Historical Details

Where Rails Ended and Trails Began

Courtesy of Various Sources, 08/07/2023


Presented by Gerald Bardo, January 16, 1996 to Sioux County Historical Society.

The Old Chicago and North Western from the Elkhorn Valley in Eastern Nebraska West to Lander, Wyoming

My family moved to Lander in 1915, as a boy of 7, I was to grow up with much interest in the C&NW railroad activities, and some of my questions about it were not answered until I got into preparing this paper.

On the afternoon of August 13, 1859, two months before John Brown made his raid on Harper’s Ferry, an Illinois politician and railroad lawyer stood on the Iowa bluff above the Missouri River and looked across to a little village on the opposite bank. Some town lots in Council Bluffs had been offered him as security for a loan of three thousand dollars; he had come to inspect the lots himself. Presently he left the Bluff and went back to the tavern where he fell into conversation with an engineer who explained why Council Bluffs was the point where the much discussed transcontinental railway should begin. The lawyer listened and the next day, departed. He made the loan. Less than a year later, supported by railroad promoters, abolitionists, manufacturers, and Free-Soilers, he was elected President of the United States. The lawyer was Abraham Lincoln. The little village that he saw from the bluff was Omaha, the jumping-off place of the plains…..

(“the above from the book, “In Roundup—A Nebraska Reader.” Much other detail I have taken from David Seidel’s book of 1988 entitled “Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri R.R. Co.”)

For perspective, we should note that the Pacific Railway Act of July 1862 called for construction by two subsidized corporations, the Union Pacific to build west from the Missouri River and the Central Pacific to build east from Sacramento, California. President Lincoln chose Council Bluffs, Iowa, as the eastern terminus. On May 10, 1869 the two roads met at Promontory, Utah. The Civil War had slowed early building operations, but at the close of hostilities in 1865, comparatively rapid progress was made, many of the Union and Confederate army veterans associating in friendly rivalry with pickax and shovel.

It has been written that “in the Great Plains, it was the railroad which opened up the country to settlement.” So it was with the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad, as a branch was threaded up the Elkhorn River of northeast Nebraska, thence west over the northern plains and sandhills, sometimes touching the Niobrara River, ever climbing toward and over the high plateau of the northwest corner of the state---establishing new communities all along the way, encouraging the flow of pioneers, helping those who chose to load possessions in boxcars instead of traveling by wagon.

Even state lines did not stop this surge, and eventually these rails stopped at the foot of the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, at Lander.

Construction of the rails demanded workers with horses and mules and various kinds of primitive dirt moving equipment, blacksmiths, and laborers with hand tools. Families often moved along with the rails. Some workers were drawn from the area to be served. And once established, the railroad became the employer of thousands of people, all contributing, to a certain extent, in the development of each community established.

Besides being the means of transporting commodities necessary for building and development, the products of farm and ranch and industry cold now be transported out. In the earlier years, the rails were not only important for long distance travel and transportation, but even for communication between communities.

Development of eastern Nebraska was quite different than that of the western stretches. Counties and communities as far west as Cuming County were organized between 1854 and 1857. As Orville H. Zabel recounts in the Fall 1973 edition of “Nebraska History,” it was in the winter of 1868-1869 that a company of Fremont businessmen organized to agitate for building a railroad up the Elkhorn Valley. To continue his account:

“Success came quickly as railroad bonds for $120,000 were guaranteed, and ground was broken during a celebration in Fremont on November 5, 1869, for the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad actually, a branch of the Sioux City and Pacific Railroad. The speakers at the gala event reminded their listeners of the implications of the railroad. E. H. Barnard, the chairman, asserted that ‘this road is to become a connecting link in a great national railway….over this very spot will pass at no far distant day the products of the three zones, as those of two hemispheres do now. When that time arrives, the position of Fremont will truly be a commanding one.’

Then Zabel’s article continues---In the first year, the forty-one miles of rail to West Point were laid. Cumming County voted $100,000 in railroad bonds. By 1871, Wisner had been reached. Stanton County voted bonds as well. The hard times of the 1870s slowed expansion but in 1879 locomotives chugged into Norfolk. In Antelope County, Twin Grove Precinct (Oakdale) and Center Precinct (Neligh) both voted railroad bonds by overwhelming majorities. The Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad reached Neligh in October 1880 and O’Neil in 1881. The supporters of the railroad were not disappointed. For example, Antelope County population grew from 3,953 to 10,399 in the decade of the 1880s.

By October 27, 1881 the rails were completed to Long Pine. A three-stall roundhouse was being built along with a boarding house, dining house and hotel. The bridge over the canyon was built with trains crossing in to Valentine in the spring of 1883. First built of wood, it was replaced by a steel structure in 1910.

For some time, now, there had been emphasis that the rail line needed, was from Fremont to the Black Hills. In July of 84, The Berry Brothers Stage line began operating a route from Valentine to Rapid City. They were to operate in connection with the railroad and handle mail and passengers. The Army also operated a freight line to Fort Robinson.

On July 1, 1884, the Chicago and North Western took over four small lines in eastern Nebraska, especially along the Missouri River, but including the Elkhorn. It must be noted that the beginnings of the North Western date back to January 10, 1836, when the Illinois legislature chartered the Galena & Chicago Union Railway Company. The first train ever to leave Chicago for the West was on this road, October 24, 1846. During the panic of 1857 the Galena was reorganized as the Chicago and North Western. Early in the 60s the first train crossed the Mississippi. On Jan 17, 1867 the first train rolled into Council Bluffs.

Back to the Elkhorn story….the North Western was most interested in a route to the Black Hills and a connection through Wyoming with a western railroad. An amended articles of incorporation dated November 1885 indicated that the mainline of the Elkhorn had been changed from the original route to the mouth of the Niobrara River in Knox County to the route into Wyoming, and all effort was directed to that goal.

In the fall of 1884, about 80 miles of right-of-way was graded from Valentine. In January 1885, Chief Engineer Ainsworth announced that contracts have been let for grading to the White River area (Chadron) with all work to be done by August 1. Meanwhile track laying had started out of Valentine on April 6.

On April 30, 1885 the Fremont Herald carried a news story that a survey was being made across Wyoming and that “….the line is to start at the Nebraska-Wyoming state line to the headwaters of the Niobrara River, crossing the divide to Coal Creek, down the North Platte River to the mouth of Sweetwater Creek, through South Pass, across the flatlands and then through one of the valleys to meet the Central Pacific.”

In the June 25, 1885, Fremont Herald, “the report is again renewed, and with foundation that the Elkhorn has let contracts for building west of White River. The White River is 30 miles from the Nebraska-Wyoming border, and this contract will put the grade 95 miles into Wyoming. It is possible that next year tracks could be finished to Corine, Utah, the supposed junction with the Central Pacific. In this connection it is announced that a Certificate of Incorporation had been issued to the Utah and Central Wyoming Railroad….one of the incorporators declared that the line is to connect with the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad.”

The railroad built its tracks one mile south of the town of Rushville, and in reply, the town moved to the tracks. In July, 1885, the railroad built to its station of Chadron which was about four miles east of the town, and it too moved to meet the tracks. On August 2nd, trains started service to Chadron. Editorially, the Fremont Herald called the Elkhorn “The Vanderbilt Pacific Line.” The name referred to the railroad companies under the control of the rail baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. He controlled railroads from New York to Chicago through the New York Central; and west of Chicago through the Chicago and North Western. With the North Western’s Elkhorn line now built to Chadron, plans were laid to cross Wyoming.

We should pause here to take note of the building of the branch line to Rapid City. With the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874, and the opening of the area by the government in 1876, mining developed to the extent that a railroad was a must, both to bring in supplies and massive equipment and to accommodate export and travel. In January 1885, the Elkhorn acquired the right to extend into Dakota from Chadron. In June 1886, the tracks had reached Rapid City where a big celebration was held on July 5. By December 1890, the rails had reached Deadwood. The Black Hills development is a story in itself, and we must leave it with this.

With rail development to the Black Hills and the continuing push to the west, it was obvious that Chadron was to become an important division point. It has been pointed out that “a cornerstone of Chadron’s economic well-being from the beginning was the railroad roundhouse.” That this employer of many men burned to the ground in 1910 and was immediately rebuilt is significant of the railroad’s importance to many communities, and in different ways. By and large, the communities that thrived into our century were the ones touched by a railroad. And most often, after the rails arrived, the communities began to think of schools and churches. So, for a moment, I want to digress to another article in that fall 1973 issue of Nebraska History, entitled “Harmon Bross and Nebraska Congregationalism”, which related to his missionary efforts out of Chadron. Rev. Bross was quoted thus: “With the first train into Chadron, August 1885, I began permanent work…and soon had a gospel tabernacle ready for church and Sunday School. On Sunday, Sept 13, 1885, the three churches of Rushville, Hay Springs, and Chadron were recognized by the (Congregational) Council. With the extension of the railroad in the spring of 1886, church work was established at Crawford. By Sept 19, 1887, the Chadron Academy had been established.” One of the interesting features of this work, was the use of tent tabernacles---wooden sidewalls and floor, canvas tops. No windows were needed, and one small door allowed entrance to the unique structure. (I should add that the tabernacle at Lusk housed the first school.)

It is significant that a church of one denomination or another was accompanying the establishment of the West. Elsewhere in the Bross article he is quoted: “It was not unusual for those least expected to do so, to take part in the construction of new church buildings. At times, saloon keepers, gamblers, as well as the more sober residents of a town would help gather collections, sing in the choir or sit in the congregation. One day in Wyoming, an especially rough band of cowboys appeared in town with a grand flourish and a cloud of dust. They made their profane and noisy way along the street that led to the gospel tent. ‘Hush boys, there’s a church!’ the leader called out and the men passed by respectfully.”

When the rails were built to Fort Robinson on May 11, 1886, it marked the turning point in operations of the Army in the plains. Until Jan 20, 1885 Congress had prohibited rails crossing the Fort. Within a year the Army would build Fort Robinson into its regimental headquarters replacing Ft. Laramie. Now with its rail connection, Fort Robinson became one of the larger supply points for Army operations in the upper plains.

In the first issue of The Lusk Herald, dated May 20, 1886, and edited and printed by J. K. Calkins at Silver Cliff, Wyoming Territory, we read this:

“The tracklayers on the Wyoming Central, or F. E. & M. V., are a much more effective gang of workmen than which laid the rails of last year. The tracklayers have been out only 17 days, yet they have laid 35 miles of track, an average of about two miles a day. It is said to be a sight to see them work. They lay 60 feet of track to the minute, and the iron men cannot work more than two-thirds of the time because the tie man cannot keep ahead of them. They could easily lay more, but would only catch up with the bridgers, who are none too far ahead. Last Tuesday the track passed across the military reservation, and at this date, Thursday, the end of the track is in Sioux County about midway of the White River canyon. If not delayed by bridgers the locomotive will steam into Lusk about June 20. In any event it will not be later than July 1.”

In an article written for the centennial issue of the Chadron Record in 1985, Virginia Coffee wrote that “When surveyors filed their records in the Surveyor General’s office in Feb of 1884, they had marked on the map a railroad stake they’d seen in 1883 about 1 ½ miles west of present day Harrison. This indicated that soon there would be grading crews and rail laying crews. Summit (or Bowen-Harrison) was one of these camps. Mrs. Coffee also noted that the Chicago & North Western, of which the FE&MV was a subsidiary, had received 55,000 acres of land from Nebraska, but apparently had not received any in Sioux County.

The rails reached Harrison in June, 1886. Your “Sioux County Memoirs of Its Pioneers” has an interesting account by Mrs. Harold Cook about the installations at Andrews and the need to use “helper” engines to get trains up the canyon. It should also be noted, before we follow the tracks into Wyoming, that in October of this year the Elkhorn built a l,023 ft. siding on the Nebraska side of the state line and named it ”Coffee Siding”. Prior to that, on August 15, Charles F. Coffee had shipped the first load of cattle from Harrison, an indication of how rapidly the railroad was put to use. Because shipment rates within the state were lower than interstate, cattle were driven across the state line to be loaded at the siding which was used until the 40s and finally removed in 1958.

At the Wyoming state line, the Elkhorn became the Wyoming Central Railway. It was a construction company formed by the North Western, and was granted a charter by the State of Wyoming. Its base was to be at Lusk, named for Frank Lusk, one of the area’s leading business and cattleman, who had become a director of the company.

In the 70th anniversary supplement to The Lusk Herald, we ran a story from the diary of E. B. Nillson written by his wife, Isabel. Theirs was one of the pioneer ranches of the area and just west of Lusk. She wrote, “Few new settlers came in before the building of the railroad in 1886. A few years earlier there had been a whisper about it from somewhere in the East. Then the rumors were confirmed by a party of surveying engineers who were running a line of stakes from Chadron, Nebraska. Not long after, a man who proved to be a grader came to the ranch, stayed overnight, and before leaving in the morning asked if we had any hay for sale. ‘I see you have quite a lot of nice hay,’ he said,

‘what’s it worth?’, he asked. ‘About $15 a ton, ‘ I answered. ‘All right, I will take ten tons at that price,’ he said and pulled a handful of gold out of his pocket from which to pay for the hay. A few weeks later it was known the railroad would be built through the country hereabouts. Then there was a great influx of people. The price of hay went up to $25 a ton and was sold by measure, as there were no scales available. We set stakes in the stack to show each man’s share of the purchase.”

It was July 13, 1886, when the first train reached Lusk. A grand celebration ensued including the driving of a silver spike with a copper hammer, both products of local mines. A mile or so west of the new Lusk, a large construction camp had been bult months before at the site of the earlier mining camp, Silver Cliff. But the tents and one iron-clad building were quickly moved to Lusk.

Silver Cliff mine had been located there in the winter of 1879 but by the time the railroad arrived, mining operations were all but abandoned. Much of Lusk had been platted the spring of 1886. Lusk was too quickly becoming a boom town. By October, it was reported that 1800 cars of cattle had been shipped from along the line.

By August of 1986 the tracks had been laid to Douglas. Here, too, as at Lusk, a newspaper had been established in anticipation of the rails. Merrit C. Barrow, who became famous under the pen name of Hill Barlow, had moved printing equipment from Nebraska on a freight wagon and printed the first issue June 9 at a point eight miles from Fort Fetterman. He too later moved to the Douglas site.

During the summer of 1887 the rails did reach Glenrock where spur lines were built to surrounding coal mines, just as had been done previously when the Shawnee area between Lusk and Douglas was reached.

June 15, 1888 the rails had arrived at the site of what was to later become downtown Casper. Speculators frequently built town before the rails arrived, hoping that when the tracks came to the area they would pass next to the new settlements. The new communities of Casper, Bessemer (just up river from Casper) and Bothwell (along the Sweetwater Rive in southwestern Natrona County were founded on the premise that the trains eventually would be chugging their way.

The railroad had announced that it would extend its line to a pint near old Fort Casper during the summer of 1888, and a tent town was established about a mile east of the present center of town. Still it was assumed that the railroad would build on west as a transcontinental line.

Actually, the central and western parts of Wyoming seemed to have no real value to the railroad at this time. To cross 300 miles of barren country to reach the Oregon Short Line seemed out of the question. This brought up the stage for secret negotiations between the Union Pacific and the North Western that resulted in the establishment, October 21, 1889, of “The Overland Route”, whereby the North western passenger and freight trains would travel west from Council Bluffs over Union Pacific tracks to a connection with the Oregon Short Line. In exchange, the Union Pacific gained access to the North Western lines to Chicago.

With the North Western agreeing to forego the building of a line across Wyoming in competition with the Union Pacific, there was little incentive to prod out of Casper---that was, until it became known that in 1906 a southern portion of the Wind River Indian Reservation would be opened to settlement by drawing for homesteads.

I do not have the exact date as to when track laying started out of Casper, but by late summer of 1904 the railroad had platted the town of Shoshoni, and by mid-summer of 1906, there were six weekly newspapers in that raucus, dusty, railhead town. The Fremont County Gazette of July 1 promised to publish a full report of the homestead drawings for farms. That Shoshoni was a railhead for a time, I am sure, because there had been a “Y” constructed there on which to turn locomotives around. I often noted it in early travel in that area, but wondered at the need for it. It is interesting that July 12, 1906, later to be renamed the Lusk Herald, took note that two extra passenger trains were being run to accommodate the traffic to Shoshoni. These were discontinued a few weeks later.

By the end of September, the first passenger train had rolled into the area that was to become Riverton—a town cut out of the Indian Reservation, born in the turmoil of claiming town lots and farm acreages. This is a story in itself, and was the beginning of animosities between Riverton and Lander that I saw, and that exist even to this day. Lander, the older town established in the early 1870s, had the government Land Office at the time. A later evaluation of the situation “was that the controversies could have been avoided if the General Land Office had established reasonable procedures for opening of the townsite.”

But, on to Lander, where the rails did end, and trails began. Work trains had arrived a few days earlier, but on Monday, October 15, 1906, the first passenger train into Lander arrived at 11:30 AM. It was cause for a great celebration, and folks came from all the surrounding areas to see this spectacle. As reported by the Wind River Mountaineer, published quarterly by the Fremont County Museums, with picture, “after the passengers and baggage were unloaded, Engineer Pat Madigan pulled the train ahead a bit, pulled the lanyard to let off steam (which, of course, caused some commotion and consternation), stuck his head out of the cab, and yelled “You better look out folks, I’m going to turn her around.” It is said the crowd quickly scattered amid uproarious Irish laughter.

The Mountaineer had reported that 1905-1907 were some of the most momentous in Lander’s early history. There was not only the coming of the railroad and the promise of vast agricultural lands being opened on the Indian Reservation, but there was the oil at the Dallas and Lander oil fields just waiting to be shipped to market, coal was already being mined in the area, forests at the head of the Wind River were untapped, and herds of cattle and sheep would no longer have to be driven to railheads over a hundred miles away. In fact, I saw the days of the big railroad tie production in those forests, and the ties floated down the river to Riverton

As a boy growing up in Lander, I saw some of the earlier years of the C&NW’s rails end. My family had moved there in 1915, and it was not long before my exploring of the small town took me to the railroad yards. Not that there was much activity after the trains arrived and left again. But occasionally a locomotive was left to push coal cars up into the coal loading chute, or a locomotive would be turned around on the turntable at the small roundhouse. Now and then freight cars would be loaded with ice at the very, very end of the line near an ice pond which was only a short distance from my home. A rabbit hunting pal and I often walked back along the tracks beside the Popo Agie River with our rifles.

Then there were the early 20s when pullman trains came into Lander during the summer with tourists from Chicago. After staying overnight at the beautiful new Noble Hotel, they would board open buses for Yellowstone Park and return from Cody via Burlington to Chicago. By the late 20s, I was riding the sheep trains to Fremont as a helper to get down to Lincoln and go to college. The last pullman trains to Lander were in late August of 1930.

And from this point, many of you can fill in the story of the North Western west. But the dismantling of the western reaches of the C&NW actually began as a World War II salvage effort. The state’s biggest salvage operation scrapped thirty thousand tons of rails from the North Western lines between Casper and Shoshoni, and the few later freight trains were routed over the Burlington tracks, Casper to Shoshoni.

September 2, 1950, the last passenger train went through Harrison, and then it was only a mail-express car, part of which was for passengers or pulling a passenger coach. No freight trains at all since the White River flood in 1991, and the past year the trackage through Sioux County was completely removed.

Now we are in a new age. The thread of the North Western rail line that inspired and aided development of our communities is no longer needed—except for 45 miles of right-of-way and grade from Shawnee, WY, east to Van Tassell, which accommodates one of America’s most modern rail lines, now to haul coal. The first load traversed the line August 15, 1984. New trackage south from Van Tassell makes a new link with the Union Pacific in the Platte River Valley – coal now hauled over lines that once predominantly served an agricultural area.

At Lusk, the old depot has been beautifully renovated and is the roadmaster’s headquarters for a large area. At the east edge of town stands the old 1886 railroad water tank, now reconstructed with the help of state funds – a precious relic of the railroad’s past, but also a token of the efforts of Annabelle Hoblit, Lusk’s long-time director of the Stagecoach Museum, to see that the rails are preserved.

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