Rediscovering the Oregon Trail


Just more than 90 years ago, my late father was born in Jefferson County, Nebraska. This rural county on the Kansas border has been losing population for decades. The interstate highway system never touches the county, bypassing its county seat of Fairbury.

But this area was once the focal point of the nation’s most daring, ambitious travelers.

In the late 1850s, the Oregon Trail brought quite a few travelers through Jefferson County. It’s possible to walk on the actual trail, preserved in Rock Creek State Historical Park. You can still see the deep ruts the steady stream of wagon trains carved into the landscape more than 150 years ago.

This was also the route of the Pony Express. Here at Rock Creek Station, riders would quickly change horses and continue their sprints across the prairie. Recruits were to be “wiry of build, and preferably orphans.” There were stations like this across the Pony Express route, spaced according to the length of trail on which a horse would begin to tire.

At this point in the Oregon Trail, Rock Creek was little more than a ravine. But it posed one of the first major topographical obstacles for the westbound travelers. The property owner built a bridge across Rock Creek, and charged the travelers a toll for its use.

This remote station was the scene of a murder that grabbed national attention. “Wild Bill” Hickok was judged to have acted in self-defense, but the shootout was fictionalized and exploited by dime novelists as Hickok’s reputation and legend grew.

The difficulties faced along the Oregon Trail are well-documented. Illness claimed the largest number of lives. It was a risky passage with no guarantees of success. Of the half-million who made the trip during a 20-year stretch, about 10 percent died en route.

That’s quite a bit of history for an area largely unknown to the rest of the country.

Visiting Rock Creek Station’s restored buildings and visitor center requires the purchase of a one-day Nebraska Park Entry Permit for the modest sum of $5. Finding the place is a bit of a challenge. It’s a few miles east of Fairbury at the intersection of 710th Rd. and 574th Ave.

Discoveries like this will enhance your travel experience. Get off the main roads and find out more about the states and regions you visit. And while you’re at it, try to imagine how difficult such travel was in the days before paved roads and internal combustion engines.