Hats on the Scene: Hell on Wheels

  • By Chad Frakes
  • September 16, 2014
  • Comments Off on Hats on the Scene: Hell on Wheels


Warning! This synopsis may contain spoilers.

Whistle while you work  ♫

Well… not too loud, because you wouldn’t be whistling for very long. Railroad boss might shoot you for not working hard enough. Keep digging. Keep laying the ties.

Hell on Wheels is a realistic allegory of how the Transcontinental Railroad came to be, across North America. Set in post-Civil War U.S.A., the country still in upheaval – war torn on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Martial law has been declared and the emancipation proclamation had been made. There was a great sprint to be the first rail company that could complete a transcontinental line to the Pacific. And so our story begins in Lake Michigan as we head west to the Pacific Ocean.

Cullen Bohannon is the protagonist, a man from the South who lost his family as collateral in the bloody Civil War. Mr. Bohannon wants to disappear, to eradicate the memories that plague his conscience. What better way to do so than to join the wandering minstrel of degenerates that populate the railroad teams?

Elam Ferguson, a character portrayed by musician Common, is a newly freed slave that finds himself in the still segregated railroad teams. He has a run-in with Bohannon, now a line boss, and tension develops quickly between the two. Elam tries to adjust to new life as a free man, but treads cautiously forward – keeping both eyes open, anticipating the rug being pulled out from under him at any moment.

As the series progresses, Cullen and Elam finally have it out, an old praxis of bare knuckle boxing with the winner gloating as the superior.  After the knuckle duster, the two find respect for one another; quickly becoming friends while both advance up the hierarchy of the railroad ladder. Cullen becomes chief of operations, while Elam becomes Sheriff of the rail camps. Cullen enlightens Elam on how to shoot a pistol properly, having now found himself a defender of the law. The two men, along with the rest of the cast, share many encounters with Native Americans tribes along the journey. The adage, “Kill or Be Killed” was no better a fit than in this period of history.

hell-on-wheels-john-bull-topperThe hats of the period are widely exhibited on this series – gauchos, cowboy hats, bowlers, John Bull toppers,  top hats, flat caps, etc. – many iconic, some truly unique to the era. Cullen starts the series wearing a rugged gaucho hat, full of dirt, whiskey, sweat and cigar smoke permeating the wool of the hat.

Elam dons a new chapeau as well, a complimentary piece to his new badge that calls for the respect associated with his new job title. The transition from the newsboy cap to a finely tailored John Bull topper is a welcome sight to a viewer’s eyes. Elam has stepped into his position full of classy accoutrements – a timepiece, top hat, tailored suits, etc.

As the series continues, danger and turmoil are around every turn. The characters are historically accurate, Thomas Durant-COO, embezzling most of the funds apportioned to the rail workers from wealthy investors from New York. This show embraces the “wild” in Wild West. Thrills are served with enduring pulchritude as the rail companies progress, inch-by-inch, toward the finish line.

About the author

Chad Frakes Chad is a frequent contributor to both The Hat Blog and VillageHatShop.com, an online retail leader in headwear and fashion accessories. Chad wears many hats around the office and can be seen frequently running from one job to another. A chronic hobbyist, he spends his free time enjoying hikes and listening to podcasts.

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