Early Transportation in Richardson County


Extracted from: History of Richardson County Nebraska

by Lewis C. Edwards

Published 1917 - B. F. Bowen & Company, Inc. Indianapolis, Indiana

 Book was written in the Fall of 1917

This page added 10-13-06

-- The below article was edited by DelC --

Navigation and Railroads - Richardson County, lying in the southeast corner of Nebraska and first from the south of the river counties of the state was at once effected by the volume of travel coming up the river from the South and East.  In the mid to late 1850's, at the time men first began to look toward what is now Richardson County, with an eye to making settlement here, no railroad was within hundreds of miles and the only means of reaching this country was either by making the journey overland through a wilderness as yet without well-defined wagon trails, or up the river by boat.  This latter method most appealed to the early adventurer and many no doubt had journeyed up the river long before any thought of settlement in this part of the West was entertained.  Bordering on the river was of immense advantage to the early peoples and caused the river Counties to be first choice of the pioneers.

In those days the railroad was by no means a new thing in the older and more thickly settled parts of the East, but necessity had not caused its extension to any great degree in this direction.  In these days when capital is more easily available, the railroad very often goes into the fastnesses of the newer countries in advance of immigration and is the first cause of its settlement; but in the days of which we speak, the people were pushing out in advance of transportation facilities and were dependent on the hope that at some future time there might be a railroad, but to many, as we of later days know, the railroad was only a dream, which held many of them here.

Being forced to use the river, which was then as now, full of snags and sand bars and subject to overflow and with the low water stages, the early navigator was not without his troubles; but under such dire necessity the obstacles were overcome and navigation had reached a high state of development.  In those days the steamboats, both for the carrying of all kind of freight and passengers, were numerous and while slow and tedious served remarkably well until at last the coming of the railroad made that mode of travel obsolete.

The tremendous subsidies in the way of vast land grants by the government, given as aid to railroad building and intended to stimulate this line of industry, coupled with the big profits in the projection and operation of new lines, had its effect in turning attention to this speedier mode of transportation to the great detriment of our inland waterways. While they have in the past and do still receive government aid, the same has been used for most part in restraining the encroachment of the river and not with any idea of preserving it as a navigable stream.

In Richardson County; Rulo, Yankton, Arago, and St. Stephens were river towns and ports of entrance for many of the pioneers who either remained here or made their way on west into the interior or to the mountains. Yankton and St. Stephens were the first points touched by river boats, which discharged cargoes.  St. Stephens had the honor of being the first point in the County which had a ferry connecting with the Missouri shore, with the elder Stephen Story in charge of it, who gave the name to the latter village of St. Stephens.  Rulo came next, but Arago soon outdistanced all in position as a port of importance and continued to hold its supremacy until the coming of the railroad. These cities enjoyed trade from long distances inland, serving the country for hundreds of miles to the West.  Arago, with its packing house, distillery, saw-mills and flour-mills bid fair to become quite a metropolis and was for a time a place of first importance in the County as neither of the other places in that early day had the same energetic boosters.  At the time of the very early settlement of the County, the only regular means of communication for mail, passengers and freight with the outside world, was by steamboat; although later, because of the railroad reaching Atchison, Kansas, in advance of any rail connection from other directions, the mail was sent first to Atchison by rail and thence north either by boat or carriers on regularly established postal roads which came via Hiawatha, Kansas, or Rulo.  In the matter of river transportation for all purposes, it must be remembered that amongst its other disadvantages to the early pioneer in the way of a dependable convenience, was the fact that during the winter months it was practically suspended because of the ice in the river for long periods, when the boats were obliged to tie up until the ice would go out in the spring.  The better river boats had a capacity for carrying as many as four hundred passengers and the fare from St. Louis, Missouri, to Rulo or St. Stephens would range about fifteen or twenty dollars, which, of course, included meals and state rooms.  The culinary department of those boats was generally in good hands and the larder well supplied with the best that money could buy.

The length of time usually required in making the trip from St. Louis to this County was about seven or eight days, equal, if not longer in length of time, than would be required for modern liners in crossing the Atlantic in times of peace.  Those having had the pleasure of such journeys in the old days generally described them as having been quite dull and eventless.  Such an experience was very aptly described by the noted Mark Twain in his Roughing It, when he said: "We were six days in going from St. Louis to St. Joseph, Missouri, a trip that was so dull and sleepy and eventless, that it was left no more impression on my memory than if its duration had been six minutes instead of that many days.  No record is left on my mind now concerning it, but a confused jumble of savage-looking snags, which we deliberately walked over with one wheel or the other, and of reefs, which we butted and butted and then retired from, and climbed over in some other places, and of sand bars, which we roosted on occasionally and rested, and then got our crutches and sparred over.  In fact, the boat might have gone to St. Joseph by land, for she was walking most of the time, anyhow, climbing over reefs and clambering over snags, patiently and laboriously, all day long.  The captain said it was a bully boat and all she wanted was more .shear. and a bigger wheel. I thought she wanted a pair of stilts, but I had the sagacity not to say so". 

In addition to passengers those boats carried from five hundred to six hundred tons of freight and the rates were as high as two dollars and fifty cents per hundred weight on merchandise that would not cost to exceed fifteen cents per hundred weight in these days.  The crews consisted of from eighty to one hundred men and the value of these boats were estimated to be nearly fifty thousand dollars each.  The river then as at the present time, was filled with sand bars and it required all the skill of the most experienced river men to negotiate it in safety to his destination with the boat.  Government regulations concerning river traffic required two experienced rifer pilots on board of each boat employed as common carriers, and they readily commanded salaries of from two hundred and fifty to five hundred dollars per month.  With the passing of river traffic on the Missouri many of these well-known river men, such as captains and pilots, were left without opportunity for further service while many, as in other lines of business, left for other fields, where they might continue in the same line of employment.

Thus it was our pleasure during the month of August in the year 1916 to meet on the steamer Georgians, on the Columbia river, while making a trip from Portland to Astoria, Oregon, and return, one who in the old days had been regularly employed on the Missouri boats and it is to him we are in some measure indebted for first-hand information in regard to river traffic.  Gambling on the river boats in those days was by no means restricted and furnished means for amusement, which at times provided all the thrills which might be lacking from other sources, and all early accounts seem to agree that while the "plunger" was as common then as now, the stakes were as high or higher.  There were lines of boats which might be termed "through boats" destined to and from certain ports, scheduled for regular and direct service to and from those places only, while others had longer routes.  The boats were run much as trains nowadays, in that there were .through. boats, and the local or "slow boat", which might stole to pick up or discharge freight or passengers at every stop en route.

First Effort In Behalf of a Railroad - First in importance of all the drawbacks of this new country, as it was found by the pioneers, was the lack of adequate transportation facilities and the question of finding a remedy was one that occupied the minds of the people from the beginning.  The first official action to be found looking toward the solution of this then weighty problem may be found in the territorial statutes, where is recorded the passage of an act by the Territorial Legislature, which was approved on November 4, 1858.  This act was for the purpose of incorporating what was to be known as "The Missouri River & Nemaha Valley Railroad Company".  Section 1 of this act named the following well-known pioneer business men and farmers as the incorporators and moving spirits in the enterprise:  Francis L. Goldsberry, William Goolsby, Jesse Crook, of Archer:  Charles Martin, Eli Bedard, D. T. Easley, B. F. Cunningham, S. B. Miles; Joseph G. Ramsey; William Kenceleur, of Rulo;  A. C. Lierft, A. L. Currance, Joseph Yount, William P. Loan, of St. Stephens;  Samuel Keiffer, J. Cass Lincoln, T. R. Hare, Arnett Roberts, of Salem;  J. Lebo, John A. Burbank, of Falls City;  Thomas J. Whitney, Christian Bobst, of Cincinnati;  John Frice, F. F. Limming, H. N. Gere, J. P. Sutton, J. C. Peavy, E. W. Fowler, E. Jordan, and their successors and assigns.  The objects of this act, as stated therein, was to locate, construct and finally complete a railroad at, or as near as practicable, the junction of the Missouri and the Great Nemaha rivers, upon the most eligible route to Ft. Kearney, there to unite with any railroad which may hereafter be constructed up the Valley of the Great Platte.. The capital stock of the company was to consist of $3,000,000. This railroad did not materialize.

Nemaha River Ferry - A petition was presented to the commissioners court of Richardson County on April 3, 1860, praying that a ferry license be granted to Daniel Reavis to keep a ferry across the Great Nemaha river.  The said petition was granted for the term of one year and the following rates for ferriage were affixed:

One pair of horses or yoke of oxen and wagon .................................25 cents

For each additional span of horses or oxen........................................10 cents

Man and horse ...............................................................................10 cents

One horse and carriage ....................................................................15 cents

One Footman ...................................................................................5 cents

Loose cattle per head.........................................................................3 cents

Hogs and sheep per head...................................................................2 cents

In addition to the above ferriage fees, fifty cents may be added when the river is more than two-thirds bank full.

The said Daniel Reavis to pay into the County treasure for said license the sum of two dollars.


First Licensed Ferry, at Arago - An act passed by the Legislature and approved on January 3, 1862, authorized H. W. Summerland and George Walther to keep a ferry across the Missouri river at Arago, Richardson County, Nebraska Territory. 

They were allowed to charge the following rates:

for two horses, mules, oxen and wagon, 75 cents; for each extra pair, 25 cents.

for each horse or mule and rider, 25 cents.

for two horses or mules and buggy, 75 cents.

for one horse or mule and buggy, 50 cents.

for each horse or mule led, 25 cents.

for loose cattle per head, 10 cents.

for hogs and sheep under the number of two, each 5 cents; for over 10 and under 50, each 3 cents; for over 50, each 1 cent.

for each footman, 10 cents.

for each crate of freight, 5 cents.

for lumber per hundred feet, $1.

Overland Freighting - There was no regular outfitting point for overland freighting in the early days in the confines of what is now Richardson County.  Most of this kind of traffic, either passenger, freight or mail, was carried on from other points on the river, notably from Atchison, Kansas, and Brownville or Nebraska City, in this state.  Atchison was the principal point and was chosen as an overland outfitting point for most of the Salt Lake freighters, because it had one of the best steamboat landings on the river, and the country lying west made possible the best wagon road in the country.

Twenty-four miles west of Atchison this road was intersected by an old overland mail trail from St. Joseph.  Leavenworth also had a road west, over which was planned to run the Pike's Peak express stages in the spring of 1859.  During the period of overland freighting on the plains more wagon trains left Atchison than at any other point on the river.

The cost of shipping merchandise to Denver was very high, as everything was carried by the pound rather than the hundred pounds.  Flour, bacon, molasses, whiskey, furniture and trunks were carried at pound rates.  The rates per pound on merchandise shipped by ox or mule wagons to Denver, prior to 1860, were as follow: Flour, 9 cents; Tobacco, 12 cents; Sugar, 13 cents; Bacon, 15 cents; Dry Goods, 15 cents; Crackers, 17 cents; Whiskey, 18 cents; Groceries, 19 cents; Trunks, 25 cents; Furniture, 31 cents.  It has been said by those who witnessed the tremendous overland traffic of the late 1850's and early 1860's, that the people of this generation can form no conception of the enormous amount of overland traffic there was in those days.  Wagon Trains were being constantly outfitted, not only at Atchison, but at all points on the river.  Twenty-one days were about the time required for a span of horses or mules pulling heavy wagons to make the trip to Denver and keep the stock in good condition.  It required five weeks for ox trains to make the same distance, and to Salt Lake, horses and mules trains were about six weeks making the trip, ox trains were on the road sixty-five or seventy days.  It was the ox upon which mankind mostly depended on in those days to carry on the commerce of the plains.  They were the surest and safest for hauling the large part of the freight destined for the towns and military camps or garrisons on the frontier.  Next in importance to the ox, was the mule, because they were tough and reliable and could endure fatigue.

The year of 1859 was one of the big years of freighting across the plains.  It was not unusual to see a number of steamboats lying at the levees discharging freight, while as many more were in sight either going up the river from St. Louis or down from St. Joseph.  It was very common for boats to be loaded at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania or Cincinnati, Ohio, destined for Kansas and Nebraska points and not unusual to see these boats loaded with wagons, ox yokes, mining machinery, boilers, and other material necessary for the immense trade in the West.

A very large part of this traffic going West from river points was over what was known as military roads along the south bank of the Platte. On these roads could be seen six or eight yoke of ox hauling heavily loaded wagons and also strings of four to six horse, or mule teams, pulling wagons.  They formed an almost endless procession.

This article was edited by DelC -------------


  A Plainsman Tells His Story about Overland Freighting


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