Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How The West Was Really Settled

Sorry if I bummed you guys out last week by talking about the guy killing himself up here in Nebraska. I’ll try to keep it a little more upbeat this week.
I’m still in western Nebraska, and from the way it looks, it would probably be cheaper for the company I work for to rent me an apartment up here than it is to pay for the motel, but I‘m not about to suggest it. Besides, if they did, who’d clean up after me and make my bed?
I came up here not really knowing anything at all about the place. Well, that all changed last Sunday. I had all day to kill and was getting pretty tired of sitting around the room so I decided to take a little road trip. It was a trip that took me back in time. It took me back to a time when things weren’t quite as easy as they are today. It was a time before we had hi-ways and bi-ways all across the country. It was a time when a cross country road trip could take 6 or 7 months to make, and that’s if you even survived the ordeal in the first place. And this road trip led me to a theory. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure I now know how western Nebraska was settled in the first place. I’ll get to that later though.
About 30 miles or so west of Ogallala (that’s where I am this week) there’s a place called Ash Hollow. I guess you could call it a rest area, only it was a rest area along the Oregon Trail back in the mid 1800’s.
This was the last place that wagon trains could cross the North Platte river on their way from Missouri to Oregon. For the most part, the river was pretty shallow (about two feet deep) at this point but depending on the weather, it might be as much as two miles wide. The place got it’s name from a huge grove of ash trees surrounding it. There was a natural spring that, according to some, had the best drinking water in the world awaiting the weary travelers. They’d set up a trading post and started using it as one of the first post offices on the new frontier. Depending on how they were doing on time, wagon trains would spend several days at Ash Hollow, allowing the settlers time to regroup and make any necessary repairs to their wagons before heading farther west.
I bring up the part of repairs because of the ridiculously steep hill they had to negotiate about 3 miles east of this oasis on the prairie. This hill was given the name because they had to use what was called Windlass winches to lower some of the wagons down the hill. Others used different methods such as locking up the rear wheels of their wagons with chains and such to negotiate the hill. Some were successful some weren’t.
It was a very cool trip. The wagon ruts these early pioneers left behind are clearly visible to this day, and I actually walked across the river at the exact same point they used when they crossed it all those years ago. Very cool, if you think about it.
Oh yeah, my theory about how western Nebraska was settled in the first place. I’m sure historians will disagree but there’s a little town called Lewellen about four miles west of Ash Hollow. I believe there were enough men in those early wagon trains who were married to women who were a lot like my wife.
They woke up early one morning only to find their wives had unloaded all their stuff and announced, this is the end of the line. You’re crazy as hell if you think for one minute me and the kids are going another mile in that damned wagon. And that my friends, is how Lewellen, Nebraska became the town it is today. But then, I could be wrong.
Ever heard of Ash Hollow before? Maybe you’ve also seen the place. Stop by the blog this week and tell us your story: or e-mail me at:


  1. Thanks for the encouragement on my fiction last week.

    Now as for Ash Hollow and Windlass Hill, it wasn't far from there in 1985 when I and five other crazy people hauled six oversized combines over those insane hills on our way to Wyoming. It was on a two-lane coming out of Colorado somewhere. I heard the boss over the two-way radio say, "Now you guys keep plenty of distance apart in case the chains break on one of those combines." It seemed to take a week climbing the hill with a gas-burning Chevy 366 and a four-speed transmission with a split-shift axle. The real thrill for me was going down the other side. I forgot to throttle up when I shifted into top gear, and the two speed axle remained in neutral. I must have been doing about eighty by the time I realized I was freewheeling with a ten-ton machine on a trailer pushing me downhill. Never made that mistake again.

  2. I was hoping you'd stop by Fred. And to think I always thought western Nebraska was as flat as western Kansas.

    I had the same kind of thrill in the late 80's. Mine was a hill called Black Mountain outside Ashville North Carolina. Just me, my truck, and 65,000 lbs. of beer.

    Oh yeah, and gravity. Have a good day man...

  3. I went over Black Mountain a few times, but I was always light. It's still scary, though. It's one of the few roads I know that has lights IN the road surface. On foggy days you understand why.

  4. One time was enough for me. I was young, impatient, and stupid.

    Bye the time I was three quarters of the way down, I had gotten my brakes so hot they became useless. I had already passed the last run away ramp, not that I would have had the guts to take one of them anyway.

    All I could do was to get in the fast lane, turn on my lights and flashers, and hope like hell I'd make it to the bottom without killing myself or someone else in the process.

    What a hell of a trip that one was...