Thursday, April 2, 2015

Robert Lee Murphy - Historic Platte River Route

My frontier, historical trilogy The Iron Horse Chronicles takes the young protagonist, Will Braddock, on a quest to determine his own destiny at the time of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Eagle Talons, book one, is currently available, while Bear Claws, book two, will be released in November 2015. The third book, Golden Spike, will follow thereafter. In Eagle Talons, Will’s adventures take him along the Platte River, which was the route the Union Pacific Railroad followed when they constructed the eastern half of the “Pacific Railroad.”

While doing research on the route of the first transcontinental railroad, one of the first places I visited was the Western Historical Trails Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, located off I-80 where it crosses the Missouri River. The center provides an informative introduction to four important trails that passed through that region before the transcontinental railroad made travel easier and faster. The center is administered by the State Historical Society of Iowa, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. Their website:

The Lewis and Clark Trail passed north and south through the area, following the Missouri River. Three of the trails, however, crossed the river and proceeded west along the Platte River. Animals originally created paths beside the Platte River, which joins the Missouri south of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska. Native Americans, pursuing the animals over the centuries, pounded these paths into trails. The Oregon Trail, the Mormon Pioneer Trail, and the California Trail continued to follow the Platte River in the early part of the nineteenth century, providing the pioneers with the "road" to their future. These three, heavily-traveled trails paralleled the Platte across Nebraska and into the Rocky Mountains. The Pony Express followed a portion of the Platte during its short existence.

Council Bluffs Library
In 1859, Grenville Dodge met Abraham Lincoln in Council Bluffs to discuss the best route for a transcontinental railroad. At that time, there were competing proposals for building a railroad across the country, with routes ranging from south of the Canadian border to north of the Mexican one. Dodge had performed extensive surveys across the west, and based on these exploratory trips, he recommended the Platte River route as the best "path" for the first transcontinental railroad. After Lincoln became president, he wanted to connect Union-sympathetic California and Oregon more securely to the eastern states. Because of the secession of the southern states, which led to the Civil War, routes leading through the Confederacy were ruled out. Lincoln, remembering Dodge’s recommendation, signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, designating that the railroad be built along the historic trails of the Platte River. During the Civil War, Grenville Dodge served as a general in the Union Army. Following the war he became the chief engineer for the Union Pacific and supervised the building of the eastern portion of the transcontinental railroad from Omaha to Promontory Summit, Utah.

The National Park Service, in conjunction with the Forest Service and in one instance the Bureau of Land Management, has produced full-color brochures for each of the three westbound trails and the Pony Express route. Each brochure measures approximately 8” by 45” in six folds. One side of the brochure is a profusely illustrated, comprehensive narrative about the trail. The opposite side is a detailed, annotated map of the entire route of the trail. History teachers and librarians who are looking for a fascinating way to provide historical information about the westward expansion across the western states can use these brochures as bulletin board posters. In a couple of instances the maps are downloadable in PDF, but without the narrative information. Having two copies of each brochure would enable the side-by-side posting of the entire brochure.

Here is a small portion of the Oregon Trail map to provide an example of the detail.

The National Park Service will provide the brochure if requested by email. (Hint: if there is a limit of one brochure per inquiry, have an associate order one.) Here are the websites for each of the four recommended brochures.

Oregon Trail:

Mormon Pioneer Trail:

California Trail:

Pony Express:

1 comment:

  1. I grew up in Wyoming in the path of the transcontinental railroad. My family members were employees of the Union Pacific Railroad too.