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Across The Fence: The Hat Creek Outpost
August 08, 2013 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting

Courtesy photo - Hat Creek Outpost 1876; Courtesy of Stagecoach Museum, Lusk, Wyoming

“My grandfather [Edmond Alfred Cook] was a stagecoach driver on the Cheyenne to Black Hills Stage Line. He grew up working in a livery and knew how to handle horses. One day, at the Hat Creek Station, a driver for the stage line had shown up for work, drunk. The station manager shouted, ‘Does anybody here know how to drive a six-up team?’ ‘I do!’ Grandpa said, as he raised his hand. He was 14 years old.”

This was the beginning of a wonderful day-long tour that my wife, Deb, and I received as we stood at the bottom of the stairway that led to the second story of the Stagecoach Museum in Lusk, Wyoming. One of Deb’s former colleagues from Chadron State College had introduced us to her father, Edmond Arthur Cook, and suddenly we were voyeurs, peering through the windows of history.

Mr. Cook is a Wyoming cowboy, historian, writer and an avid promoter and preserver of the history of Wyoming, in general, and most specifically, the Cheyenne to Black Hills Stage Line. He sits on the Board of Directors for the museum and is a significant contributor of information and artifacts for the museums displays. One of the museum’s many prized possessions is an original Concord Coach built in the 1860s by Abbott and Downing of Concord, New Hampshire. There are very few of these historic coaches that have survived from the era of stagecoach travel. Ed knows of only one other of the same vintage, which belongs to the Smithsonian Institute.

The coach at the museum in Lusk was first used on the stage lines in the gold fields of Nevada, then brought to Wyoming when the Cheyenne to Deadwood line was first established by Glimer, Salisbury and Company under the general supervision of Luke Voorhees. In 1880 the company sold the line outright to Voorhees, who in turn sold it to Russell Thorp Sr. in 1882. It was while the line was under the ownership of Luke Voorhees that Edmond A. Cook was a coach driver on the Cheyenne to Deadwood stage.

As Deb and I took pictures of the famed coach, Mr. Cook regaled us with facts and stories of the line. The Cheyenne to Deadwood route was 300 miles long and took fifty hours to travel. Stations were located at approximately every 10 miles where fresh horses could be obtained. While the primary purpose of the stage line was to transport gold bullion from the Dakota mines, the stage also carried passengers between the two cities.

Fares varied, depending on where you sat. It cost $5 if you sat with the driver and shotgun guard, $10 for inside the coach with a middle seat, and $15 for a window seat. If all ‘first class’ passage had been booked, one could purchase a ticket for $2 to sit on the top of the coach or $1 on the boot. Mr. Cook told us that the record number of passengers on a single coach was a whopping total of 23!

Of course, with strongboxes full of gold, holdups were inevitable and quite frequent. Shotgun guards hired to thwart the holdup attempts were gunmen as equally notorious as the outlaws. Famous Kansas gunfighters Wyatt Earp and Bill Hickok were among those employed as guards on the Cheyenne to Deadwood stage. In the late 1870s Sam Bass and his notorious gang held up the stage four times in two months.

Their fifth holdup resulted in the killing of stage driver Johnny Slaughter. Slaughter’s body was returned to Cheyenne for burial, and a six-up team of dapple-grays, Johnny’s favorite team, drew the hearse.

In the 1880s, when Mr. Cook’s grandfather drove the stage, there were other infamous characters that attempted to get rich quick by appropriating the gold on the Deadwood stage. Among those were Duncan Blackburn, Bill Price and Charley Grimes. One of them, Duncan Blackburn, was known for his unusual voice. Folks who knew him called him ‘Dunc’ for short, and Mr. Cook’s grandfather was one of those who knew him.

On one of Edmond’s runs from Deadwood back to the Hat Creek Station, the stage carried one of its well-guarded and sturdy treasure boxes. It was a moonless night as Edmond guided his team over the trail near the area known as ‘Robbers Roost,’ where ambush most often occurred. Blackburn and his gang managed to stop the stage without a shot, disarmed the guard, and proceeded to fleece the passengers and crew for cash and valuables. When Duncan demanded the treasure box thrown down, Edmond recognized the voice; “Is that you Dunc?” he called.

“Ed?” Duncan replied. “Leave ‘em be, boys,” Duncan instructed his men. “I know this guy; he’s okay; an’ give him back his watch.”
After a couple of hours at the museum, which wasn’t near long enough to take in everything, we headed north out of Lusk to view the freight wagon and coach ruts eroded into the rock on the Cheyenne to Deadwood Trail.

On average, 300 freight wagons a day left Cheyenne with supplies for the miners and the booming towns of the Black Hills. Each wagon could carry nearly 10 tons of goods, and wagons were often hitched together in groups of three. Each wagon required three yokes of oxen, so three wagons together would need a team of nine yokes, 18 animals to haul 3 wagons. Imagine if you can, in one year’s time, more than 1,000,000 tons of goods, in 109,500 wagons, pulled by 657,000 oxen. This volume of traffic continued for nearly a decade.

With that kind of traffic, it is little wonder that the giant steel-rimmed wagon wheels left such deep and lasting ruts along the trail.
Our next stop was Hat Creek Station, the only freight and stage station remaining on the Cheyenne to Black Hills Stage Line. Its history dates back to 1875 when troopers from Fort Laramie were sent to establish an outpost on Hat Creek in western Nebraska. Somehow the troopers, either forgot their map, got lost, or were just unsure of where they were.

At any rate the outpost was built on Sage Creek in Wyoming Territory instead of Hat Creek in Nebraska. However, since orders were to build on Hat Creek, they called it the Hat Creek Outpost.

The original post was built in 1875 and in the fall of 1876 John Bowman and Joe Walters added a stage stop. These two cattlemen established the Hat Creek Ranch at that location. The military outpost never became a fort and any strategic military usefulness was short lived after the June 1876 battle of the Little Big Horn. The outpost was torn down and its logs used for corrals on neighboring ranches. The new building was constructed of logs and open for business in 1877.

Here, on Sage Creek, was the most complete and popular station on the entire line. In addition to lodging accommodations, there was a telegraph, a post office, livestock and feed for sale, a bakery, brewery, and a blacksmith shop. The post office operated continuously from February of 1877 until January of 1924.

The two-story log structure still stands today and is planned to become a part of the Niobrara County Historical Society’s program of restoration and education of this historic place.
At this location, on Sage Creek, history was made and those who made it left their boot-prints on the well-worn pine floor. Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and hosts of other pioneers, many unknown, most forgotten, have crossed the threshold of this old station.

They have filled their bellies at the dining table, warmed their winter-numbed fingers and feet around a red-hot stove, chased the dust from their throats with a stiff shot of whiskey and stabled their horses in the station barn.

There are untold stories from unknown numbers of men whose unmarked graves lie hidden beneath the tangled branches of wild roses that cover their final resting place. It has been suggested that more than three score are buried at the Hat Creek cemetery, each one before their natural time.

A short distance north of Hat Creek Station, on the western banks of Sage Creek, is a large field of sage. Local history claims that this is the location of Crazy Horse’s unofficial surrender. At this place, Crazy Horse camped with nearly 200 lodges. Here he spread his buffalo robe on the ground and smoked with Red Cloud. Here, Crazy Horse reluctantly spoke of surrender, removed the warrior’s eagle feather from his headband and the leather, bone and quilled shield that covered his breast. These he handed to Red Cloud, a sign of surrender and a ritual of defeat.

It is here, where prairies stretch beyond the realm of human sight, where restless ghosts from our not too distant past, tread quietly on trails less traveled.

When our day’s journey ended, Mr. Cook gave me a copy of a booklet he wrote in dedication to the Hat Creek Stage Station. His inscription to me aptly captures the history of Hat Creek Outpost on Sage Creek:

“Enjoy reading about the wild west – It was never wilder than here” Ed Cook

Editor’s note: M. Timothy is an award winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. To contact Tim, email; acrossthefence2day@gmail.com
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