Historical Details

Early Lusk, Niobrara County history recounted

Courtesy of The Lusk Herald, 10/07/1992

by Phyllis Hahn

It was inevitable that the Niobrara River area would become settled. It was the natural convergence for many forces that brought the ancestors of many present-day residents to the area. Cowboys drove herds of cattle on the Texas trail to deliver them to the buyers in Montana.

Some returned to file and prove up on homesteads. Homesteaders were the largest single group of people to put down roots in the community. Ranch stations for the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage Coach line were established near the Rawhide Buttes, Running Water (sometimes referred to as Silver Cliff) and the Hat Creek station on Sage Creek.

The Fremont-Elkhorn-Missouri Railroad Company pushed their rails westward as the need for East-West transportation became more in demand. Water stops for the steam locomotives were located at regular intervals.

Some of the stops developed into thriving towns while others faded into the pages of history. A short-lived Christian education movement located at Jireh left a lasting effect on that community, and descendants of that dedicated group are living in several parts of Niobrara county today.

The scenic overthrusts and uplifts drew attention for their potential mineral treasures from prospectors for gold, silver, lead, copper, uranium, coal and oil.

Most minerals were not sufficiently abundant to mine profitably, but the exploration, development, and production of oil continues to create "boom and bust" conditions in Niobrara County.

Waves of workers, managers, investors and speculators have moved in and out, leaving the stable core of longtime residents.

Emigrant trains passed through the territory on the way to the gold fields in California and the promised free land in Oregon during the mid-nineteenth century. Some pioneers became disillusioned and returned to claim homesteads in Wyoming.

Others, bound for California, never went beyond Wyoming as their money ran out. All these forces would cross within a few miles of the site for the town that developed into the county seat when Niobrarans carved out their own county in 1911.

The area between the Black Hills and the Niobrara River included the sacred hunting ground of the Sioux Indians. The Treaty of 1868 forbade the white man from traveling in this area. Those who regularly broke this treaty included not only the buffalo hunters but also white trappers, gold miners and the troops of the U.S. Army.

The buffalo represented a way of life to the plains Indians, supplying them food and other necessities for their existence.

The buffalo hunters killed several million of these huge animals for their hides alone and left the meat to rot and waste. Buffalo hides were in great demand at that time in the east for their durability for such uses as heavy industrial belts for machinery.

The resulting deep resentment by the Indians created a climate of hostility that spilled over the boundaries of the reservations they had been forced to live on.

Many lives were lost by white man and Indian alike as they struggled to settle the question of who would control this territory. The government allowed the Big Horn and Black Hills Mining Association to violate the 1868 Treaty when they traveled to the area north of the Platte with an exploratory expedition. This violation set a precedent for the treaty to be broken.

The Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage Coach line provided transportation for mail, freight shipments, payrolls, gold bullion, supplies and passengers traveling north or south. Stage drivers needed courage to face both Indians and outlaws who regularly harassed stage runs.

In addition, forces of nature and wild animals had to be reckoned with as they drove the six-horse teams for approximately 60 miles, with changes of horses at each station.

A work day for a stage driver usually lasted about 10 hours. A driver was generally held in great respect for his ability and passengers would vie for the opportunity to sit beside him. At least three of these drivers chose to work or homestead in Niobrara.

George Lathrop, a native of Pennsylvania, had left home at the age of 23 to seek work in the untamed territories of Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah before he was employed by the Stage line.

He had gained valuable experience by then in handling teams. Lathrop began handling the "ribbons" for the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage Coach line in 1879 and was the last driver on the final run Feb. 19, 1887.

At that time, service was discontinued as the railroads took over mail delivery. He had many colorful stories to tell of his life experiences that became legendary.

Two other stage drivers, Edmond Albert Cook and Fred Sullivan, also chose to remain in Niobrara County after the stage line closed. Cook had left home when he was 14 years old and began employment as a stock tender for the Rawhide Buttes station.

His career as a driver started that same year, when a driver came in drunk, and he took over the reins. During his career, he had some exciting encounters with outlaws that are still being retold by his grandson, who lives on the ranch he later homesteaded.

A transplant from the Black Hills of South Dakota named Fred Sullivan also worked as a driver beginning in 1876. He survived Indian attacks that resulted in scars from arrow wounds.

He homesteaded in northern Niobrara County in 1886. After the stage stops closed, the small communities that had spring up to serve their needs gradually drifted away, leaving only a small post office that also would close in the distant future.

The Texas Trail herds shared the prairie trails for a way with the elegant Concord stages on the route from Cheyenne to Deadwood Gulch. The first shipment of cattle on the Texas Trail was moved north in the summer of 1876 from the Panhandle of Texas to the Yellowstone country in Montana. The Trail ran from the southeast corner of the Territory of Wyoming to the North Platte River.

From there the herds were trailed to the Rawhide Creek, the Running Water near the settlement then known as Silver Cliff, and to Lance Creek Turning north, the trail went toward a community now called Moorcroft. The lush prairies no longer occupied by buffalo and other game had become prime grasslands for cattle

Buyers along the way bought cattle to start their own herds. Drovers and cowboys following the herds were drawn to the Niobrara River meadows for the forage and the abundance of water. Some chose to return and homestead.

One such young man named John Kendrick worked as a cowboy on several ranches in Niobrara before moving to northern Wyoming. He would later become Wyoming governor and a U.S. senator. The last herd moved over the trail in 1897.

The Fremont-Elkhorn-Missouri Railroad had been moving westward through Nebraska at the rate of two to three miles per day. As it neared the border of the Wyoming Territory, the Wyoming Central Railway was formed in 1886 with the intent of extending the rails into the Wyoming Territory. Frank Lusk was on the board. He had come to Wyoming to locate on a ranch near Node.

Lusk's previous employment with a cattle company in Colorado had sent him to the area. The railroad reached the present site of Lusk on July 13, 1886. The Lusk Herald described the event:

Three hundred mile trips to Cheyenne...ended July 13, 1886...when the Fremont-Elkhorn-Missouri Railroad arrived. At a big celebration a silver spike was driven with a copper hammer. The silver was from the "Mining Hill" and the copper from Rawhide Buttes; both metals were local products....The coming of the railroad was the end of the tent town, Silver Cliff, and the birth of the boom town, Lusk, about a mile east. The railroad appointed Frank S. Lusk as its representative at the new town site.

The sale of town lots was arranged for by Frank Lusk in the present site, as the land surrounding Silver Cliff seemed overpriced by the landowner. A public auction was held and on July 20, 1886, 40 lots were sold and started the move of the tent town at Silver Cliff the next day.

Within a few days, nearly every structure had been moved. Only the stone barn that had served the Stage line remained. Soon Lusk became a bustling community due to the activity created by the railroad construction.

Coal mining in Niobrara was located in the western part of the county. Several mines were located near Keeline. The Old Brooks coal mine was worked from about 1900 for nearly five years.

The Harney Tunnel nearby was mined until 1934 by several owners. Lost Springs enjoyed prosperity for several years between 1900 and 1918 when the Rosin and Sunset Coal mines were worked and loaded on a railroad spur to be shipped east. The product was found to be too soft, and the mines closed.

The town, which had once numbered several hundred, dwindled as people moved on to other opportunities.

The lure for buried treasure also brought miners around 1880 to the hill east of the Running Water Stage Station to look for precious metals. Miners tunneled into the hill and removed a considerable amount of silver, copper and gold during the four years that followed.

The Great Western Mining and Milling Company became interested in the project and built a mill and smelter. Mismanagement resulted in the closure in only a week as paycheck bounced and the management fled the country. The mine closed until 1921-23 when ore was mined for radium.

The mines closed again when adverse claims to the land halted this mining activity.

Oil and gas well drilling and production have probably caused the most fluctuation in the population. Interest in oil exploration began in 1912 in the Lance Creek area.

After several unsuccessful attempts, a high producing well was brought in by the Ohio Oil Company (later known s the Marathon Oil Co.) The well was known as the Discovery Well and was yielding a flow of 1,5000 barrels of crude oil a day. The rush was on to develop the field.

It became the Rocky Mountain region's largest producing field of high grade oil and the fourth largest field in the United States.

By 1930 the industry slowed as wells pumped down. In 1935, deeper wells were sunk and a high grade of oil was recovered, which rejuvenated the oil activity. By 1938, the population of Lance Creek had swelled to around 2,000.

Oil drilling reached into the Lightning Creek area, where a small oil field was developed in 1946. Fluctuation in the demand for oil and world politics today hold the market at a low point, waiting for its turn again in the limelight.

Mineral exploration continues as expectations are still held for a future demand for Niobrara's liquid gold. During the time since the Lance Creek oil field has been developed, many businesses have come and gone.

Schools, churches, recreation facilities and organizations all flourished, but due to attrition many are no longer in use. A post office, community church and several service organizations still in place give the community a strong sense of identity.

As the gold fields in California began to lose their attraction attention turned to the opportunities in the untamed west. Lands were opened for homesteading by several legislative measures.

The pre-emption Action of 1841 had allowed citizens to squat on public land, whether surveyed or unsurveyed, and use public lands free of cost for grazing cattle. British and Scottish cattle ranchers took advantage of this opportunity to develop operation.

Ranges were stocked way beyond their capacity and overgrazing resulted. Land acquisition became more defined as the demand for homesteads increased. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any citizen who was 21 years of age or the head of a household to file for up to 160 acres of land.

The homesteader had to declare it was for his own use and maintain residence for five years. After six months, if the settler had the funds, he could purchase the acreage for $1.25 an acre to receive his patent and override the balance of time required. In 1872, Civil War veterans were allowed to deduct their years of military service from the five years required to prove up.

Fees were varied from $12 to $34. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 allowed a person to claim 160 acres free by planting and growing trees for eight years.

The Timber Culture act was remarkably unsuccessful and very few were able to keep the trees alive long enough to satisfy the requirements for a patent. Homesteaders interested in dry-farming were given an incentive in February 1909, when Congress passed a law allowing 320 acres to be filed upon.

The timing was poor, as a drought existed in 1910 and 1911. In 1912, the time of residence required to prove up a claim was reduced from five years to three years and also allowed the homesteader to be absent from his claim up to five months a year.

In 1916, homesteaders could apply for 640 acres for grazing, but the federal government retained the mineral rights. The largest number of claims filed were in 1919, 1920 and 1911 by those wishing to enlarge or square up their property.

The large cattle operators generally had hired employees to operate their cattle ranches. These cowboys took their orders seriously and often gave the "nesters," as homesteaders were called, a very difficult time as they put up fences and sought water rights.

Losing the unlimited range they had been accustomed to created hard feelings between the cattlemen and those who chose to "turn the soil" for a living.

The suitability of the land and climate would ultimately bring a balance as the new inhabitants found what the land would support.

Friends and relatives, looking for an opportunity to develop their own businesses, responded to the pitches of land speculators who promoted the undeveloped west.

Land was described in glowing terms, the author often taking great poetic license; descriptions were often hope-for conditions rather than fact.

Drought conditions in the mid-western part of the United States sent many in search of new farmland. A poor economy at the time in Europe also had sent to the New World waves of hopeful immigrants, who found their way west.

Often homesteaders who knew each other in their previous home took up claims that were adjoining. Locating homestead cabins on adjoining corners was an advantage in sharing work, tools and other necessities for eking out an existence.

This arrangement was also a way to avoid the isolation that created a terrible hardship for those who were not accustomed to such large open spaces.

Emigrant trains ere loaded with settlers along with their livestock and household goods and brought homesteaders as far as Coffee's Siding in western Nebraska.

The homesteader would unload his goods and walk across the line into Wyoming, saving $20, which was the fee for crossing the state line.

As the railroad worked its way westward, it delivered trains to water stops, such as those headed to Keeline and Jireh. Many of the homesteaders came from other countries, such as the Swiss, who settled near Node.

Drought conditions in Europe had sent many to the new World, fleeing such hardships as the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. Others were young men looking for adventure as cowboys. The dry climate was recommended for health reasons to those with respiratory problems.

One of the most basic requirements for homesteading was the building of some type of dwelling to live in. The material available often dictated the kind it would be.

Dugouts carved into the side of a hill were warm and less costly to build, but more temporary, than other structures. Sod shanties were created when lumber was not readily available. These were also warm and were sometimes lined with wooden planks. The floors might be moistened and tamped smooth or lined also with planks.

A few walls of one soddy are all that remain at this time. Remnants of log cabins still dot the plains, testifying to their durability. Several types of construction were used in these, and the size varied greatly.

One example is the pioneer cabin located in the Lusk City Park. The first structure on the west side was built of round, peeled logs with the ends overlapped. It was added onto a year later with the new addition being built of square logs that are pegged into upright logs at each corner.

some built their own cabin while others hired the work done. The windows, doors and planking for walls and floors in many of the original building in Niobrara and Lusk were milled at the Rawhide Buttes, where a thriving lumber industry operated about 1884.

Some of Lusk's older homes that have lumber from that mill still stand.

Water was an important factor in the success or failure in proving up on a homestead.

The Lusk Herald
October 14, 1992

The first ones to settle an area naturally sought out the sources of water, preferably the headwaters of a stream, which would provide safe, clean drinking water and, equally important, water for their crops and livestock. Those who arrived later had to drill wells. Some homesteaders hauled water for as long as five years in barrels in horse-drawn wagons.

When they were able to save enough money, they would hire a well driller. Without water, there could be no gardens, crops, or even chickens. An added risk was that a well would come in dry. There were no benefits or guarantees to this way of life, only risks.

Early in the days of cattle raising, it became evident that the 160 acres would not support enough stock to establish a ranch. Ranchers would enlist the cooperation of their hired hands to help prove up on additional acreage to increase their spreads.

This became a rather general practice throughout the Territory, although it was not legal. One such case backfired on the employer when the cowboy named James Edwards kept the patent on the land he had homesteaded north of Keeline while working for the Willson Brothers ranch.

Edwards was a Negro cowboy with an excellent reputation as a horseman and possessed a deep desire to become a big cattleman himself. He also had a reputation for a "long rope" and continually irritated his neighbors by turning his stock loose in adjoining pastures - when he wasn't resetting fence lines way beyond their legal boundary.

His family life was colorful and sometimes tragic because of his overindulgence in alcohol. After his wife's sudden death, he finally sold out to his white neighbors. This ended the era of the black cowboy who had been called by many "Nigger Jim."

One group that looked beyond the risks and saw the opportunities was the Christian Church, headquartered in Dayton Ohio. Christian missionaries were anxious to extend their faith into the untamed west.

The Conggregational Church was the first to be established in Lusk and one of its early ministers, Rev. George Dalzell, conceived the plan to establish a Christian community in the western end of the county.

Joining him in his enthusiasm for the project were ministers from his home church and professors in Ohio and Indiana. The name "Jireh" was selected for the community as its biblical meaning was, "God will provide."

The Jireh Land Company was formed with the goal being to develop an educational system with a solid foundation in the Christian faith. It would be the only denominational college in the State of Wyoming.

It was an unusually well-educated group that became the homesteaders in this venture. Some lacked the experience of farming but were eager to learn to achieve their goal, which also included an experiment farm.

The Jireh College existed from 1910 through 19230. The experiment farm, which did well the first year, fell victim to a three year drought and a poor location.

The college was unable to attract enough students to thrive on its own, and because of a poor economy in the nation at that time, its home church nation was not able to send additional money. Male students at that time were responding to the call to military service in the face of war.

With the dwindling enrollment, the painful decision was made to close the college after their dream failed to materialize. Some of the professors and teachers and their families chose to remain in their new adopted home, but many returned to their previous states or accepted new assignments.

Tracing the students from Jireh reveals a rich legacy in well-educated alumni who contributed to their community and nation in very meaningful ways.

The present day residents of that community carry on the tradition of a deep Christian faith as evidenced by the strong support for a Sunday School regularly held in the homes today.

The county of Niobrara once boasted of five representatives in the State House of Representatives and one Senator based on its population. Niobrara was fourteenth in size.

The county now has the dubious distinction of being the least populated county in the least populated state in our nation. Of the multitudes that once swarmed the region seeking a fortune, there remain the descendants of those who truly love this part of the world.

Of all the forces that once created the settling of Niobrara, only a few remain. The oil industry is at a low point nationwide, and other minerals are "resting."

The Stage line is a romantic memory alongside the Texas Trail route. Jireh is a set of stones on the Historic Register. All lands are taken with none left to attract newcomers. The railroad is one of the three largest employers in Niobrara County.

The residents who remain share a love of independence, a thirst for education, an an appreciation for values that give life quality.

The best have survived in the least, those who proudly declare, "I am a Niobraran."

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Related/Linked Records

Record Type Name
Obituary Sullivan, Fred (10/19/1924 - 08/20/1995) View Record
Obituary Sullivan, Fred (10/31/1895 - 12/02/1955) View Record
Obituary Edwards, James (02/14/1871 - 01/06/1951) View Record
Obituary Lusk, Frank (04/27/1857 - 08/06/1930) View Record
Obituary Lathrop, George (12/24/1830 - 12/24/1915) View Record