She (or he) is…

…hell on wheels!

I had already decided to use “hell on wheels” as this week’s entry for AlphabeThursday, thinking that it was a common enough phrase that most people would have already heard the expression but, like me, might be unfamiliar with its origins. Imagine my surprise (and a giddy little “yes!”) when, in conversation with an acquaintance yesterday morning, he said “and she is hell on wheels, for sure!” referring in a not-so-complimentary way to someone else we both know.

The phrase “hell on wheels” was coined in 1866 by the editor of a Massachusetts newspaper as he observed the boomtown atmosphere in North Platte, Nebraska, the temporary railhead and winter home for the men who were building the Union Pacific railroad. Opportunistic entrepreneurs (think gambling establishments, saloons, dance halls, and brothels) were more than willing to make a buck on winter-idled railroad workers as well as on the miners and traders who were also drawn to the relative comfort of the westward-most railroad outpost.

The anarchy didn’t end in North Platte…the track followers stuck with their lucrative prey, usually using the freshly-laid track and convenient train transportation to move their makeshift buildings to the next railhead so they could continue taking advantage of men who, far from familiar constraints, were willing to spend their hard-earned wages on recreations they would never have considered in other circumstances.

Boomtowns were erected and then, almost as quickly, disappeared as the railroad made its way across the great expanse of the late 19th century American West. Permanent residents of railhead towns were plagued with all manner of crime—shootings, assaults, and murders—and were often left to simply outlast the mayhem because law enforcement, such as it was, could not deal with the volume and magnitude of crime the railroad crowd brought with it. Not surprisingly, some towns resorted to vigilantism to protect themselves and their property until the railroad moved further west.

Fortunately the American West survived the construction of the transcontinental railroad and many of the boomtowns of that bygone era—beginning in Omaha, Nebraska, and ending at Promontory Point, Utah, and, including in between, such well-known cities as aforementioned North Platte and Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming—have grown and continue to provide homes and jobs (and a very colorful past) to hundreds of thousands of Americans.

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Posted for Jenny Matlock’s AlphabeThursday study of the letter “H.” For Round 5 of this long-running meme, I am focusing on colloquialisms and idioms—words and phrases that are unique to a region or have meanings that aren’t necessarily discernible from the combined meanings of the individual words. I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s mini-exploration of American history as much as I have.

12 thoughts on “She (or he) is…

  1. Pingback: Blood, sweat, & tears « Tidbits & Treasures

  2. Wanda, I love this and truly enjoy your efforts to enlighten. I have come to look forward to the phrase of the week you choose to explain. I have used “hell on wheels” both in good and bad context for years, but hearing the origin as so delightfully explained by you has caused me to stop a bit short and wonder, if I shouldn’t be more careful using old phrases LOL. A guy could get punched! Thanks so much I look forward to the next one. Bill

  3. That is an interesting bit of history. Thank you for sharing it with us. (certainly would not have learned that in elementary history class!)

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