Cattle Trails
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This page: Cattle Trails continued, Ogallala.

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Ogallala, Nebraska, 1878.

Initially, the cattle trails ran north to railheads in Kansas, but, as the eastern plains were taken over by farmers and barbed wire and the scourge of Texas fever, the trails moved westward. The end of the trail towns such as Caldwell, Kansas, Hunnewell, Kansas, Ogallala, Nebraska, and Billings, Montana, and their saloons and dance halls were a tad rough. One resident of Caldwell complained of the Red Light Saloon:

The scenes there presented reminded me of the early times in Cheyenne, when murder ran riot and the pistol was the only argument.

Outside of Caldwell was a hill where damsels of the evening would maintain a lookout for the trail herds coming toward town. Thus with warning, the saloons and girls could get ready for the expected rush of business. Caldwell in its first three years went through nine town marshals, several having met their Maker near the saloon. On June 22, 1882, the town's tenth marshal was killed in the Red Light Saloon. With the killing of Marshal George S. Brown, Caldwell had enough of the saloon. The proprietor and proprietress of the saloon, George and Maggie Wood, found it expedient to leave town. As the town residents were bidding the Woods farewell, the saloon mysteriously caught fire and burned down.

Dance Hall scene, Billings, Montana, approx. 1887.

Hunnewell, with one hotel, two stores, a barbershop, eight or nine saloons and a couple of dance halls also provided entertainment. The cowboys would ride their horses into the saloons. Sometimes they would take the barrels of sugar from the stores to feed their horses. When the cowboys were in town, lights on the trains would be extinquished lest they be used for target practice. The most famous of the gunfights in Hunnewell was on October 5, 1884, when one cowboy and a deputy sheriff were killed in Hanley's Saloon. No one was charged.

The Texas Trail was the last of the great trails, with the last drives in the 1890's. The Texas Trail, originally blazed by John Lytle in 1874, was not a clearly defined road or path, in the sense, say, of I-25. Originally, it was some twenty miles wide, running from Red River northward, with various branches, all ultimately leading to Ogallala, in the words of Andy Adams, the "Gomorrah" of the cattle trails. Indeed, Ogallala was so bad that at least one cattle company which on drives would allow its boys the freedom of Dodge City, declared it off limits, thus giving the town the reputation of being "too tough for Texans." Indeed, the owner of one hotel told an eastern visitor that there was only one woman in town, the hotel owner's wife, all the others were "ladies." The "ladies" would usually be brought in from Omaha for the "season."

Texas Trail, Ogallala to Fort Benton

Texas Trail, Doan's Crossing to Ogallala; Goodnight-Loving Trail, New Mexico to Cheyenne, 1882

Texas Trail, Brownsville to Doan's Crossing; Goodnight-Loving Trail Ft. Worth to the Cimmeron, 1882

Wyoming Stockgrower, Edgar Beecher Bronson, trailed 1500 cattle to Ogallala in 1882 and in his 1908 Reminiscenses of a Ranchman described the town at the height of the season:

A wonderful sight was the Platte Valley about Ogallala in those days, for it was the northern terminus of the great Texas trail of the late ' 70s and early '80s, where trail-drivers brought their herds to sell and northern ranchmen came to bargain.

That day, far as the eye could see up, down, and across the broad, level valley were cattle by the thousand— thirty or forty thousand at least—a dozen or more separate outfits, grazing in loose, open order so near each other that, at a distance, the valley appeared carpeted with a vast Persian rug of intricate design and infinite variety of colours. Approached nearer, where individual riders and cattle began to take form, it was a topsy-turvy scene I looked down upon.

Ogallala, Nebraska, undated

The town itself consisted of

The one store and the score of saloons, dance halls, and gambling joints that lined up south of the railway track and formed the only street Ogallala could boast, were packed with wild and woolly, long-haired and bearded, rent and dusty, lusting and thirsty, red-sashed brush-splitters in from the trail outfits for a frolic.

And every now and then a chorus of wild, shrill yells and a fusillade of shots rent the air that would make a tenderfoot think a battle-royal was on. But there was nothing serious doing, then; it was only cowboy frolic.

One of the principle saloons was Jim Tucker's Cowboy's Rest. Inside was

a rude pine "bar" on the right invited the thirsty; on the left, noisy " tin horns," whirring wheels, clicking faro " cases," and rattling chips lured the gamblers; while away to the rear of the room stretched a hundred feet or more of dance-hall, on each of whose rough benches sat enthroned a temptress—hard of eye, deep-lined of face, decked with cheap gauds, sad wrecks of the sea of vice here lurching and tossing for a time.

* * * *

The room was packed: a solid line of men and women before the bar, every table the centre of a crowding group of players, the dance-hall floor and benches jam-full of a roystering, noisy throng. At the moment all were happy and peace reigned. But there was one obvious source of discord— there were " not enough gals to go round"; not enough, indeed, if those present had been multiplied by ten, a situation certain to stir jealousies and strife among a lot of wild nomads for whom this was the first chance in four months to gaze into a woman's eyes.

And while Bronson was standing in the corner having just been introduced to a Miss De Puyster, Bill Thompson, brother of the infamous shootist Ben Thompson, popped in the door and did a quick shot at proprietor, Jim Tucker. Tucker fell. Thinking Tucker dead, Thompson turned to leave. But Tucker was not dead. Only three of his fingers had been shot off. Tucker coming to, grabbed a shotgun, followed Thompson out the door, and

levelled the gun across the stump of his maimed left hand, and emptied into Bill's back, at about six paces, a trifle more No. 4 duck- shot than his system could assimilate.

The festivities were only briefly interrupted. Bronson continued:

erhaps altogether ten minutes were wasted on this incident and the time taken to tourniquet and tie up Jim's wound and to pack Bill inside and stow him in a corner behind the faro lookout's chair, and then Jim's understudy called, " Pardners fo' th' next dance! " the fiddlers bravely tackled but soon got hopelessly beyond their depth in "The Blue Danube," and dancing and frolic were resumed, with "Miss De Puyster" still the belle of the ball.

Nebraska cattleman, John Bratt, whose home ranch was near North Platte, also had remembrances of Tucker's saloon. He recalled that cowboys would ride into the establishment and jump their horses on to the pool and billiard tables. Some, who were crack shots would shoot the glass out of a man's hand while it was up to his mounth or see how close they could shoot off a cigar in a man's mouth without grazing his nose with a bullet. See Bratt, John: Trails of Yesterday, The University Publishing Company, Lincoln, 1921.

Bratt described Ogallala as:

a wide-awake, wild, and sometimes wicked town. For many years it was the distributing point of the Texas cattle, but later owners began to bring up their own herds to sell to the Northern cattle growers. I have many times seen as many as fifty thousand cattle ranging, being held in different herds along the bottom and foothills on the south side of the South Platte River, strung along from ten to fifteen miles east, west and south of Ogallala. Ogallala had its numerous saloons, dance houses and gambling dens, all running in full blast both night and day. The town marshal was a brave fellow, but there were times when he went to cover, being unable to control the bad ones, not a few of whom had to be killed.

Grant Shumway put it differentlly. Being marshal of Ogallala "required nerve and good judgment."

Bratt recalled that one night, the cowboys got into a fight in the saloon. After completing the wrecking of the saloon, they piled out into the darkness of the street. The only light was the faint glow from one of the windows of the Leach House hotel. The light was cast by a solitary oil lamp sitting on a wash stand. About 15 shots came through the window, smashing the oil lamp. Within the room at the time were some of the leading cattle barons including one of the Bosler Brothers all scrambling to exit the chamber. Bratt marveled that no one was wounded, killed, or why the hotel did not burn down.

The Great Texas Trail ended in the 1890's. Few reminders of Ogallala's notorious past remain. One is the Works Progress Administration mural in the post office.

Mural in Ogallala Post Office.

Caldwell and Ogallala were not the only places where there were resorts to tempt trail drivers. In 1892, Harry Arthur Gant night hawked on a drive for the C Y from Casper to the Company's northern ranges in Dakota Territory. He recalled in his "I Saw Them Ride Away," Castle Knob Publishing, 2009, p. 72, that as the drovers approached the Belle Fourche they came across "cat wagons." The ladies within would set up their wagons near where the trail would pass. When trail driving season was over, the ladies would move close to sheep shearing camps and later to hay camps before winter would set in.

From Ogallala the trails split off. One followed the Platte to Fort Laramie and westwardly to provide cattle for the Fort Washakie and Crow agencies in Wyoming. Another crossed the Niabrara River and ultimatly connected to the Cheyenne River. From there it headed northward to Powder River and up to Miles City. Other branches went through Pine Bluffs and northward past Lusk. One branch reached northward into Saskatchewan.

Next Page: Texas Trail continued, Powder River Country.