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Towns on the prairie

January 20, 2013
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

With the western movements of the 1800's, thousands of towns sprouted up on the prairie and plains, where farming would support a stable population. Streets were laid out and false fronted structures went up. Then, unfortunately, they were many times forced to battle fire, flood and pestilence. But sometimes towns went on to attain the dream of urban greatness that inspired founders as they put up the first buildings.

As some towns grew, others just vanished, and some stagnated. Some towns were built on false hopes, such as Bear River City, Wyoming, whose citizens were hastily setting up enterprises on the assumption that the Union Pacific would stop there and make their town important. Instead the railroad passed them by without even a sidetrack, and the town just faded away.

History has never recorded a social phenomenon like the mass migration that filled the American west with cities, towns and hamlets. Many of the hoards of settlers who crossed the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers during that time were only indirectly concerned with towns. These are the people who came to make a living by tilling the soil, raising cattle and extracting precious metals from its streams and mountains. But along with them came the people who intended to win their livelihood by providing goods and services for the rest of the population, the townsmen, butchers, bakers, boot makers, bankers, saloonkeepers, doctors and barbers. A newspaper was among the top priorities of a new town. Unfortunately the ranks of new townsmen also included desperadoes, shysters, prostitutes and scalawags.

The Civil War slowed the westward movement, but after the war thousands of homesteaders and townspeople surged onto the prairies and plains, filling up the regions of Kansas, Nebraska and Dakota. By 1890 there were villages every ten miles or so across the central grasslands.

It was nothing for a town to be established, and then abandoned, such as Merna, Kansas, which relocated only two miles away to intercept the course of an approaching railroad.

Some towns were formed on a fluke. Beatrice, Nebraska came to be in 1866, when 300 westering emigrants, mostly strangers to one another, were stranded when their steamboat ran aground on a sandbar in the Nebraska Territory. By the time the boat was dislodged, the passengers had developed such a sense of common purpose, and come to know each other so well that they decided to create the town of Beatrice at the site of their misfortune!

Life in a frontier community was hard. Settlers were often locked in mortal combat with nature. Weather on the high plains and in the mountains was excessive. Winds so strong roofs were ripped off, and on the central grasslands the wind hardly ever stopped blowing. Cloudbursts could bring a flash flood rolling down a creek bed. A wet spring, combined with snow-melt, could send a great river over its banks to devastate the works of townsmen. Droughts periodically affected the farms and town, but the greatest danger came from prairie fires, which destroyed everything in its path.



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