Lives Risked for a Drink of Water

“Forty miles to water, thirty miles to wood, twenty miles to hell, and I’ve gone there for

good.” Plains author Mari Sandoz quotes this inscription, left behind by a disgruntled wouldbe

settler, in her account of the problem of finding water in the “Great American Desert.”

Written in the dry year 1931, Sandoz’s essay continues:

“It must have tried the soul of even a pioneer to dig a well anywhere from 160 to four

hundred feet deep with little equipment except a spade, a bucket, an old rope, and a strong

back, particularly if the soil was inclined to slip.”

Nebraska’s settlement days were filled with tragic tales of well accidents, Sandoz continued.

“Peter Johnson, living five miles from Emerson, was overcome by gas while cleaning his well,

and died before he could be drawn to the surface. F. W. Carlin, Custer County, fell into

an old open well 143 feet deep, far from the nearest neighbor. The hole was curbed here and

there and it took him two days and three nights to climb out. But he managed to get out and

crawl to a neighbor, a mile and a half away, where he was given treatment and food and recovered.”

The saddest stories, then as now, are from the lethal mixture of children and uncovered wells.

“At Horse Shoe Bend, Scotts Bluff County, some newcomers hired a well bored. During the

noon hour the large augur was drawn up and the hole left uncovered. A 2-year-old child fell

headlong into it, 80 feet deep. In the neighborhood lived a very slim boy, Johnny Smith,

small enough to slip into the hole. With a rope tied to his feet he was lowered head first into

the well and brought the child to the surface, dead. Surely Johnny should have had a medal,

but medals aren’t passed out to pioneers.”

Not every well story involved such tragedies. Near Valentine, “Arkansas Bob and Bill

American, two popular local cowboys, were ordered out of a dance hall because Bob snored.

They tried to catch the porch steps and fell in the dark. Sobered a bit by the fall, they started

to a hotel, got lost, and wandered happily over the prairie afoot. Suddenly Bob disappeared.

Bill shouted. A frantic answer came from the earth. Bob had slipped into an old well and

was afraid Bill would stumble about and fall in on top of him. Just sober enough to enjoy a

good joke, Bill crawled to the edge of the hole. There, illuminated by the pale moonlight, he

swayed back and forth, laughing like a maniac, tormenting poor Bob. When the fun grew

stale, and Bob had sworn faithfully to wait for him, Bill went for help.

“Back in town he met a friend with a full bottle. Together they wandered around for the rest

of the night. But Bill was troubled, even after a morning drink. He knew he had lost Bob

somewhere in a hole in the ground. A search was started; someone remembered the old well

near the cemetery. Sure enough, Bob was at the bottom of the 20-foot-hole, sober, waiting.”

With the advent of modern drilling machinery, Sandoz wrote, “Nebraska’s immense

underground reservoirs are almost as available as surface water. Gone is the necessity for

such appalling risks as pioneer well-digging involved.”

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