Columbus had been founded three years when, in 1859, two hand-cart trains of Mormons passed through the town, traveling toward their Utah refuge at the rate of fifteen miles a day. Some of the two-wheeled vehicles were piled high with boxes holding loads up to a thousand pounds -- the combined personal belongings and household goods of thousands of migrant families. Many were the strange sights in Platte County in that day. One early settler, Luther North, even saw two Mormon women with a harness over their shoulders, pulling a hand-cart, while the men in the party pushed.
Hundreds of emigrant trains forded the Loup River on their way West. Sometimes as many as two hundred wagons would wait in line for their turn to cross on the ferry boat, which could carry only two wagons and one team of horses on a crossing. The price for ferrying was one dollar and, although whole trains of one hundred and fifty wagons sometimes forded the river, the ford was dangerous, and many horses were lost in the treacherous quicksand.
Overland freighting was at its height in these "bullwhacking" days. All merchandise transported West had to be carried in huge, lumbering freight wagons, drawn by oxen and later by heavy draft horses or mules. Through Columbus, situated strategically on the Old Oregon Trail and the famous Mormon Trail, passed caravan after caravan of "prairie schooners," as these wagons were called in the years before the railroad came to the West.
Soon this settlement at the confluence of the Loup and Platte Rivers became known as a resting place for emigrants in transit, and it marked the real frontier of the Overland Trail days. Enterprising merchants advertised Columbus as a mecca for all who pressed forward to the West. The wagon trails entered the town from the east by the old Eighth Street road, and moved slowly through the prairie settlement, past the business houses which extended west and north from the vicinity of the Columbus Brewery, at that time in the same location as today.
Since the Platte River had not yet been harnessed in the days of the pioneers, it was a much larger and more powerful body of water than it is today. The spring floods which invariably overflowed both the Platte and the Loup, not only destroyed property and livestock but proved a constant source of difficulty when the raging waters tore down the wooden bridges and blocked all transportation to the West. Thus, an important facility in the town was the ferry, one of the first structures to be erected in Columbus, operated by machinery located on the present site of Pawnee Park.
From Platte County these caravans moved slowly westward across the plains to Fort Cottonwood, Fort Kearney, Fort Laramie, Fort Denver and any of several frontier towns beyond the hundredth meridian. The wagon trains of the Creighton Brothers were a common sight in the streets of Columbus, for they, like many other merchants in St. Louis, Omaha and Columbus, made fortunes sending provisions to the pioneers of the new West, and with few exceptions, these cargoes all passed through Columbus.
The Platte Valley played host to many strange people in those days. The wagon drivers, or "bullwhackers," were rough and fearless men, willing to drive their wagons from five hundred to one thousand miles across the Indian-infested prairie for sixty-five dollars a month, which was considered a good salary at that time. Columbus merchants, such as John Rickly and J. P. Becker, also benefited from their geographic position by "export" goods' for trade both to the East and West along the wagon trail. Corn was sent to the cities in the East and merchandise to the thriving gold country beyond the frontier.
Columbus also had a group of overland freighters headed by the outfits of Pat Murray, Adam Smith, Pat Hayes, Frank, James and Lute North, George Berney, Bill, Jim and Joe Bowman, and others. It was Frederick Gottschalk who brought the first team of horses into Columbus in the '60's; earlier this same Platte Valley pioneer had bought three yoke of oxen for hauling grain to the soldiers at Fort Kearney.
Another early settler who engaged in trans-
port, Peter Meyer, freighted between Omaha and Fort Myer, and later built the first frame house in Platte County with lumber he had hauled from Omaha. His wife, Ellen Sheehan Meyer, an Irish immigrant, is remembered for making the first United States flag in Columbus; Mrs. Meyer completed the work entirely by hand.
In 1864, when the hostile Indian tribes overran the region between the Rocky Mountains and the Missouri River, freight rates jumped between Omaha and Kearney from three dollars fifty cents per hundred pounds to five dollars. Merchandise would be hauled from Omaha to Columbus, however, for as low as one dollar fifty cents per hundred, and car corn in 1863 was selling for one dollar fifty cents per bushel in Columbus.
Some index of prices in those times is evidenced in the following excerpt from "The Franciscans in Nebraska," concerning rates charged by the ferry companies.
"In January, 1860, Leander Gerrard and Company was granted license to operate a ferry across the Loup River at Columbus, providing the following scale of prices was maintained:
|2 horses or oxen and wagon||
|1 horse and wagon||
|1 extra team of horses or oxen||
|1 horse and rider||
|Live stock (per head)||
Memories of early Nebraskans of that time are colorful and filled with the turbulence of a rough, untamed land. E. A. Gerrard, who passed through Columbus on his way to California in 1853 with an ox-team, recalls that the Platte River had overflowed its banks. The Indians in the surrounding country he found to be quite friendly, only once making trouble by shooting arrows at the cattle.
Another early settler, Ida Schaad Gottberg, the wife of Max Gottberg of Columbus, came to Platte County when she was six years old with her parents, immigrants from Switzerland. The journey between Omaha and Columbus, which flow takes two hours, required four weeks for her family in 1866. On account of the Spring floods, they could not cross streams.
One noted pioneer who played his part in Platte County's saga of transportation was Fred Matthews, who died in Columbus in 1890. For two years, from 1864 to 1866, he drove the overland stage coach from Columbus to points in the West until the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad rendered this service useless. Matthews did excellent work with the famous Pawnee Scouts as a lieutenant under Major Frank J. North. He later re-enacted the Indian raids for audiences of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in the United States and Europe.
Meanwhile, in the eastern United States, important financiers and government, officials were talking of a wonderful dream --- a railroad which would reach all the way across the country to the Pacific Ocean. Nowhere in the world had a railroad been built for so great a distance or over such high mountains. The first American railway had been built in 1829, at Baltimore, but it ran through a part of the country which was heavily populated and built up, in terms of the commerce of that day.
In Nebraska, as well as the larger centers of the East, however, men with vision and foresight argued that the only way to develop the West rapidly was to bring modern conveniences and modes of transportation into this undeveloped, Indian-infested country. Accordingly, in 1850, a bill was introduced in Congress which was to have a major influence on the residents of Columbus, as well as the other pioneers of the West. It was a measure authorizing the building of a Pacific railroad; and under its terms the United States was to give a strip of land one mile wide from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, and the railroad was to be built in the middle of the strip.'
For a long while no agreement could be reached over the route this new transportation should take. When war broke out between the North and the South in 1861, there was an even greater need for a railroad to unite the East with the West. Countless surveys were taken to find the best road across the mountains and finally the Nebraska route, up the broad level valley of the Platte, was chosen as the best approach to the Western range.
On July 1, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill which provided for building the first railroad to the Pacific Ocean by way of Nebraska. To help finance the gigantic project, the United States government gave each alternate section of land for twenty miles on each side of the track. In addition, it lent the railroad company sixteen thousand dollars for each mile across the prairie, and forty-eight thousand dollars for each mile in the mountains. The first shovelful of dirt for the track of the new Union Pacific was thrown in Omaha on December 2, 1863.
It was almost a year and a half later, however, before the first rails were laid at Omaha, reaching westward toward the Platte. There
The History of Platte County Nebraska
were great hindrances to be overcome in building the road -- the Civil War had made it difficult to get manpower. All of the iron and most of the other materials had to be shipped long distances. Almost nine months passed before the first sixty miles of rail were laid between Omaha and North Bend, and when this track was built one hundred miles west of Columbus, the trains ran to Kearney station, now Buda. The nineteen-hour trip cost nineteen dollars, but Nebraska had increased in national importance and prestige as a result of this --- the route for the first Pacific Railroad.
By June, 1867, track had been laid as far as the western boundary of the state and on May 10, 1869, the builders of the Union Pacific from Nebraska met the builders of the Central Pacific from California at Promontory Point, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. A golden spike was driven in the ground at that junction to signify the completion of the railroad which made a continuous line from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
One of the first trains serving Columbus.
Some of the hardships of that vast project were shared by Mrs. Henry C. Bean, a resident of Columbus for many years. Mrs. Bean saw more than any other woman of the building of the Union Pacific Railroad through Nebraska because, as a young bride, she went out to the West with Mr. Bean who was employed in a Union Pacific construction camp as one of the guards against Indian raids. For years Mrs. Bean, with her husband, pushed gradually westward through the wildest of territory, while the railroad inched along the prairie with its retinue of thousands of men, horses and mules, plows, road scrapers, dump wagons, shovels, spades, axes, rails and other heavy equipment.
The Beans later returned to Nebraska, where they spent thirty-seven years on a homestead in District 5, southwest of Columbus, before moving to the latter city in 1906.
The story of the laying of the rails through Columbus became almost a railroad legend in later years, for the track-laying work was not rapid until the men who worked in the west-ward-moving teams reached the Platte Valley and its junction at the Elkhorn. The actual track was laid through the town of Columbus on a Sunday---June 1, 1866, and two brothers, Jack and Dan Casement, were the heroes of the tale.
The reason the Columbus stretch of track had to be laid on Sunday was that the track workmen were under contract and bonds to complete the track to the one hundredth mile post by a certain day, and their time was short. Since the progress of the work would be impeded in crossing the Loup, it was necessary that not a moment be lost on the job.
Two miles of track, including the original plat of Columbus, were laid out that day. In a story printed in the Columbus Republican almost ten years later, the editor commented: "We were not excessively pious hereabouts in those days, and the whole city, men, women and children -- about seventy-five in all -- went out and, for an hour or two, watched the passing industrial pageantry.
Perhaps it was for some atonement of this desecration of our soil, that the Superintendent, a few months later, donated the freight of the first carload ever brought to Columbus for any party, not an employee, consisting of the whole bill of pine lumber for the Congregational Church."
The Casement brothers and their teams of disciplined workers completed the job, connecting Columbus with the rest of the growing country, and a new era began for the settlers of the Platte Valley. Soon after the completion of the Union Pacific, new towns sprang up along the railroad. Farm goods could now be sold in the East. Farther west in Nebraska,
Ogallala became an important cattle town. Texas longhorn cattle, driven up from the Panhandle to meet the Union Pacific line, were shipped to eastern markets by rail.
There were no railroads in the South Platte region when the capital was moved there, and the Union Pacific operated the only line north of the Platte River. Homestead grants in the land adjoining the railroad were cut from one hundred and sixty to eighty acres and, to further stimulate the growth of transportation in Nebraska, the state legislature, in 1869, gave two thousand acres of state land for each mile of railroad. Many towns and counties also voted to give money to the railroads in order to obtain the priceless lifeline of transportation, and there was quick response to these offers.
C. B. & Q. Depots, Columbus
The Burlington crossed the Missouri River at Plattsmouth in July, 1869. It was the first railroad to reach the new capital at Lincoln one year later. In 1872, the Burlington built its line to a junction with the Union Pacific at Kearney (near the 99th meridian). The Midland Pacific was built in 1871, from Nebraska City to Lincoln. Later, this same line extended through Seward, York and Aurora to Central City. It is now a part of the Burlington system.
In the decade beginning with Union Pacific's great venture, expansion was rapid and the Platte Valley became an important key area. The St. Joseph and Denver Railroad entered Nebraska in 1870, and reached Hastings in 1872 to further add to the facilities in the South Platte region. North of the river from Omaha, the Chicago Northwestern Road was built to Blair. The Sioux and Pacific Railway reached out from the Missouri Valley to Fremont, and branches of the Union Pacific connected an increasing number of previously isolated communities.
Union Pacific Passenger Depot at Columbus.
With the completion of the transcontinental road in 1869, the overland trails fell out of use. Short stretches from one settlement to another were used as roads, but they no longer bore the weighty loads of merchandise and human cargo of earlier years. The sunflower and tumbleweed settled in their furrows and, for a time, the original prairie trails could be traced across the Nebraska plains by a wide ribbon of this growth. Then the breaking plow ran its furrows across the well-worn ruts carved by moving wagon wheels. The harrow and cultivator smoothed away their wrinkles until, over a large part of Nebraska, the old overland trails could be traced only by the musty records of early surveyors. But in far western sections of the state, especially along the route of the old Oregon Trail on the south side of the North Platte, the wagon ruts still remain .... a long ribbon of sunflowers winding across the land where streamlined autos now speed over modern paths of asphalt and concrete.
The people of Platte County, encouraged by their improved transportation, prospered during those years and population in the region grew rapidly. In 1860, there were sixty-six children of school age; around 1864, the County reported one hundred and fifty-four school children and two years afterward, when the Union Pacific came through, this number had reached two hundred and seven. A decade later, Platte County records show a total of one thousand six hundred seventy-seven school children, while communities in and around Columbus had sprung up with amazing speed Humphrey, Tarnov, Lindsay and Platte Center were a few of the towns to be built in the era of railroad expansion.
Columbus emerged as the metropolis of mid-Nebraska and the focal point of Platte County, now one of the richest counties in the state.
Thirteen years after the first wood-burning engine chugged into Columbus, one of the fiercest battles of American railroad history was
The History of Platte County Nebraska
Spring flood in Columbus, 1912, of the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge.
played out in that Nebraska town. The years between 1866 and 1879 had been busy ones for the Union Pacific, and the owners of the line enjoyed a monopoly on east-west transcontinental business which they were eager to perpetuate.
The only rival to Union Pacific supremacy then was a company known as the Burlington and Missouri Railroad, which later became the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy. This line planned to lay track from the new state capital city at Lincoln, through Columbus, to northwest Nebraska. Agents of the road had approached the elected representatives of Platte County with the proposal that a bond issue of one hundred thousand dollar be voted to help defray construction expenses.
But in the East, Jay Gould, the famous Union Pacific financier, and one of the leading figures of the nineteenth century, heard of the scheme to run another railroad through Platte County, from southeast to northwest. Enraged at this threat to the monopoly of the Union Pacific, he made the trip across the country to Nebraska in his private car. According to a story told by Judge W. I. Spiece of Columbus in later years, Gould notified Mr. Gerrard, president of the only bank in town, that he had arrived, and sent word by his secretary to have the banker come to see him in his much-heralded private train. Mr. Gerrard sent the secretary back with word that "if Jay Gould wanted to see him, he could come to his private office in the bank."
The town of Columbus, aware that its future would be vitally affected by whatever action the tycoon took, waited tensely for his next move. With a fine disregard for the public relations of his great organization and intent only upon stopping the local insurrection, Gould then appeared on the platform of his gilt-and-plush train to address the people of Columbus.
He wasted no tact in informing the inhabitants of Platte County that he would stop at nothing to get his way. If the one hundred thousand dollar bond issue was voted for the Burlington and Missouri line, he warned he would personally see that "grass grew in the streets of Columbus and the town would die!"
The bond election was a bitter contest between those who feared Gould and those who wanted to accept his challenge. Despite the man's power the issue carried, and the Burlington and Milwaukee subsidiary, the Lincoln and Northwestern Railroad, built its line from Lincoln to Columbus but went no farther. Instead, its officials chose a route some distance west for their diagonal jaunt across the state of Nebraska; although the present Chicago Burlington and Quincy line from Lincoln to Billings, Montana, cutting across the Union Pacific at Grand Island, was originally intended for Columbus. In spite of this, the Burlington remains an important factor in the city's transportation picture.
But Platte County had yet to reckon with Jay Gould. The Union Pacific president, intent upon extending his line into the virgin territory northwest of Columbus, saw this opportunity threatened by the action of the people of Columbus. In an attempt to make good his threat, he ordered its subsidiary, the Omaha, Niobrara
© 2005 for the NEGenWeb Project by Ted & Carole Miller