Thursday, October 25, 2018

A Railroad Party

July 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Bill, which opened a line from Missouri River to California. 

Construction crawled, but by October, rails reached the 100th meridian, 247 miles west of Omaha.

Union Pacific celebrated. 

Two trains chugged down the track to the 100th meridian. Red, white, and blue streamers billowed alongside the cars, and festive antlers perched on top of locomotives. 

The first train lugged party supplies, Western style: tents, buffalo robes, cases of champagne. 

The second train brought 140 party goers—the guest list loaded with influential capitalists and Congressional dignitaries. 

They whooped it up for three days, dancing around a huge bonfire, peering at a prairie dog town, applauding Pawnee war dancers, and eating fresh-killed antelope for dinner. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Stagecoach King

Benjamin Holladay, the Stagecoach King, who owned the world's largest stagecoach line, hired William Parker Carr as a hunter.

"The Republican River valley," Holladay said, "is a world-class place for game."

So Carr headed west, riding for miles. The Republican River wiggled and jiggled but its path, as a whole, ran straight. 

Enormous flocks of birds cast shadows on Carr's path. Wild grasses undulated. Leaf-shedding trees hugged the river into a canopy that shimmered in the wind. 

When Carr stopped, bird calls crescendoed, chirps and chatter, trills and twitters, warbles, whistles, and hoots.

Finding game was easy. Carr could kill hundreds and fail to dent the enormous herds. Elk covered more than an acre; scads of black-tailed and white-tailed deer and antelope dotted the plains. 

Other game also flourished. Wild turkeys and rabbits, grouse and coyote had multiplied so that thinning seemed impossible. 

All these zillions of creatures had been drawn to the valley for the same reason: a profusion of tender grasses and clear spring-fed creeks.

This lush paradise would become Harlan County. Ninety years later, I lived there.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

“Wild Jim” Lane

Kansas folks got het up about "Wild Jim" Lane, a Free State leader.

His hair stood every which way; his mouth slashed across his face. When he spoke, he swore and worse. Laughter rippled his belly. His energy was amazing.

When the Topeka legislature elected "Wild Jim" to the U.S. Senate, he carried a Topeka Constitution to Washington, D.C. Before he could serve, Congress must accept that constitution. But it did not.

If he returned to Kansas, federal troops would imprison him for treason. So he toured. How he swayed an audience! Sometimes his voice wooed like a lullaby, sometimes stirred like a bugle. 

In Chicago, his speech created pandemonium. Gamblers threw pistols on the stage. Staid businessmen tossed in their wallets. Even newsboys cast up pennies. "Wild Jim" collected thousands of dollars, and a thousand men joined his army.

"Wild Jim" and his army ferried over the Missouri River, then cut across Nebraska Territory. Near Kansas, they dared not be seen on regular roads, so Free Staters marked a trail through the Kansas sea of grass with tall poles and piles of stone. "The Jim Lane Trail," they called it. 

On January 29, 1861, President Buchanan signed a free Kansas into the Union. At once, Kansas voters elected "Wild Jim" Lane, no longer wanted for treason, to the U.S. Senate.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Senate Revenge

Hostility about slavery thrived in the U.S. Senate.

On May 22, 1856, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an arrogant abolitionist, launched a tirade against Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, calling him an imbecile who has taken "a mistress who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; I mean, the harlot, Slavery."

Two days later, Sumner, writing letters at his desk, failed to notice Representative Preston Brooks.

"Mr. Sumner," Brooks said, "Your speech libels South Carolina, and my white-haired relative, Senator Butler. I've come to punish you."

Sumner rose. Brooks smashed Sumner's skull with a gold-headed cane, knocking him under his desk. The tall Senator struggled to rise from under the desk, bolted to the floor. Blood gushed down his face.

Using thighs as levers, Sumner ripped the desk from its bolts, freeing himself. Blinded by blood, he staggered. Brooks rained blows that shattered his cane. 

Sumner lurched, buckled and passed out. Brooks pummeled Sumner until legislators restrained him.

Brooks left, as others carried the unconscious Sumner, spurting blood. Three years would pass before he could resume his Senate duties.