Portable saloons, dance halls, gambling tents, and lean-to houses
of prostitution were always one small step behind the army of workers
converging on the Utah territory. The enterprises earned the nickname
of "hell on wheels":
[David Haward Bain]
". . .As the railroad track moved on, all of the purveyors, the
saloon owners, and the gambling den owners the whisky ranches as they
were called, would just pack up, and they'd be put on flat cars and
sent off to the end of the track again. That's where the notion of hell
on wheels came from."
[Samuel B. Reed]
"The first place we visited was a dance house where a fresh importation
of strumpets has been received. The hall was crowded with bad men and
lewd women. Such profanity, vulgarity and indecency as was heard and
seen there would disgust a more hardened person than I--Samuel Reed"
"And they were tough places. They were probably as tough as any
of the seamy parts of the great American cities. Murder was not unknown,
robbery was fairly common, and these hell on wheels towns moved along
with the grading gangs all across the line of the railroad."
[St. Louis Missouri Democrat]
"I verily believe that there are men here who would murder a fellow
creature for five dollars. Nay there are men here who have already done
it! The St. Louis Missouri Democrat"
By January of 1869 the hell on wheels caravan had camped for the winter
in the Utah territory. . .at the newly created rail town of Wasatch."
"During its lively existence of three months it established a graveyard
with 43 occupants, of whom not one died of disease. Two were killed
by accident, three got drunk and froze to death. . .three were hanged.
. .and many were killed in rows or murdered.-J.H. Beadle, The Salt Lake
"It is a capital idea for citizens to have loaded firearms in their
dwellings where there is the least reason to expect visits of such characters-
The Deseret News, April 28, 1869."
For Brigham Young, "hell on wheels" was only the most obvious
symptom of a greater disease. Left unchecked, the railroad would carry
the corrupting viruses of money and outside culture into the Utah territory.
"The problem was that Brigham Young recognized that you could not
separate the economic life of Utah from the social and political life.
They all were linked, and so if you welcomed in with open arms the economic
powers of the national culture, you would also be welcoming in its social
structure and its political power. And Brigham Young was unwilling to
do that. And he said, 'No we will not. We will resist to every degree
that we can the influence of Babylon,' which is how they typically referred
to states east of the Mississippi."
"The only thing for you and me to fear is whether we will build
up the Kingdom of God. Whether our souls are in the Kingdom or not.
The doctrine we preach is pure and holy, and if we will abide by it,
it will make us pure and holy."
"The first stage was to announce a boycott of all, first of all,
hostile merchants. And then in 1867, that became all non-Mormon merchants,
became the subject of the boycott. This draws many of them out of business,
and merchants sold their remaining inventories and left Utah, which
is exactly what Brigham Young wanted."
1868 Brigham Young extended his economic defense plan even further when
he assembled business leaders and directed formation of the Zions Cooperative
And it was a device for assuring that the merchandising, the importing
and sales of products from the East and from San Francisco would be
done by the saints, not some outside enterprisers who might work against
the goals of the kingdom.
"And this moved beyond simple boycotting the non-Mormons to requiring
Mormon merchants to either join and turn over all of their inventories
to ZCMI in exchange for ZCMI stock, or if they didn't they would be
publicly identified as the enemy, and they would be subject to boycott."
"The all seeing eye, holiness to the Lord was recognition that
this was a member institution in the ZCMI operation. That meant that
if you went inside that door that you were a loyal member of the church
who was supporting a church business. And if you went in a different
business next door that didn't have that kind of logo over the door,
then you were essentially a traitor."
"We asked the people, were not those who sustained such characters
virtually traitors to the cause and the God they covenanted to obey?
The conference unanimously voted that they would no longer fellowship
those who would persist in trading with such characters."
"It was a line. It was like drawing a line in the sand along main
street if you will. . .and those who chose to cross it often did it
at their own peril."
Brigham Young's determination to hold off outside influences was evident
when a handful of Mormons resisted centralized church control of their
businesses. William Godbe and others argued for a free-market economy
and open doors to outside investment and ideas. They urged other Mormons
to challenge Brigham's grip on Utah society. Godbe wanted the railroad
to swing open the door of change.
"...and Brigham Young made them a test of faith. He said, 'If you
continue advocating what you're advocating,' and Godbe and his associates
began advocating this publicly, Brigham Young said we cannot tolerate
When Godbe refused to drop back in line, Brigham Young excommunicated
him from the ranks of the Latter-day Saints, branding Godbe and his
followers traitors to the cause.
They have failed. And yet they have added another proof of the truth
of the saying of Jesus that those who are not for us, are against us."
But there was new fuel being added daily to the fire of challenge facing
The Union Pacific railroad was slow in paying for the Mormon work being
done in Weber and Echo canyons. Brigham Young's personal guarantee to
his people of getting paid well and in cash was in jeopardy of falling
apart. Missing pay days with regularity workers were sometimes paid
in food from church storage. Workers started to walk off the job.
"October 11, 1868
Dear Brother Musser:
People are leaving their work on the railroad, and are complaining of
not getting their payment in cash. This is not agreeable to the progress
of work on president Young's contract.
"October 8, 1868
There is much dissatisfaction among the men. The monthly payments have
only been one-third or one-half of the value of the work. Very many
of the men are unpaid, and numbers are compelled to leave the work to
provide for their families"-Brigham Young
[David Haward Bain]
By the time we get to 1868 and 1869, as the railroad is about to enter
into Utah territory, the Union Pacific is basically completely cash
strapped. The only asset that it has is its own railroad and its rolling
stock and the amount of work that has been done and the promise for
the future. Banks are ready to foreclose, loans were taken out to pay
other loans, I mean the whole thing could have collapsed under the right
By the end of November, 1868, Brigham Young. . .as primary contractor.
. . owed his fellow Mormons well over one hundred thousand dollars for
work already completed. He had tapped personal and church cash accounts
believing repayment from the Union Pacific was imminent.
When it did not arrive, Young sent a personal plea to Thomas Durant
of the Union Pacific:
"The total due me through November 30, 1868 is $130,605. I have
expended all my available funds in forwarding the work. If I had the
means to continue I would not now ask for assistance.
Very truly yours, Brigham Young"
Knowing that Mormon labor would be critical for a final push out of
the canyons, Durant convinced Young to keep Mormon labor on the job,
building a railroad bed through the town of Ogden. . .to the north of
the Great Salt Lake. . .in the direction of the Nevada border. Young
told associates that Durant had promised to pay any cost. At the same
time, Leland Stanford appeared in Salt Lake City representing the Central
Pacific. Stanford wanted the same number of Mormons to aid his railroad's
drive from Nevada to the Wasatch front. Again, Young would confide that
Stanford had agreed to pay any price.
And there's a moment where Brigham Young accepts a contract of course
and subcontracts it out from the Union Pacific to grade up past Ogden
toward the Promontory Mountains. And then the Central Pacific people
come in and they say, well can you give us a contract too? And all of
a sudden, Young is presented with the delightful idea of playing one
off against the other, and collecting money from both sides.
"November 8, 1868
Today I had a talk with Brigham Young. He will do our grading, and will
not make our work secondary to the Union Pacific. He will put plenty
of men to work on both lines, and I am satisfied he can do it. This
is our policy. We can't keep the Union Pacific from grading their line,
but through Young we can have our own graded to lay track on when we
can reach it.-Leland Stanford"
Already hip-deep in debt, Young decided to wager the economic future
of thousands on the cut-throat competition between the Central Pacific
and the Union Pacific. Young believed the demand for labor was certain
to ensure Young and the men would be paid.
At first, it seemed to pay off. Soon Mormon crews were simultaneously
working for the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, grading rail
lines east and west in northern Utah. Mormon subcontractors soon got
into a bidding war for local workers as manpower was in short supply
in the face of the head-to-head battle.
[Joseph A. West]
Competition for men and teams became so great that companies began to
bid off each others men by increasing wages. And the construction cost
became enormously heavy-Joseph A. West"
Brigham's contractors ratcheted up wages. . .confident that their costs
would be met by the railroads. And Brigham Young urged the work forward.
. .confident in his agreements with both companies that any price would
be paid to keep the workers on the job
It is my wish and council to all the brethren working on my contract
to push the work ahead with all possible dispatch. Therefore brethren,
work at it until the job is completed-Brigham Young."
Completion seemed to be at hand. But if the nation had expected the
two railroad companies to gently stop when they reached each other.
. . Most observers were stunned when the two companies kept right on
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