Romance of Omaha, Chapter XXIV

Between the snail-like covered wagon of the freighter, which crawled slowly across the plains, and the motor truck chugging merrily on its way over graveled highways, there lies a long span of years. Yet the two have something in common.

When Nebraska was still a prairie land and Omaha a struggling town, the freighter with his cumbersome wagon, his oxen or his mules or his cattle, provided the only means of moving freight overland.

He solved the problem - according to his lights and limitations - of the long-distance haul.

Now Comes Truck

Now that Nebraska is a thriving state and Omaha a great city, the freighter, in modern guise, has returned to take up the problem of short distance hauling. He is beginning to monopolize the moving of freight short distances as his predecessor, the more picturesque bullwhacker, exclusively handled the cross-country freight business of his day.

No phase of transportation has developed so rapidly in recent years as trucking. Hundreds of motor trucks ply the highways of Nebraska every day. They move many tons of freight.

The movement of livestock by truck to the Omaha market has become a business of large proportions.

It is not an unusual sight to see as many as 180 trucks, each filled with livestock, pull into the unloading docks of the Omaha stockyards morning after morning. Some of these livestock trucks come from more than 100 miles away.

Counting trucks owned by individual farmers and doing their share of livestock hauling, there are upwards of 30,000 trucks in the state.

Commercial Trucks

Commercial trucks used by organized lines in Nebraska are estimated to number 8,000 to 10,000.

The estimated amount of money invested in the regular trucking business in the state is $15,000,000 to $20,000,000.

In addition to the Nebraska trucks, several hundred come into Omaha from Iowa. Some hail from South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri. More than 1,000,000 head of livestock are brought into Omaha yearly by trucks.

Large quantities of goods are shipped by truck out of Omaha to more than 100 towns by the large business firms of this city.

So rapid has been the growth of the industry that agitation for an exclusive, modern and adequate trucking depot is growing steadily in force.

The motor truck has become a necessary part of the transportation system of the counntry and it is assuming a place in the scheme of things almost as important as that of its forerunner, the old white canvas-covered freighter's wagon that served so useful a purpose back in the days when hauling goods across Nebraska was almost a month's work.

Early Freighter

Only those who have gathered figures on the industry can realize the immensity of the early freighting business across the plains.

Hand-in-hand with romance, for no more romantic phase of pioneer days was to be found than freighting, went sound business methods.

Men grew rich from freighting. Some of the big fortunes of the west were founded on the ability of men to make a success of hauling freight across the plains.

At one time, when the freighting business was as its height, there were more than 15,000 wagons, some 25,000 mules, 100,000 oxen and cattle and more than 15,000 men engaged in the business.

The great trails across the state were alive with long trains of dusty covered wagons loaded with shipments from the river towns of the far west.

The golden era of the freighter came in the 60s before the Union Pacific railroad was constructed.

During 1865 old records indicate that 100,000,000 pounds of freight was moved westward that year.

Overland Trail

During those days the Overland trail was 200 feet wide and often the wagon trains would travel two abreast.

The usual train consisted of 26 wagons, each carrying 7,000 pounds of freight, 4,000 in the wagon proper and 3,000 on a trailer. They were drawn by five or six yoke of oxen or cattle.

The bullwhacker was in his glory when he mounted to his wagon seat, his 20-foot bullwhip in his hand, his gun by his side.

The wagon trains moved with military precision and were commanded by a wagon-master and assistant, who rode mules.

The greater portion of the Nebraska trade from the Missouri river west was with Denver and Colorado points after gold had been discovered near Pike's peak.

Canned goods, coffee, sugar, flour, chewing tobacco, cigars, salt, powder, soap, crackers, bacon and liquor formed the major part of the freighter's cargo.

The usual price was $1 a 100 pounds for each 100 miles, or about $5 a 100 pounds between the Missouri river and Denver.

Nebraska City, where the well-known company of Russell, Waddell & Majors had headquarters, and Omaha, were the main starting points of the freight trains from the upper Missouri. They followed the Platte river across the state.

Indians continually molested the freighters as they journeyed over the prairie.

The latter part of their journey toward Denver was the more dangerous. Many a bullwhacker or muleskinner was killed and scalped in spite of every effort to make the trail safe.

At one time the military forces took virtual charge of the Nebraska trail and would not permit freighters to start unless they had at least 100 wagons or 60 men in the train.

Romance and danger walked hand-in-hand with the freighter as he drove his 18 to 25 miles a day. He consumed a month in going from Omaha to Denver and traveled no farther in a day than the motor truck will travel in an hour.

Yet he sang and whistled at his work.

At night he sat around campfires on the prairie, his wagons arranged in circle form, and swapped stories of other trips and other days. Occasionally the freight trains would camp near immigrant trains.

When that happened, and it was in any way possible, a dance was hastily arranged to give the drivers an opportunity to meet and dance with white women. It was a great life and there was no lack of drivers.

Railroad Comes

The coming of the railroad meant the passing of the freighter and his wagon. For 50 years or more the moving of freight by wheeled vehicles almost ceased except in isolated portions of the country. The railroads did all the hauling.

Then came the motor vehicle and the truck and the overland transportation, once such a great industry in Nebraska, began to come into its own once more.

Could the bullwhacker of yesterday return and see the truck driver of today, he would be amazed. Nothing has so changed in 60 years or more as the method of overland transportation.

The motor truck has come to stay and apparently its use as a component part of the transportation system of the country is still farm from having reached its peak.

Chapter XXV
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