Railroad Ecology

As the Union Pacific Railroad built its road west through the Platte Valley and began service, the supply of water and fuel for their steam locomotives was of great importance. Water was readily obtained because of the high water table in the valley. Wells were easily sunk using a pipe tipped with a sand point, driven to a depth of twenty to thirty feet. A pump was attached to the top of the pipe, and a large water tank was built nearby. Two men were hired to keep the tank full. As traffic increased, it became necessary to keep the pump going for twenty-four hours a day, which required the labor of at least two crews of men each.

When the Burlington began to build through Nebraska in 1869, the supply of their locomotives with water on the Plains south of the Platte was more difficult. Because of the geology, it was necessary to drill wells to considerable depth, and this made it impractical to pump water by hand. Windmill technology had been available since before the Civil War, but its cost was still prohibitive to most. The Burlington and other railroads, however, found windmills to be an economical solution to their water needs, so they were employed from the start.

A second major need of the roads was for fuel. Early Union Pacific locomotives were fueled by wood, necessitating the hiring of woodcutters to cut and haul wood to the woodyards. Little wood was left in the Platte valley following the passage of thousands of wagon trains, and the construction of the railroad itself. Cutters were required to go thirty or more miles in search of wood, virtually helping to create the “treeless” plains which settlers found upon their arrival. By the time the road was finished, beds of coal were found in southern Wyoming-some on lands owned by the UP-and that discovery led to the opening of mines and the conversion to coal-fired locomotives. The Burlington began its operations using coal, because it could secure inexpensive coal from fields in Iowa and Illinois.

Woodyards were only a temporary sight in railroad yards, but were soon replaced by lumberyards along the right-of-way, a different symbol of the region’s reliance on other locations for wood. Coal sheds and water towers were much longer-lived sights in railroad towns. Coal not only fueled the locomotives, but most furnaces as well. Today coal passes through the region, on its way to fuel countless power plants across the United States. 


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