Beware of Styrofoam and plywood locomotives bearing history

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Thursday, January 05, 2012

‘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.

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