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Denton Community
Historical Society


Oregon Trail Cutoff

On February 14, 1860, a meeting was held at Nebraska City for the purpose of making plans for opening a road to the west. Mr. Alexander Majors and Governor Black were the principal speakers on this occasion. They asked for $50,000 for use in construction. 

Why nothing happened appeared to be difficulties encountered in crossing the Salt Creek in Lancaster County and crossing the Blue River in Seward County, fear of the Indians, and the absence of an important stream to follow along the trail. Absences of a prominent stream along the trail might be the most important reason. 

The last of March, 1860, Mr. Majors and his firm hired Mr. Harvey, city engineer for Nebraska City, to go out and locate the road. At this time Lancaster County had a population of 153. Most of the Lancaster County settlers lived along Salt Creek or Stevens Creek. All of these people had to go to Nebraska City to get groceries and other supplies. 

Mr. Harvey began surveying. Mr. Harvey and his assistants went ahead on horseback and indicated the course to be followed. The road was marked by a man with four mules hitched to a breaking plow who followed the surveyors and turned over a furrow. This process was continued from Olathe, later called Saltillo, to Fort Kearny. 

When the wagons came along later, they traveled beside the furrow and before long the trail was well marked. By 1863, so much traffic had passed along that deep ruts had been worn into it and the path was about 200 feet wide. 

The trail entered Lancaster County at the northeast corner of township 8, range 7, and followed the north line of township eight to the southeast corner of township 9, range 5. It ran northwest across township 9, range 5 and entered Seward County. 

Major Joseph Renshaw Brown played an interesting role in this trail. In 1819 Major Brown went into Minn. as a drummer boy in the regular army. After completing his enlistment in 1825, he became a clerk for an Indian Trader. In 1830 he entered the Indian trade under the American Fur Trading Co. 

In 1860, Major Brown was living in Henderson, Minnesota, where he engaged in freighting. He also had a stage line. Major Brown decided that a faster means of transportation was needed. He conceived of the idea of building a steam wagon. He hired J. A. Reed of NY to build the wagon. The parts were sent from NY to Henderson, Minn. by steamboat in 1860. 

It was assembled and tried out. There was a great deal of rain and before long the freight wagon which the engine was pulling began to sink deep into the mud and couldn't be pulled out. Some time later the engine and boiler were taken to Henderson and used in Major Brown's grist mill. 

During the summer of 1862, influential business men at Neb City were convinced that the steam wagon could be used over the prairies of Nebraska. Arrangements were made with Major Brown to bring a steam wagon to Nebraska City. Another steam wagon was build and delivered on July 12, 1862. 

For several days the Steam Wagon was driven around the city and tested. The tests were very successful, so they decided to start the trip to Denver. The Prairie Motor, or Steam Wagon, left Nebraska City on July 22 drawing three freight wagons, each of which carried the usual load of 5,000 pounds. Three miles west of the northwest corner of Arbor Lodge, a crankshaft broke and the trip had to be abandoned, as repairs were not available. After the Steam Wagon broke down, the new road was called the Steam Wagon Road. 

The people of Nebraska City and Otoe County were so well pleased with the preliminary tests made by the Steam Wagon, that they asked Major Brown to have enough steam wagons built to furnish a daily service to Denver. News spread that Major Brown was sending a crank for the Steam Wagon. Major Brown enlisted in the Civil War and was not able to work on the project until the end of the war in 1865. By this time, a railroad had been built to Omaha and plans were made to extend the railroad into the west. Therefore, the Steam Wagon was not needed. 

The pioneers said that the Steam Wagon was never repaired and that it stood where it broke down for many years. Some time in the late 1860's, the old engine was dragged over to Arbor Lodge by the Morton boys and some of the hired men. It remained there for some time. J. Sterling Morton, no doubt, had a major part in influencing Major Brown to bring it to Nebraska City. 

In the late 1870's Mr. Theodore Byslaugh made arrangements with J. Sterling Morton to remove the old Steam Wagon from Arbor Lodge. Byslaugh dragged it to the iron foundry in Nebraska City where he took the boiler out and sent it to Hamburg, Iowa, to be used in a cereal mill. After several years, the boiler became so badly rusted that it was removed and thrown into the Missouri River. 

The rest of the Steam Wagon stood behind a blacksmith shop at the old iron foundry until 1888 when it was knocked to pieces and sold for junk. Today there is a stone monument marking the spot where Steam Wagon broke down 3 miles west of Arbor Lodge. 

The Steam Wagon incident resulted in the voting of bonds to provide money for improving the road west. Fords had been built in these streams when the trail was laid out in 1860 by hauling in rocks and throwing them into the streams so that the freight wagons and other vehicles could ford the streams. 

Having to ford Salt Creek and the Blue River, was a serious obstacle to traffic on the road. During the spring of 1863 a bridge was built over Salt Creek and Blue River. After the bridges were built, the Nebraska City-Fort Kearny trail was the best route from the Missouri River to Fort Kearny. It was shorter than any other route. It had fewer streams to ford and it was the high divide between the Platte and Kansas Rivers. By 1865, it had become the most important overland trail. 

All along the trails, there were ranches or over-night stations. The ranches consisted of a large log or underground stable for 200 or more horses and mules, a ranch house which travelers could spend the night, one or more stores, several saloons, and a blacksmith shop. 

The smaller ranches did not offer all of these accommodations, as they were often little more than private dwellings where travelers were accommodated and where meals were served on the trip between larger stations. It was necessary that these stations be quite close together as the ox teams usually traveled only 12 to 14 miles a day and people preferred to stay at the stations because of the accommodations which they offered and for protection from Indian attacks. 

Horses and mules were usually put in the ranch stables and fed hay and grain but oxen were always turned loose to graze on the grass. The men who drove the freight wagons always slept outside with their loads to protect them from Indians and theft. 

There were 3 ranches in Lancaster County. The first ranch was Meacham's, along the Otoe and Lancaster County line. Mr. Meacham received a government patent for the land upon which this ranch was located in 1861. The ranch served more as a dinner station or half-way station between Nursery Hill, located 1 1/2 miles southwest of Syracuse, and Salt Creek Ranch. 

The Salt Creek ranch was established in the spring of 1859 by John Cadman and was located 8 miles south of Lincoln. The ranch was called Olathe. Some time before 1863 a controversy arouse between John Cadman, Festus Reed, and other settlers over a new name for this ranch. An old soldier, who had served in the Mexican War, asked to be allowed to select the name. The 2 men agreed and the soldier called it Saltillo after the Battle of Saltillo in which he had participated. 

The last ranch in Lancaster County was Cheese Creek. The ranch house was built some time before 1864. According to J. R. C. Miller, an early settler, this ranch was located on section 8, township 8, range 5 in Highland Precinct southwest of Denton, about 5 miles on Cheese Creek. 

It was so named because Mr. & Mrs. McGill, who owned the ranch, specialized in making cheese which they sold to people traveling the road. The road crossed the Blue River close to the north line of Saline County and just north of where the West Blue enters the Big Blue, about 1 mile south of old Camden. 

The freighting season lasted ordinarily from May until November. The trains to Denver only made 2 trips a season. A train consisted of 26 or more wagons each carrying a load of 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of goods. Each wagon was drawn by six yoke of oxen or six mules. 

The freighting business from Nebraska City increased in volume each year until 1865. A census taken in 1865 as to amount of traffic westward from Nebraska City showed that 7,365 wagons, 7,231 mules, 50,712 oxen and 8,385 men traveled the trail. There were 31,445,428 pounds of goods transported. The cost was one dollar per hundred pounds per hundred miles. Because the Indians were particularly troublesome in 1864, the charges were more than twice the normal rate. 

In addition to the large number of freighters going from Nebraska City to Fort Kearny, there was also a large number of emigrant travelers. Pioneers, who lived along the trail in the 1860's say that emigrant and freight wagons were always in sight during the traveling season. 

In the spring of 1865 during a 6-week period, 6,000 wagons passed through Fort Kearny. Not all of the traffic came by way of Nebraska City, but a major portion of the Missouri River business passed over the Nebraska City Fort-Kearny Trail. Some people estimate that 75% of the western traffic passed over this route by 1865. 

As the number of people passing along the trails increased, people began settling along the trail in ranches. They started businesses in selling merchandise, blacksmiths, and other lines of business. Most of the larger ranches were designated as post offices. They also carried limited stocks of groceries and other supplies. This also gave the settlers an opportunity to sell their produce to the freighters and emigrants at high prices. 

The trail brought in large amounts of money. Thousands of men were employed by the freighting companies and stage coach lines at good wages. Thousands of dollars were spent at Nebraska City and other points along the trail for equipment and stock to be used as they traveled. 

The Nebraska City-Fort Kearny Trail played an important role in the development of the territory west of Nebraska because it offered the shortest route from the Missouri River to Fort Kearny in both time and distance. The road itself was much better than any of the other trails because it had practically no sand and it didn't have large streams, which didn't have bridges across. This made travel much faster. 

When the Union Pacific Railroad was built across Nebraska and on to the Pacific coast in 1869, it was no longer profitable to transport goods and passengers into the West by wagons and stage coaches. The old trails were abandoned by the freighting and stage coach companies. 

The trail continued to be used by emigrants and settlers until about 1873. By this time the territory was becoming so well settled that traffic was forced to follow the section lines. Evidence of the trails can still be seen at Salt Creek. Deep ruts commemorative of the old trail can also be seen in some of the rough unbroken prairie land in the western part of Lancaster County. 

In Lancaster County, the trail followed an almost due east and west line along the southern boundary of township 9 throughout nearly the entire distance across the county. This is the only part of the Nebraska City-Fort Kearny Cut Off which was ever graded and improved for road construction. 

Today there is a stone monument near Major Oil Station (formerly Tate's Filling Station) on Highway 77 and Saltillo Road (just south of South 25th St). The marker has the following inscription: "Territorial Road, the Great Central Route to the gold fields crossed near this spot. Nebraska City to Fort Kearny Road, established, act of Territorial Legislature January 9, 1861. Erected by St. Leger Cowley Chapter, DAR, November 11, 1934."

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Denton Community Historical Society of Nebraska