Seeing Nebraska by Train in 1877

What did 1877 Nebraska look like to a sophisticated European traveler? Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg of Austria was one of the most famous travel writers of the 19th century. After crossing Nebraska by train, he described in a book the “green ocean of prairie” through which he sped across the state at the dizzying speed of thirty miles an hour:

“At first we race through the American breadbasket. Here and there appear small, neat towns of twenty to fifty houses, largely built in the last five years and inhabited by German and Bohemian immigrants. At the stations we see well-dressed, well-nourished country people and eager, bustling enterprise. Thirty miles from Omaha we reach the broad, open valley of the Platte. . . .

“The Platte deserves the name. Its course, often divided by many sandy islands into as many branches, is frequently miles wide and so shallow it could be waded, were its bed not of treacherous quicksand into which horses and riders, and wagons and teams, have sunk without hope and without a trace. The water is yellow and muddy, like the Missouri’s, and impassable to all boats, even canoes.

“The farther upstream you go, the fewer trees you see, and the less agriculture. The steppe is open and not farmed. Civilization appears only every ten to twenty miles as a railroad water station, where perhaps an immigrant or a farmer has built a little house. Now and then we notice prairie dogs and watch delicate antelope on the broad steppe. To the north rise chains of hills with steep slopes, called bluffs. Gibbon, Kearney Junction, North Platte, and many other stations appear on the map but consist of few houses, one or two stores, one or two newspaper offices, and a hotel. . . .

“Civilization. Does this western corner of Nebraska lack it? Does all this immense region, of which we are now in the center, lack it? The traveler will find the lack richly compensated by natural wonders . . . . [such as] sunrise and sunset, clouds and rain, thunderstorm and downpour. . . . Even more magnificent are hailstorms and cloudbursts. Last summer, our engineer told us, a hailstorm overtook a train, broke every window, and pockmarked the sheet iron of the boiler. We counted ourselves lucky to cross the Nebraska-Wyoming border without suffering such an attack.”

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