End of Track
EVANSTON — Independent documentary producer Tom Manning paid a visit to the Herald office recently to discuss his most recent production, End of Track, the story of the development of the Union Pacific rail line from Cheyenne to Evanston in the 1860s.
Manning was in town to sit on a panel discussion following a partial screening of the film at the Evanston Roundouse Feb. 28. The full program is set to air on Wyoming Public Television this Sunday, March 10, at 7 p.m. It will also be viewable online at www.wyomingpbs.org at the same time.
Herald: Tell us about your professional background.
Manning: I’ve been writing and producing documentaries and other media projects for at least 25 years. I had a video business for a time in Portland, Ore., where I did documentaries on things like the Oregon Trail, which was on the Discovery Channel, the Oregon coast, the Columbia River Gorge.
Then, we moved to Bozeman, Mont., to raise our kids. …I had been freelancing out of Bozeman for many years, doing projects for Montana PBS and Oregon PBS, and then I went down to Wyoming PBS, where I worked a few years and did a bunch of projects, one of which won a big award in 2011 at the Cowboy Hall of Fame for best documentary, on Charles Belden, a cowboy photographer out of Meeteetse.
Herald: What was the genesis of the End of Track project?
Manning: I keep an idea file. I keep tossing stuff into it, and revisit it. I have always had an interest in trains. When I was a kid, I had an American Flyer train set that I got one Christmas, and so I’ve always loved them. And I thought, “I bet this idea would be a good fit for Wyoming PBS,” because part of their mission statement is they really want to involve as many communities in the state as they can to do outreach. And that’s why we’re on this tour. It met my standard of wanting to do something about the railroad, and it fit with Wyoming PBS’s vision.
We started it last summer. I came up with a film crew in July, I believe, and we basically started in Cheyenne and moved our way across the state, all the way to Evanston, shooting along the way. We were out for two weeks, and interviewed a lot of people.
I came to Evanston. I had never been to Evanston before, but had been in contact with [city clerk] Jim Davis. Evanston was clearly part of the story, being the last stop in Wyoming.
[Davis] took me to the Roundhouse for the interview, and my jaw dropped when I entered it. That is a big city venue that you have in this small Wyoming town.
Manning noted that, midway through their work, Wyoming PBS paid to have an aerial shot of the Evanston rail yards taken, which was incorporated into the final documentary.
Manning: So, Jim showed us around, and even took us over to Piedmont, not only for the kilns, but there’s a great story about Piedmont. When the Union Pacific was finished, and the golden spike ceremony was ready to happen, [the workers, who had not been paid] staged a blockade and sidetracked Thomas Durant’s palace car. Durant was the vice-president of the Union Pacific at the time, and a real scoundrel and schemer, and out to line his own pockets. He was constantly a fly in the ointment for the Union Pacific.
History doesn’t reveal whether he was scared or just furious, but he wired back to the next telegraph station up the line and had them wire in $50,000, and that seemed to appease the workers temporarily, who let him pass. But that delayed the golden spike ceremony by a couple days.
Herald: What are some insights you found during your work on End of Track?
Manning: One of the things that really intrigued me about the transcontinental railroad coming through Wyoming was that, in 1867, when it crossed the present-day Wyoming-Nebraska border, there was no Wyoming. It was part of Dakota Territory at that time. And, as it worked its way across the state in the summer of 1868, the citizens of Cheyenne had lobbied for territorial status, and got it, as the tracks were about halfway across the state.
The other thing that intrigued me was that, not only was there no state of Wyoming, this was one of the few times when major transportation like this preceded population. People on the East Coast were there, and then they built train tracks. That wasn’t the case out here. And so, basically, Wyoming is a state that was invented by the transcontinental railroad.
Herald: I would assume that has a lot to do with the historical development of the West Coast.
Manning: The California Gold Rush was going on, then the Civil War. I think there is a lot of symbolism in the transcontinental railroad, to the effect of finally tying the country together after the Civil War, and proving that this western part of the country was not a vast wasteland — there was “stuff” here.
Herald: Tell us about the production phase of the documentary.
Manning: It was a fun process. I wrote and produced it, and went out with the crew. I populated the script with all the photos; I give my editor a really good script to work off of. I want to leave her room for creativity, but I’ve got it listed by specific B-roll and specific archival photographs for each segment. And then I direct narration and select music, and then I supervise the editing.
Herald: How many people were involved in the production?
Manning: Big productions can have 20 or 30 people involved, if you’re coming out of a place like WGBH in Boston. But Wyoming PBS is a small station with a small crew. There was myself, a cameraman-director, a sound man, an editor and a promotions manager. And oversight, of course, from management.
Herald: When you come up with these ideas, do you come up with an extensive outline of what you think you could do, and then you present it to them? How does that process work?
Manning: As a freelancer, that’s exactly how it works. I do the research and write up a proposal, including timelines and budget. I try to make the proposal as engaging as possible — it’s a visual medium, so I’ve even used some archival photographs in my document. My document for End of Track was about 20 pages. I pitch it, and then leave them the document to read.
Wyoming PBS has been very supportive of me. I have a good working relationship with them.
Herald: How many documentaries have you done with Wyoming PBS?
Manning: Five or six.
Manning further discussed his process in completing the documentary.
Manning: For my storyline, I obviously followed the story and told the story of the transcontinental railroad, as a whole, then specifically honed down as it went across these towns in Wyoming. These towns erupted — it was kind of like the Bacchan Oilfields of today. These were really rough, rough places when they were putting track through towns. There were brothels, and prostitution, and bars and drinking and fights and murders. …They were called “Hell on Wheels” towns because, when the railroad moved on, these brothel and bar owners would fold up their tents, tear down their buildings, stack them on the railroad cars and then move on to the next stop.
And these guys were working hard, six days a week. And it wasn’t just the track layers. It was the surveyors out front, followed by the graders, in some areas having to go through solid granite to grade for the tracks. They were using black powder to blast out the granite.
Some people have called this the greatest engineering achievement of the 19th century, and I think that’s correct. It was even more astonishing when you realize that this huge project was basically the last large project done entirely by hand.