Omaha, now an active city of 390,000 was formed in 1854 by land speculators from Council Bluffs, now a much smaller city on the other side of the Missouri River in Iowa. Back in 1804, although the Lewis & Clark expedition made careful note of the Platte River that empties into the Missouri just south of Omaha, they continued north into the Dakotas on their search for a route to the Pacific Ocean. And as such they missed greater Omaha's significance as a gateway to the West.
At a point in time when the Missouri River marked the end of civilization, it was the Platte River corridor that was highly significant in the westward expansion of the United States. Although it was never worthy of boat travel, during pioneer days for example, the common humorous description was that the Platte was "a mile wide and an inch deep", it still provided fresh water, game, and a clear path into a new frontier. Once an informal route for fur traders, from the time Major Stephen Long mapped it in 1820, it set a course for growing waves of pioneers headed west for the allurement of California’s gold fields, the rich farmland of Oregon or to Utah’s promised land.
It had been Long’s work, commissioned by the US Army, that had removed any confusion the Platte may have caused. At what is now a little over half way across Nebraska, the Platte split into two rivers. One, the North Platte, comes down from what is now the state of Wyoming, while the other, the South Platte flows up from Colorado . As such, when Long established the north fork as the way to get west, an important door had been opened to the settlement of far away lands
As the trail became more and more civilized and wagon trains began to use it in the 1840’s, it was the Platte River passage that formed much of the basis for the Oregon and Mormon Trails. In fact, Omaha was the main point of departure for the Mormon Trail that ended in Salt Lake City, 1,032 miles away. Oregon Trail users typically began their 2,000 mile trek in Independence, MO, traveled across the state of Missouri and picked up the north fork of the Platte in eastern Nebraska. In all, from 1840 to 1870, more than 500,000 emigrants went west along the Great Platte River Road from department points along the Missouri River.
As an important doorway to a new America, it was Omaha that supplied many of these journeys. Since covered wagons traveled at one to two miles an hour, these travelers needed provisions that would last for up to six months. Omaha was also kept busy with repairs and any other last minute needs those headed west required.
Omaha also served as a support headquarters for those commercial ventures that had come to rely on the Platte. The legendary Pony Express and Wells Fargo stage coach lines both had offices in Omaha. While the horse riders, many carrying news about the Civil War, were put out of business after only 19 months in 1861 by the copper wires of the first transcontinental telegraph their route helped establish, the Wells Fargo operations continued. They carried gold, mail and other valuables from California right up until rail signaled an end to all this frontier spirit.
In 1869, when the transcontinental railroad commandeered the Platte River basin for its tracks, Omaha no longer stood out as one of the major lines in the sand between the west and the east. Before the Union Pacific left Omaha to meet the Central Pacific in Promentory, Utah, Omaha had once been the end of the line for all trains headed west.
Omaha’s significance in the settlement of the West was pushed even further from the collective memory when in 1913 the Lincoln Highway began to use dirt roads along the Platte River corridor to connect the coasts. A powerful example which I will explore in an entire chapter for how we are going to make the National Bicycle Greenway real, the Lincoln Highway connected New York City to San Francisco. It did so at a time when, like our bike ride, coast to coast travel in a car was a several month journey fraught with adventure.
As the Lincoln Highway grew up and was ultimately superseded in 1974 by the coast to coast Interstate referred to as I-80, future transcontinental travelers would roar by the rich heritage of these lands. They would do so without realizing the hardship their ancestors had suffered to conquer them.
Fortunately however, the state has outfitted the Lincoln Highway, now referred to as US 30 in Nebraska, with a generous bike lane the length of the entire state so at least some of its travelers can slow down and appreciate. If that’s not enough to show that Nebraska is committed to honoring its past, Omaha, its biggest city, also has plans on the books to connect to Council Bluffs with an epic bike bridge. Three thousand feet long and 27 feet wide, it will place Omaha at he American forefront once again. A beautiful suspension span, this water crossing will not only connect two states, but it is also important for the symbolism it represents. It will allow man for the first time to use his own two legs to move easily back and forth from what was once the new frontier of the West. And all of this will leave Nebraska soil at the spot where the Lewis and Clark expedition first landed in Omaha.
And even before the bridge soon gets built, Omaha, thanks to the Papio Missouri River Natural Resource District, already has 60 miles of concrete bike trails running north to south through the city. Add a Mayor who jogs and cycles, a zealous Convention and Visitors Bureau, lifelong bike advocates and various nonprofits (ACT!vate Omaha, Papio Missouri River Natural Resource District, National Park Service, Omaha by Design, Visit Omaha, and Omaha Pedalers Bicycle Club) that daily work to improve Omahans' quality of life, indeed everything is in place for Omaha to now make its east to west connections across Omaha a reality.
And as they connect to a lot of the good work those Nebraska cities west of them are doing for their cyclists, Omaha will be bringing wealth back from the West once again. We look forward to the day when cyclists have redefined the new connection between Omaha and San Francisco. Instead of much of it being a car wasteland to be ignored, it will be our National Bicycle Greenway that will be a celebration of these lands and the small towns that serve them.