Ogallala: "To Scatter One's Own"
By: Tomas England
Ogallala had its beginning as nothing more than a stop on the Union Pacific Railroad. Within ten years it grew to be one of the most well known towns along the Texas Trail. Gold was exchanged across the table and saloons filled to the brim with cowboys and gamblers. Seasonal saloon girls and prostitutes flocked to Ogallala. Crime ran rampant along the single street that fronted the community. In the ten years it staked its claim as the end of the Texas Trail, seventeen violent deaths occurred with a population of less than twenty-five.
As the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the valley that Ogallala now lies in, began to boom with activity. Every few miles a stop was required for trains as they made their way across the continent. Ogallala was chosen as a “siding” along the tracks. The area that would become a booming cow town in less than ten years was nothing more than a water tower and section house. The siding was named after the Sioux tribe that seasonally hunted in the area. The Oglala (Oklada) Sioux as it was spelled had lived in the area for many decades.
As the area began to develop, buffalo hunters soon arrived, decimating herds that had roamed the area for centuries. Indian hostilities erupted across the valley as their way of life became threatened. To protect the settlers, the United States Army stationed soldiers every few miles usually near the sidings.
One of the first permanent white settlers to the area was Louis Aufdengarten. Louis arrived with the U.S. Army and began operating a supply store for the buffalo hunters in a dug out near the South Platte River. Another early settler was Edwin M. Searle. Searle was hired by The Union Pacific Railroad to run the telegraph at Alkali (Paxton), another railroad siding. Phil and Thomas Lonergan, brothers who had worked on the construction of the railroad, returned to the area with a herd of Texas Longhorns.
As buffalo began to disappear, a new industry soon emerged. The Lonergan brother’s cattle thrived on the native prairie grass. Ogallala’s landscape was promising. As Texas began to look for ways to push their cattle up to the northern states, trails started to emerge in Nebraska towns such as Schuyler and Kearney. This created a conflict as farmers started to plow and close off most of the open range of eastern Nebraska. These drovers had to find an alternative.
In 1872 Nebraska passed a herd’s law, requiring herd owners to keep cattle off farming ground. With this in place, the Union Pacific began to look for a new shipping point. Ogallala was chosen, as most felt western Nebraska was not suitable for farming because of its dry climate.
Spruce Street Station
As Keith County was incorporated in 1873, the very foundations of Ogallala began to emerge. Louis Aufdengarten built a frame building that offered groceries and supplies. The Lonergan brothers and L.M. Stone opened a men’s clothing store. Although the valley had about twenty-five permanent settlers, many found it a profitable place to live. With cattle flourishing in the area surrounding Ogallala, word soon spread across the United States and even into Europe.
Edwin Curley, an English correspondent, was hired to investigate the profits of cattle. He arrived in December of 1873 in Ogallala. During his visit he roomed with the Lonergan brothers. He visited with area rancher M.C. Keith about economic opportunities in the area. Curley was impressed with his visit and quickly spread word about the profits in ranching across Europe.
1874 was the beginning of Ogallala’s wild west days. The Union Pacific opened its cattle chutes and hired Philip Lonergan to over see the management of them. Cowboys began to arrive in Ogallala to sell their cattle. The section house doubled as an eating establishment. Trains heading west usually arrived in Ogallala by twelve noon, providing a perfect opportunity for business. W.P. Sinclair was hired as the station agent and ran the restaurant. Two cooks from North Platte were hired.
Spruce Street looking south
As cattle arrived in Ogallala the new route was aptly named The Texas Trail or Western Trail. This trail led through the heart of Dodge City, Kansas. Pushing cattle up the trail through Oklahoma and southern Kansas was not a problem as water stops and supply stores were located along the route. As the cowboys entered northern Kansas and southwestern Nebraska, cattle became stressed as water grew sparse. Cowboys eventually reached the hills overlooking The Platte Valley. The South Platte River gleaned in the distance. Most cattle stampeded into a dead run for the river.
Most cowboys would push the cattle across the river and allow them to graze on the open range north of Ogallala. To the south of the South Platte River, the valley was dotted with several teams awaiting the shipment of their cattle. As the 1875 season rolled around, approximately 75,000 head of cattle were brought through Ogallala’s chutes. As the industry began to grow in Ogallala, others saw a way to make a profit from the seasonal drovers.
On November 23, 1875, B.I. Hinman, M.C. Keith, and Guy Barton filed the plat for the original town of Ogallala. A free lot was given to anyone willing to build a business.
The Spofford House later renamed The Marlette House
During this year Samuel and Harriet Gast opened The Ogallala House along Railroad Street. The establishment was a large hotel and restaurant. Harriet Gast was known for her excellent cooking, which soon brought in many cowboys off the trail. Two new saloons were established in 1875, the Crystal Palace Saloon and the Ok Saloon. The Ok Saloon was soon purchased by Bill Tucker of North Platte and renamed The Cowboy’s Rest.
With the saloons available, gambling began to emerge in the cow town. Most cowboys from Texas did not trust northern currency and therefore relied on gold as the standard. Women were hired seasonally to entertain in the saloons. Most of these saloon girls were in their twenties. They were hired out of North Platte and Omaha. Bill Tucker, the proprietor of The Cowboy’s Rest Saloon, hired a woman by the name of “Big Alice” to over see the management of his saloon help.
Another hotel quickly joined the ranks called the Spofford House. Millard Leech and his father opened the hotel north of the tracks. This hotel competed with Gast’s Ogallala House, but won out as the more luxurious of the two. By 1876, Ogallala grew to be the center of the area’s ranching headquarters.
Spruce Street looking north
During its early years on the trail, Ogallala was frequented by Calvary men and cowboys from Texas. This created a toxic environment as both had been enemies during the Civil War years prior. As the threat of Indians began to subside the soldiers arrived much less in Ogallala, but cowboys continued to arrive seasonally in large numbers.
Ogallala grew slowly but steadily in its years as the end of the Texas Trail. It consisted of a single street fronting the railroad tracks known as Railroad Street. The Texas Trail ran south of Railroad Street to the South Platte River. All the businesses were south of the tracks. On the corner of Railroad Street and the intersecting trail running south to the river was Aufdengarten’s supply store. The next store was Raynor's Meat Market. Next came Stone and Lonergan brothers’ store. The Crystal Palace Saloon and Cowboy’s Rest were next. On the very west edge of town was The Ogallala House. On the north side of the tracks lie the school, courthouse, and stone jail built by Louis Aufdengarten. Small shacks also dotted the north part of the tracks. These shacks were frequently used by prostitutes traveling through. On the very east end was The Spofford House. The depot and section house were located directly north of the railroad tracks.
As the years progressed, cowboys would seasonally begin arriving the first week of June. They would push their cattle to pasture on the open range just north of town until time came for shipment at the stockyards. Cowboys would generally camp south of the river, although many would rent a room at the Ogallala House. Northern and southern cattle barons would arrive before their herds from Texas, and swap business deals in the Spofford House. Most cattle had already been sold by the time the herds arrived in Ogallala.
Ogallala looking east with the depot in the distance
Cowboys would receive their pay upon arriving in Ogallala. Most headed down to the supply stores and purchased new clothing. Next, they would head to the saloons for a rip roaring good time. With an endless supply of liquor, cowboys would join in the saloon fun. Some took their chances at the gambling tables, which were run by professional gamblers passing through. These gamblers enjoyed the cowboys as they were easy pickings. The cowboys had not spent any time with a woman in almost three months, and the sight of pretty saloon girls filled the bar. Prostitutes also frequented Ogallala, living in brothels north of the tracks. Cowboys would seek these women out for their services. Dancing was a common sight in the saloons as most cowboys enjoyed the entertainment fresh off the trail.
The Ogallala House provided a home cooked meal to cowboys. Most would take an evening or two to enjoy the savory meal from Mrs. Gast. As the evening progressed, many cowboys became intoxicated and it was not uncommon for fights over the affection of a saloon girl or gambling game to turn sour. Gunfights in the saloon were a common occurrence. Many cowboys were rebellious and looking for adventure, but often got more than they bargained for. These unfortunate souls were buried a top the treeless hill north of town. This hill was known as Mt.Calvary during this time, but later was named Boot Hill. From June until late November Ogallala bustled with cowboys, saloon girls, gamblers, and transients. Through the winter months Ogallala quieted down until the following June when it became a lively town again.
For ten years Ogallala saw several 100,000 cattle through their chutes. By the 1880’s the mild weather that had graced the plains for Ogallala’s turbulent cattle years began to wane. A severe drought in the summer of 1883 and a rough winter ruined most ranchers. Their loss of livestock was devastating. The following year of 1884 did not help matters. The Texas Fever epidemic began spreading across the plains. The disease was caused by southern ticks that devastated cattle herds. States began to enact quarantine laws to protect their livestock. The disease arrived in Ogallala in July of 1884. With the quarantine laws in place, the Texas Trail came to an end. Cattle still trickled into Ogallala up to 1885, but eventually Ogallala settled into a farming community. Most land had begun to be bought out by large ranch companies such as Ogallala Land and Cattle Co.
Boot Hill looking south
On November 25, 1884, Ogallala was declared incorporated. The town trustees were Hugh McWilliams, C.B. Stone, Martin DePriest, W.B. McCartney, and Louis Aufdengarten. Mark Neeves was declared city clerk, J.A. O’Brien as treasurer, and F.Q. Feltz as the city attorney. The town was platted, and streets running north to south were named after trees, while streets running east to west were given numbers.
Ogallala began to fill with permanent settlers. Many immigrants arrived during this time as well. Much of the land surrounding Ogallala was homesteaded by these immigrants. That same year in August of 1884, much of the original town of Ogallala located south of the tracks burned. The destruction forced most of the new businesses to locate along Spruce Street as the new business district in town. That same year, Ogallala’s first newspaper, The Ogallala Reflector, was opened by M.M. Neeves. The paper reported that “The town contains two banks, two newspapers, six real estate firms, and five general stores.” Ogallala contained “three drug stores, three blacksmith shops, two hardware stores, one good furniture store, three saloons, two butcher shops, a skating rink, and three lumber yards.”
Over the next one hundred years, Ogallala would grow to become a modern city with a population of nearly 5,000 people. It would soon grow to become a large industrial force as Goodall Manufacturing would begin to employ a large amount of residents. The placement of the Lincoln Highway in 1913 brought an increase in travelers. By the late 1960’s, the interstate was built south of the town. The construction of Lake McConaughy in the 1930’s created a paradise in the area that drew in tourist. By 1964, Ogallala was given the title of “The Cowboy Capital of Nebraska.” This title was a tribute to the wild and wooly past that helped shape Ogallala into the community it is today.
Sources: A Century on the Trail by Elaine Nielsen
The Keith County News
Bodies on Boot Hill by Karyn Stansbery