Ogallala was the "Gateway to the Northern Plains" from the 1870s to 1885. Cattle kings from Montana to Texas haggled over prices in "Tuck's Saloon" where gold flowed freely across the tables, liquor across the bar, and occasionally blood across the floor when some cowhand's luck ran out in this untamed territory.
Earlier, trappers had learned about friendly Indians, the Pawnee in the Republican valley, and those not so friendly, the Sioux to the north, who were a constant menace. White men found it very dangerous to travel near a bluff in this area that was the sacred council grounds of the Sioux. The government placed forts at intervals along the Oregon Trail, and soldiers to protect those traveling across the plains to the west.
It is assumed that Ogallala had its beginning in 1867 when the Union Pacific forged an "iron trail" along the Platte. While there were many who worked on the railroad and followed the railhead, Ogallala's early history was unspectacular. For many years it promised to be nothing more than a section house (with a dining hall for travelers), water tank for the trains, and a place where the frontier crossed paths with progress.
Louis Aufdengarten, who arrived with the army in 1868, established a general store and saloon on the corner of Railroad Street and the trail leading south to the Platte. He did business primarily with the buffalo hunters.
Ogallala, a name taken from the Oglala branch of Teton Sioux Indians, did not have a post office until 1873. Philip Lonergan, who had worked on the railroad, was named postmaster. In 1874 the railroad built holding pens and loading chutes just west of town, hoping to attract shippers. Soon Ogallala became a cowtown. "The Cowboy's Rest," "Crystal Palace," and "Ogallala House" were built to accommodate the drovers bringing huge herds of cattle up the Chisholm and Texas Trails to the railroad.
In the late 1870s when the Sioux had been confined to reservations, cattlemen and ranchers forged into the open area. It is noted that in 1880 Ogallala still consisted of only a few shops, a school, hotel, two dwelling houses, and about 25 permanent residents. A courthouse was built in 1888.
Winters and early spring were quite placid, but in June things began to hum as the first Texas trail herds arrived. Soon sleeping rooms and meals were hard to find. Tales of law and order are classic, and "Boot Hill" is a real place. Activity continued at a fever pitch until late summer. By November the cowboys had gone home and the floaters, gamblers, and trades-people drifted back to Omaha or Cheyenne. People lived in quiet repose until the next spring.
Farmers and settlers arrived in Ogallala in the mid-1880s, encouraged by the U.P.'s promotion to buy their "cheap land." When an epidemic of Texas fever was brought in by cattle that trailed across the plains in 1884, it ended the romantic "cowboy era." The disease spread quickly and caused heavy losses to local herds. A ban on Texas cattle was a blow to the community, the stockyards, and those who lived on the seasonal influx of money. The local cattle industry rose again, with Ogallala the commercial center of the Platte valley -- but in a modified form and never again as in those wild early years.
There were two early newspapers, the "Keith County News," owned by Anna Gray Clark, a proponent of the Democratic party, and the "Republican," under the leadership of Mrs. Cary Goodall, supporting that political view. There was a constant conflict of opinion, giving historians at least two sides to every incident.
For many years the Platte had to be forded. This was always dangerous because of the fast current and quicksand beneath the waters. A bridge was built in 1884 for $12,000, but was said to be very unstable.
Even in its infancy, Ogallala established schools and churches. Over the years the town's civic government has kept pace with the needs of a growing community. Major roads now include U.S. Highways 30 and 26, Nebraska Highway 61, and Interstate 80 just south across the Platte.
The Ogallala of today is a delightful contrast of the old and new. One can tour "Front Street," then shop "Main Street" with many retail shops and awholesale district. Lake McConaughy, just a few miles north, provides the finest in fishing, boating, recreation, and the advantage of irrigated croplands. The economy is highly diversified.
The 1980 census indicated that Ogallala is one of Nebraska's growing communities. It has excellent schools, churches, and civic organizations, and a standard of living well above the average for a medium-sized community. Our town went from a very wild place to being a prosperous and progressive town of 5,638 people.
By Emil Elmshaeuser, Rte 2 Box 37, Ogallala, NE 69153
"Early History of Keith County." by Emil Elmshaeuser