The question as to who it was that first suggested the possibility of building a railroad across the continent has been a disputed one. It was discussed by public men early in the century and was mentioned in various journals and newspapers, but it gradually assumed more definite shape, and culminated, finally, in the organization and construction of the Union Pacific railroad. While the scope of this work forbids an extended history of each particular road that has aided in the progress of the State, the inception and building of the great Union Pacific is so intimately connected with the pioneer history of Nebraska that the writer believes a more extended history of its inception and growth will be found interesting in this connection.
The claimants for the honor of having first introduced the subject of a trans-continental railway to the American people have been numerous and persistent. The subject has been mooted time out of mind, and the question, "who first suggested the Pacific railway?" propounded and repeated incessantly. It is said that Jonathan Carver foreshadowed its construction as early as 1778, and if true, he was farthest ahead of all men of the age in which he lived. When, during succeeding years, it was again and again mentioned and pronounced impracticable, California, rich in wealth and resources, sprang as if by magic from the desert and the undertaking became an enterprise of the present rather than of the future. Since then, the march of progress has, with majestic tread, swept across the continent, populating the valleys, developing the agricultural resources of the plains, bringing to light the hidden mineral wealth of the mountains and inscribing her name on the brightest pages of history in every State. Upon the banks of the Father of Waters the steps of progress impatiently lingered, but spanning that stream, she swept along her magnificent career. Next she reached Nebraska, touching into life with her magic wand the hidden wealth therein sleeping. The Rocky Mountains were crossed, and the Queen of the Pacific reached.
As early as 1835 the Rev. Samuel Parker, in his journal of a trip across the continent, recorded an opinion that the mountains presented no insuperable obstacle to a railroad. In 1836 John Plumbe, Jr., a Welshman, but a naturalized American, residing at Dubuque, commenced, in person at his own expense the survey of a route for a railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific ocean, directing public attention to its importance in several well written articles in the newspapers of the day. In 1838 he succeeded, through the influence and efforts of the Hon. George W. Jones, in procuring an appropriation from Congress to defray the expenses of locating the first division of the line, devoting his entire attention to, and making constant exertions for, the promotion of this great national object. He lived until after the gold discoveries of California, and used them as additional arguments in support of his pet scheme. Among the many claims is also that advanced by the friends of John Wills, formerly a resident of Brownsville, Pennsyl-
vania. A full review of the Wilgus claims are contained in an article published in the Uniontown (Pa.) Republican-Standard, from which we quote the following:
"Many public men bask in borrowed light, and in no instance is this proposition more signally illustrated than in the case of Hon. Thomas H. Benton, who as history records, is the accredited father of the Pacific railroad. Men of true moral and intellectual worth are more often modest and unassuming, and, though deserving the gratitude of their fellow-men, live in obscurity and go to their reward hardly known outside the village in which fortune cast their lot. Such a man was John Wilgus, the man who, above all others, is entitled to the credit and honor of originating the idea of a railroad to the Pacific. Born in comparative obscurity in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, in the latter part of the last century, he very early gave promise of having a more then bright intellect. Poverty and a lack of schools stood in his pathway, but his insatiable desire for learning was only limited by insurmountable obstacles incident to a new settlement on the border. The Bible was his companion from his youth, and in his manhood and declining years. He had examined in detail all controverted (sic) points, read all the standard authors on Bible lore, memorized whole chapters and books of the Bible and from studies and researches in various departments, culling here and there logic and analogy, and with a memory never at fault when a topic was once scanned, he was a formidable opponent. While yet a young man, he conceived the idea of a railroad to the Pacific, and this not when railroads were out of their swaddling clothes, but. in their infancy; before mountains had been scaled and rivers spanned. He contemplated and suggested congressional aid by giving ten miles of public land on each line of the surveyed routes; laying the road out so as to run through the county seats of successive counties; the eastern terminus should be the western shore of Lake Superior, near the present site of Duluth; also, that it should cross the Rockies where the present road crosses, and its western terminus should be the Bay of San Francisco. Drawing a map and plan of his proposed railroad, he drew up a letter detailing the plans and methods, and the reasons for the same, and forwarded the whole to Hon. Andrew Stewart, who was then. a representative in Congress from Fayette county, Pennsylvania. The plans and details were shown to a number of members, and, it was thought advisable to have any proposition relating thereto come from a western man, and Mr. Benton, who was nearing the zenith of his glory, was selected. Mr. Benton arose in his place in the Senate on the following day, and proposed the building of a railroad to the Pacific. Mr. Stewart wrote to Mr. Wilgus the disposition made of his submissions. Years after, in the later years of Mr. Stewart's life, when the Pacific road was building, he wrote a letter to Mr. Wilgus, recognizing him as the original proposer (sic) of the road, and complimenting him upon the grand consummation about to dawn upon his early hopes."
The letter referred to, and which is the only evidence now obtainable to substantiate Mr. Wilgus' title to the honor, reads thus.
John Wilgus, Esq., Brownsville, Pa:
DEAR SIR: I have just received your letter of yesterday, inclosing (sic) your communication to the Commercial, in reference to a correspondence between us, relative to the "Pacific Railroad," between twenty and thirty years ago, and requesting me to give you my recollections in reference to that matter.
I have a perfect recollection of having received numerous letters from you, urging me, as a member of the committee on railroads and canals, to call the attention of Congress to this subject, in which you took so much interest.
Your first route was from Lake Michigan, by the Columbia river, to the Pacific, but after the acquisition of California, you changed it from St. Louis to San Francisco. Of this route you sent me a very handsome map, following, according to my recollections, very nearly the route on which the road has been lately built - which map I had, as you say, suspended in the hall of the House of Representatives, for the inspection of the members.
I drew up a resolution authorizing the Presi-.
dent to employ a corps of engineers of the United States army, to examine and report upon the practicability of the proposed project, which resolution I submitted to a number of members of Congress, but especially to those of the west, who were most favorably disposed.
Upon consideration and reflection, however, I concluded that the resolution had better be first offered in the Senate, being a smaller body, and where the small western states were comparatively much stronger than in the House. I therefore took the resolution, with your map, to the senate, where I was advised by those friendly to the project, to hand the papers to Col. Benton, whose son-in-law, Col. Fremont, had made the preliminary explorations. I did so and he promised to attend to the matter, in which he also took a very lively interest. I advised you of this arrangement, with which you expressed yourself satisfied and said you would write to Col. Benton on the subject, who afterward, informed me that you had done so. Without referring to the journals, to which I have not now access, I can not undertake to state the action of the Senate on the subject, but may do so hereafter, and should I find any thing further material to your inquiry, I will let you know.
Very respectfully, your friend, etc.,
Lewis Gaylord Clarke, in 1838, wrote to the Knickerbocker: "The reader is now living who will make a railway trip across the continent." In 1846, Asa Whitney began to urge the project of building a line from the Mississippi to Puget Sound, if Congress would donate public lands to the width of thirty miles along the entire road. Later experience has shown that the proceeds sought by Whitney would have been utterly insufficient. His plan was conceded to be superior to that submitted by Mr. Plumb, but it was not acted upon. In 1850 the first Pacific railroad bill was introduced into Congress by Senator Benton, of Missouri "Old Bullion" contemplated a railroad only "where practicable," leaving gaps in the impassable mountains to be filled up by wagon roads. The Alleghenies were not even then crossed by an unbroken railway, but by a series of inclined planes, upon which the cars were drawn up and let down by stationary engines. In all ages mankind has sought the shortest, most expeditious and economical route to market. The work was demanded in a national point of view, and across the State of Nebraska must the road be built. The questions which primarily suggested themselves - would it pay? - how should it be built? and where was it to leave the frontier? - were made the subjects of careful consideration. In 1851 the Hon. S. Butler King submitted, a plan which received almost universal approval. It was, practically, that the government should guarantee to any company or persons who would undertake and complete the road a net dividend of five per cent. for fifty or one hundred years; the road to be constructed under the supervision of an engineer appointed by the government, the cost of the road not to exceed, a certain sum, and the guaranty not to begin until the road was completed and equipped for operation. In 1853-'54, nine routes were surveyed across the continent on various parallels between British America and Mexico, under the supervision of Jefferson Davis, then secretary of war. The results were summarized in the interests of the extreme southern line. Up to this period, the Canadians and many residents of the United States believed that a railway could not be built south of the British possessions, unless it was carried far down toward Mexico. In spite of all this, however, the Union Pacific shouldered the enterprise, and in four years built a total of 1,000 miles. With each returning session of Congress, thereafter convened, the benefits and peculiarities of these several routes were submitted. The impracticability of building the road had been from time to time removed by reports of engineers engaged in surveying designated routes, and many advocates were found who urged that the geography of the country and other features of excellence demonstrated incontestibly (sic), that the old Mormon trail up the Platte river was the most available.
A number of appeals were made to Congress urging, that a reasonable grant of land and other aid be made as would give an impulse to the building of the road. As regarded the Platte valley route, its superiority was insisted upon, and the truth of history cited in that behalf.
In the early days of Brigham Young's domination, trusty commissaries were by him dispatched for the purpose of obtaining a knowledge of the best road from the Missouri to Salt Lake. After every possible and impossible route had been explored this shrewd leader who had more at stake than any man who ever crossed the western prairies, chose the North Platte route. The speed and safety with which he and his followers traversed it attest a sagacity which only a thorough knowledge of the country would enable him to employ. The first emigrants to California crossed the Missouri at St. Joe, Leavenworth, Kansas City, Independence and elsewhere. But, after the country had been explored thoroughly, the emigration of 1852 was by way of Council Bluffs and the North Platte route. From the earliest days of the territory, the people and official representatives of Nebraska favored the speedy completion of a line through the valley of the Platte. The proceedings of the legislature proved this. Every governor from Cuming to Saunders advocated the measure and a most urgent spirit was manifested from 1855 to 1865.
On January 20, 1858, a committee of Congress, through Senator Gwin, of California, reported a bill which proposed to locate the road at some point between the Big Sioux and Kansas rivers to San Francisco. It provided for the donation of alternate sections of land on each side of the route, and $12,500 per mile, the same to be advanced on the completion of every twenty-five miles of the road until $25,000,000 was reached; the amounts to be returned in mail and army service and transportation, etc. This bill, however, was killed in the Senate. At the session of 1859-'60 another effort was made, and a bill introduced into the House by Mr. Curtis, of Iowa. It provided for the construction of a road across the continent, with branches from two points on the navigable waters of the Missouri, to converge and unite within two hundred miles of that stream, thence run to the Sacramento river. The bill ran through a long and excited debate and was amended in several particulars and finally was rejected by Congress. The great difficulty at this time seemed the selection of a route.
In 1861 the war came on and monopolized public attention, but early in 1862 the possibility of constructing the road was again brought up and at this time first took definite shape. On February 5, 1862, Mr. Rollins, of Missouri, introduced a bill to aid in constructing a railroad and telegraph line from the Missouri river to the Pacific ocean. The bill was finally passed by both houses of Congress June 24, 1862, and was approved July 1, 1862, thus creating "The Union Pacific Railroad Company." The bill provided for the amount of the capital stock; the election of directors; the right of way through public lands; the extinguishment (sic) of Indian titles; the donation of alternate sections, except mineral lands; the conveyance of lands upon completion of forty consecutive miles of road, and the issue and payment of bonds there-for, besides various other provisions. The act was amended later and the company was formally organized October 29, 1863, by the election of a board of thirteen directors. Work on the road was commenced at once and progressed rapidly. On March 13, 1866, it was announced that sixty miles of the road had been completed and awaited examination by the commissioners of the government. The completion of the road occurred on May 10, 1869. The foregoing covers briefly the facts leading up to the inception and building of the Union Pacific.
PIONEER RAILROADS IN NEBRASKA.
The Union Pacific railroad was the first railway enterprise commenced in Nebraska. The mere talk of the project of building this line from the Missouri river westward to the Pacific attracted a great deal of attention to the west - and especially was emigration to Nebraska hastened by this. The location of the road and the commencement of operations looking to the building of its route, tended to fill up Nebraska, still a territory with a thrifty population, as also to develop the agricultural and mineral wealth of the country beyond. The immediate effects were, of course, experienced first by that portion of the domain through which the road passed, and in other portions of the territory as its influence gradually extended. The great empire west of Omaha, along the base of the Rocky Mountains, rich in mineral wealth beyond any
other portion of the country, filled up rapidly with people. The productive lands of Nebraska were brought into requisition to furnish them with wheat, corn, potatoes and other cereals and esculents, and the wholesale merchants of the metropolis contributed to their necessities. The building of the road cheapened transportation and in every way promoted the growth and development of Nebraska. The bill passed by Congress creating the "Union Pacific Railroad Company," which was approved July 1, 1862, provided for the construction of a continuous railroad and telegraph line from "a point on the 100th meridian of longitude west of Greenwich, between the south margin of the Republican river and the north margin of the valley of the Platte river, in the Territory of Nebraska, to the western boundary of Nevada Territory. This great national enterprise was formally organized in the city of New York, October 29, 1863, by the election of the first board of directors, as has already been stated. At that time four lines of railroad had been projected, and were in process of construction across the State of Iowa - The Burlington & Missouri, the most southern; the Mississippi & Missouri, the next north; the Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska, farther north; and the Dubuque & Sioux City. The first named was in operation about one hundred miles westward from Burlington, with its western terminus undecided. The Mississippi & Missouri was in operation from Davenport to Grinnell, with its western terminus decided as Council Bluffs, opposite Omaha. The Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska road was in operation from Clinton and Lyons to Marshalltown; and the Dubuque & Sioux City was operated a short distance west of Dubuque with its western terminus at Sioux City. For this latter road, a connection with the trunk line of the Pacific road was expressly provided in the act of Congress incorporating the Union Pacific, obliging that company to construct a branch to a point opposite Sioux City, whenever a road should be completed there to cross the State of Iowa. At this time there was great anxiety throughout the west as to what place on the Missouri river the President would select as the initial point of the Union Pacific road, and Omaha, it was insisted upon, offered superior inducements in that connection. On the morning of Wednesday December 2, 1863, the engineer of the road received a telegram from New York, announcing that the President of the United States had fixed the initial point of the road on "the western boundary of the State of Iowa," opposite Omaha and directing him to formally "break ground" and inaugurate the great work. To aid in the construction of this great national highway the United States government conferred upon the Union Pacific a magnificent land grant, amounting to over 12,000,000 acres, contained in alternate sections of one square mile each, within a breadth of twenty miles on either side of the railroad, and extended along its entire line. The act passed by Congress required that one hundred miles of the Union Pacific railroad, between the Missouri river and the 100th meridian, be completed within three years after filing of the company's assent of the organic law, filed June 27, 1863. Considerable delay was occasioned by various interests fighting to secure the location of the line where it would serve speculative interests but in 1865 the work of construction was being pushed with vigor. On March 13, 1866, it was announced that sixty miles of the road had been completed and awaited examination by the commissioners of the government. Soon after the first hundred miles were completed, in July, 1866, one hundred and thirty-five miles were announced as ready for the "cars" west of Omaha. The final completion of the line to the Pacific ocean, one of the great events of the century, occurred on May 10, 1869. On that day, two oceans were united and a continent was spanned by the bands of iron, over which was to flow the commerce of the nation. An early writer, speaking of this event, said: "Fruitful as has been the present century in important discoveries and useful inventions, varied and multiform as have been the improvements wrought out by patient toil and unequaled energy of the men of the age in which they lived, no single achievement will compare in its immediate and ultimate consequences to the material prosperity of the people, not only of America but of Europe and Asia, with the grand work which reached its final consummation on Monday, May 10, 1869.
The bridge across the Missouri river at Omaha was completed in March 1872, at a total cost of $1,450,000.
The first line from the east to salute the people of Omaha with the screech of the engine whistle was the Chicago & Northwestern, the first train on that road entering the city on Sunday January 17, 1867. The Missouri river was crossed on a pile bridge, which for several years was used during the winter months for crossing the river, it being removed during the months of navigation, and a ferryboat employed in its place to transfer freight and passengers. The second road to reach the State was the St. Joseph & Council Bluffs line. The Burlington & Missouri was completed to the city of Omaha in 1868. The Omaha & Northwestern was built to Herman, a distance of forty miles in October, 1871, and during the same year the Omaha & Southwestern was completed to the Platte river.
In February, 1869, the
legislature of Nebraska appropriated two thousand acres per mile
to any railroad which should complete ten miles of its route
within one year, the grant in no case to exceed
100,000 acres. It was stated that the members of the legislature appreciated its importance of prompt action and realized that the railroads alone could effect the desired end, and appropriated altogether
500,000 acres of land for the purpose of internal improvements. Movements to take advantage of this act were inaugurated in various portions of the State during the summer of 1869. Early in October, 1869, James E. Boyd of Omaha made through the public press, a proposition, the substance of which was, that he would be one of twenty men to advance $10,000 for the purpose of constructing the Omaha & Northwestern road over a route projected from Omaha to the Niobrara river. On the 19th of November, 1869, articles of incorporation were drawn up and the organization of the company was perfected a few days later. The work of building the road was pushed with wonderful rapidity, and on February 3, 1870, the railway was completed ten miles on its route, at a cost for materials of $198,000. During 1870 twenty-six and one-half miles of road were completed to DeSoto and a lease entered into with John I. Blair, of a branch of the Missouri & Pacific road, known as the "DeSoto Plug," by which communication between Omaha and Blair became direct and regular. On the 7th of October, 1871, the road was completed to Herman on the line of Washington and Burt counties. As showing the liberality with which railroads were treated by the State and the public generally in these years, it may be said that the company received $200,000 in ten per cent, twenty-year bonds from Douglas County; $150,000 in eight per cent, twenty-year bonds from Washington county for the building of the line from the south to the north line of the latter county; in addition two thousand acres of land per mile from the State and liberal donations from other northern counties. During 1872 the road bed was graded to Tekama, but as the panic of 1873 came on it was not completed to Tekama until August, 1876, at which time the company received $45,000 in bonds from Burt county. The following year the road was sold under foreclosure proceedings and reorganized and later was pushed on northward.
The Omaha & Southern Railroad Company was one of the projects organized to take advantage of the act of legislature passed in February, 1869, appropriating two thousand acres of land per mile to any railroad which should complete ten miles of its route within one year. This company was organized November 27, 1869, when officers were elected and plans laid for pushing the work. The affairs of the road were conducted with signal ability with a view solely to the completion of the first ten miles before the 1st of February, 1870. The work of grading was let to Smiley & Meson, McCarth & Fleming, William Knight and John Green, and commenced without delay, so that its completion was reached and the last rail laid on the evening of January 29, 1870, at a total cost of $195,000. The celerity with which this railroad and also the Omaha & Northwestern line (which is mentioned elsewhere) was incepted, pushed forward and completed the desired number of miles, was something marvelous, and up to that time exceeded anything in the annals of railroad building. Sixty days previous to their completion, the ties of both roads were in the primeval trees of the forest, the iron composing the rails was in a crude state six hundred miles away from where they were to be subsequently laid. This road, as
previously stated soon after its construction became a part of the Burlington & Missouri River - now the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy system.
On the 11th of August, 1866, authority was obtained under the general law of Nebraska by the St. Joseph & Denver City Railroad Company to build a railroad from the Nebraska State line to Fort Kearney. The Northern Kansas Railroad Company was consolidated with this company, and the rights to lands granted by Act of Congress, July 23, 1866, of one million, seven hundred thousand acres was thereby obtained. Subscriptions from municipal corporations to the amount of one million, twenty-five thousand dollars were secured in aid of building the road. Work was commenced and eighty-miles of the line were completed and in operation in October, 1870, at a cost of about one million, five hundred thousand dollars. In 1871 the line was extended forty-eight miles and in the following year it was completed to Hastings. It later passed into the hands of the Union Pacific Company, and was extended to Grand Island in the summer of 1879. Later it was extended further north. Harrison Johnson, an early writer on Nebraska history, said of this line: "The total cost of the line from St. Joseph to Hastings was five million, four hundred forty-nine thousand, six hundred twenty dollars and seventy-seven cents, of which stockholders paid one thousand four hundred dollars; seven hundred eighty-two thousand, seven hundred twenty-seven and ten cents from State and municipal aid, and the remainder four million, six hundred sixty-five thousand, four hundred ninety-three dollars and sixty-seven cents from the proceeds of mortgage bonds."
Early in the "seventies" the project of building what was then called the "Julesburg cut-off" or the "Omaha & Denver Short Line" attracted a good deal of attention. In 1873 the Union Pacific road first fostered the enterprise of building this line and much of the projected line was graded between 1873 and 1875, when certain complications with the then inimical Kansas Pacific, forced an abandonment of the scheme. Upon the completion of the purchase by the Union Pacific of the Kansas Pacific, however, the reconstruction of the line was recommenced early in 1880 and it was rapidly pushed to completion to Denver.
On January 17, 1870, the first passenger train from Chicago to Council Bluffs over the line of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad marked the completion and opening of a third line of railway from Chicago to Omaha. To the Chicago & Northwestern is due the credit of having been the first, followed soon afterward by the completion and opening of traffic on the Iowa division of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad. This was followed as stated, by the Burlington & Missouri River Railway, a continuation of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. This line became a part of the great organization known as the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad System. They rapidly pushed their lines beyond the Missouri river by acquiring other lines already built or under construction, and by the construction of new lines. Their lines now traverse the richest portions of the State.
In 1871 a line of railway was built from Nebraska City to Lincoln, a distance of fifty-eight miles by a company organized that year under the title of the Midland Pacific Railroad. It was extended to Seward eighty-three miles from Nebraska City, in 1874. It was the intention of the original company to build a line to Fort Kearney, or to some point farther east on the Union Pacific road. A branch was also projected from the main line in Otoe county to Fort Riley, in Kansas. The line was, however, sold under foreclosure and reorganized under the name of the Nebraska Railway, and later passed into the hands of the Burlington & Missouri Company, in 1876, and later was pushed on westward to York and Aurora and Central City in Merrick county; and was also extended southward from Nebraska City.
The Sioux City & Pacific Railroad was one of the pioneer railroads of Northeastern Nebraska. The Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley road which was operated by the Sioux City & Pacific was also among the pioneers. The first ten miles of this road was completed December 31, 1869. This line reached Stanton, the county seat of Stanton county, in 1879. The Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railway with lines from Sioux City to Omaha, and branches, was a pioneer in Northwestern Nebraska and was an important factor in the growth,
settlement and development of the region. These lines are now a part of the Northwestern System, one of the greatest of America's railway organizations. The Northwestern System has extended their lines throughout all of northern and eastern Nebraska.
RAILROADS OF TODAY
The foregoing pages have treated of the railroad development in Nebraska in early days. Perhaps no State in the Union owes more of its rapid growth to the railroad shall does Nebraska. The last thirty years has been an era of railroad building throughout the West and especially is this true of Nebraska. The State has been covered with a net work of rails that extend to all parts of the commonwealth and in all directions the lines radiate into the outer world. Transportation facilities today are excellent, not only within the State, but in all directions with the centers of trade and commerce of other States.
The Union Pacific has its main line extending through the State from east to west, making it the greatest of all highways between the east and the Pacific coast. It also has various branches in Nebraska extending north and south from the main line, notably those reaching the following named towns: Norfolk, Albion, Spalding, Ord, Callawa and Stromsburg; also a branch south through Lincoln to connect with the Union Pacific lines in Kansas, and they also control the St. Joseph & Grand Island Railway extending from Grand Island southeast to St. Joseph, Missouri.
The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy System traverses the entire State of Nebraska from east to west, with various branches. The Chicago & Northwestern line, together with the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha which it controls, is another of the great railway systems that today serve much territory within the State and connect the State with the outside world. Their main line to the northwest and to the Black Hills, with various branches serve the north and northeastern part of Nebraska, while branches also extend southwest to Hastings, Superior and Lincoln. In addition to these there are a number of other important lines of railway that have trackage interest in the State and add to the transportation facilities of Nebraska in connecting the State with the outside world, among which should be mentioned the following: The Missouri Pacific, Kansas City & Northwestern, Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, The Chicago Great Western, Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, Great Northern, and the Illinois Central.
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2001 NEGenWeb Project Resource Center
by Ted & Carole Miller