Beware of Styrofoam and plywood locomotives bearing history

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‘Hell on Wheels’ failed on the most important prop in the story of the first transcontinental railroad: the train

Neither black nor dingy like the engine seen in AMC's new television show, "Hell on Wheels," 4-4-0 Leviathan is a colorful steam locomotive right out of 1868. The engine was running at Trainfestival 2011 in Rock Island, Ill., in July 2011.


By now, you may have seen the show or heard someone talking about AMC’s new television series “Hell on Wheels.” The series, which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday nights, has just been renewed for a second season after starting last November. Episodes revolve around a former Confederate soldier who joins the construction force of the first transcontinental railroad. The name “Hell on Wheels” comes from the boisterous, hard drinking, hard living, encampment that followed the Union Pacific’s railhead construction gang as it made its way westward to Promontory, Utah, for that blessed union of east and west by rail on May 10, 1869. Each episode's fictionalized story weaves together the lives of laborers, managers, surveyors, preachers, prostitutes, hucksters, and others who make up one of the most important historical events in the development of the nation.

So why then, did AMC fail so miserably with its depiction of the train, the most important prop that is key to the telling of this tale? In the replica they constructed, they got the wheel arrangement and the general layout of the iconic 19th century locomotive, a 4-4-0 or American type, right, but the way they dressed the engine looks as if it were a war refugee: It’s a dull, dingy flat black contraption without the first bit of color or polish.

That’s not the way it was, folks. Not at all, even though AMC folks say otherwise on a video called “building the train” on the AMC/Hell on Wheels website. In the video, they look at an HO model of a three-truck Shay — yes, a geared 1905 logging locomotive, which is obviously a Bachmann model of Cass Scenic No. 5 in its original garb as West Virginia Pulp &Paper No. 5. They talk about how hard it was to find a real locomotive, and they talk about their decision to build one out of Styrofoam, plywood, and metal wheels in the name of historical accuracy.

Uh, huh.

Just one problem: Whom did they ask what it was supposed to look like?

I called the first group that comes to mind when I think about the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. I figured sharp “HoW” producers would also contact the National Park Service’s Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory, Utah, where the transcontinental railroad completion ceremony took place. While the imagery of the Central Pacific 4-4-0 “Jupiter” and Union Pacific No. 119 standing pilot to pilot with a well-dressed crowd decorating the engines and the landscape, men with champagne bottles in hand, is burned into the minds of many Americans, it is not with the good folks at AMC. They didn’t call the NPS site, said Park Ranger Ken Kyburz. He’s seen a few of the "Hell on Wheels" shows and was not impressed.

“Their locomotive looks like it’s rusting,” Kyburz says. That’s in direct contrast to the 1979 operating replicas of the Jupiter and the 119 that reside at the park, which is located west of Ogden and north of Salt Lake City (just in case anyone from AMC is reading this and wants to Google directions to the park). They’re bright, beautiful dream machines of bright blue, red, and gleam with polished brass. Also, Kyburz points out, AMC’s engine “burns” wood, but UP’s real engines did not. CP’s engines burned wood from the Sierras, while UP’s burned coal.

And what’s with the engine anyway? AMC’s locomotive has a medallion the size of a gas grill on the tender flanks that looks like a coat of arms for UP’s Thomas Durant. Did no-one at the show know to letter the engine “Union Pacific” either? Was Dan Markoff, owner of that beautiful little chocolate, red, and brass 3-foot gauge 4-4-0 “Eureka” not answering his phone that day? Was Dave Kloke, who built a replica of Central Pacific’s “Leviathan” in 2009 and is working on another one, out of town?

UP, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year (Abraham Lincoln himself signed the act creating the Pacific railroad on July 1, 1862), wisely declined to provide input for the fictionalized show. "'Hell on Wheels' depicts some gross exaggerations and inaccuracies,” says UP spokesman Mark Davis. “This is unfortunate, because our history is rich, starting nearly 150 years ago with Abraham Lincoln's vision to build the transcontinental railroad, connecting Americans from East to West.”

He’s right about that. The construction of the first transcontinental railroad is one of the major events in the life of our nation. It deserves better even for a bit of fiction that came in second in viewership to AMC’s other new show about post-apocalyptic zombies, the “Walking Dead.” Too bad the train show wasn’t worth a little more research and a lot more paint.

  • Haven't seen the show, likely won't, no time, BUT I think the reviewer's comments are dead on, and reflect the reality that historical knowledge is$1****$2poor among a lot of folks, whom one would think would in fact know better.  Looks as if AMC picked up a story plot crafted by some folks who haven't a clue what the history was - likely only read Ambrose's book about building the RR. And besides sex sells.

  • Calvin's father covered this subject a while back, in the comic strip "Calvin & Hobbes":

    "How come old photographs are always black and white? Didn't they have color film back then?"

    "Sure they did. In fact, those old photographs are in color. It's just that the world was black and white then. The world didn't turn color until sometime in the 1930s, and it was pretty grainy color for a while, too."

    "But then why are old paintings in color?! If the world was black and white, wouldn't artists have painted it that way?"

    "Not necessarily. A lot of great artists were insane."

    "But... But how could they have painted in color anyway? Wouldn't their paints have been shades of gray back then?"

    "Of course, but they turned colors like everything else did in the '30s."

    "So why didn't old black and white photos turn color too?"

    "Because they were color pictures of black and white, remember?"

  • Tried to watch the show, but my wife made me turn it off. She couldn't hear the tv over my "comentary" on the lack of research. I was very dissapointed with the show, it was an opportunity to show that history is better than fiction. They failed. It comes off as a night time soap opra.

  • I'm on the fence about this. It seems like a show with good potential that's been missed, but two things stick out to me.

    1)The train is a setting, and a plot _device_, but the story itself is about the people, specifically the Confederate guy. I can cut them some slack there on that argument, and I can cut them some slack a out not wanting a live steam engine, and the mechanical headaches therein. Should they have done their homework, especially with the Transcon museum, sure. But this is not Extreme Trains, this is about the people of the era.

    2) Guys, Ambrose paints a lousy picture, but he's not all wrong. UP bought Lincoln's railcar for protction from Natives AND TEH PEOPLE THEY WEREN'T PAYING. Look intot he other books, look into the Credit Mobilier, and tell me that it wasn'tg a dark and dirty time. There's at the very least a persistant story of chaining the private car down to the rails to demand payment. The original Union Pacific Railroad was run by some corrupt people. Innacuracies have to come from somewhere. Furthermore, the cultural and racial clashes are oerdramatized, but they are far from nonexistant.

  • Never let the facts get in the way of a story.

  • "Two thumbs up" and a big <grin> to _LNER44472_'s comment and excerpt from "Calvin & Hobbes" above !

    -Paul North.

  • Look folks, it's hollywood. Don't expect anything honest to come from that bunch.

  • Look folks, it's hollywood. Don't expect anything honest to come from that bunch.

  • The first problem is that the creators of this program come from back east who think that anyplace west of the Mississippi River doesn't exist, except for a thin strip of land extending from Hollywood to San Fornia Califrisco.  They have gotten so blind to those of us in the western part of the country that they give their show times in Eastern only.  They might mention Central Time occasionally, and Mountain Time hasn't existed since the middle of the last century.  They are in good company, though, because the politicians have the same concept.  Don't worry, even western reporters are clueless.  UP 844 passed through the California desert in November, and those "Know-it-alls" had the audacity to call the deep-throated warning device a "HORN"!

  • I saw part of one program and was not "thrilled" to see the train shots.  My first thought was, "good heavens..." "they filmed this story in another country (Mexico maybe?)  Possibly Canada.  AMC is not a large production studio.  Shooting is cheaper in Canada and Mexico.  And the passenger cars have the "look" of Mexican rolling the Clerestory!  As stated earlier, this program was not produced for railfans.  The female tv viewer is certainly the goal.

  • They got the hardware wrong. But they got the software better than most film/TV efforts. Read Richard White's "Railroaded" for a reality check.

  • Today is my first day on ModelRailroaders forums, and I like the members feed back shown here. Especially reading the detail the members express about history. I love to read about history but I never place to much expectation in Hollywoods depection of any history. Hollywoods purpose is not to perfect history, there is no money in that!  

  • Looks like the train at Disneyland

  • If they had somebody make it with the same attention to details, in the way that James Cameron made TITANIC, then it would have been more visually authentic.

  • What about The Canadian Pacific? Last spike [bent and quickly replaced] driven November 7th, 1885 at Craigellachie, BC. [Try saying THAT six times fast!] It boggles the mind how there is such a gap in dedication to historical accuracy between the likes of James Cameron and these folks.

        The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did an excellent mini-series of the building of the CPR and the railway scenes were excellent. The series was based on two books by Pierre Berton called The National Bream and The Last Spike.

       Then tere were movies like "Canadian Pacific" [shudder] starring Randolph Scott and Victor Jory. Absolute Hollywood disasters.

Beware of Styrofoam and plywood locomotives bearing history