Railroads: Bringing Settlers and Tourists to the Plains

As I worked through sources related to settlement of the Great Plains in the 1860s through the early twentieth century, I saw many similarities with earlier migration patterns along the overland trails. Just as emigrants between 1840 and 1860 relied on mass media including newspapers and guidebooks, so emigrants to the Plains relied on mass media to make decisions about settling on new land. The railroads were one of the leading agents of this mass media revolution, producing hundreds of thousands of guides, circulars, gazettes, and handbills promoting sale of lands on the Great Plains. Before the 1860s, the majority of railroads in the East connected already existing towns, and built track through already established communities and cultivated land. The first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, crossed vast tracts of undeveloped, rural land, as did many of the railroads that followed in the 1870s and 1880s. Railroads depended on haulage on their lines in order to recoup the investment of laying rails. In the rural, unsettled Great Plains, however, there were initially few towns and farms to provide the raw materials the trains could haul. Railroads were one of the most vocal promoters of settlement on the Great Plains in order to build up communities along their lines to produce crops and livestock that the railroads could ship east. Many railroads were given land grants by the government, consisting of vast parcels of alternate sections of land along the railroad right of ways. Railroads then sold these sections to settlers in order to recoup expenses of laying the track. Many railroads even offered free tickets to would-be settlers, inviting them on exploratory trips to scout out the land prior to moving west. Probably the most intriguing and useful source I read on the topic of land promotion was David M. Emmons, Garden in the Grasslands: Boomer Literature of the Central Great Plains.

However, the best efforts of the railroads and promoters could not ultimately mask the fact that much of the western Plains, including the area of Scottsbluff, are a particularly challenging area to farm due to meager rainfall, harsh climate, and the necessity of irrigation. Hardships on the land resulted in out-migration, which occurred throughout the major settlement era and gained speed in the 1920s when crop prices fell and the region began to experience a series of bad harvests that culminated in the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s. Nebraska and the Great Plains have never been a place of overall stability for many people. The state and the region are constantly changing, and people are constantly moving in and out in search of better opportunities. From the 1870s through the 1930s, most of these opportunities had to do directly with the land and agriculture. As I continue to read, I hope to discover other industries and opportunities that brought people to Nebraska in the twentieth century.

Railroads did not just bring settlers to Nebraska; they also brought some of the first tourists. These people, generally wealthy Easterners or newspapermen, did not come to settle in the Great Plains, but rather to cross the region and experience the West from the comfort of their Pullman car. The West had had tourists before, but the railroads facilitated a much faster and more comfortable vacation experience. Many nineteenth century railroad tourists and traveling journalists recorded their impressions of the Plains. Among these travelers was Amos Jay Cummings, a journalist from New York City, whose columns about his excursions have been edited and published as A Remarkable Curiosity: Dispatches from a New York City Journalist’s 1873 Railroad Trip across the American West. While relatively few excursionists traveled through Nebraska specifically to see its sights (most tourists focused on destinations such as Denver or San Francisco), crossing the Plains was still part of the vacation experience and the region arrested the interest of travelers. By the early twentieth century, these railroad tourists would begin to give way to a new form of excursion traveler: the automobile tourist.

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