denver to grand island, nebraska: front street, fort cody trading post, & a pony express station

I left Denver this morning at 8:40 a.m. while Mike stayed another day to meet up with an old friend. I drove on I-76E for 175 miles. The landscape east of Denver was flat as a pizza stone, and it was covered in red-gold grasses.  A few clouds hovered on the fringes of the horizon.

I love having highways all to myself.  I was the solitary driver for long stretches at a time. It was big-sky flat every which-way. The pungent smell of manure drifted into my car. An orange locomotive sat on railroad tracks with a line of coal-filled cars behind it. Big silos punctuated the land. Wind swept across grasses in vast stretches of nothing but grassland. Grey streaked the sky near Jackson Lake State Park. Near New Raymer was a belching industrial factory that stunk to high heavens. After another huge factory were browning and dried-out cornfields with golden tassels drooping on the stalks.

It was a gray and dreary day, a chilly 54°F. I passed a lumbering white school bus, empty of everyone but a driver. A storm chaser vehicle sped past. Giant piles of tires formed small mountains near feed lots of black and white cows. Near Merino was a big lake or reservoir to the north.  Sagebrush dotted the land and cows wandered here and there.

A big sign warned: CORRECTIONAL FACILITY: DO NOT STOP FOR HITCHHIKERS. I wouldn’t have stopped anyway, but I appreciated the warning to be on the lookout for escaping inmates.

Clouds hovered over the land like a woolly blanket.  Burros with long floppy ears stood in a sagebrush plain. Little windmills looked lonely and vulnerable on the vast flat land. Miranda Lambert sang of a “Highway Vagabond,” which I was. By 11:50, I crossed the state line into “Nebraska… the good life. Home of Arbor Day.”

Giant cattle yards stunk up the air.  A sign said: “Go Jump in the Lake. Lake McConaughy.” Soon I was in Ogallala, heading for Front Street.

Front Street – Ogallala looks like an old West street from the 1800s. A free cowboy museum is inside.  Ogallala is on the terminus of the Texas-Ogallala Trail. From 1875-1885, gunshots were common in the wild town. Cowboys finished their cattle drives and went looking for diversions.  They got paid, took a bath, had a few drinks (or more), and often got taken by gamblers and prostitutes.

Books of the time included Little Lord Fauntleroy, a children’s novel by the English-American writer Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was published as a serial in St. Nicholas Magazine from November 1885 to October 1886, then as a book by Scribner’s (the publisher of St. Nicholas) in 1886.

In early Ogallala, many physicians worked mainly on wealthy families so the practice of surgical work and dentistry fell to the local barber.

The most notable of the minor surgical work done by barbers was bloodletting.  This practice involved allowing blood to drain out of a person to help them recover to health after draining impurities out of the bloodstream. The barber pole evolved from this practice.  Apparently the barber placed the bloodied bandages onto the pole outside the shop to dry.  The wind blowing through the red and white cloth evolved into the barbershop pole we see today. The concept of the blue line was said to represent the blue veins that patients needed to expose to allow for bloodletting. Other stories suggest that the blue was drawn in as an act of patriotism.

Most barbers also provided typical haircuts and shaves for men in the early 1900s. Many men did not even bother with shaving from home as getting hot water was difficult.

Early drugstores in the frontier settlements of Nebraska concentrated on dispensing medicine, both prescription and patent. The drugstore owner was usually an apothecary able to prepare the pills and nostrums prescribed by the local doctor. The druggist often had a number of home remedies, favorite formulas designed to cure the more common ills, which he offered to those who came to him for advice. Various patent medicines were popular, mainly because of their high alcoholic content. The museum had a display of a typical Frontier Apothecary.

The Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, Bozeman Trail, Western Trail, Old Texas Trail and Pony Express all played a big part in the settlement of Nebraska, as did the coming of the railroad. All crossed here.

A display on “Soiled Doves” told about “Prostitution in Ogallala during the Texas Cattle Drive Days.” As hundreds of cowboys swept in from cattle drives, they were anxious for the affections of a woman.  The Crystal Palace Saloon and Cowboy’s Rest saloons began offering saloon girls whose sole purpose was to tempt the cowboys to liquor up.  The girls often drank tea placed in shot glasses to appear as if they were drinking along with the cowboys.

Women also followed the trail herds. Many madams traveled up to Cheyenne, the Black hills, and finally into Ogallala. These madams were in charge of the prostitutes that frequented the streets in Ogallala during the wild days of the west. Saloon women also made a cash flow through prostitution. Although this was illegal even in the old west, many of the Victorian and reputable men and women of Ogallala turned a blind eye toward it.

Like today, most of these women were involved as saloon girls and prostitutes through circumstances that drove them to a way of life when they seemingly had no other options. Many of these women in Ogallala were alcoholics and desperately needed cash. Some were fleeing husbands or drowning in poverty.

Young orphan girls were especially vulnerable. Some began working at the age of 14. Some women arrived with tuberculosis. Many of these girls infected gamblers and men with their illnesses.

It seemed many of these women and girls were caught in slavery no different than today. Most were from their early teens to early thirties, remained nameless, and were quite plain looking. This was not a problem as cowboys, gamblers, railroad workers and others were merely craving the company of a woman in a place where men outnumbered them.

Undertaking was big business in the Old West. The undertaker’s duties included assisting in the undertaking of a dead family member.  These duties included placing the body in a casket, taking it to the cemetery, digging the hole, and placing a marker on the grave. After death, the undertaker used formaldehyde to preserve the bodies.

A horse and buggy was usually common in the 1900s to carry bodies to the gravesite.  Often black horses were hitched to the buggy.  The hair of dead relatives was often kept and weaved into wreaths to hold their memory.

By the 1870s, Ogallala began to run amuck with unruly cowboys coming up the Texas Trail.  In 1875, Louis Aufdengarten built a stone jail along Front Street. The door was made of boilerplate and was considered the most substantial jail west of Omaha.

Even with the substantial jail, jailbreaks were a common occurrence. The sheriff did not feel the need to chase after prisoners as they left Ogallala.

The Cheyenne, Araphoe and Sioux were the principal Indian tribes of Western Nebraska in this region. While the Pawnee of Central Nebraska were farmers to an extent, the Sioux were proud, buffalo-hunting nomadic Indians who were great warriors.


Native Americans

A sensational news story told of how a Chief Volunteered as Hostage to Save His Tribe.


Chief Volunteered as Hostage to Save His Tribe

The museum had some accouterments of prairie life in the late 1800s.

I bid adieu to Front Street.

After leaving Ogallala, I continued east and the land started turning greener. Soon, I was in North Platte at the “Fort Cody Trading Post: Since 1963.” North Platte was home to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.  He was born February 26, 1846 near Le Claire, Iowa. He was a trailhand at the age of 9, a trapper, a Pony Express rider (he was 14 when he responded to ads seeking riders who were young, wiry, and preferably orphaned), and a buffalo hunter (he supplied meat for crews who were building the Kansas Pacific Railroad). He was called Buffalo Bill after shooting 4,280 buffalo in 8 months in 1867. He was Chief of Scouts for the 5th Cavalry during the Plains Indian Wars in 1890.

In 1882, the town fathers of North Platte asked him to plan a 4th of July celebration. He created the first organized rodeo in the nation, leading to the inception of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.

The front facade of the Fort Cody Trading Post looked like a stockaded fort with mannequins dressed and posed as Cavalry soldiers and Indians.

At Fort Cody Trading Post were eclectic gifts from tacky trinkets to exquisite jewelry, pottery, Western clothing, antiques, Western literature, and leather goods. I bought a beautiful bracelet for myself (for Christmas) made of mammoth tooth and silver.  Also some stickers for my journal and two pairs of earrings. 🙂

Posters for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show were on display.

There was a miniature hand-carved mechanized Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, handcrafted by Ernie Palmquist.  It had 20,000 hand-carved pieces and it took 12 years to complete.

I went to the Cody Park Railroad Museum, where I saw the Union Pacific Challenger 3977 locomotive built in 1943 for freight and passenger service at speeds of up to 70 mph. It was retired in 1961. I was able to climb into the locomotive and then walk through a series of old rail cars, including a rail car and a caboose filled with railroad memorabilia.

I also saw the 6922 diesel locomotive; the 6900 series were the largest ever made. These two locomotives made a combined horsepower of over 12,000. On site is the old Hershey, NE rail depot with historic railroad artifacts inside.

I found a mural in North Platte on my way out of town.


mural in North Platte

I passed the Maranatha Bible Camp at 4:00 and temps had warmed to 62°F.  Hay bales sat in green fields fenced in by trees. Flocks of birds swam through the clouds.

By 4:20, I had arrived in Gothenburg to see the original Pony Express Station.  In 1854, it was erected on the Oregon Trail, four miles east of Fort McPherson, Lincoln County, Nebraska. At that time it was used as a Fur Trading Post and Ranch House.  From 1860-1861, it was used as a Pony Express Station. In 1931, it was donated by Mrs. C.A. Williams to the city of Gothenburg. It was moved to Ehmen Park from its original location 15 miles southwest of Gothenburg.

The rock in the foreground, upon which the two Official Pony Express Centennial plaques are mounted, is a 3,300 pound piece of Ogallala formation stone, native to Nebraska.


Pony Express Station

The Pony Express operated for only 18 months from April 1860.  At that time, it was called the Greatest Enterprise of Modern Times.  The 2,000 mile express route from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California took 10 days to traverse.

The sign advertising for Pony Express riders read:


Before being accepted as a pony rider, each was required to sign the following pledge: “I DO HEREBY swear before the great and living God that during my engagement with Russell, Majors, and Waddell, I will under no circumstances use profane language; that I will drink no intoxicating liquors; that I will not quarrel or fight with other employees of the firm; and that I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful in my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers. So help me God.”  After signing the pledge, the Pony Rider was presented with a small leather-bound Bible. (From Souvenir Edition… Pony Express Times).

Below are some photos of Pony Express Riders and Buffalo Bill.

I bought a mug and got some stamps for my National Park Passport, although it wasn’t a National site.


Pony Express stamps

Leaving, I continued east to Kearney, passing the Robert Henri Museum and Heartland Museum of Military Vehicles. A sign invited me to go 16 miles south to the Nebraska Prairie Museum, but I was a mission to get to Kearney in time to see the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA).  Sadly, by the time I got there, it was 6:00 and the museum had closed at 5:00.


MONA in Kearney

Kearney was a cute town, and I drove through and took some pictures, including some of the museum I missed.

On the way out of town, I passed the Buggy Bath (to wash bugs off of cars) Car Wash. The Mirror Image was another car wash. I passed Boogaarts Market and wondered why there were so many vowels in the name. I passed the bike shed, Stagecoach Gifts and Souvenirs, and Barista’s Daily Grind.

Near Wood River was a chartreuse field and a sign saying: “JESUS: Your Only Way to God.” Another sign said: “Smell That? You’re in Corndog Country.”

I passed the Mormon Island State Recreation Area and finally arrived in “Grand Island: Population 48,520” by 7:00. The town was “Home of the Nebraska State Fair.” I stopped for the night at the Rodeway Inn. I would need a solid rest for another drive of 460 miles the next day.

*Steps: 4,142, or 1.76 miles.  Drove: 426.3 miles.

*Saturday, September 28, 2019*