Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 2008


Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 3, Summer 2008, pp. 191-207.


Copyright 2008 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


On December 23, 1878, Ohio resident D. F. Vanniss wrote to George P. Cather, the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad's land agent in Red Cloud, Nebraska. He asked Cather to buy for him "the best 160 acres of R. R. Land in your county," and just to be clear he emphasized, "I want it before somebody else gets it." Cather received many such breathless letters, urgent, pleading, and intense inquiries about the lands the railroad had for sale. Nearly all wanted to know the position of the allimportant railroad. Almost all inquired about the availability of the all-important resource: water. Another buyer, an Illinois man, wrote Cather about "a map of the B + M R. R. Lands" which showed "some full sections are unsold." He requested a particular section of land shown on the map with a stream nearby, and he asked Cather to confirm if there really was "living water" there. Still another man wrote to explain that he was considering pulling up stakes in Indiana and heading west. He predicted that some of his neighbors would follow him if he went, while others were too "cowardly." He expressed great confidence in the "country" and was especially enthusiastic about the prospects of the railroad. "I am well pleased that we are geting [sic] a rail road through our County," he wrote, "and would like to know where it is going through. I think it will be the making of that County. The people here thout [sic] kind of curious that I would go and by [sic] land so far from the railroad."

Rail and water, water and rail. These were the indicators of value and future promise on the Great Plains in the 1870s. A man or a woman could make something of the land with them, but would probably fail without them, or so it was understood. Economic failure was a real possibility in the depression years after 1873, but the decade was also an era of dynamic growth and change as the effects of extensive railroad building played out in community after community across the region. Vanniss and his contemporaries arrived in Nebraska through a most modern series of events-they read about distant lands, scoured market information, negotiated with brokers and experts on location, and tried to imagine or visualize the possibilities. The Burlington's promotional material touted its route as the "quickest and most direct road" and "the only line" that crossed the Missouri "over the Plattsmouth Steel Bridge." The road itself was the most advanced, direct, and up-to-date means of travel to get to the new lands for sale on the Plains.