Friday, June 28, 2019

Transcontinental RR Construction Trains

As part of my ongoing series of posts to celebrate the sesquicentennial celebration of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, I have been spending hours transcribing what I consider interesting information. I have learned bits and pieces about the living conditions of the men who actually did the labor. However, I ran across a description of the Union Pacific dining car which really caught my eye. Here is what I have learned about the construction train and living conditions for both the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Casement Brothers Construction Train for the UPRR with three engins
Everything the railroads needed had to be hauled to the worksite. The Central Pacific Railroad needed to receive its supplies from the east, first by steamship around the Horn, and then by wagon or railroad. The Union Pacific needed many of its supplies from back east. Until there was a railroad bridge across the Missouri River, they needed to be brought up by boat to Omaha, Nebraska. These supplies were stored on the construction trains that traveled with the crews involved in constructing the railroads.

Central Pacific Railroad Construction Trains and Camps:

The CPRR paid its Chinese laborers less than either railroad paid its workers of European descent. In addition, the Chinese were required to provide their own food.

Chinese Construction Camp and Sleeping Cars

Instead of the regular pay of $45 a month plus food for Western laborers, the Asians were paid $30 to $35 a month, and they had to pay for their own food. Chinese were divided into groups of 30 men. Each group selected a leader who received all wages and bought group provisions. The Chinese workers are credited for saving $20 a month. Every night before supper, the Chinese workmen enjoyed hot baths in used powder kegs. Warm tea was available at the work site (Kraus 1969b:41).

Purchasing their own food proved to be a benefit in many ways for the Chinese. They bought from Chinese merchants in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Their diet consisted of rice and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Unlike the Western workers who ate a diet of primarily beef, potatoes, beans and coffee, they tended to stay healthy and avoided many of the diseases that plagued the Westerners. Also, they never drank water straight from a stream, lake for pool (think buffalo bathroom, or drinking fountain with animal slobbers). They always boiled water to make tea to drink. In fact, some Chinese workers had as their sole duty to make the tea and carry it in buckets for the other workers to drink on the worksite.

Union Pacific Construction Trains and Camps:

Unlike the Chinese, the Westerners were a motley and grungy bunch. They bathed only when they were near enough to the river to make it possible, and they almost never washed their clothes. They lived at the end of the track in boarding cars and tents that were moved forward very few days. The boarding cars were 85 ft long and contained tiers of 144 bunks three deep.

Some men slept under and over the cars for better ventilation and relief from lice and bedbugs. One car contained an office and a kitchen, and another served as the mess hall. Stacked in the ceilings of the cars was a veritable arsenal of 1000 rifles. The immense train was powered by two engines, 117 and 119. The men were well organized and operated with military-like discipline and precision, since the chief of nearly every unit was a former military officer.

The Union Pacific used this large work train that was a combination of factory, hotel, restaurant, and administrative center. It's more than 20 cars, some of them oversized and packed with heavy equipment, required both locomotives to keep them moving. Some cars were divided into offices, store rooms, and shops for blacksmiths, carpenters, and saddler's. Real hands boarded in huge sleeping cars packed with, and were fed in a massive dining car.

Track workers awoke to the sound of an alarm Bell at 5:30 a.m. About 125 men at a time could eat breakfast at a single table that ran all the way down the length of the 75 foot long dining car.

A reporter in 1867 wrote of watching the staff rushing around the kitchen car to make breakfast for the crew. “Cooks with paper turbans, and waiters with gunny sack aprons, are flying busily around.” Steaks broiled on three gigantic stoves alongside steaming “great coppers of coffee”. Bread was baked “by the wagonload”. Potatoes and onions were served as well. The kitchen car shared space with a food store room and an engineering office. Quarters of beef from freshly-slaughtered cattle covered the outside of the car.

About every three feet along the table was a wooden coffee bucket, and platters of bread and meat. A dozen waiters kept the coffee buckets and platters filled. Diners serve themselves by dipping their coffee cups into the bucket.

Dining etiquette was very basic. Half the men ate along the side of the long table that was hemmed in by the wall. When a diner was ready to leave, he stuck his foot across the table and climbed over it to get out. “As long as he doesn't put his foot into somebody else's breakfast”, wrote a reporter, “it is all right”.

Moving west with the railroad crew was a carnival of saloons, brothels, and gambling dens. Each day the proprietors of the tents and shanties that had their businesses moved and set up again a bit further down the line. The moving town created the expression “Hell on Wheels”.

The prime attraction of Hell on Wheels was “the Big Tent”. This giant portable Saloon was 40 feet across and 100 feet long. Its lumber frame came with a plank floor and a canvas roof.

If you walked into the Big Tent, on the right you'd see “a splendid bar, with every variety of liquor and cigars, with cut glass goblets, ice pictures, splendid mirrors, and pictures rivaling those of our Eastern cities.” In the back of the tent was the dance floor. There was always music, with a brass band or a string band playing on a raised platform near the door. The rest of the Big Tent was filled with gaming tables, where track workers spent much of their wages on Faro, Monte, the fortune wheels, and rondo-coolo, a game played by rolling numbered balls on a billiard table.
UPRR Construction Train sits on Devils Gate Bridge in Utah

Working on the Transcontinental Railroad was hard work. For the Westerners, at least, it was an excellent-paying job for the time. Living on the Transcontinental construction trains and visiting the camps was quite a ride.

My most recent book, Virginia’s Vocation, is now available on Amazon. In 1859, when Virginia, escorted by her older brother, Jefferson, travel from Missouri to Ohio, the train that had almost reached St. Joseph, Missouri was the most westerly point served by a railroad east of the Missouri River. When the Union Pacific Railroad construction began, supplies from the east still needed to be brought to Omaha up the Missouri River due to the lack of a railroad bridge across the river.

To read the book description and access the purchase link, please CLICK HERE.


“Linked by the Golden Spike: Building the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads”; History  of Railroads (Moorshead Magazines, Ltd.:Toronto, ON, Canada & Niagara Falls, NY, United States, 2013) pages 16-17, 19.

Museum Memories, Volume 1 (Salt Lake City, Utah: International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 2009), Pg. 412.


Licha said...

Wow, this is so interesting and very informative, I really like the pictures and all the informations! Now I know more about the railroad and who worked on the tracks and what happened there, Now I know how "Hell on Wheels" came about, Thanks, I did not know that! Your book sounds like a good read, and I love the cover, I Love it!! Thank you so much for writing this article, I enjoyed it and I learned a lot!! God Bless you. Have a Great weekend.

GiniRifkin said...

Great post, very informative. Thank you. Your new story sounds interesting too. Gotta love the title.