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A Thumbnail sketch of the Chicago & North Western Rail Road
written by Marianne Beel-Local Historian
News from Fort Niobrara spring 1880: "Railroad to forge west to gold
fields, supply fort and huge amount of freight to Indian reservations."
Oct 27, 1881 rails completed to Long Pine; 3-stall roundhouse,
boarding house, dining house and hotel built. Rails swerved south for
2-spans, 140 ft across Plum Creek Canyon.
Initially the Sioux City & Pacific RR, a fledgling Fremont Elkhorn
& Missouri Valley was purchased by Chicago & North Western. By July
tracks reached Thacher east of town so work began on the wooden bridge
May 11, 1882. A wagon trail was built east to the fort to handle large
volume of supplies for the fort and Indian agencies in Dakota
Crossing Niobrara canyon was a huge problem. Men worked with mules
to complete the cut through the canyon rims from camps on both sides
of the river, Broom's camp on the north and Brown's camp on the south. Peter Donoher operated an eating place near the camp and later opened a
hotel in Valentine.
May 10,1883, the first train steamed over the bridge that stood 82
feet above the water and into town, which was mostly a tent town with
building underway. Records show more saloons than any other business.
The cut remained a problem because sand washed down onto the tracks
which men with mule teams had to remove. Trains constantly set the
wooden bridge afire until a bridge watchman was put into service.
A helper locomotive was on standby to help eastbound trains pull the
steep grade up to Thacher.
Large numbers of cattle were shipped in and out by rail. Food,
clothing, wagons, plows and other equipment came into the depot and
transferred to 8282 Indians on the reservationůsuch freight received
annually ranged from 3,500 to 5,000 tons for which the government
paid $10.00 per ton to be freighted to the reservation.
In 1886 the station master reported 103 million tons of freight
received with charges of $304,567, a huge amount for the times.
S.F. Gilman built a dam on the Minnechaduza north of town to power his
flour mill and eventually part of the town. The resulting lake behind
the dam provided a new industry, that of ice harvest. In 1891 the RR
built a spur to Gilman's mill and Clarkson Ice Co. In 1896 the RR had
60 men working to handle loading 25 cars per day, a record of 287 cars
loaded in 1909.
In 1924 the mill and ice company were closed and the tracks were
removed during the 1930s. However, local entrepreneurs including
George Christopher and Bill Roe harvested and sold ice until 1936.
In 1910 the wooden RR bridge was replaced by one 1,350 feet long
and 148 feet above the river. That same year the Indian freight depot
was moved by rail to Crookston which became known as "Gateway to the
The schedule in 1914 noted westbound passenger trains at 8 p.m. and
1:56 a.m. and west bound freights at 3:50 p.m. and 8:39 a.m.
East bound passenger trains ran at 10:20 p.m. and 4:40 p.m. with
freights scheduled at 3:50 p.m. and 2:50 am.
By 1954 the C&NW wished to discontinue passenger service because it was
a financial drain. The last passenger train crossed the bridge in 1958.
In late 1968 the RR depot was sold for $50 to Bill Freeman who tore
it down and sold the material as salvage. In 1992 the C&NW obtained
permission to abandon the "Cowboy Line" and the last train passed over
the bridge across the Niobrara. In 1994 the right of way passed to the
Nebraska Game & Parks Commission through the Rails to Trails program.
In May 1997 a short segment of the trail was opened from Valentine
east across the RR bridge and hikers passed over the historic bridge
during the Trail Conference held in Valentine.
First Train on new tracks in 1910 in foreground with old wooden tracks behind
Picture-Courtesy of Cherry County Historical Society.
Story was written and donated by Marianne Beel, local area writer. Marianne will be greatly missed and we all mourn her passing. Her love of genealogy and local history was wonderful. Her writings and stories will be her legacy for years to come.
A big Thank You to John McCoy for the donation of the early freight train & depot picture.