THE PATHS, TRAILS, & ROADS OF LANCASTER
Even though the Oregon-California and Mormon Trails did not directly cross the present Lancaster County, our area had many connections to those historical trails of the past. At one time the county reached the Platte River which most pioneers followed, its salt flat basin attracted many pioneers, and it was part of a popular short cut to the west.
To locate the route of Lancaster County’s early paths and trails all a person needs to do is locate the current major roads and the first railroads. The early trails were originally Indian paths along the streams. The first white men knew to follow Indian paths whenever possible. They followed the high ground between stream valleys, avoided unnecessary stream crossings and the brush that grew along them. In addition, the Indians knew where the timber and wild game would be available. Indians would cut trees, leave rocks or sod to mark their paths.
When Lancaster County was originally formed in 1855, its northern border was the Platte River. Along the river’s far shore there was a major trail which began at the Missouri River. Lack of a ford across the river kept most of the pioneer traffic to the north side of the river. The Ox Bow Trail, a feeder trail from Nebraska City and Plattsmouth, crossed the Salt Creek near the current northeast corner of our county. It joined the major trails at the Platte River near the present town of Cedar Bluffs. This trail had considerable use during the 1850’s. Like the other Platte River trails it followed the river as it looped northwest and then south, before heading in a more westerly fashion. The trail had abundant grass and water, but was overly long and impassible in wet weather. The reason no major attempt was made for a shorter, more direct trail across the Platte Valley was the lack of a crossing over the Salt Creek and the Big Blue River.
Because of its valuable salt, Lancaster County was crisscrossed by many paths. Both animals and Indians knew they needed salt to maintain their health. White men needed salt to preserve and spice their food. Pioneers on the trails west would take a short trip to the salt flat basin to get salt for their own use or to sell to others. There were well beaten paths up to Salt Creek from the Platte River to the north and some along the Big Blue River valley from Rock Creek to the south. By the mid 1850’s there were paths connecting the county to Nebraska City and Plattsmouth to the east. A path along the Weeping Water Creek connected Lancaster County to the inland town of Weeping Water. Salt speculators and early settlers traveled back and forth between the river ports and the Lancaster County area. These paths would follow the east-west streams whenever possible.
By the late 1850’s pioneers preferred taking a steamboat up the Missouri River to Nebraska City and other Nebraska ports. The jumping off points of southern Nebraska were far less congested and shortened the "land" trip westward by up to 200 miles as compared to the Kansas City area.
In 1858, the largest freight company in the plains, Russell, Majors, & Waddell, received a contract to supply the U.S. Army for the Mormon Wars and it chose Nebraska City as its new eastern terminal. At first they used the Ox Bow Trail, but it was still too indirect and lacked good ground for wagon travel.
In 1860 a shorter and much more direct trail was finally surveyed from Nebraska City, through Lancaster County, and then on the Fort Kearny. It followed a well beaten path as far as Olathe on the Salt Creek, south of the town of Lancaster. The trail was marked using a plow pulled by four mules. The new trail was almost 75 miles shorter to Fort Kearny then other major trails from the Missouri River and 40 miles shorter than the Ox Bow Trail. Soon the Nebraska City-Fort Kearny Cut-Off became one of the busiest sections of all the great pioneer trails to the west. At this time Lancaster County had a population of around 150, most of it along the Salt Creek and Steven Creek. Pioneers taking the trail were asked to bring stones to drop as they crossed the Salt Creek near the future Roca. In 1862 there was an attempt to run a steam locomotive across the trail. Bridges were built over the Salt Creek and the Big Blue River, but the locomotive broke down just outside of Nebraska City. Afterward the trail took on the name, Steam Wagon Trail. With the two bridges the trail was easily the best route to Fort Kearny and far west.
In the 1860’s a high percentage of the 400,000 emigrants going west took the NC-FK Cut-Off. It is stated that in 1865 75% or around 15,000 took the new trail. In 1864 Mormons moved their staging area from Florence to Wyoming, a small settlement just north of Nebraska City. By 1867 a total of 7,000 Mormons with 1,200 wagons had taken the short-cut. In the peak freight year of 1865, 44 million pounds of supplies, 31,000 oxen, 3,000 mules and 40,000 men passed through Lancaster County on the trail. A rancher along the trail said that during travel hours there was always a wagon train in sight either coming or going. By 1867 the Union Pacific Railroad had been laid across the state of Nebraska and the westward traffic on the trail started to disappear. Lancaster County and the Platte Valley continued to use the trail to get their supplies until trains reached all of the area.
The Nebraska City-Fort Kearny Cut-Off entered Lancaster County just southeast of the future Bennet in Nemaha Township. It then went straight west through the Saltillo and Centerville townships. The trail exited the county southwest of the Denton in Highland township. These four townships were at the time part of the "old" Clay County. After a few years the trail moved north into the townships of Stockton, Grant, Yankee Hill, Denton, and even in to Middle Creek. The trail eventually straightened out as it began to follow the county section lines. Gradually the trail disappeared under our current roads.
There were three road ranches or over-night stations along the NC-FK Cut-offs route through Lancaster County. The ranches might have had a house, a stable, a saloon, and a store. At the Otoe County line was Mecham’s Station. Along the Salt Creek at Saltillo was John Cadman’s
Saltillo Station. At the Saline/Seward County lines was the Cheese Creek Ranch. The name came from the fact that the ranch operators made and sold cheese. Later in 1864 the trail reached as for north as Saline City/Yankee Hill where Cadman’s new station was located. John Cadman was the man behind getting Clay County dissolved in 1864 and later inadvertently helping the village of Lancaster become the state capital.
There were other alternate or shortcuts trails through Lancaster County. Heading south to the north on both sides of the future town of Lincoln were trails heading to the Platte River. One followed the Stevens Creek to the Little Salt, the other Salt Creek to the Oak Creek. Entering the county near Waverly was the Woodbury Trail heading northwest.
The Nebraska City-Fort Kearny Cut-Off was very important in the development of the area south of the Platte River. By opening up the area for early settlement it was the main reason that it had the population to eventually gain control of Nebraska politically and get the state capital located in it.
The first automobile seen in Nebraska traveled through Lincoln in 1902. The first Federal Aid Project in Nebraska was started in 1918 between Lincoln and Emerald. Some of the county’s early roads were Cornhusker Highway, the Omaha-Lincoln-Denver/Detroit-Lincoln-Denver Highway, the Seward-York-Aurora Highway, and the Overland Trail Highway. The Cornhusker Highway went north to Fremont and south to the Kansas border. The highway is now US-77 and its name used elsewhere. The OLD/DLD went north to Omaha and west to Milford. It is now known us US-6. The SYQ went west to Seward and is now called US-34. The Overland Trail followed the NC-FK Cut Off from Nebraska City and now goes by NE-2. The other major county roads are NE-9 north to Valparaiso and NE-33 which goes east to west through the southern third of the county. On August, 11th, 1961, Lincoln and Omaha were connected by Interstate 80.
John C. Belz