In the Middle of a Prairie Fire, 1876

Prairie fires were an ever-present danger in frontier Nebraska. Rolf Johnson of Phelps County knew this from experience. The Swedish immigrant provides a vivid description of one in his diary. His entry of November 10, 1876, describes “miles and miles of level prairie burnt black by a prairie fire.” He continues:

“Justus [Rolf’s brother] and I were down on the Platte after wood and while on the island we suddenly heard a roaring, rushing, crackling sound and on investigating found the whole valley between us and Williamsburg [Phelps County] in flames, which sometimes leapt upward to a height of 30 feet or more. On driving out from the island we came near being scorched by the fire. . . .

“In one place we saw a big jackrabbit surrounded by a wall of fire on every side. He jumped about from side to side trying to find some outlet to his fiery prison, which was getting smaller every moment. I jumped from the wagon thinking to have roasted rabbit as soon as the flames had passed over him. Just as the flames closed about him and were about to swallow him up he cleared [the] burning barrier with a desperate leap and came near alighting on me. He was a moment blinking his eyes at me as if to say: ‘How is that for high?’ and then struck a bee line for the river to cool off his scorched skin.”

Johnson’s entry for October 20, 1878, concerns another prairie fire: “This afternoon the prairie fire, driven with the speed of a race horse by a hard wind, came down from the north and came near sweeping everything before it. The flames leaped skywards, roared like a hurricane, the long dry grass crackled like musketry and the smoke obscured the heavens, and the air was hot as the blast of a furnace.” Johnson says that he and several other men “saved Halin’s place by means of back fires. It was in imminent danger a while and we had to work like fun.” Other men “rode down to Aug. Jacobson’s to try and save his place as he was not at home, but they could not stem the resistless sea of flames and very narrowly escaped a fiery death, their horses being singed and Aug. losing his coat.” 

Johnson’s diary has been published as Happy as a Big Sunflower: Adventures in the West, 1876-1880, by the University of Nebraska Press. The original diary is at the Phelps County Historical Society in Holdrege.

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