One of the great stories of our nation is that of the Oregon Trail. While the trail was first used by trappers and traders as early as 1811, it became the primary way for migrants to travel west to Oregon beginning in 1836. More than 400,000 pioneers crossed the trail between 1840 and 1860, often considered the boom years. Recall that by 1869 (May 10th to be exact) the transcontinental railroad had been completed, offering an alternative faster, safer and cheaper way of moving west.
The trail did not cover a single path. The beginning and end points on the trail changed over time. On the front end, travelers might start in Independence, Missouri or Omaha, Nebraska/Council Bluffs, Iowa. At the endpoint, pioneers settled in Oregon, California, Idaho, or Utah. Only an estimated 80,000 out of the 400,000 noted above made it to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Approximately 70,000 Mormon pilgrims travelled it to Utah before stopping (aka, the Mormon trail). The California Trail, which began in the same places as the Oregon Trail, was traversed by 250,000 persons. Even today the ruts left by the wagons pulled on this long trek can be found in many western states.
The trails noted above have a rich yore. Some of the stories are true, some not. As noted above, there was not just one trail, although all shared long elements such as the trek along the Platte River in Nebraska to Fort Laramie. Most agree that the first crossing was made by Protestant missionaries in 1836. They led a small party from St. Louis to the Walla Walla Valley in Oregon in 1843. Travelers most often did not rely on the large and unwieldy Conestoga Wagon seen in so many western movies and reenactments, but on smaller covered wagons which have been referred to Prairie Schooners. They travelled between 15 and 20 miles per day, leaving an impressive collection of trash (e.g. discarded food barrels and wagon parts) behind as they consumed their supplies. Unlike Hollywood movies, attacks by Indians were rare. Only about 400 of these travelers are estimated to have been killed by Native Americans between 1840 and 1860. Pioneers were much more likely to die from diseases such as Cholera as well as wagon accidents and exposure.
I travelled along a part of the Oregon Trail, in reverse order, in late November-early December. I drove with three of my colleagues to visit the satellite offices of our small business development center and to meet with partners in several parts of the state. Overall, we traversed over 1,000 miles in four days covering the sand hills and valleys in central and western Nebraska and the flat lands that lie along the Platte River. We first drove north and west, not along the Oregon Trail but on highways 275 and 20, taking us through the cities/towns of Fremont, West Point, O’Neill, and Valentine to our first overnight stop in Chadron, Nebraska, a total of 432 miles often on two land black top roads. On day two, we traveled south through Hemingford and Alliance to Scottsbluff. On day three we drove to North Platte. On the fourth day after our meetings had concluded we headed back to Omaha on I-80 along the Platte River, the most popular starting point of the Oregon Trail after 1855.
The drive to Chadron provides a strong reminder of the beauty and greatness of our country. As the topography and annual rainfall amounts shift so does the nature of the crops and grazing land. The eastern part of Nebraska contains what appear to be endless acres of mostly corn and soybeans, although by late November most of the crops had been harvested. One main exception is the sugar beet crop in western Nebraska which in late November was still being carried to the processing plants in Chadron and other places. The small towns along the way have undergone tough times, but as we discovered in Cody, Nebraska, “a town too tough to die”, the people in those places are innovative and resourceful. While many places try, and fail, to hold their populations, they retain their unique, cowboy tough, nature which drives them to press on.
Chadron, a city of nearly 6,000 is home to Chadron State College, our partner institution in providing assistance to small businesses in northwest Nebraska. Chadron has a real west look and feel, and is closer to Cheyenne and Denver than Omaha. It became a town like so many places when a railroad line was constructed through that part of Nebraska in 1884. Its elevation, 3,400 feet, provides evidence of the gradual rise that can be found as one travels west from Omaha toward the Rocky Mountains (the official elevation of Omaha is 1,089 feet). In addition to the college, Chadron is also home to the Museum of Fur Trade and the Pine Ridge Recreation Area. During the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Chadron was the starting point of the 1,000 mile Chadron to Chicago Cowboy Horse Race, won by John Berry in 13 days and 16 hours.
Scottsbluff, south of Chadron, is on the Oregon Trail, and the area around it provides some of the iconic scenery observed by those who went travelling west. Even today, Scotts Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock are impressive reminders that “city life” has been left far behind. The city itself has roughly 12,000 persons, by far the largest locale in western Nebraska or eastern Wyoming. The city was not established until 1899, long after the Oregon Trail had been replaced by the railroad as being the best way to reach Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and points west. Unlike most of western Nebraska, it is socially/ethnically diverse. Nearly 30 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino.
North Platte, our last stop, is a city of nearly 25,000 and home to the Union Pacific Railroad’s Bailey yards, a massive collection of track, locomotives, and railcars, that are mixed and matched so that they can be sent on to their final destinations (or next point of remixing the railcars). Bailey is the largest rail yard in the world, and in operation resembles a ballet as a most coordinated effort is made to assemble the right collection of railcars to be moved on. North Platt was the western terminus of the Union Pacific Railway from the summer of 1867 until the next section was completed (Laramie, Wyoming) in the summer of 1868. It should be noted that Wild Bill Cody had a ranch just north of North Platte. It can be visited today. North Platte is located what some might call “big country” (my apologies to those of you further west). On the day that we drove back to Omaha, 28,645 acres of ranch and farm land was auctions in 50 parcels for $37.5 million.
And then we were on our way home.