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Sidney Black Hills Trail Summary

In 1874, General Sheridan sent General George Custer and 1200 troops to explore the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. The military objective was to "explore routes and locate sites for future posts." However, the expedition was also to determine if the Hills contained gold deposits, as had been rumored. The military hoped to dispel the rumors in order to dissuade whites from encroaching on Native American lands. Custer's findings did little to dispel the rumors, as he sent steady reports back concerning the discovery of various precious metal deposits [link] (204).

In 1875, ignoring warnings issued by the U.S. Army, gold seekers started a small mining town in the Black Hills called Custer City. To remain true to the 1868 Treaty with the Sioux, the Seventh Calvary escorted prospectors from the town back to the Missouri River settlements. The government made several attempts to purchase the Black Hills or lease mining rights from the Sioux. The Sioux desired a much higher price for the land than the government was willing to pay. After negotiations failed with the Sioux, the military leaders disregarded the Treaty of 1868 and ceased efforts to dispel gold-seekers from the Black Hills [link] (206).

The Rush of 1876 engendered many to get in on the business. Several towns in Nebraska vied to be the major supply point for miners headed to the hills. In 1876, while Sidney was a seemingly insignificant railroad town, it offered great potential as the main departure point for miners. First of all, a trail had already been forged from Sidney as far north as the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies by military troops and freight wagons. In addition, the route was well patrolled by military troops marching between Fort Sidney and Fort Robinson in northern Nebraska. Also, the route from Sidney offered a shorter, less treacherous trail than the other potential supply points. However, the construction of Clarke's Bridge over the North Platte River most significantly popularized the Sidney-Black Hills Trail. [link] 211

Several Omaha merchants, the Union Pacific, the town of Sidney, and Henry T. Clarke joined funds to construct a toll-bridge over the North Platte River. It crossed the river at present day Bridgeport. It was anxiously completed in 1876 to take advantage of the rush for the Black Hills. The bridge was invaluable for miners, freighters, and stage lines; as well as military troops who used the bridge in their campaigns against the Sioux [link] (210).

Receiving regular mail concerned many miners, as the government did not pay for mail services to the Black Hills until after a treaty was signed. To meet the need and make a little extra, Clarke launched a pony express service from Sidney to the mining towns in 1876. The express proved too costly and Clarke turned over the business to Marsh and Stephenson. For a short time, they delivered mail to Custer and Deadwood, but were replaced by a government contractor after the signing of the Black Hills treaty [link] (212).

While the miners brought in thousands in gold, many others raced to accommodate to the needs of the prospectors. Two main stage lines ran from Sidney to the Black Hills, Marsh and Stephenson and Gilmer and Salisbury. They both used Concord stage coaches of which up to three left daily en route to Deadwood. Nine first class passengers could ride inside and from three to seven would ride on top of the coach. The stage coaches were uncomfortably crowded with passengers, but the demand for transportation to the gold mines could not be met [link] (214).

Freighting companies often brought passengers and supplies to the Black Hills. A ride on a freighter to Deadwood cost $10, which was $15 less than that of a Concord coach. However, it was a much slower means of travel. By 1876, major freighting firms jumped at the opportunity to supply goods to the 10,000 frontiersmen residing in the Black Hills. Sidney freighters like Pratt and Ferris, and D. T. McCann who had previously contracted to supply commodities to the Red Cloud Agencies in northwestern Nebraska, extended their freight lines north to Deadwood to cash in on the gold rush. Many other smaller freighting companies also sent out lines from Sidney. The Black Hills were so remote that the miners necessitated an abundance of supplies. Fifty to seventy-five freight wagons left daily from Sidney, each carrying approximately 8000 pounds of goods [link] (215).

Many men either did not have the money to take passage on a coach or freighter, or simply felt to take the journey to the Black Hills alone. Traveling in a single wagon, on horseback, or on foot was not advisable due to possible hostile attacks. Despite such warnings, the miners were determined to stake their claim.

The Sidney-Black Hills Trail followed a north-northwesterly route from Sidney. After passing Greenwood and Court House Rock stations, a traveler would reach the North Platte River crossing at Clarke's Bridge. The trail then continued on northward passing Red Willow, Snake Creek, Point of Rocks, Running Water, Red Cloud Agency, and Carney's stations. After Carney, the trail forked, one route leading to the Custer communities and the other route leading to the Deadwood region of the Black Hills. The stage lines established way stations approximately every 15 miles along the trail, which were a relief to many travel weary prospectors. The total distance from Sidney to Deadwood has be estimated at 267 miles [link] (216).

Thousands in gold left the Black Hills each week bound for Sidney to be shipped to various stops along the rail line. The return trip to Sidney became treacherous in 1877, when bandits began robbing the stages. The weekly attacks fostered many to ship their treasures south on the Pratt and Ferris bull trains. Luke Voorhees, Sidney manager of the Gilmer and Salisbury stage lines, went to great measures to capture the bandits so as to maintain steady business with the miners. In 1878, Voorhees enlisted the help of Abbot and Downing to manufacture an armored coach, known as "Old Ironsides," to counteract the attacks. The body was lined with half inch steel and the windows were nothing more than portholes. The gold was transported inside an 800 pound safe and was accompanied by 6 to 8 armed guards. Old Ironsides was successfully robbed only once in its three years of service from Deadwood to Sidney [link] (222).

By 1878 the flow of miners heading north from Sidney to the Black Hills began to wane. The most sought after claims had been staked and large corporations began buying them up. The corporate consolidation of claims turned many former gold-seekers into company employees. The sensational appeal of heading to the hills diminished causing such a decrease in numbers that the Cheyenne stage line consolidated with that of Sidney in 1879.

However, while passenger traffic to the Black Hills declined, freight increased due to the high demand for supplies. Several new freighting firms from Cheyenne moved their operations to Sidney to take advantage of the shorter, safer, and more profitable route. From 1878 to 1879, approximately 20 million pounds of freight was transported over the Sidney-Black Hills Trail [link] (224).

In 1880, the completion of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad to Pierre, South Dakota drastically impacted the freighting businesses of Sidney. The railroad enabled supplies to be delivered faster and in greater abundance to the Dakota Territory than freighters on the Sidney-Black Hills Trail had been capable of doing previously. Recognizing their demise, many big freighting firms moved their operations to Pierre, leaving the once bustling thoroughfare to become an unpopular back road.


Mahnken, Norbert. 1949 "The Sidney-Black Hills Trail," Nebraska History 30(3): 203–225.