Mail deliveries have been few and far between lately. It is now the first week of September and the last time I received anything was back on 17 August. I’m waiting on quite a few postcards, some of which were mailed as far back as early July!
Both of the most recently-received postcards were from the United States. This one was sent by my sister during a recent visit to North Platte in southwestern Nebraska, my first card from the 37th state. I lived in Kansas — the next state to the south — from 1977 until I moved to New Mexico in July 1994. My first visit to the state was to see Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band when they played a November 1984 concert in Lincoln. I journeyed to Omaha several times for performances by Concrete Blonde and Lincoln-based The Millions in the early 1990’s. I attended the Omaha wedding of two of my sister’s friends (and, by extension, my friends) a couple of weeks before my sister got married herself. In fact, the reason for her recent visit was because those same friends had just moved to North Platte.
This is a railroad town, first platted as a railroad town by chief engineer Grenville Dodge. He chose the location at the confluence of the North and South Platte Rivers, forming the Platte River. The town, first known as “Hell on Wheels”, received its first train in 1866. Dodge then constructed major shop facilities and winter quarters for its crews. In 1867 it began conducting main line operations through the town. The early yard was a flat-switched yard with 20 tracks. North Platte was the western terminus of the Union Pacific Railway from the summer of 1867 until the next section to Laramie, Wyoming, was opened the following summer. Even though Congress had authorized the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1862, it was only extended as far as Nebraska City by the start of the summer of 1867. The 275-mile section from Nebraska City to North Platte was completed in less than six weeks.
Buffalo Bill located Scouts Rest Ranch at North Platte because it allowed him to move his Wild West Show by train or by wagon across the United States relatively quickly.
Union Pacific Railroad’s Bailey Yard — the world’s largest rail yard — is located within the city. The Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center is an eight-story building which overlooks the expansive railroad staging area. Today, North Platte is served only by freight trains, but during World War II the city was famous for the North Platte Canteen. Tens of thousands of volunteers from North Platte and surrounding towns met the troop trains passing through North Platte, offering coffee, sandwiches and hospitality to more than six million service members during a 10-minute stop as they were convoyed across the United States. After 105 years, passenger service was discontinued in 1971.
Spain dispatched two trading expeditions up the Missouri in 1794 and 1795; the second, under James Mackay, established the first European settlement in Nebraska near the mouth of the Platte. Later that year, Mackay’s party built a trading post, dubbed Fort Carlos IV (Fort Charles), near present-day Homer. In 1819, the United States established Fort Atkinson as the first US Army post west of the Missouri River, just east of present-day Fort Calhoun. The army abandoned the fort in 1827 as migration moved further west. European-American settlement did not begin in any numbers until after 1848 and the California Gold Rush. On May 30, 1854, the U.S. Congress created the Kansas and the Nebraska territories, divided by the Parallel 40° North, under the Kansas–Nebraska Act. The Nebraska Territory included parts of the current states of Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. The territorial capital of Nebraska was Omaha.
In the 1860s, after the US government forced many of the Native American tribes to cede their lands and settle on reservations, it opened large tracts of land to agricultural development by Europeans and Americans. Under the Homestead Act, thousands of settlers migrated into Nebraska to claim free land granted by the federal government. Because so few trees grew on the prairies, many of the first farming settlers built their homes of sod, as had the Native Americans such as the Omaha. The first wave of settlement gave the territory a sufficient population to apply for statehood. Nebraska became the 37th state on March 1, 1867, and the capital was moved from Omaha to the center at Lancaster, later renamed Lincoln after the recently assassinated President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. The battle of Massacre Canyon on August 5, 1873, was the last major battle between the Pawnee and the Sioux.
During the 1870’s to the 1880’s, Nebraska experienced a large growth in population. Several factors contributed to attracting new residents. The first was that the vast prairie land was perfect for cattle grazing. This helped settlers to learn the unfamiliar geography of the area. The second factor was the invention of several farming technologies. Agricultural inventions such as barbed wire, wind mills, and the steel plow, combined with good weather, enabled settlers to make use of Nebraska as prime farming land. By the 1880s, Nebraska’s population had soared to more than 450,000 people. The Arbor Day holiday was founded in Nebraska City by territorial governor J. Sterling Morton. The National Arbor Day Foundation is still headquartered in Nebraska City, with some offices in Lincoln.
In the late nineteenth century, many African Americans migrated from the South to Nebraska as part of the Great Migration, primarily to Omaha which offered working class jobs in meatpacking, the railroads and other industries. Omaha has a long history of civil rights activism. Blacks encountered discrimination from other Americans in Omaha and especially from recent European immigrants, ethnic whites who were competing for the same jobs. In 1912, African Americans founded the Omaha chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to work for improved conditions in the city and state.
Since the 1960’s, Native American activism in the state has increased, both through open protest, activities to build alliances with state and local governments, and in the slower, more extensive work of building tribal institutions and infrastructure. Native Americans in federally recognized tribes have pressed for self-determination, sovereignty and recognition. They have created community schools to preserve their cultures, as well as tribal colleges and universities. Tribal politicians have also collaborated with state and county officials on regional issues.
On March 22, 1929, the Nebraska state legislature designated the western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) as the official state bird. It is also the state bird for Kansas, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. This is a medium-sized icterid bird, about 8.5 inches (22 centimeters) in length, nesting on the ground in open country in western and central North American grassland. It feeds mostly on insects, but also seeds and berries and has distinctive calls described as watery or flute-like, which distinguish it from the closely-related eastern meadowlark. Adults have yellow underparts, with a black “V” on the breast, and white flanks which are streaked with black. Their upper parts are mostly brown, but also have black streaks. These birds have long pointed bills and their heads are striped with light brown and black.
The breeding habitats of the western meadowlark are grasslands, prairies, pastures, and abandoned fields, all of which may be found from across western and central North America to northern Mexico. Where their range overlaps with the eastern species, these birds prefer thinner, drier vegetation; the two types of birds generally do not interbreed but do defend territory against one another. Their nests are situated on the ground, and are covered with a roof woven from grass. There may be more than one nesting female in a male’s territory. Their nests are sometimes destroyed by mowing operations with eggs and young in them.
Western meadowlarks forage on the ground and beneath the soil for insects, grain and weed seeds (it’s estimated that at least 65-70% of their diet consists of beetles, cutworms, caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, sow bugs, and snails). Their predators include hawks, crows, skunks, coyotes, raccoons, and weasels. Western meadowlarks are still abundant but declining throughout their range; they are a protected non-game species.