‘Hell on Wheels’

If the story of a man conquering the wild and unpredictable west in 1869 while building the Transcontinental Railroad sounds like the plot of the AMC television series “Hell on Wheels,” there’s a reason why.

The main character in the AMC series, Cullen Bohannon, served as the Chief Engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad, discovered a pass through the Black Hills of Wyoming, and was present for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, that joined the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads.

While Cullen Bohannon is the fictionalized creation of AMC, these were the real-life adventures of Norwich University alumnus Grenville Mellen Dodge. The 57 episodes of “Hell on Wheels,” which originally aired from 2011 to 2016, provided a down and dirty glimpse of the rugged, dangerous, and often deadly conditions faced by the men that worked the 1,912 mile Transcontinental Railroad.

Dodge’s incredible life, which brought him from his birthplace in Danvers, Mass., in 1831 and later to the halls of Norwich in 1848, also feature heroic achievements during America’s Civil War.

The creators of “Hell on Wheels,” Joe and Tony Gayton, chose not to make a docu-drama about the building of the railroad but were inspired while developing their fictionalized story by the 2006 documentary entitled American Experience. (www.collider.com).

In an interview published by the Hollywood Reporter, the Gayton brothers felt that Dodge was a great character and had given consideration to include him as a character in the series along with a number of other historical characters. However, by the end of the planning, Dodge was not included as it would have been difficult to do so as many of his real-life contributions had already been attributed to the main character, Bohannon.

Names of historical figures that were introduced into the fictionalized “Hell on Wheels” story included: Union General Ulysses S. Grant, railroad businessman Thomas “Doc” Durant, and head of the Central Pacific Railroad Collis P. Huntington. The true story of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad could not be told without the mention of these men along with President Abraham Lincoln. But it is Dodge’s amazing true story that animates the show and reveals one of Norwich’s more colorful and adventurous alumni.

The show looked at many of the significant issues that Dodge was faced within his effort to see the railroad completed, including post-war hostilities between former Confederate and Union soldiers, as well as relations with newly freed slaves, immigrant workers and Native American Indians.

The series derived its name from the phrase coined by the writer Samuel Bowles, who described the upstart towns with wide opened gatherings of saloons, whorehouses and casinos that followed and served the railroad workers as they progressed across the country. The towns were often temporary and the large tents and competing businesses folded and moved along with the construction of the railway.

The building of the Transcontinental Railroad was contracted to two companies: The Central Pacific Railroad (C.P.) building from Sacramento, Calif., in the west and the Union Pacific Railroad (U.P.), building from Council Bluffs, Iowa, in the east. As the chief engineer for the Union Pacific, Dodge had the immense responsibility of determining the best route for the railroad, how the lines would navigate over mountains and through valleys and where towns would be developed along the route.  For this task, he would rely at least in part on his Norwich education as an engineer.

Dodge’s significant contributions to  building the Transcontinental Railroad and his engineering, railroad and political experience did not come without challenges. For the man who would be call America’s greatest railroad builder by author and historian Stephen E. Ambrose (“Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869”) the path was not an easy one and almost did not happen.

It was a family connection that landed Dodge at Norwich University. At the age of 14, Dodge was working on the farm of Mrs. Edward Lander in Salem, Mass. Mrs. Lander’s son, Frederick, was a cadet at Norwich. Dodge assisted with surveying a small railroad for the family and Frederick Lander encouraged Dodge to become a civil engineer and to obtain a military education.

In September of 1848, Dodge entered Norwich and it was here that he would first become interested in the concept of a transcontinental railroad. Dodge would earn a Bachelor of Arts and civil engineering degree and in July of 1851, he graduated as a civil and military engineer from Capt. Alden Partridge’s military school taking one season’s practical course in the field.

At Norwich, Dodge boarded with the widow of Col. Truman B. Ransom, a former president of Norwich, who was killed in 1847 leading a regiment in the Mexican War. Dodge would follow two of the Ransoms’ sons and fellow classmates, Thomas and Dunbar, to Illinois were he began working as a land surveyor, according to the Norwich archives  (archives.norwich.edu).

Dodge developed a reputation as an extremely skillful surveyor and was well-respected for his abilities to envision the best routes for railroad lines as well as assess lands for valuable minerals and resources.

On Aug. 14, 1859, Abraham Lincoln,  then  the candidate for the Republican nomination for president, had been campaigning in Council Bluffs, Iowa, when Dodge was pointed out and Lincoln was told that Dodge knew more about railroads than just about anyone. After being introduced, Lincoln immediately sought Dodge’s advice on the best route for a Pacific railroad to the West.

Lincoln was very interested in this railway crossing the country and he recognized the value it would have to the country. The two would take for the next two hours after which Dodge would say of Lincoln’s inquiry “He shelled my woods completely and got all the information I’d collected” as related in Ambrose’s book.

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