell on Wheels premieres Sun., Nov. 6 at 10/9c.

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