Omaha’s reputation as a hub for warehousing and material distribution predated the arrival of the railroad. In the 1850s and ’60s, materials poured into Omaha by a different, quite colorful transportation method: The steamboat.
“Arrivals in Omaha were major community events. One traveler reported 1,500 persons at the land to welcome his boat,” write historians Lawrence H. Larsen and Barbara J. Cottrell. “Captains frequently allowed visitors aboard for a formal dance in the grand salon. … With two to seven arrivals weekly, Omaha surpassed Council Bluffs and Florence as a steamboat port.”
Last week, we examined the characteristics and history of the Niobrara River, and today we look at some other examples of Nebraska river heritage. Rain-swollen rivers have brought heartache to many communities this spring. At the same time, Nebraska’s rivers have been a key in community development across the state. Omaha’s Missouri River steamboat history provides a good example.
One of the first steamboats to move up the river was the Western Engineer in 1819, carrying explorer Stephen Long. In the late 1840s, steamboats brought Mormons to the Winter Quarters and California gold seekers to Council Bluffs. By 1854, Council Bluffs had regular steamboat service.
Omaha’s steamboat connections developed only gradually. Initially, Omaha “had trouble competing against other river towns,” Larsen and Cottrell note. Matters improved in 1859, when the Colorado gold rush gave a jolt to Omaha’s freighting economy. Between March and November that year, 268 steamboats arrived in Omaha to serve the westward trek.
Soon, “there were tri-weekly runs between Omaha and St. Joseph, Missouri, the western terminal of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad,” Larsen and Cottrell write. “A passenger line operated on regular schedules from St. Louis to Omaha.”
Historian Robert Manley describes another part of Nebraska river history: early efforts by fur traders to navigate the Platte River via barge. Native Americans dubbed the river the “Platte” to indicate the river is broad (unchanneled) and shallow. Fur traders in the 1840s had to discover those aspects for themselves, the hard way.
Explorer John Fremont in 1842 met a group of traders attempting to head down the Platte in a flotilla of 11 boats. Things were not going well: The boats ran aground 50 times a day, Fremont was told. “Elisha Perkins, on this way to California in 1849,” Manley recounts, “saw another fleet of barges bobbing and bumping down the Platte. The navigators, all fur traders, were angry and frustrated. They could not keep the boats afloat.”
Among other river history cited by Manley: The South Platte/North Platte political divisions that arose in territorial Nebraska. The importance for Scottsbluff and Gering in building the first bridge across the North Platte River. The rise of canal irrigation. And the scramble by countless Nebraska communities in the late 19th century — including Minden, Kearney, West Point, Fremont, Beatrice and Nebraska City — to harness river power for milling operations.
Some 19th-century explorers labeled this part of the country the “Great American Desert,” but Nebraska’s river history is rich and well deserving of appreciation.