LARAMIE, Wyo. — When the Union Pacific Railroad rolled in to present-day Laramie in May 1868, the town was at once founded and engulfed in vice.
Tom Manning, writer and producer of the upcoming Wyoming PBS documentary "End of Track," said Laramie was torn between upstanding residents on the one hand and outlaws, drunks and prostitutes on the other.
"That fall of 1868, Laramie was a horrible place," he said. "There were murders practically every night. There was gambling, prostitution, public drunkenness, fights — I mean, it was a tough, tough town."
"End of Track" premieres at 7 p.m. on March 10 on Wyoming PBS.
The hour-long documentary tells the story of the transcontinental railroad as it made its way across Wyoming, from Cheyenne to Evanston.
The film delves into the lives of the engineers, surveyors, tracklayers and robber barons involved in the railroad's construction, and it gives histories of the "Hell on Wheels" towns founded along the way.
Manning said the railroad pulled people to Wyoming, giving impetus to a migration that settled many cities along the state's southern tier.
"It piqued my interest that this was one of the few times that major transportation preceded population," he said.
"There was no Wyoming before the railroad got here. It didn't exist."
In some ways, building a railroad line through the Dakota Territory, which is present-day Wyoming, where it was cold, uninhabited and mountainous, would have seemed unlikely. At the time, southern, central and northern states were in a clash over which region would get the transcontinental railroad. But, when the Civil War broke out and the South seceded, Lincoln hastened to sign the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862.
"Lincoln was a big railroad man, and he took the opportunity at that point to get it done, because that was one piece of competition that wouldn't be there," Manning said. "The South wouldn't gum up the works."
The Railroad Act granted land and government bonds to two companies to build the transcontinental railroad: The Union Pacific, building west from Omaha, Neb., and the Central Pacific, laying track east from Sacramento, Calif.
"This was going to be a race to see who could build the most track," Manning said.
Grenville Dodge, Union Pacific surveyor, led a team over the Laramie mountains in 1867.
"He found this geological formation called the gang plank," Manning said. "And, basically, the gang plank is this long shelf that goes from the prairie up to the mountains.
"It's a unique geological formation that made it relatively easy to get over the Laramie Mountains."
Today, Interstate 80 follows the route.
Manning said when the railroad came over the mountains from Cheyenne to the Laramie Valley, more than 400 people were waiting; the Union Pacific had been granted rights to sell land by the federal government under the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, and the residents had a mind to set up a town.
"They sold 400 lots within a couple of days," he said. "And, so, Laramie became a railroad town, but not without a lot of trouble."
In the months after the town was founded, the land-owning residents of Laramie assembled a vigilante group to wrest control from outlaws. The fighting culminated in a shootout at the Belle of the West Dance Hall, where five outlaws were killed and 15 injured. Three outlaws who surrendered were strung up from telegraph poles, hung in warning to other bandits that Laramie residents would not abide lawlessness.
"And that's how Laramie got started," Manning said.