Comprising as it does an area larger by 14,259 square miles than all of New England, the state of Nebraska is justly entitled to the important position it holds among the sister states of the republic. Twice the size of Ohio, larger in area by many thousand square miles than England and Wales combined, Nebraska in area is an empire.
The position occupied by Nebraska is quite near the center of the United States. The parallel of forty degrees bounds it on the south, and the Missouri river is its eastern and northern boundary until the forty-third degree parallel is reached. This parallel then constitutes the northern boundary until the west line of the state, on the twenty-seventh degree of west longitude, is reached. The western boundary of the state follows the twenty-seventh degree of longitude west from Washington south until the forty-first degree of north longitude is reached. It then follows the forty-first degree of longitude east to a point formed by its intersection with the twenty-fifth degree of longitude west from Washington; then south to the fortieth degree of north latitude. This, it will be seen, takes quite a notch, approximately 7,300 square miles, out of the state. If it were not for this offset, the state would approximate the shape of a parallelogram. The extreme width of the state from north to south is 208.5 miles, and its length from east to west is approximately 413 miles. Previous to 1882 the area of the state was almost 75,995 square miles. In that year, by act of congress, the northern boundary was straightened, which added approximately 900 square miles to its territory, giving a present area of 76,895 square miles, or 49,212,000 acres. In the heart of the great union, grouped among the greatest states of the commonwealth, directly in the great center of the nation’s wealth, Nebraska has received the overflow from the east, and blessed them with plenty. And its location, combined with its climate and natural resources, have made its settlement, growth and development so rapid as to place it among the greatest states in the union in a time so short as to be within the memory of the present generation.
Nebraska has an extremely varied surface. Although there are no elevations high enough to be called mountains, yet in the northern and western parts of the state there are lofty hills of varied character. In the eastern states the ridges are generally the result of elevations and subsidence of the earth’s crust modified by subsequent aqueous agencies, but in Nebraska the rolling lands and hills are caused mostly by erosion. In the east massive rocks mainly make up the body of the hills, while here they are to a certain extent composed of drift materials, loosely compacted, but chiefly of loess. The bottom lands are met with every few miles crossing the state. They are huge and in general shallow troughs; in breadth, proportionate to the size of the stream. In width they range from a quarter of a mile to twenty-three miles on the Platte and the Missouri. Quite often we find them termced. These termces, like broad steps, lead gradually to the bordering bluffs. Sometimes the edges of the low termces on the bottoms are so worn away that their character is concealed. What was once a termce has become a gentle slope. The slopes on the bottoms between Crete and Beatrice and Ashland and Lincoln are good examples of this character.
In regard to the surface, the curve is the predominating geometrical form streams, termces, bluffs, valleys, all follow curves. “The curve is the line of beauty.” This law is exemplified here.
There is an amazing number of valley or bottom lands. By the thousand they must be numbered. As an example take the region of the Republican River. On the average of every two miles a tributary valley comes into the bottom from the north side. Counting the small tributaries with their narrow bottoms, not less than twenty-five per cent, of the entire surface of the state is made up of bottom lands.
The gently rolling lands of three-fourths of the state appear very much like billows of the ocean. Sometimes extensive stretches are met with which appear to be level, but even these on closer observation show to be gently undulating. From these last mentioned forms to the few isolated sections of limited extent, broken by canons with precipitous sides, the transition is gradual. It is altogether a prairie state, with rich alluvial valleys and table lands stretching away into extensive level plains, with a gradual ascent from the Missouri river westward, reaching an altitude on its western border of between five and six thousand feet above the sea level, and yet the incline is so gradual that in the construction of the Union Pacific railroad up the Platte valley, not a tunnel, trestle or fill of any importance was required, nor a single difficulty encountered from the Missouri river to the west line of the state. Take the state as a whole, it slopes mainly toward the east and in minor degree toward the south. The ascent west from Omaha is at the rate of five and a half feet to the mile for one hundred miles. The second hundred miles increases the ascent to seven feet; the third hundred, seven and a half feet; the fourth hundred to ten and a half feet to the mile, and the ascent of the last fifty miles at the west end of the state is eighteen feet to the mile. The figures are approximately correct. A similar gradual ascent characterizes the south and north lines of the state. The southeastern corner of the state, which is the lowest part of the state, has an elevation of 878 feet. Here the ascent is only one and a quarter feet to the mile. Even less than this is the fall going northward to Dakota City. In western Nebraska the difference in elevation between the Union Pacific railroad and the Republican valley on the south side is approximately 352 feet. From the Union Pacific, on the west line, going northward, the elevation increases until Scott’s Bluff is reached, where the elevation of 6,051 feet is the highest point in the state. From here to the valley of the Niobrara, toward the north line, there is a gradual descent. As the elevation at Pine Bluffs, on the extreme western line of the state, on the Union Pacific, is 5,061 feet, the ascent from this point northward is 635 feet, against a corresponding difference of less than 200 feet on the east line of the state. Taking the data, obtained principally by a reduction of railroad surveys in various parts of the state, the average elevation of the whole state is about 2,312 feet.
Although there are no large lakes in Nebraska, there are many small ones. Besides the lakes of fresh water, there are a few saline or alkaline. In southeastern Nebraska many springs appear on top of limestone strata that underlie loosely compacted sandy rocks or shales. In most parts of the state, by sinking a shaft down from fifteen to fifty feet, fresh water can be had in abundance. In Fillmore, Clay, Adams and Phelps counties, and in some other portions of the state we find exceptions to this rule, where there is a great thickness of loess and drift to be penetrated before impervious strata capable of holding water are reached. Some artesian wells have been bored.
Among the rivers of Nebraska, the deep and rapid Missouri is the principal one. At least five hundred miles of this river are on the eastern and northern borders of the state. It is a highway to the commerce and markets of the world. Had it not been for the Missouri, the settlement of this region would have been indefinitely delayed. As the river is navigable for two thousand miles above Omaha, it was a great highway for traffic with the mountain regions of Idaho, Dakota and Montana in early days. However, with the building of railroads the business has fallen off. The Missouri river is the only navigable river in Nebraska, and has always been described as an “exceedingly crooked, treacherous stream.” Its source is in latitude forty-five north, and longitude 110:30 west, high up in the Rocky Mountains, and the distance it flows from the Great Falls to its junction with the Mississippi river is 2,575 miles. The Missouri seems to hold a mortgage on the lands that flank it on either side, and it often takes such lands by force, only to return them when some other change in its ever shifting
I course is developed. Previous to the exploration made by Lewis and Clark, the impression prevailed among the Spanish and French residents in what was then known as the Northwestern Territory that the source of the Missouri was near a point where it joins the Niobrara, and most of the maps in use previous to the exploration referred to locate its source at or near the point mentioned.
Having referred to the Missouri as being the only navigable river touching Nebraska, it will doubtless be of interest in this connection to mention the first steamer on the Missouri. It was built at Pittsburg by the United Sates government in 1818, and named the “Western Engineer.” She left her moorings at Pittsburg May 3, 1819, having on board an exploring expedition sent out by order of the government to explore the Missouri river and the country west of the Rocky mountains. The expedition was under the command of Major S. H. Long, and arrived at St. Louis on June 20, one month and seventeen days after starting. The mouth of the Platte was reached on the 17th of September following, and on the 19th of the same month the expedition cast anchor near the mouth of Boyer river, on the Iowa side, about five miles below Council Bluflt’s, where it went into winter quarters. The point of encampment was known as Fort Lisa, and was occupied bj the Missouri Pur Company as a trading post. Here the explorers remained during the winter of 181920, Major Long in the meantime returning to Philadelphia, the then seat of government, with reports of the expedition. June 20, 1820, Major Long returned to Port Lisa with orders for the expedition to proceed overland to the head waters of the Arkansas and Red rivers, for the purpose of exploring said streams and the country contiguous to them, and, in accordance therewith, the expedition left the boat at this point and proceeded up the valley of the Platte, holding councils with the numerous Indian tribes through which they passed. The “Western Engineer,” after the departure of the expedition, received a new commander, and was employed for many years thereafter in transporting government supplies to forts and trading posts along the Missouri river.
The Platte is the second great river in Nebraska. It is nearly 1,200 miles in length. Its head waters originate in the mountains, and some of them in lakelets, fed by the everlasting snows. By the time it reaches Nebraska it is a broad, shallow, sandy, but rapid current. Plowing from west to east through the state, it divides it, leaving the larger part on the north. It is not navigable. Flood time is about the same for both rivers. Sometimes for the Platte it is a few days or weeks earlier.
Among other important rivers and creeks are the Republican, Niobrara, Keya Paha, White, Elkhorn, Logan, the Bow Rivers, the Nemahas, the Blues, the Loups, Salt Creek, Weeping Water, the Wahoo, Elk Creek, South and West Iowa creeks, and others.
Soil, Agriculture and Stock Raising.
The elements found in the soil of the greater part of Nebraska forms one of the richest and most tillable soils in the world, and the unrivaled fertility of her soil places Nebraska in the front rank among the great grain producing states of the union. The soil of the table and upland is composed of what is known as loess or lacustrine deposit, most valuable of all for agricultural purposes, and this deposit, of uniform color, prevails over nearly three-fourths of the area of the state. In some places in the northeastern counties it is claimed to be nearly two hundred feet thick, but in the balance of the state it ranges from five to one hundred and fifty feet in thickness. One of the former state geologists, Prof. Samuel Aughey, after a careful analysis of this soil from samples taken in different portions of the state, incorporated the following in one of his reports: “Prom my examination I find that over eighty per cent, of this formation is silicious matter, and so finely comminuted is it that the grains can only be seen under a good microscope. So abundant are the carbonates and phosphates of lime that in many places they form peculiar rounded and oval concretions. Vast numbers of these concretions from the size of a shot to a walnut are found almost everywhere by turning over the sod and in excavations. The analysis shows the presence of a comparatively large amount of iron, besides alumina, soda, potash, etc. These elements form one of the richest soils in the world. In fact, in its chemical and physical properties and the mode of its origin, it comes nearest to the loess of the Rhine and the valley of Egypt. It can never be exhausted until every hill and valley which composes it is entirely worn away. Owing to the wonderfully finely comminuted silica of which the bulk of the deposits consist, it possesses natural drainage in the highest degree. However great the floods of water that fall, it soon percolates through this soil, which in its lowest depths retains it like a sponge. When drouths come, by capillary attraction, the moisture comes up from below, supplying the needs of vegetation in the dryest seasons. This is the reason why all over this region where this deposit prevails, the native vegetation and cultivated crops are seldom either dried out or drowned out. This is especially the case on old breaking where deep plowing is practiced.”
Next in importance after the loess or lacustrine are the alluvium deposits. Prom an analysis made of the bottom lands it appears that, chemically, alluvium differs from the loess chiefly in having more organic matter and alumina, and less silica. The soil of the bottom lands is rich in organic matter. The depth of this soil varies greatly, it often being twenty feet or more in thickness, and then the sand of the subsoil is reached at a depth of two or three feet.
The alkali lands are to be found in different sections of the state, but chiefly in the western portion. In the east half there are scarcely any such lands, the majority of counties having none at all, while in others are small spots. These alkali lands are renovated and made very productive by irrigation, cultivation and drainage. The time is rapidly approaching when these lands will become the most valuable farming sections of the world. They are not confined to any one geological formation, but are found some times on the drift, alluvium or the loess. They increase in number from the eastern to the western portions of the state, and where they have been closely examined they have been found to vary a great deal in chemical constituents. Generally, however, the alkali is largely composed of soda compounds, with an occasional excess of lime and magnesia or potash. Much of the alkali originated by the accumulation of water in low places. The escape of the water by evaporation left the saline matter behind, and in case of salt (sodium chloride), which all waters contain in at least minute quantities, the chloride, by chemical reactions, separated from the sodium, the latter uniting with oxygen and carbonic acid formed the soda compounds. The alkali that exists far down in the soil is also brought up during dry weather by escaping moisture, and is left on the surface when the water is evaporated.
One of the most interesting features of the topography of southern Nebraska is the salt basins stretching along the west side of Salt Creek from Lincoln five or six miles to the north. An early writer said of these: “In ordinary sunny days, of which the climate of Nebraska is so prodigal, these basins, some of which are a mile in diameter, exactly resemble at a distance, bodies of limpid water, and it is difficult for a stranger to realize that what he sees reflecting the rays of the sun from a mirror like surface is a level floor of compact earth, covered with a layer of saline crystals and intersected with tiny rivers of brine flowing into the creek that obtains from them its name and character.” The discovery of these basins was made by the government surveyors in 1856, and at that time great wealth was anticipated for those who would erect suitable works for the manufacture of salt. Several companies were organized to manufacture salt, and a great deal of litigation resulted over the rival claims to the various basins.
In certain sections of the western portion of the state are found the “sand hills.” Sometimes these hills are comparatively barren, but in most places they are fertile enough to sustain a covering of nutritious grasses, and these regions are now famous stock raising areas. In many places in the sandy regions the soil has a mixture of drift and loess which makes it highly fertile when supplied with sufficient moisture.’
Irrigation, which is treated of in another part of this volume, has already begun in the western portion of the state on an extensive scale, and the wonderful future of this line of development is surely foretold in the success that has been attained along the Platte River by irrigating the lands. This great work as yet is in its infancy, but enough is already proven along this line to safely predict a most marvelous growth and development of the wealth and resources of western Nebraska by scientific and practical irrigation.
Nebraska is essentially an agricultural state. The bountiful soil and mildness of climate are especially favorable to cereal crops, and in fact to all the products of the temperate zone, nearly all of which are grown here to perfection, and attain a size and quality rarely found in older states. It is also one of the most favored and important stock raising countries in the world – in fact, the state of Nebraska, and more especially its northwestern and western portions, is fairly entitled to the first position among the western states and territories as a stock producing and stock sustaining region. Its vast prairies, abundant, luxuriant and nutritious grasses; its rivers, creeks and springs of clear, sparkling water, and still more, its uniform and delightful climate – these are a few of the more substantial reasons why Nebraska excels as a stock raising country. But even in the far western counties mixed farming is fast gaining headway, and the general rule of the moderate farmer is to raise grain along with stock, and the growth in wealth and productiveness of that region has been marvelously rapid and substantial.
All of the factors which enter into the determination of an ideal climate are found in Nebraska temperature, forms of belief, condition of the atmosphere, geographical position and rainfall all combine to make this a climate as satisfactory as can be found anywhere in the union. Long and mild autumns are characteristic here. During these months excessive rains seldom fall. Occasionally there is a rough spell in October, but almost invariably it is followed by mild weather which is generally prolonged into December and in some years into January. The climate is particularly healthful. No spot on the globe is absolutely free from disease, but this state is singularly exempt from its severest forms. Fever and ague are more rarely met with here than in most states. Where they do occur it is owing to limited local causes or extraordinary exposure, and they are generally successfully treated by the simplest remedies. Many of these cases contracted elsewhere come here in hopes of having the disease cured by this climate, and they are rarely disappointed if nature is given a chance to exert its full health making power. The cause of the general exemption from this class of diseases and malarial poisons is found in the peculiar climate and surface conditions of the state.
An early writer, in speaking enthusiastically of this climate, said: “Nearly everyone who comes to the state feels a general quickening and elasticity of spirits. The appetite and digestion improve wonderfully. Mind and body are lifted up. It must originate from our peculiarities of climate. I have myself felt in this state as I have never felt it elsewhere, especially when camping out far away from settlements and alone with nature and God, how luxurious existence was and how pleasant life was intended to be.”
Western Nebraska as a whole has been what might be called semiarid, though not in an extreme sense, as many sections have been productive since early settlement. During the last ten years moisture conditions in the entire section have been improving, and the productivity has, therefore, been increasing, which has consequently caused a general and gradual increase in land values which is continuing at the present time. Two things in early days caused western Nebraska to be semiarid: first, lack of sufficient precipitation, and, second, hot winds. There have been years when the annual rainfall was suf3cient, but at the time when the crops were nearing maturity the hot winds from the south and southwest would blast them. During the past few years innumerable irrigation projects, both government and private, have been turning hundreds and thousands of acres in Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming under irrigation. This great transformation in the southwest will result in eliminating forever any further visitations of hot winds which originated in that territory; at least under no conditions will they again visit this region with such destroying effect as in the past. This vast irrigated district surrounding Nebraska on the west, southwest and south will result in giving western Nebraska increased precipitation from the great evaporation occurring there.
Irrigation in Nebraska
Irrigation in Nebraska has made considerable progress during the past few years, and the work contemplated by the government along the line of storing the flood water of the North Platte River will add a large number of acres to the irrigated area.
In the valleys of the Platte and North Platte rivers are found the largest irrigation enterprises of the state. In many places the valley reaches a width of ten to twelve miles, and contains some of the best soil to be found anywhere in the state.
On the Republican some very .successful ditches have been operated. The total length of these ditches is nearly two hundred miles, covering about fifty thousand acres. ‘
In the northwestern part of the state a large number of canals have been built, using the water from Hat creek, White River and Niobrara River and their tributaries. Most of these ditches are small, but they are of great value, as they furnish the means of supplying winter feed for the cattle which graze upon the range adjacent to these irrigated sections during the greater part of the year. These small ditches also enable the ranchman to raise a variety of products which would be impossible without irrigation.
Many canals have been built, taking their water from the Loup Rivers and their tributaries. The largest of these, the Great Eastern canal, which heads a short distance above Genoa, has about seventy miles of canal constructed and in operation, and covers about forty thousand acres of land. These streams flow for the greater portion of their lengths through a section of the state where the natural rainfall is generally sufficient for the production of good crops, and for this reason only a very small percentage of the flow has been diverted for use in irrigation.
Some very extensive schemes for the development of power have been planned, involving the use of the waters of the Loup, Elkhorn and Platte Rivers.
Only a few canals have been taken out of the Elkhorn and lower Niobrara rivers for irrigation. Among the largest of these is the Elkhorn Valley canal.
The Elkhorn River is used extensively for the development of power, and application has been made for water for several large power plants on the Niobrara.
Some of the smaller streams such as Lodge Pole, Pumpkin Seed and Frenchman rivers, irrigate an area very much in excess of what would be expected from an examination of the records of their discharge measurements.
The Lodge Pole, which rarely flows more than twenty cubic feet per second at any point at this writing, supplies seventy-seven miles of canal, covering about twelve thousand acres of land, and a large percentage of this land receives sufficient water to insure the production of good crops.
In many localities in Nebraska the land under irrigation has reached a high state of cultivation, and a large variety of crops is produced. Under the older canals many well improved farms are found which will compare favorably with any to be found in the eastern portion of the state.
A great deal of alfalfa is grown under irrigation, and the cultivation of sugar beets is being rapidly developed. The beets show a very large percentage of sugar, and the tonnage is heavy. The abundance of sunshine and the fact that the amount of moisture supplied may be regulated so as to give the growing beets just the amount required, and the further fact that the soil seems to be particularly adapted to their growth, make this an ideal locality for sugar beet culture. Much of the land under irrigation has never been broken up, and is devoted to the production of native hay. The native sod when irrigated produces large crops of hay of a very superior quality.
Within the last few years the Supreme Court has handed down several opinions which have done much to settle the question of irrigation rights in Nebraska. These decisions declare the irrigation laws of the state to be constitutional, define the rights of riparian owners, and uphold the rights of appropriators who have made beneficial use of the water. This has done much to establish the stability of existing rights and to encourage appropriators. There are still a number of important points which remain unsettled. Nebraska, extending as it does from the Missouri river almost to the mountains, includes within its borders two distinct regions. The eastern portion of the state is within the humid region, and the rainfall is sufficient for successful agriculture. The extreme eastern portion might be classed as semiarid. Here the rainfall in the past has been very variable. The conditions being so different in different portions of the state render it very difficult to settle many of the questions which arise in regard to the use of water.
The question of the distribution of the water of interstate streams is a very important one, and one which should be settled as soon as possible. Nebraska is particularly interested in this question. A very large part of the land reclaimed in this state receives its water from the Platte Rivers. The pioneers of irrigation have gone into this part of the state and encountered all the hardships incident to the settlement of a new country, and have brought thousands of acres of land under the influence of irrigation and added millions of dollars to the value of the state. These people should be protected in the use of water which they have appropriated, and be assured that subsequent appropriators in other states will not be permitted to divert the water and ruin their work of a lifetime. Some system should be devised whereby the appropriator of the water of any stream, who has made beneficial use of the same, should be protected without regard to state lines or other political subdivisions.
In the early days of the settlement of this state there was a great prejudice against irrigation, and anyone who advocated it was looked upon as an enemy of the state. Many of the pioneers, who settled in the western portion of the state, realizing the uncertainty of agriculture when dependent upon the natural rainfall, constructed a number of canals which demonstrated the value of irrigation.
We quote the following article bearing on this subject from the latest report issued by the state board of agriculture: “Nebraska has now over 2,500 miles of canals, covering over one million acres of land. In the western part of the state the normal flow of many of the streams during the height of the irrigating season has already been appropriated, but only a small portion of the entire flow is used, and a large amount of land can still be reclaimed by an intelligent system of storage and by educating the irrigators to use the water upon the land when it is to be had instead of waiting until the crops are suffering and every one desires to use the full amount of his appropriation. On some of the smaller streams the plan of distributing the water by a time schedule has proven very successful. This allows each appropriator to use all the water available in the stream for a short period, and then turn it out to be used by the next one who is entitled to it. In this way it is possible to accomplish much more than could be accomplished when each irrigator is restricted to the amount of his appropriation, which is sometimes only a fraction of a cubic foot per second, and is allowed to use it for the entire season.
“We have a district irrigation law in Nebraska which enables a majority of the landowners in any territory which is susceptible to irrigation from a common source, to organize a district, and this district has authority to vote bonds for the construction or purchase of works, and to levy a tax to raise money to pay these bonds and also to pay for the maintenance of the works. This law has worked out very successfully in many cases, and we have some districts organized under it which are finely improved and in good financial condition.
“There has been considerable development along the line of pumping water for irrigation, and quite a number of plants have been put in operation, employing windmills, water wheels, gasoline and steam engines for the motive power.”
Taking everything into consideration, Nebraska has made very good progress in irrigation improvement, and is in position to make still greater development in the future.
In 1874 the government report showed that Nebraska raised only 3,619.000 bushels of wheat. In 1880 this had grown to 12,922,000. In 1890 the government gave the figures as 15,315,000 bushels, and in 1900, 24,810,000, but since then the state has made wonderful development in the way of wheat growing. In 1902 it raised a crop of 52,726,000 bushels; its crop in 1905 was 48,002,000 bushels; in 1906 its wheat yield was 51,709,000 bushels, and in 1907, when the crop was short everywhere, the government report made it 46,879.000 bushels. In 1910 the production of wheat was 45,151,000 bushels. It has also become a great corn growing state. As late as 1880 its corn crop was only 59,507,000 bushels. Eight years later it raised 144,217,000 bushels. In 1898 the government reported its crop at 158.754,000 bushels; in 1904 it was 260,942,335 bushels; in 1906 its yield was 241,383,537 bushels, and the reports for 1910 give the yield as being 178,923.128 bushels.
The above figures are given to show by way of comparison the marvelous growth of the state and its development as an agricultural region. The growth has been equally marked in regard to other crops, and also in its manufacturing and commercial interests. This is evidenced by the growth of bank deposits in Nebraska. In 1890 the bank deposits in Nebraska were reported as being $48,770,811. In 1905 they had grown to $134,991,210, and two years later (1907) they were given as being $178,361,355.13. On September 1, 1911, the deposits amounted in round numbers to over $200,000,000.
In speaking of the prosperity of the state and the general condition of its people, Governor Sheldon, in closing one of his Thanksgiving proclamations, said: “Our granaries and our storehouses are filled with the products of our farms and our factories. Our pastures and our feed lots contain cattle, hogs and sheep without number. Our commercial and business institutions are solvent. Our people, realizing that they must go up or go down together, have full confidence in each other’s honesty and integrity. The industrious and frugal for a decade have been well rewarded for their labor. This has enabled them to provide their families with the comforts of life and build beautiful homes in our cities throughout the country. For all these things that have promoted our peace, prosperity and happiness, it is fitting that thanks should be rendered unto Him whose invisible hand controls our destiny.”
Source: Compendium of History Reminiscence & Biography of Western Nebraska, Alden Publishing Company, Chicago, 1912