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EARLY DREAMS OF COAL IN NEBRASKA.
BY GEORGE L. MILLER.
When the vanguard of the whole occupation and the pioneers first planted foot in Nebraska, a majority of them had come from the timber lands of their ancestral states. When they looked out upon vast oceans of treeless prairie lands, it was hard for them to understand how it was possible for them to be permanently occupied and subdued to the home-making uses of agriculture. They never thought of planting trees except for ornament and shade, where they might grow by proper nursing, for their rude little huts. How could trees grow on a "desert"? How could people wait for trees to be planted and grown, even if they could be made to grow at all?
As was quite natural, they were moved by instinct to dream and dig for coal. Holes in the hills on the Nebraska side of the Missouri river were bored in plenty from north to south, within the state boundaries, and there were more coal discoveries in those early days of blind hopes and doubting expectation than could be easily counted for numbers. Nor have we done making these coal discoveries yet. Large sums of money have been sunk in these vain quests for coal deposits of sufficient depth of vein and quantity to be made available for use. Veins of coal would, it is true, be frequently found, which would give good ground for confidence that they would sup: ply enough of the black diamonds for commercial use. they were only surface veins, and not the real coal measures. These surface veins would be 21% to 3 feet in thickness, counting the shale, and would yield fine coal, rich in carbon and heating power. These coal discoveries have only led to a large harvest of disappointed hopes and a large loss of money. The late J. Sterling Morton was an early and conspicuous victim .of these illusive coal discoveries in the territorial period, one of which was made on the Nebraska City farm. Dr. F. V. Hayden, the famous geologist who made the U. S. survey of the territory, was called in to examine the coal mine. Anxious
as he was on all accounts to make a favorable report, and especially on Mr. Morton's account, he told Mr. Morton the sad scientific truth about it, which more than forty years of time have confirmed. I doubt whether Mr. Morton lived quite long enough to forgive Hayden for telling him the truth. Professor Hayden always held, with Meek, that the coal beds which appear in Iowa dip down very deep in Nebraska, perhaps 3,000 feet. The nearest we ever came to getting a real · substantial bed of coal was when Mr. P. E. Iler put down a boring for anything that might be found, oil, gas, coal, or what not, at his old distillery in Omaha. A vein of coal was struck at a depth of several hundred feet which was, in fact, highly promising. Pennsylvania experts were brought out who said so. I was interested in a small way, but I did not forget the warning of Hayden. There were high hopes and much excitement. All Mr. Iler got was a supply of artesian water, which was very valuable to the distillery of which he was then the owner. But Peter's coal mine, like all the rest of them, "petered out.”
When, in 1855, I went with the army to Ft. Pierre, dreams of coal and of cedar and pine timber were excited by vague reports of these products on the upper Missouri, and I was asked to look out for them. My point of observation from the decks of a steamboat did not enable me to see anything but the color of coal, where slate and shale had been exposed by the wash of the river. We had heard of islands rich with cedar. I did not see them. As to pine timber, ditto. Reports were circulated of vast deposits of coal through Indians and traders, although I saw none of it. These reports were founded on fact, and it is there in unlimited quantity, to the great advantage of South Dakota. It is the lignite formation. A proposition was made a few years ago to some Omaha capitalists to bring this coal to the Nebraska markets by barging it down the river, but it was ascertained that the coal deteriorated by exposure. It is said to contain more carbon than the Wyoming product which Hayden discovered during the Union Pacific construction. It was in 1867, I think, that
Hayden brought down the first specimens of Wyoming coal to Omaha, in a gunny sack, and dumped them on the floor of the editorial apartment of the Omaha Daily Herald, which then called itself "a strictly religious journal, price $10 a year, invariably in advance."
This, in brief, is a mere outline of the brave efforts and uniform failures that were made in the past, and which still continue at longer or shorter intervals, to uncover coal measures on Nebraska soil. Behind these efforts and giving them energy have been the strong motives of individual gain, alluring visions of sudden and large wealth, and also, be it said, a higher, if not a more effective force of public spirit, striving for the advancement of the general welfare of the "young commonwealth." Nothing could be more commendable in motive on the part of ambitious citizens, however misdirected may have been their labors and sacrifices. As the editor of the Omaha Daily Herald, in the cream of my manhood life for many years, I used to share with others a keen regret that Nebraska could not boast the advantage of mineral wealth in any form to reinforce its prodigious capacity for agriculture. It was I who first said in the columns of that somewhat busy little newspaper, "Nebraska's an agricultural state, or it is nothing." Time and events have confirmed that judgment, and its implied forecast of its sole dependence for development, population, and power, and I may now repeat the refrain with variations, so to say, that enable me to declare that Nebraska's an agricultural state, and wouldn't be a mineral state if it could, even if coal measures were within 500 feet of the surface soil in a general distribution over the state. In other words, when all of our people were deploring the want of coal, they did not appreciate then, and may not now, that it would be a losing trade to swap our fertile and inexhaustible corn, winter wheat, and other cereal-producing lands, for coal lands, or any other mineral lands. Corn beats coal. Coal can be had for the asking from contiguous states by payment of prices for it that are little more than they would be if the state abounded in coal. But what more?
I am writing this paper at a time when a mighty movement for the improvement of our great rivers, the Missouri, greatest of all, by federal appropriations which will make our great Nebraska boundary line on the east as freely and safely navigable by boat and barge of great capacity as the lower Mississippi, to whose broad waters it is the most generous contributor. Then will come the day and hour when the lignite of the Dakotas will be safely housed and swiftly brought to our eager wharves at slight cost over mining, in endless supply for all uses, in easy competition with Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, and other coals.
I have another vision imparting more than shadowy forms to dreams of the future greatness of the Missouri valley, the Nile of the United States, and two times as rich as the historic river of Egypt, which are not all dreams. Major Chittenden of the U. S. A. says that this Missouri river kingdom of ours is capable of supporting a population of 25,000,000 people. Not pretending to know the half that this accomplished officer does of the great valley, I am bound to agree with him. But to ever realize such results, or any great results from dense populations in this valley, one condition precedent must be deemed vital, namely, the broad acres of this vast natural garden of agricultural wealth must be defended and protected from destructive invasions and overflow from the mad waters of the river. Its improvement for navigation means the certainty of this protection as an almost necessary incident of the work of deepening and widening the channel for boats and barges; at any rate, the people of the West, whose geographical heart Nebraska is, will not fail to redeem and secure, at the hands of the nation, that which is most certain to increase its population, wealth, and power beyond the wildest dreams of men.
UNVEILING OF THE THAYER MONUMENT, WYUKA CEMETERY.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 27, 1907, AT 2:30 P.M., LINCOLN, NEB.
ORDER OF EXERCISES.
The meeting was called to order by O. C. Bell, chairman of the committee, who introduced Hon. George L. Sheldon, Governor of Nebraska, as master of ceremonies.
O. C. Bell :—
Comrades, Fellow-citizens, Ladies, and Gentlemen:
We have assembled this afternoon of this sacred day to perform a duty which has been designated by an act of the legislature. For fear that you might not all know just why we are gathered together, I will explain a few facts relative to the occasion. Last winter there originated in the Post room of Farragut Post No. 25 the idea that a monument should be erected to the memory of General John M. Thayer. The duty of effecting this purpose was imposed on a committee consisting of five. They prepared a bill for the legis lature asking an appropriation of $1,250. This bill was presented to the legislature by our friend and comrade, Mr. W. B. Raper of Pawnee City. It was carried through both the house and senate without a dissenting voice. The same act provided for a committee of five to select and erect the monument. That duty has been performed. We have assembled today for the purpose of dedicating and unveiling that monument, and now, at this time, I wish to thank the officers of the state of Nebraska and the members of the legislature of 1907 for their kind act in bringing about this result.
Governor Sheldon, who will act as master of ceremonies, gave his aid in many ways that the committee might accomplish this work. I have the honor now of presenting to you Governor Sheldon, who will act as master of ceremonies. [Applause.]