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North Platte's Old West military outpostTell North Platte what you think
 
Courtesy of UPRR Museum & North Platte Public Library. Originally taken by A.J. Russell in 1869
The captain's and ranking officers' quarters. The captain's quarters are in the foreground and ranking officers lived in the building, at left.
Courtesy Photo­Image
An 1876 map of the outpost that protected Union Pacific's operations in North Platte. The original post (small rectangle) faced due north. Later, buildings faced the railroad tracks, which angle slightly to the northwest.
Photo by George Lauby
This house at 314 W. Sixth is thought to be built from the old quarters for ranking officers. Additions were built later in back.
Courtesy Photo­Image

A military post in the town of North Platte operated in conjunction with Fort McPherson in the late 1800s and left a colorful history.

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Soldiers from the post helped protect rail workers all the way to Colorado.

The outpost had the distinction of being the smallest military post built in Nebraska during the post Civil-War period.

On Jan. 2, 1867, railroad construction reached North Platte. North Platte soon became a freight division point, with vital shops and other facilities for Union Pacific.

It was soon evident “the Indian depredations had increased and protection for the rail workers laying the rail line to Julesburg was needed,” according to Thomas R. Buecker, author of an article about the North Platte Station in Nebraska History Magazine, Fall 1982.

Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, Chief Engineer of the Union Pacific said in his annual report to Gen. Sheridan that, “Every mile (of the railroad) has to be run within range of musket.”

A company of soldiers was sent to North Platte on Jan. 29, 1867 to provide security for the railroad depot as well the newly built railroad bridge that spanned the Platte River east of town.

Company I, 36th Infantry, was the first company to arrived, commanded by Capt. Arthur MacArthur, who was the father of Gen. Douglas MacArthur of World War II fame.

At first, the company camped in tents north of the tracks. The railroad furnished quarters and fuel until military supplies reached North Platte.

Ten enlisted men and a non-commissioned officer were also stationed on the east end of the bridge.

Troops lived in harsh conditions during the first months, sleeping in tents. Not surprisingly, before long nine men deserted and headed east, but they were captured while trying to cross the bridge.

The railroad also contributed a prison for the deserters, who were confined in a guard house made of railroad rails that formed a 12-foot high triangle, according to “Experiences of Thomas O’Donnell White, a Workman in Building the Union Pacific Railroad” at the Nebraska State Historical Society.

In May 1867, Capt. MacArthur’s company was transferred to Fort Sedgwick, Colo. but Indian attacks were frequent from North Platte to Julesburg.

Also, during the time friendly Indians started wandering into North Platte, which made citizens nervous. Requests were made for a detachment of 12-15 soldiers to help differentiate friendly Indians from hostiles.

Help finally arrived and soldiers returned to town, prompted by the derailment and burning of a train near Plum Creek east of Lexington, and the death of six workmen on Aug. 6, 1867.

In late August, North Platte became a permanent station. The new post was briefly named Camp Sargent, but soon the name became the North Platte Station.


Expansion

In the fall of 1870, a cavalry company replaced the infantry, and a stable to hold 85 horses and a small grain storehouse were built in the spring 1871.

In May 1872, a hospital was erected. A dispensary was added in 1874.

But to the residents of North Platte, the fort looked drab.

“We wish Uncle Sam would have the barracks and the residences of the officers painted a brighter and more colorful color,” the North Platte Enterprise commented. “To do so would add greatly to the otherwise handsome and beautiful grounds of the military and be more in keeping with the cheerful spirits and deportment of the officers and their fair and charming ladies.”


Town, commander tangle

A scandal in the winter 1874-1875 almost caused the station to be closed.

Post Commissary Sgt. Page was arrested for selling government coal and oats to civilians. He was put in the guard house, but escaped the night of Jan. 30. Patrols chased him and fired reckless shots that struck several North Platte houses.

The conduct of the patrols did not set well with the residents of North Platte, while the commanding officer, Capt. Mills, believe civilians helped Page escape and believed they were hiding Page in town.

Mills reported the incident his superior at Fort McPherson, who sent word to Secretary of War William W. Belknap in Washington, D.C.

Belknap replied in a telegraph and ordered Dudley to abandon the post until the citizens learned “to respect the soldiers sent to protect them.”

Faced with the abandonment, residents changed their attitudes. Representatives from North Platte took a petition of more than 100 names to Gen. Edward O. C. Ord in Omaha to pass on to Washington.

On Feb. 5, the war department agreed to let the station continue. The people of North Platte were relieved, but still felt that Capt. Mills had made things worse than they really were, according to the North Platte Republican newspaper.

In March 1875, North Platte Station was declared an independent post. Capt. Mills and his company were sent to Camp Sheridan and a new set of troops arrived in North Platte.

The new commander, Capt. James Henton, paraded soldiers through the streets on holidays as a public relations tactic, drawing admiration from townsfolk.


Post fire

On Sept. 11, 1875, the post stable caught on fire, giving the town of North Platte a spectacular display of fireworks. The building was used to store ammunition. At 8:45 p.m. the building was struck by lightning and the magazine blew up.

The building contained 12,000 rounds of rifle cartridges and 80 12-pound howitzer shells, according to the North Platte Republican on Sept. 12, 1875. No one was injured, but 100 tons of hay, several hundred bushels of corn, stoves, 10 mules and harnesses were lost.

By 1876, Indian problems had declined. Troops at North Platte were sent elsewhere. By June 1876 one sergeant, one corporal and eight privates from North Platte performed guard duty at Fort McPherson, according to military records.

In summer 1877, only 15 men -- seven non-commissioned officers and eight privates --remained at the station.


Train robbery

But action fired up again. On Sept. 19, 1877, Sam Bass and five companions robbed a Union Pacific train at Big Springs. Bass was a notorious Texas outlaw, infamous for train robberies. The holdup was considered the “boldest train robbery that had occurred in the West,” according to Louis A. Holmes, author of “Fort McPherson, Nebraska: Guardian of the Tracks and Trails”.

Until the train arrived, Bass and his companions were hiding out around Ogallala after a stage holdup on Whitewood Creek in Dakota Territory, where they killed the driver.

So when the train stopped at Big Springs, the outlaws were ready. The crew and passengers were covered at gunpoint, while a rapid search was made of all persons and the express car. Sixty thousand dollars in newly minted gold coins (more than $4 million today) was among the loot seized, according to Holmes.

A telegraph was sent to Fort McPherson to send available troops after the robbers. The soldiers joined the search, but returned to the post several days later without the legendary Bass and his companions.

That was the last major duty performed by troops at the North Platte Station.

On Oct. 19, the quartermaster stable was destroyed by fire along with three mules, one horse, harness and forage. The fire was thought to be started by an arsonist, but that was never proved.

The last company officially left the post on Nov. 4, 1877. Capt. William Jordan, with 10 enlisted men from Fort McPherson, stayed in North Platte to pack up and remove the property left behind.

On Jan. 31, 1878, nearly 11 years to the day after the first troops arrived at North Platte, all the troops left the station. Caretakers from Fort McPherson took care of the buildings and grounds until the North Platte Station was officially abandoned on May 31, 1881.

In Gen. Cook’s annual report on Sept. 29, 1881, he reported that the buildings were sold for “satisfactory prices.”


Remnants

Today there are a couple remnants of the old outpost in North Platte.

One of them, a marker that incorrectly indicates the 100th meridian, is at the Lincoln County Courthouse.

The North Platte Daily Bulletin reported in 1931 that the sandstone marker marked what was thought to be the 100th meridian at the station in 1867. It once stood next to the flag staff at the station, according to the Bulletin.

Even though the marker was not on the 100th meridian, it stood for many years in the front yard of the William LeDoyt house at 403 West Sixth, part of the old station, before it was moved to the courthouse.

In reality, North Platte is near the 101st meridian, and Cozad is on the 100th meridian.

In the Bulletin report, Mrs. York Hinman said she had lived in the old barracks after the post was abandoned. Hinman said the barracks building was later broken into two separate houses and moved to the 600 block of Maple St.

The old barracks’ buildings are unrecognizable today if they are still standing.

However, the building that served as the ranking officers’ quarters is thought to still exist at 314 W. Sixth. The house now stands on a basement and foundation. The front porch and rear rooms have been added, but the core is the same dimensions of the ranking officers quarters. The house is owned by Kaycee Anderson, a researcher at the North Platte Public Library.


This report was first published in the July 24 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.


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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 10/2/2013
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