When Cheyenne Was “Hell on Wheels”


Cheyenne originated as one of the end-of-the-line boom towns that preceded laying of the tracks for the transcontinental railroad.  Its appearance and growth were so rapid that it was dubbed “Magic City of the Plains”.

As sections of track were completed, it was common for whole towns to be placed on railcars and moved on to the end of the line, bringing with them thousands of men and a few women who drank, gambled and fought in the saloons, dancehalls and bordellos.  Such settlements were called “Hell on Wheels.”

Reverend Joseph W. Cook arrived in Cheyenne in 1868 and is quoted as saying:

“The activity of the place is surprising, and the wickedness is unimaginable and appalling.  This is a great center for gamblers of all shades, and roughs and troops of lewd women, and bullwhackers.  Almost every other house is a drinking saloon, gambling house, restaurant or bawdy.”

F.E. Warren, upon arriving in 1868, was greeted by a band when he disembarked from the train.  He thought it was pretty special until he learned it was a band promoting one of the saloons/dance halls.

In fact, four times as many railroad workers were killed in these rowdy towns as were killed by accidents on the railroad right-of-way.

Charles Martin and his partner Andy Harris owned the Keystone Dance Hall (funds for purchase of the dance hall were said to have come from an armed robbery).  It seems the partnership was less than amicable and Charlie shot Andy dead.  Although Charlie had been acquitted by a jury, a group of four or five men in black masks seized him and drug him into the street. Martin’s body was found hanging from a crude gallows at the present day 300 East 17th Street (across the street from the mansion). He had strangled to death on a rope that was only two feet long. 

The same night, two alleged mule thieves met their demise, by hanging, at the Elephant Corral near the freight depot.

“Committees of Vigilance” were formed to combat the lawlessness … and thereby hangs another tale.


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