Last updated: September 3, 2008
The Lusk Herald
February 2, 1984
Three-part series details Niobrara County history
Editor's note: The following is the second of a three-part series on the history of Niobrara County as written and submitted by noted area historian and author, Mae Urbanek.
Luke Voorhees, an experience frontiersman, was superintendent of the new Cheyenne and Black Hills Mail and Express Company. He located stations for changing horses about every 18 miles. The trail ran west of Rawhide Buttes in Niobrara County. The stone barn on Running Water or Niobrara River, west of present day Lusk, was one of the stations.
From Fort Hat Creek the route led north across the Cheyenne River near the famous holdup spot, Robbers' Roost. When road agents and Indians made this long stretch north of Hat Creek especially perilous, the route was shifted east through Indian Creek country.
When Russell Thorp, Sr. bought the stage line in 1883, he made the Rawhide Stations, which became the Ord Ranch, his headquarters. Hat Creek, then at the end of the telegraph line, became a well developed station with a store, a blacksmith shop, and even a brewery.
Traffic to the gold mines of Deadwood was heavy; prospectors, gamblers, promoters, highjackers and adventurers. Of these, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok were the most famous.
Gold bricks were transported from Deadwood in the Cheyenne railroad in steel salamanders bolted to bullet-proof coaches. Guards rode 'shotgun' on the boot of coaches drawn by fast tandem teams of six horses. Long string teams of oxen were used to freight goods over rutted roads. Deep ruts may still be seen in butte rock hills about 10 miles northeast of Lusk.
George Lathrop and Fred Sullivan were drivers of the stagecoaches. Lathrop had the honor of "holding the ribbons" when the stage made its last trip in 1887. He said, "It was a great day for me. I wouldn't have changed places with Grover Cleveland. It was a great day."
One of the stagecoaches is now in the Lusk Stagecoach Museum. George Lathrop is buried two miles west of Lusk. A special monument marks his grave.
Meanwhile, an early prospector, McHenry, became interested in the ore-bearing rock in a hill on Running Water or Niobrara. Backed by eastern capital, McHenry directed mining in Silver Cliff hill in 1880. Miners, living in the tent town of Silver Cliff, mined for copper, silver and gold for four years.
During this mining boom, Jack Madden built a large stone barn and road house northwest of the hill. The mining venture collapsed when the miners were paid with worthless checks. The stone barn became a stage station in the Cheyenne-Deadwood Trail.
In 1818 the first uranium in Wyoming was detected in the abandoned shafts of the old Silver Cliff mine. It was not in sufficient quantity to develop.
From the beginning of white man's history in Wyoming, the location of Lusk was at one of the great crossroads of the West. Following the Civil War there were too many cattle in Texas. Cowboys moved huge herds of longhorns from Texas to railroad centers, and to pastures along The Texas Trail which crossed the Cheyenne-Deadwood route at the present location of Lusk.
John B. Kendrick, later U. S. Senator from Wyoming, drove cattle up this trail to Montana in 1879. He said he traveled more than 400 miles between Fort Worth, Texas and Silver Cliff (now Lusk) without seeing a barbed wire fence. A Texas Trail monument is now about three miles east of Lusk on U. S. Highway 20.
U. S. Highway 85, running from Canada to Mexico, crosses Highway 20 on the main street of Lusk.
On July 13, 1886 the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad, now the Northwestern, arrived. Officials offered to buy the land where Silver Cliff stood from Ellis Johnson. His price was too high.
Frank Lusk, homesteader, donated the land, and railroad officials laid out the townsite of Lusk, named in his honor. In the Bohemian language, Lusk means pod.
The Free Lance building, now part of the Lusk Museum, and the tents were quickly moved from Silver Cliff about a mile east to Lusk. Residents greeted the railroad with a big celebration, and the driving of a spike made from local silver and copper. The Mines in Muskrat Canyon south of Lusk furnished the copper.
Other Niobrara towns were spawned by the coming of the railroad. To the east of Lusk, Van Tassell was named by the railroad officials for Schuyler Van Tassell, a pioneer rancher with large holdings. Here on June 28, 1919 was organized the first Ameridan Legion Post in the United States, Ferdinand Branstetter Post, No. 1, named for a resident of Van Tassell who was one of the first to die on the battlefields of France.
Other Niobrara towns are Manville, 10 miles west of Lusk, named for H. S. Manville, organizer of Converse Cattle Company; and Keeline, farther west named for George A. Keeline, owner of the A. J. Ranch.
The last killing in the Johnson County War took place north of Keeline in the fall of 1893. Charlie Hitshew was in a meadow on Horseshoe Ranch when he heard a shot and saw a riderless horse running in circles. He caught the horse, and found its rider, a young man, dead.
Meanwhile the killer, Mike Shonsey, went to Lum Barber, Lusk sheriff, and gave himself up, claiming that Dudley Champion, brother of Nat Champion, had drawn first, and that he shot in self-defense.
Released by a hastily called court, Shonsey lost no time in fleeing to Mexico. It was supposed that Shonsey feared that the brother of the murdered Dudley Champion would waylay and shoot him.
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