Few things transformed our nation in the 19th century like the Transcontinental Railroad. Its construction was one of those pivotal events in history, like the Civil War, where you could honestly step back and say, “After this, nothing will be the same.” In many ways the Transcontinental Railroad was for the 19th century what the internet has become in the 21st—something created by man with such far-reaching implications that they truly exceed our grasp. The Railroad opened up the nation, brought it closer together, but it also brought with it great complications. That in part is what makes the telling of the Railroad’s story in “Hell on Wheels” so compelling.
Population – One Less Every Day
“Hell on Wheels” is an epic story that, while fictionalized for the series, is deeply rooted in historical facts—including the character of Thomas “Doc” Durant (played by Colm Meaney). Durant was the driving force behind the construction of the Union Pacific on its meandering route to meet the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory on May 10, 1869; thereby connecting the east and west coasts by rail. “Hell on Wheels” takes place somewhere along the route, a year or so after the end of the Civil War. As writer and Season Two executive producer John Shiban (“The X-Files”, “Star Trek Enterprise”, “Supernatural”, “Breaking Bad”), explains “Staging a western for the small screen is usually easier than for the big screen but with ‘Hell on Wheels’ the story is so driven by the building of the railroad and the multitude of people involved, that every episode demands the treatment of a motion picture in its scope.”
This is heady stuff for a television series, but AMC has a good track record with Westerns over the past years including the highly successful mini-series “Broken Trail” that starred Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church. “Hell on Wheels” has a large ensemble cast and one very large co-star, the Union Pacific train, “And that takes up a lot of space,” explains Shiban. “The tracks now extend over 2,000 feet across the backdrop. In the second season we will be increasing the length of the rails to allow more travel and photography with the train and changing backgrounds.”
In the first season there were scenes of track being laid—and in fact, this was not all acting, as track for the train was actually being built on location in Calgary, Canada, which substitutes for the open plains of 1860’s America. As the track extends so too does the traveling town called Hell on Wheels, and with it the dilemma that folds in on itself pushing characters into events that are not always what they expected. Finding a place in the mud encrusted tent city, amidst this movable feast of prejudice, class warfare, greed and corruption, provides all the elements for great story telling.
As to the show’s title, according to historian Gary L. Roberts, “Hell on Wheels” was a name given to the traveling tent cities that were built along the route of the Union Pacific during its construction. “The tent city in ‘Hell on Wheels’,” explains the show’s prop master Ken Willis, “is based on historical research from encampments that were set up along the railroad as it was being built. Some had as many as 3,000 people living in them at any one time, so these towns required a lot of backup support, not just tents for workers to live in but saloons and bath houses, gambling places, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and farriers, brothels and churches; everything in a city to serve the needs of the flesh and of the spirit, but one that could be picked up and moved along with the construction crews laying rail.” And then there is the mud. “No roads, no paving, just dirt and when it rains lots of mud,” says Willis.
The original storyline, penned by writer/producers Joe and Tony Gayton, follows two journeys—the building of the Union Pacific across the plains and the search of ex-Confederate officer Cullen Bohannon for his own retribution…or is it his redemption? At the conclusion of the first season we are left wondering.
With a background rooted in writing, directing and producing science fiction, Executive Producer John Shiban’s view of the show and where he and the writers will take the Union Pacific and Cullen Bohannon in Season Two is likely to be even more dramatic. “Like ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Hell on Wheels’ is very much about exploration,” says Shiban. “And it’s funny, because science fiction is so much like a western. Gene Roddenberry once said that ‘Star Trek’ was ‘Wagon Train’ in outer space.”
Having written scripts for Seasons One and Two, Shiban has settled into his role as the guiding hand behind Bohannon’s journey. “With ‘Hell on Wheels’ it is really quite a collaboration of ideas because the Gayton’s original vision in the pilot was amazing. I came on in Season One and kind of took it in the same direction, and in the spirit of AMC dramas we don’t want to tread the same water. We have been talking about the character arcs (continuing story lines) for Season Two and the journey of Cullen Bohannon in particular… let’s just say that viewers will be very surprised at where they find him at the top of Season Two.”
The show is really built on a bedrock of strong ensemble casting to support the storyline but there are so many more antagonists in this show than heroes. “There’s a lot to keep in balance and it’s tricky,” says Shiban, “because each episode has to be its own story and yet part of a greater story. We have to have grand arcs for each character and how they interact to tell the story of the railroad’s construction. The intersecting of people in and around the railroad is essential, as is keeping all their storylines urgent and interesting. And then there is the greater question for each of them, what does the railroad mean to these people? Why did they come out here, what do they hope to gain from it?
“Bohannon…is also going to face the biggest obstacle of this period of time during the railroad’s construction, which was the encroachment on the Indians and the battles that were fought with them. [He] has to deal with all of this plus the politics of the railroad and the people back in ‘Hell on Wheels.’”
“You’re a Johnny Reb aren’t you? I could tell by that Griswold you’re carrying. Was a Griswold like that, that took off my hand,” pronounces former Union Captain Daniel Johnson (played with a grizzly tone by Ted Levine), when he meets Cullen Bohannon for the first time.
The show’s armorer Brian Kent explains that the period of the show is around 1866 as the railroad progresses through the central part of the country. “The guns are all intended to be those that would have been available during the period of the Civil War and within a year or so after. For the character of Cullen Bohannon the choice was one of the most commonly carried sidearms of the Confederacy, the Griswold. Originals, of course, are too rare and too valuable, so we had to come up with a substitute. We were unable to find a reproduction Griswold at the time,” says Kent, “so it came down to making one up as close as we could to the original’s appearances and that meant a brass frame and a round barrel. The gun used in the first season is actually a brass framed 1860 Army, and we have had plenty of criticism for that because the Griswold barrel and loading lever were different and it was a .36 caliber, not .44 caliber. The Bohannon Griswold was originally made up for the pilot episode and the budget and timeframe didn’t allow for us to go any further. After the show took off we more or less had to stay with it.”
“As for the Griswold, controversy,” says actor Anson Mount, who plays Cullen Bohannon, “I’ve heard a lot about it, but that isn’t going to matter much longer. In season two the Griswold gets taken off me at the end of episode one and I replace it with a Union-issued Remington Army revolver. The Remington I get at the top of the second season is a beautiful gun to handle and shoot. And I have been practicing changing out cylinders to reload for a shootout scene in an upcoming episode; I was drilling on this for about a week to make it look smooth. I totally stole that idea from Clint Eastwood,” admits Mount with a chuckle, “but let me tell you it looks a lot easier than it is! In Pale Rider Eastwood had a cartridge conversion Remington and that isn’t as hard to do as with a cap-and-ball cylinder. You really get to where you can feel the timing mechanism in the frame and get the arbor lined up just right or you can’t get the cylinder back in. And I got it. This gun will get a lot more exposure in season two.”
Having grown up in the rural South, Mount is comfortable around guns and horses, but this is his first Western. “There is a big emphasis on on-set gun safety, which is very different than gun safety,” he says. “You have to factor in how to handle firearms on a set because all of the black powder guns on ‘Hell on Wheels’ are real guns, there are no prop guns, we’re using real black powder loads and you have to be enormously careful because a blank will kill you. You’re also on or around horses, which don’t generally like gun fire, so there are a lot of factors that can lead to accidents on a western that you don’t encounter in a contemporary drama. We’re lucky to have a crew who understands all of this. In Season Two, I also get to shoot a Sharps at the top of episode four and that is a beautiful rifle. The 1866 Winchester from the first season seems to be spending more time in the saddle scabbard so far but handling all of these great guns is one of the cooler aspects of the job!”
“Bohannon’s belt and holster are very interesting pieces,” explains Willis. “The belt with its period correct roller buckle is long, well worn and suitable for any holster. Most early holsters of this style were done along the border with Mexico in the mid to late 1860s. Bohannon’s has two drop loops and a fairly wide skirt; it is a very authentic-looking rig.” The art department on the production wanted Bohannon’s holster to have a very distinctive look with the barrel sticking out the bottom. “We did some photo research and found old pictures of cowboys with gun barrels longer than their holsters, so we weren’t really exaggerating anything with that. And Anson decided to tuck over the long end of the belt, which really adds to the nature of the character.”
Guns of Season Two
“Choosing a firearm for Thor Gundersen, ‘Mr. Swede,’ (played brilliantly by Christopher Heyerdahl), as Durant’s enforcer on the railroad, was more challenging,” explains Kent, “as we wanted to focus more on his heritage, though his character is actually Norwegian, as pointed out in one episode when Durant threatens to dismiss him, saying, ‘It’s a long walk back to Sweden,’ to which Gundersen mutters under his breath, ‘Sverige? I’m Norwegian!’ For this character we decided to go with a sawed off double barrel shotgun, which looks very much like a European Howdah pistol of the 1860s. This was a bit of a cheat again because we had to use a later model with a box lock action, which would not exist until many years later, but it delivers the look we wanted for “Beauty” as Mr. Swede calls his double-barreled pistol.
In the next season we will be adding a short-barreled black powder percussion shotgun to the compliment of weapons and several of the main characters will be getting new guns. Lily Bell will get a double barrel Derringer, or what they used to call a muff pistol, to keep for her own protection. “Doc” Durant will set aside his old Pepperbox for a brand new Remington cartridge conversion, which would actually be a circa 1868 gun,” admits Kent, “so we are pushing it by a year or two, as we are with Elam Ferguson (played by actor/musician Common) who graduates from a worn 1851 Navy percussion pistol taken off an Irish roughneck to a new Open Top cartridge revolver—again pushing history just a tad, but these are more interesting guns for the characters and the evolution of their roles in the second season.”
Adds Shiban, “We are aware of the guns and how they were used in the period. There weren’t very many gunfights like the OK Corral, so we really want to keep it real and depict things more the way they were, which was pretty messy. It is like a scene in Season One where Cullen is teaching Elam how to shoot and he explains that its not about accuracy, its about being close and firing, and remembering to count your shots, and if you can, how many the other guy has fired! So no one is going to be doing quick draws, shooting off someone’s hat or shooting a gun out of someone’s hand on ‘Hell on Wheels.’”
The Largest Prop
The steam engine and train cars are the largest props of any television series in recent memory and the train was built entirely on location. Unlike the working steam engines seen in 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit, the “Hell on Wheels” engine is a mockup made from wood and styrofoam! The handmade steel wheels turn, the smokestack makes lots of heavy black smoke, but there’s no engine in the steam engine! So how does it manage to travel down more than 2,000 feet of rails? It is moved with a rail car pusher that is kept out of the shot. “As a moving prop ‘Doc’ Durant’s Union Pacific steam engine and rail cars are the most versatile set on the show,” says Shiban.
“Our 19th century history is so rich and the building of the railroad is a great part of that period when America pursued its belief in Manifest Destiny,” says Shiban. “After the Civil War it was like a rebirth of the nation and how we got to where we are today underlines any storytelling. Some of the reasons people are drawn to the show is the period setting, and thanks to our amazing Calgary crew, who have done a lot of westerns in the past, it all feels very real to the audience.
We’re not trying to do a revisionist take on history either, we are trying to do a realistic story and that has been a real eye-opener for all of us—the writers, actors, everyone—because we are learning about the conflicts and issues of the time, and the impact the railroad had on the buffalo and on Native Americans. We are looking at more ways to portray that. We have even considered a scene where we come upon the aftermath of a buffalo slaughter because there is such a shocking bit of history there. I think in later seasons we will really start to see the effects this progress had, not only on the indigenous people but on nature. It is in truth still a lesson for today. We’re still struggling as a nation, still struggling with the haves and the have-nots, and the inequity of wealth, and we’re still struggling with blue collar versus white collar, all these issues are still relevant today. So ‘Hell on Wheels’ is, in many ways, an allegory of our times as well. Completing the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 was the equivalent of putting a man on the moon a century later in 1969. It was a national event,” says Shiban. So, there really is a tie between westerns and science fiction after all!
Author’s Notes: Special thanks to Anson Mount, John Shiban, Ken Willis, and Brian Kent from “Hell on Wheels,” Kate Mann at AMC, Cimarron F.A. Co. in Fredericksburg, Texas, for providing the guns and clothing from “Hell on Wheels,”Alan and Donna Soellner at Chisholm’s Trail Leather for duplicating the Cullen Bohannon holster and belt, Taylor’s & Co. and Gary Rummell for creating the copy of the Bohannon Griswold, and Mark McNeeley and Chuck Ahearn/Allegheny Trade Co. in Duncansville, Pennsylvania for special assistance with this article.