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Nebraska City/Ft. Kearney Cut-Off

Image of Trail Map

Freighting scene in Nebraska City.

An early stream wagon.

Russell, Majors, and Waddell was the largest freighting firm on the plains. The company monopolized military trade in the west. Majors and Russell partnered in 1855 to carry military freight from Ft. Leavenworth to posts on the plains and in the mountains. Waddell was added as a partner when the company obtained a contract to supply Albert S. Johnston's army during the Mormon War of 1857. The new military freighting contract necessitated the establishment of an additional cargo terminal up river from Ft. Leavenworth. Russell, Majors, and Waddell selected a small river-front town called Nebraska City. The company advertised for 1600 yoke of oxen and 1500 men to go to work at the new terminal. The continual unloading of steamboats and the coming and going of freight wagons transformed Nebraska City into a major river port (Olson 1966:106).

Initially the trail west from Nebraska City was known as the Oxbow trail. It crossed Salt Creek at Ashland and followed the Platte River to Ft. Kearny. This route proved very inefficient as travelers were left to traverse the Platte River bottoms, which were impassible in wet weather (Olson 1966:106). A direct route west to Ft. Kearney was not attempted prior to the Oxbow trail due to the lack of natural resources and need for a bridge over Salt Creek (McKee).

When Russell, Majors, and Waddell chose Nebraska City as its export terminal, the city agreed to develop a direct road west to Ft. Kearney. By 1860, Nebraska City failed to establish the new route as promised. Majors, being very frustrated and heavily invested in the new terminal, hired Augustus Harvey to survey the route. By following an already existing path to Salt Creek, Harvey plowed a furrow to Ft. Kearney. The new trail decreased the trip from Nebraska City to Fort Kearney by 40 miles. The Nebraska City-Ft. Kearney Cut-off was well established by the end of the season (Olson 1966:107).

After 1862, the cut-off was commonly called the Steam Wagon Road in honor of Joseph Brown who attempted to run a steam locomotive (wagon) across the plains from Nebraska City to Denver. The wagon broke down a few miles west of Nebraska City on its maiden voyage. Lacking the proper parts for repair, Joseph Brown's steam wagon never completed the journey. However, thanks to Brown's initial endeavor, residents of Otoe County expended money to build bridges over the Big Blue and Salt Creek to improve the cut-off (Olson 1966:107). Cadman, a rancher near Salt Creek, asked travelers to bring a few stones from Nebraska City to deposit into the creek to create an all weather crossing. The stone ford created by the Nebraska City-Ft. Kearney Cut-off travelers remains at present (McKee).

The Nebraska City-Ft. Kearney Cut-off reached its peak of traffic in 1865 with a reported volume of 44,000,000 pounds of freight, 3,000 mules, and 4,000 men. The discovery of gold increased steamboat traffic, and the overland freight business attracted many to the new, more direct trail. Mormon immigrants also used the cut-off extensively after an outbreak of cholera in Florence, the principal way station for the Mormon Trail. In response to the heavy traffic, road ranches developed along the trail to supply travelers with feed for their animals and food and frivolities for themselves (Olson 1966:108). Some of the more prominent ranches or way stations included Cheese Creek House, Roper Brothers, West Mill, W.J. Thompson Ranch, Beaver Crossing, and Elkhorn Ranch (Map). One farmer said during travel hours, he could always see a wagon train either coming or going. The wagon freighting business died out with the introduction of the railroad in the late 1860s. However, the cut-off was used for local wagon freight until the invention of the motorized truck (Olson 1966:107).

McKee, Jim
2005 Oregon Trail Cut-off Through Lancaster Was Popular. Lincoln Journal Star. Sunday, June 26: 2C.

Olson, James C.
1966 History of Nebraska. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Map of SteamWagon Road