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Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail


The 19th century's great western migration laced Nebraska with travel corridors -- the Oregon-California Trail, the Pony Express route, the Mormon Trail. Most have nearly vanished; their remaining traces are ruts crossing pastures, historical road signs that mark would-be intersections with modern highways, and a few restored way stations.

The routes that have endured were laid with rails and connected population and resource centers. The Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe lines, traced by parallel highways, remain sturdy bones in the nation's transportation network.

Somewhere between the almost gone and the commercially robust routes lies the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail -- a historical corridor in transition.

Once part of the Chicago & North Western railroad's Cowboy Line, the route covers 321 miles across northern Nebraska from Norfolk to Chadron. From east to west, the trail passes through the farmland of the Elkhorn River valley, into Plains ranchland, across the scenic Niobrara River valley, along the northern Sandhills and to the edge of the Pine Ridge.

The Cowboy Trail is the longest rail-to-trail conversion in progress in the United States, which includes a 148-foot high bridge over the Niobrara River at Valentine.

Gold Rush Created Route Across Nebraska

The history of the corridor has been one of vacillating financial fortunes. Indeed, it owes it very existence to the Black Hills 1870s gold rush.In 1871 the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad (FE&MV) ran from Fremont to Wisner and had plans to push north to the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri rivers. But, because of an economic downturn, rail construction stalled at Wisner.

Gold was discovered in the Black Hills in Dakota Territory in July, 1874. Two years later the U.S. government wrested the Black Hills from the Sioux Indians, opening the way for Euroamerican exploration and mining. By sheer good fortune, the FE&MV found itself in the best geographical position to forge a much-needed supply line to the Black Hills.

 Running south of the Sioux Reservation, which blocked other railroads from the east, the FE&MV reached Oakdale in 1879, Fort Niobrara and Valentine in 1883 and Chadron by 1885. By the time the first train pulled into Rapid City in July 1886, the larger Chicago & North Western Railway (C&NW) had acquired the FE&MV -- although the name didn't change for another 15 years.

Along its corridor, the railroad created stations every seven to 15 miles and, around most, towns sprung up or grew larger, providing services for increasing numbers of homesteaders and businesses. From Norfolk to Chadron, the names of places -- some still vibrant, some gone -- sketch the line across the state: Kent, Battle Creek, Meadow Grove, Tilden, Hord, Oakdale, Neligh, Clearwater, Ewing, Stafford, Inman, O'Neill, Emmet, Atkinson, Gravel Pit, Stuart, Newport, Rock, Bassett, Long Pine, Ainsworth, Sandridge, Johnstown, Wood Lake, Arabia, Thacher, Valentine, Crookston, Kilgore, Nenzel, Cody, Roxby, Eli, Mesa, Merriman, Bachelor, Irwin, Soudan, Gordon, Clinton, Rushville, Hay Springs, Bordeaux, and Chadron.

There was speculation for years that the C&NW had designs on making its line transcontinental to compete with the Union Pacific. But, shortly after the North Western reached Lander, Wyoming, in 1906, the railroad's management decided that was the end.

As with other railroads across the country, the C&NW was the dominant transporter of both freight and passengers in northern Nebraska from the 1880s through the 1920s. Indeed, without it, many of the towns and homesteads could not have survived. In 1876 the C&NW advertised itself as the "The Sportman's Route" and, for some years around 1900, hunters in the Red Deer Club of Lincoln used the route to travel to Cherry County.

The construction of Mount Rushmore Monument began in 1927 and boosted the number of visitors the North Western transported to see the Black Hills. But freight and livestock was the line's real trade. For years ranchers would load cattle out of the Sandhills and ride with them to the Omaha stockyards. In 1932, the C&NW served 66 farm implement dealers, 117 coal dealers, 48 grain elevators, 55 lumber dealers and 128 gas and oil receivers on the line from Fremont to Lander. But, by the 1930s, improved highways and increasingly reliable cars and trucks provided more-flexible alternatives to rail service, and the Great Depression sent the line into an economic tailspin. During World War II, the C&NW carried oil from central Wyoming and troops and supplies to Fort Robinson and Fort Meade in South Dakota. The line prospered again with agricultural shipments in the late 1940s. But, the number of riders continued to decline and passenger service ended in July, 1958. With no more riders, most depots, once centers of small town activity, closed and the railroad's management and services were centralized.

C&NW began abandoning distant segments of the line in the 1960s. For a period in the 1980s, the Cowboy Line carried increasing loads of bentonite and coal from Wyoming. But, the company rerouted the business in 1989 and, in 1991, it filed an application with the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the Norfolk-to-Chadron portion of the line. The last trains ran across the northern Nebraska line on December 1, 1992.


Railbanking Boosted Trail Movement

As the economic forces that created and sustained the Cowboy Line and other rail corridors withered, another movement that would shape their future was taking hold. Recreational trail advocates argued that abandoned rail corridors should not be disassembled. Maintaining the routes as hiking and biking trails, they pointed out, would provide public recreation while keeping the rights-of-way intact for possible future transportation or utility uses.

In 1983 Congress gave this concept legal standing in a one-paragraph provision that established "railbanking" and, in 1990, a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirmed the statute's legality.

 Since 1991 two federal authorizations -- known by the initialisms, ISTEA and TEA-21 -- have shifted a small portion of federal transportation spending to bicycle and pedestrian projects. Although the concept is still disputed by some landowners with adjacent properties, railbanking and the stimulus of $3.8 billion in federal funding have created more

than 1,000 trails and 11,000 miles nationwide of actively used, public-owned trails during the past 15 years. The longest completed rail-trail is the Katy Trail, winding almost 200 miles through the middle of Missouri. An additional 1,200 rail-trail projects are in the planning stages.

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization with more than 100,000 members, purchased the C&NW right-of-way across northern Nebraska for $6.2 million in 1993. The next year it donated it to the state of Nebraska. A measure passed by the Nebraska Legislature made the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission responsible for the development and maintenance of what amounts to a 3,893-acre linear park that stretches 321 miles across the state.


The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page. – St. Augustine


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