What was a valuable racehorse doing on the icy Missouri River in January 1882? Men from a local packinghouse mobilized, but would they save the horse before it was swept under the ice?
By David L. Bristow, Editor
How did a valuable pacer (a horse used in harness racing) nearly drown in the icy Missouri River in January 1882? The story tells us something about 19th century life in a river city.
The story begins on January 22, when Omaha businessman Clifton Mayne traveled to Council Bluffs on business. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. A railroad bridge spanned the Missouri River, but it wasn’t open to wagon traffic. Mayne took the “dummy train,” a train that went back and forth across the bridge.
But how would he get around Council Bluffs? He could walk or take the streetcar, but that wouldn’t do for a wealthy man with a taste for fine horses. Mayne had some special cargo loaded on the train: a light buggy that he used only on special occasions, and his prized pacing horse, Oscar Phelps. This was the 1880s equivalent of bringing a Porsche.
Mayne’s business took longer than expected and he missed the dummy train’s westbound departure. No matter. He’d just cross the river on the ice, as people had been doing since before the bridge opened in 1872. The next day’s Omaha Daily Bee tells what happened:
“When part way over, he observed some boys who were skating making violent signs at him and stopped to see what was wanted, when one of them came up and told him he was driving on dangerous ground. On getting out and examining the ice he found his horse’s fore feet within six inches of a space where ice had been cut out and the new ice was so thin that the boy who warned him readily broke it through with his skate.
“Mr. Mayne then made a wide detour and had nearly reached the Nebraska shore when suddenly his horse broke through with his fore-feet. He got out and unhitching him pulled the buggy back and then took the horse by the bit and tried to get him on the solid ice. The animal, however, floundered about so that he broke the ice in all directions about him, letting himself and his owner down in the water. Mr. Mayne scrambled out, but the horse worked himself under the ice, all but his head, which rested on a cake of ice which alone prevented him from being drowned.”
Photo: Travelers and workers often braved the icy Missouri River, just like these bridge workers near Rulo, Nebraska, in 1886. History Nebraska RG2457-5-24
Oscar Phelps was in serious trouble. His unusual name probably wasn’t a good omen. He may have been named for a character in a syndicated 1880 short story in which a young man using the alias “Oscar Phelps” is killed in a duel by a disguised woman seeking revenge. Or he may have been named for the soon-to-be-defunct town of Oscar, in Phelps County, Nebraska. Either way, he was in danger of being pulled under the ice by the current.
Mayne ran for help. The nearest business was Boyd’s Pork Packing House, Omaha’s original meatpacking plant, north of present-day Lauritzen Gardens. Several plant workers came with planks and ropes. For the next two hours they struggled to rescue the horse while a crowd of some 500 onlookers gathered along the riverbank.
Image: Future Nebraska governor James Boyd opened Omaha’s first meatpacking plant in 1872. From Alfred Sorenson, Early History of Omaha (1876), p. 242.
It was dangerous and unpleasant work. Oscar was floundering just below the spot where the plant discharged its untreated waste directly into the river. And the plant was no small operation, having slaughtered some 112,000 hogs during the previous year. Omahans were used to living in a smoky, smelly, and muddy city, but the Bee noted that the “work was done in the face of sickening filth and stench.”
Meanwhile, other drivers and teams of horses crossed the river that day, oblivious to the danger. It was how things had always been done. The Bee recommended waiting for another “cold snap.”
It was getting dark by the time Oscar was pulled from the cold and filthy water “in a half dead condition.” But the horse was tough as well as fast. He recovered and was later sold to Mayne’s business partner. The following year the Bee reported that Oscar Phelps was “winning some fast races and high honors at Ohio fairs this fall.” Running on the soft dirt of a track probably seemed easy after crossing rotten river ice.
Photo: This circa-1920 harness race in Neligh, Nebraska, was after Oscar Phelps’ time, but shows the kind of racing he did. History Nebraska RG2836-1818
This article was first published in History Nebraska’s “A Brief History” column in the January/February 2019 issue of NEBRASKAland magazine.
“Boyd’s Pork Packing House,” in A.T. Andreas, Andreas’ History of the State of Nebraska (Chicago, 1882).
“Minor Mention,” Omaha Daily Bee, Oct. 6, 1883.
“Narrow Escape: A Horse Goes Through the Ice Below the Bridge,” Omaha Daily Bee, Jan. 23, 1882, p. 8.
“Oscar Phelps,” syndicated short story: “The Mysterious Cadet,” Grant County (SD) Herald, Nov. 6, 1880.