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Across the Fence: Trails across Nebraska
July 07, 2016 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting
Nebraska, born on the wild side of the wide Missouri, is a land of striking contrasts that lays just a few degrees north of the geographic center of the United States. Nebraska is the heartland of America whose veins mark the trails that carried a nation from east to west. Nebraska, where the Great Platte River flows wide and winding from the runoff of the Rockies, through the panhandle, across the plains and to the fertile, rolling hills in the east, until at last its waters spill into the mighty Missouri River.

The Platte River Valley, also known as the American Nile, became the pathway of countless thousands who risked everything in pursuit of something better. After histories greatest migration of people the mass of land known as the Louisiana Purchase came to be known as the states of North and South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska and others. And like a geographic funnel, the westward trails converged on the Platte River near the great island in Nebraska Territory.

As early as 1811 fur trappers and traders, on foot or horseback, followed what were then little more than ancient Indian footpaths and well-worn game trails from Independence, Missouri to the rivers and streams of the Rocky Mountains. In the late 1830’s beaver pelts became less valuable and the rugged old mountain men began to complain of overcrowding. Soon horseback mountain men, in fringed buckskin, leading diamond-hitched pack mules gave way to women in calico walking alongside teams of oxen, hauling overloaded wagons. Over time the trail had been sufficiently traveled and defined so that in 1836 the first emigrant wagon train left Independence, Missouri and headed west. This well traveled trail would become known as the Oregon and California Trail. From 1846 until 1869 over four hundred thousand men, women and children would follow the Great Platte River Road through Nebraska and on to Oregon and California.

From Atchison, Kansas those traveling the Overland Trail would head northwest and reach the great island of the Platte, later to be named Grand Island. From Nebraska City, on the Nebraska/Iowa border, emigrants would travel one of two trails that would take them to the banks of the Platte near Silver Creek on the northern trail or near present day, Central City on a southern branch.

From Omaha, in 1846, the historic migration of the Mormon people would establish the Mormon Trail that closely followed the route of the Oregon Trail. The Mormon Trail kept mostly to the northern banks of the Platte while the Oregon Trail followed the southern banks.

The year 1860 saw the short-lived enterprise of the Pony Express that also followed the Overland Stage route from St. Joseph, Missouri crossing into Nebraska at Rock Creek Station near Fairbury, Nebraska. The pony express then continued on the Overland Trail until intersecting with the Oregon Trail at Grand Island.

In 1848 Fort Kearny was established on the Platte and was the central Nebraska terminus of all traffic on the Oregon, Overland and Mormon trails until 1871 when the fort was abandoned.

Today U.S. Interstate 80 follows the Oregon Trail and the Great Platte River Road from Grand Island in central Nebraska to the confluence of the north and south forks of the river near North Platte, Nebraska.

From North Platte, the Oregon Trail continues across the plains on the south side of the Platte River until it reaches Ogallala.
Nicknamed the “Cowboy Capital” of Nebraska, Ogallala not only sits on the Oregon Trail, it was also a major shipping point for Longhorn cattle up from Texas with cattle drives following the Western and Texas cattle trails.

At Ogallala the Oregon Trail splits and takes two different routes. The northern route follows todays Nebraska Highway 26, past Lake McConaughy and on to Bridgeport. This route took the emigrant travelers to Ash Hollow where the steepness of the ravine, that had to be traversed, was so great that wagons needed to be lowered from the hilltop to the valley floor by ropes and pulleys. The passage is named ‘Windlass Hill.’

Near Bridgeport one of the very few early Platte River crossings was built. In 1875, bridge builder Henry T. Clarke designed a bridge 2,000 feet long, with 61 trusses, to span the quicksand riverbed of the North Platte. At a cost of $10,000 Clarke completed the bridge with the help of the railroad, stage lines and merchants who were eager to ship goods to the newly discovered gold fields in the Black Hills. Little remains of that remarkable bridge, except for a few scarcely recognizable pilings.

The southern route of the fork in the Oregon Trail dips down to Julesburg, Colorado. Julesburg was a large stage station on the Overland Stage route, a Pony Express station and the location of Fort Sedgwick. This portion of the Overland Trail follows the Lodgepole Valley to Sidney, Nebraska. Sidney was also the site of a U.S. Fort and a station on the Pony Express route as well as the headquarters of the Sidney to Black Hills Stage line. Sidney was one of the wildest of the Wild West cow towns where cowboys, gamblers, horse thieves and outlaws passed through on their way into history.

From Sidney, the Oregon/Pony Express Trail continued north to Bridgeport, on todays Highway 385, where it reconnects with the northern route and continues northwesterly. Near the Bridgeport juncture, on the eastern edge of the Wildcat Hills at Pumpkin Creek, rise the white chalk bluffs of Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock. And not to be forgotten is the old outlaw trail from Fort Sidney, northwesterly across the panhandle, to the Badlands that was also the stage and freighters road from Sidney to Deadwood.

The westernmost leg of the Nebraska portion of the Oregon Trail follows the Platte past the famous landmark, Chimney Rock. This landmark has been recorded in numerous diaries of the pioneers who traveled the Oregon and California trails and has been sketched by artists from around the world. Further west rises the great Scott’s Bluff and ‘The Gap’ where thousands of emigrants passed through, leaving the stark, flat prairies behind as they gazed in wonder at the snowcapped Laramie Peaks that lay far ahead.

At the top of Scotts Bluff Monument, in Gering, there is a breathtaking view of the Platte River Valley and the Laramie Peaks.
Wagon wheel ruts remain, deep cut parallel lines, an indelible signature of those who traveled through.

A lesser-known trail also cuts through the Nebraska Panhandle.
Continuing westward, from present day Sidney, this trail follows the longest creek on the North American continent. Lodgepole Creek originates in the Laramie Peaks of Wyoming. Snowmelt, runoff and a few minor springs are its water source as it flows past Cheyenne, and makes its way to the border near Bushnell, Nebraska and Pine Bluffs, Wyoming. The slow flowing tributary then meanders eastward, past Kimball, Potter, Dix, Sidney and Lodgepole then on to Chappell and south into Colorado, where it empties into the South Platte. This 278 mile long creek was an early, prehistoric, trail used by the nomadic natives of the expansive Great Plains. Pine Bluffs, Wyoming is situated at the base of a prehistoric campsite where water, fuel, shelter and game were available.

The Lodgepole Valley was traversed and surveyed by John C. Fremont and U.S. Cavalry troops from Fort Kearny, Fort McPherson and Fort Sidney utilized the trail. Later the Lodgepole Valley would become an important and vital link in the building of our nation. Through this valley would pass the first transcontinental railroad and later the first transcontinental highway.

The trails across Nebraska are reminders to us of the pioneer spirit of our ancestors. The trails remind us of the dreams they carried into an unknown wilderness. They remind us of their dogged determination, their unflinching commitment and the strength of conviction that they brought with them, in order to bring life to their dreams.

These trails are rich in the history and stories of famous and infamous, the ordinary and extraordinary men and women who traveled west and settled the country along the way. Theirs are the stories that beg to be told and retold as a reminder of our heritage, to honor their courage and remember the victors and the vanquished.

These are the stories that I hope to share with you again. Beginning this coming November, when I return from my year long hiatus, the Gering Citizen will once more present ‘Across the Fence’. My thanks to Lisa and Frank, the staff at the Gering Citizen and the many friends and readers who have encouraged me to return, see you in November.
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