CHAPTER X. SCENERY ON THE TRAIL.
From the earliest westward march of civilization, the beautiful valley of the Platte, through which the Salt Lake Trail coursed its way, has been a grand pathway to the mountains, and thence over their snow-capped summits to the golden shores of the Pacific Ocean.
In a little more than a third of a century, through the agency of that grandest of civilizers, the locomotive, the charming and fertile valley has been carved into prosperous commonwealths, whose development from an almost desert waste is a marvellous monument to the restless energy of the American people, and of their power to conquer the wilderness.
In 1842 Lieutenant John C. Fremont travelled up the Blue, on his first exploring expedition, and arrived in the Platte at Grand Island, where the party separated, a portion proceeding up the North Fork of the river, toward Laramie, and another up the South Fork. The following year the great pathfinder ventured on a second expedition by the way of the Kansas and Republican rivers, reaching the Platte at the mouth of Beaver Creek.
In 1847 the Platte Valley became the highway of the Mormons in their wonderful exodus from Illinois to Utah, and ten years later the trails made by that remarkable sect were followed by the rush of pioneers to the newly discovered gold fields of California.
Twelve years later, the beautiful valley was traversed by a greater rush of adventurers than ever before in its history. In the summer of 1850 Mr. Green Russell and his adventurous companions discovered gold on a tributary of the Platte. The report spread so rapidly that the greatest excitement at once developed on the frontier of Missouri, which was then the boundary between civilization and the unknown Far West. In the following spring the exodus to the gold fields began. The old overland route was famed for its picturesque scenery, but as the weary traveller slowly trod the dangerous trail, he was too often in constant dread of attacks by the blood-thirsty savages to allow his mind to dwell upon the details of the magnificent landscape. To-day, however, as the same route is practically shod with iron, the tourist, from the windows of his car on the Union Pacific, may safely contemplate the historic valley. Its beautiful towns and hamlets, its cultivated plains, its watercourses, its skyward-reaching peaks, may be seen in a security which would have passed the very dreams of a pioneer fifty years ago.
The scenery is sufficiently wild to please the most exacting, even to-day; for its isolated buttes, rocky bluffs, lightning-splintered gorges, foaming torrents, fantastically formed bowlders, and towering mountains brook no change at the hands of puny man, and are as firm as the rock itself. Under a sky that nowhere else seems to be of such an intensely cerulean hue, the charm of the region is intensified.
Before a European ever looked upon it, the Platte Valley was for centuries, in all probability, a gateway to the mountains. The prehistoric mound-builders, perhaps, travelled its lonely course, and on through the portals of the great Continental Divide, to the southern sea. The rude, primitive savage of North America, with whom the hairy mammoth and primeval elephant were contemporary, in a geological epoch, whose distance in the misty past appalls, traversed the silent trail across the continent. He packed on his back the furs of the colder regions, where he lived. He carried copper from the mines on the shores of Lake Superior; the horns of the moose, elk, and deer; robes of the buffalo, the wolf, and kindred animals. Among his merchandise were masses of red pipestone from the sacred quarries east of the Missouri. He journeyed with these treasures to the people of the southwest and exchanged them for what to him were equally precious: brilliant feathers of tropical birds; valuable gems, like the revered turquoise; rare metals; woven fabrics, and other commodities foreign to his own wind-swept and snow-bound plains.
The Platte Valley, for untold ages, was a beautiful, awful wilderness, thronged by stately headed elk, and the resort of vast herds of buffalo, deer, and antelope. Until a few years ago their skulls and bones could still be seen in some localities, scattered thick upon the ground between the bluffs and the river. Now all the game has vanished, excepting, perhaps, a few antelope and deer in some favoured mountain recess, where the white man has not invaded the rocky soil with his plough.
Until fifty years ago the whole region watered by the Platte was regarded as a veritable desert, never to be brought under the domain of agriculture, but forever doomed to a hopeless sterility. Its inhabitants were a wild, merciless horde of savages, whose only aim was murder, and an unceasing warfare against any encroachment upon their domain by the hated palefaces.
The river is very shallow, and for that reason was called by the Otoes, whose country embraced the region at its mouth, the Ne-bras-ka, and re-christened the Platte by the French trappers, a term synonymous to that given by the Indians.
The Platte River, nearly three-quarters of a century ago, was called by Washington Irving, The most magnificent and most useless of streams. Abstraction made of its defects, nothing can be more pleasing than the perspective which it presents to the eye. Its islands have the appearance of a labyrinth of groves floating on the waters. Their extraordinary position gives an air of youth and loveliness to the whole scene. If to this be added the undulations of the river, the waving of the verdure, the alternations of light and shade, the succession of these islands varying in form and beauty, and the purity of the atmosphere, some idea may be formed of the pleasing sensations which the traveller experiences on beholding a scene that seems to have started fresh from the hands of the Creator.