There were a couple of stories I knew I wanted to do when I started the concept of Deadlands. I knew I wanted to do a consumption style vampire story, a Louisiana swamp piece, and I knew I wanted to do a ghost train. In actuality, I found very few actual ghost train legends, and I think in 1888 when they were still new technology, those legends would be even fewer (though who knows, we certainly have plenty of haunted technology stories). The most interesting one I found was the phantom funeral train following Abraham Lincoln’s death. Railroad workers on the route from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois have sighted the phantom funeral procession many years after his death, and in its passing it stopped clocks. There appear to be far more literary depictions of ghost trains than actual legends in the world.
I’m not sure how Aggie and Leith originally grew into the story. They are very clearly based on Bonnie and Clyde, though beyond a pair of bank robbing lovers, they don’t have too much in common. I knew I wanted to do a pair of thieves who loved each other, a trope I’m fond of, and so this started out as a story about a train robbery. Their idea to steal the gold comes from reading about the Great Gold Robbery of 1855. Gold blocks were replaced with iron so they would pass inspection, which worked very well for a long time. The conception of Aggie and Leith’s train robbery changed over time to better fit the narrative, so don’t mind any inconsistencies and holes in their plan. We can assume things might’ve worked out differently if it hadn’t gotten wildly out of control.
I tried to find an exact number of Chinese laborers killed in construction of the railroads, but it turns out no one really knows. Railroad companies didn’t keep individual records of workers, instead choosing to hire contractors and headmen who dealt with them. At its height, there were 10,000 – 15,000 Chinese laborers. When laborers did die on the job, Chinese laborers would bury their dead temporarily, return to them at another time, and return their bodies home. Some accounts put them at 100 dead, others put them at 1,200. Its worth noting that the railroads primarily used indigenous Americans, Chinese immigrants, and Irish immigrants. In 1869 eight Irish workers and a small army of 4,000 primarily Chinese laborers built 10 miles of track in a single day. The eight Irish men were rewarded with a parade, while the Chinese men were never named. American Indians also had to be driven out of their land to place tracks.
I have done a lot of reading on the old west for this story, and I have not quite read as terrible things I have reading up on the railroads. (If you would like to read more, I suggest these many sources.)
I bring this up because, as the story turns out, the train is a symbol of American expansion, American exceptionalism, and manifest destiny. America’s history is filled with bloodshed, destruction, and eradication. Which honestly isn’t that different from most of the world’s history, but we go a long way to pretend otherwise. It’s important to recognize the history that’s actually there, and how it affects the present. There’s many things I’m careful about when writing this story, especially considering our protagonists, but I don’t want to ignore things that were happening either contemporary with the timeline or in recent history of their lives. When I started this, I made the protagonists black and gay because these are not people who are told they exist through history. I included characters and people who are tropes in old west stories but never seem to be treated as actual people. We haven’t met many of them yet, but its important to me that if I am going to do a historical fiction, that history has to be properly reflected. In my notation for the Blackwood Witch, I go out of my way to point out that westerns were romanticized in their time, black and brown cowboys pushed aside for the rustic white male hero, indigenous people no more than obstacles to be overcome, and women not doing very much at all. These aren’t true reflections of history, and ignoring what is true in favor of a dime novel view of history is only harmful in the long run.