The “Wild West” is arguably one of the most fascinating time periods in American history, where certain areas of the country were untamed and its people were labelled as cowboys, outlaws, Native Americans, lawmen, Pinkertons or pioneers. These pioneers helped create the railroad of America and considered its birth to bring the end of the American Frontier, marking a “complete America”, but even these railroads and ideals came late into the western territories.
Although many claimed that railroads invented the West, as they created towns and enabled different trade to flow out of it, the presence and power of the railroad only promoted lawlessness, rather than order. From the period of 1865 to 1895, everything west of the Mississippi River was known as the Wild West; it was unruled, unrestrained, and the volatile relationship between Iron Road and the West only thrived. In this blog, we explore the railroads of the Wild West and what makes them so fascinating.
Although East America already had railroads as early as 1828, the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 allowed and promoted the construction of the “transcontinental railroad”, allowing both East and West to meet. This railroad was perhaps the greatest physical feat of 19th Century America. A railroad from San Francisco and one from Omaha, Nebraska met each other at Promontory, Utah in 1869 after years of crossing mountains, digging tunnels and laying tracks. From Promontory, this would link America from East to West.
From the development of the Transcontinental railroad, workers needed to set up camp and have somewhere to live as they finished tracks or built a train station. Because of this, some of these settlements developed into a permanent town in the west. However, some of these temporary terminus’ became cities, but were short-lived, consisting of drunken saloons, featureless buildings and scattered tin cans, not to mention frequent gunfights. These towns only promoted greed and corruption between builders, businessmen and outlaws.
Railroad robberies and outlaws of the west
The unruliness of the west only continued with the west’s railroad expansion in the 1870s to the 90s and there was a negative relationship between the railroad and the outlaw gangs that rejected civilisation
The railroad transported goods from livestock to gold, as well as America’s richest citizens and worst prisoners, usually fellow outlaws being transported to Yuma or Wyoming Territorial Prisons. For gangs, the railroad was an opportunity to steal for their own gain but upset the lawmen trying to control the west.
Many of these train robberies have been immortalised and glamorised in the cinema today, including the Wilcox train robbery (Wyoming, 1899) committed by the Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy, where they stole $30,000 in unsigned banknotes. Another famous train robbery, which features in the popular movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, saw the James-Younger Gang, led by Jesse James, commit the Iowa train robbery in 1873. They derailed the train but instead of the $75,000 worth of gold they thought was on board, they had to rob from the safe and the passengers instead, only making off with $3,000.
Although our British railroad history was never as volatile as the Wild West’s, it still has been a rollercoaster to get our railways as efficient and safe as they are today. At DH Scaffold Services, we offer network rail category 3 check and inspections – we may not be able to hold off outlaws, but can make sure all railways are safe and comply with regulations today. Contact us for more information.