Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Although transportation has played a vital role in the history of every American region, it has been especially important in the Great Plains. Having few navigable bodies of water and limited overland roads, the region desperately needed a replacement technology for the river steamboat and the covered wagon and benefited enormously from the appearance of the "iron horse." The Railroad Age solved most of the Great Plains’s chronic transport problems and gave the region some of its distinctive characteristics. The thousands of communities spawned and nurtured by the rails often sported a flavor of standardization that the later network of all-weather roads with its automobiles, buses, and trucks helped to sustain.

Native American Transportation

For the Native peoples, the Great Plains was a world of enormous distances. All Indigenous groups of the Plains, whether nomads or seminomads, spent much of their time following the wide-ranging bison herds. In addition, the scarcity of streams and scattered distribution of springs, the primary sources of water, forced these peoples to cover enormous distances on a daily basis. Finally, most Plains tribes were engaged in long-distance commerce at trade centers such as the Arikara and Mandan-Hidatsa villages on the upper Missouri River, which, for some tribes, meant covering hundreds of miles.

The primary reason that made the distances so demanding was the lack of e.cient transportation facilities in the period before contact with Europeans. Native Americans lacked large beasts of burden such as camels and horses. Their only domesticated animal was the dog, which was used to carry loads and to draw the travois. Native peoples employed the travois to transport household utensils, weapons, tools, tipi covers, firewood, and meat, but a dog could haul only about sixty pounds, which meant that human beings, particularly women, did most of the carrying themselves.

Most Plains rivers were dry for too long each year to be useful channels for water transportation. As a result, only a few Plains tribes, including the Assiniboines, Blackfoot, and Crees, used canoes, while others relied only on land transportation. The Assiniboines, Blackfoot, and Crees were particularly skillful in using the canoe. In the early eighteenth century, for example, the Blackfoot canoed to the Hudson Bay to trade with the British. More locally, the tribes along the Missouri River developed bullboats–small, light, bowl-shaped vessels made of bison hides–for transportation of goods.

The event that changed the traditional transportation system was, of course, the introduction of the horse to the Plains by the Spanish. (Actually, the proper term would be reintroduction, for horses had lived on the Plains until they became extinct around 8000-6000 B.C.) Coronado and other early Spanish conquistadors explored the Southern Plains on horseback in the sixteenth century, but horses did not begin to spread among the Indians until the Spanish established a permanent colony, New Mexico, at the southwestern edge of the Plains at the end of the sixteenth century. Gradually, through trade and theft, horses spread from the New Mexican ranches in all directions, so that by the end of the eighteenth century all Plains tribes were mounted.

In time, the introduction of the horse was to have far-reaching cultural, economic, and political effects among the Plains Indians, but the most immediate consequence was a transportation revolution. The horse was about eight times as e.cient as the dog: it could carry on its back or haul on a travois a load four times heavier than the load a dog could manage, and it could travel twice as far in a day. Thus, horse transport allowed Indians to carry more tools and utensils, extra foodstuffs, and larger tipis, and suddenly nomadism did not require giving up all but the bare minimum of possessions. It also made it possible for Indians to hunt bison more effectively, and this enticed horticulturists–the Omahas, for example–to increase the role of hunting in their economies. Interaction between tribes increased as sheer distance became less of an obstacle. In short, like railroads in the late nineteenth century, horses reduced the friction of distance, opened new economic possibilities, and raised the standards of living on the Plains.

The adoption of horses also resulted in the abandonment of canoes, usually within a generation after the Indians received their first horses. Dogs, on the other hand, continued to be used for transportation throughout the prereservation period. This was particularly the case on the Northern Great Plains, where distance from the source of horses and cold winters, which made herding more di.cult and labor intensive, reduced the availability and numbers. The Southern Plains Indians, who had the largest herds, continued to use dogs to carry small items such as moccasins and household utensils.


When European Americans entered the Great Plains, they often paddled or floated along thousands of miles of meandering waterways. In the late eighteenth century, when the rival Hudson's Bay and North West Companies extended their fur-trading hinterlands to the Prairies and Parkland Belt, they introduced to the region the water transportation systems they had developed in the Petit Nord (the area bounded by Hudson Bay, Lake Superior, and Lake Winnipeg) during the preceding century. The trading posts were linked to the Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence River by annual brigades traveling primarily by birch-bark canoes. Paddling along the Saskatchewan River to Lake Winnipeg, then either to the Hudson Bay along the Nelson or Hayes Rivers or to the St. Lawrence along the Winnipeg River and the Great Lakes, the brigades moved furs and other cargoes effectively. The light, maneuverable birch-bark canoe had a cargo capacity of almost 3,000 pounds and allowed a crew of five or six men to achieve a speed of five or six miles per hour. Such swiftness was crucial, because the northern rivers were navigable for only a few months between the spring thaw and fall freeze.

In contrast to their canoe-using counterparts, the American fur companies along the Missouri River system were able to use larger vessels such as keelboats and mackinaws. Powered by oars, sail, or cordelle (that is, pulled by a rope by men who laboriously walked the bank), keelboats could cover a distance of fifteen to twenty miles a day upstream, carrying a load of twenty to thirty tons of cargo. The broad, flat-bottomed mackinaws, which were used only for downstream shipments, were up to twenty feet long and carried a crew of five or six men and as many as 2,500 bison robes. Driven by the current, they could achieve up to 100 miles a day. For low-bulk and short-distance carriage, the American traders used pirogues (a construction of two canoes fastened together with planks), dugout canoes, and bullboats.

Although mackinaws, canoes, and bullboats continued to be used by fur traders and others at least until the 1870s, the advent of the steamboat on the Missouri River in 1831 revolutionized navigation. By the 1860s, paddle wheelers served as great beasts of burden along the principal streams, particularly the churning 2,285 miles of the Missouri River from its mouth near St. Louis to Fort Benton, a military post in present-day Montana. Supplies for farmers, miners, ranchers, soldiers, and trappers moved by water, as did cargoes of cattle, grain, furs, and mining machinery.

Steamboating posed challenges. Rivers on the Plains were generally unreliable, as they were often braided and shallow, and most flowed through areas of comparatively light annual precipitation. Melting winter snows, spring freshets, and sometimes-heavy autumn rains swelled portions of these streams, but during much of the year they contained inadequate water levels. The Missouri, for example, could be continuously navigated only from mid-March to late June. Even if ample depths existed, snags and sawyers often cluttered the waterways. Rocky shoals, rushing rapids, and shifting channels commonly hindered passage. High prairie winds, too, buffeted vessels, blowing them onto sandbars or into the banks or even causing them to capsize.

A special type of steamboat facilitated navigational ventures. Boats on Plains rivers were ideally suited for the di.cult conditions. The use of compact, high-pressure, yet powerful steam engines, which permitted construction of inexpensive and easily maintained crafts with shallow drafts, allowed these vessels to ply relatively shallow streams. Some boats allegedly required only a "heavy morning dew" to navigate.

During the heyday of steamboating on Plains rivers, traffic could be brisk. An individual vessel might handle scores of passengers and considerable quantities of freight. In the late 1870s boats traveling the waters of the Red River of the North between Fargo and Fort Garry carried settlers with their possessions and supplies northbound and pushed barges loaded with buffalo hides and wheat southbound.

Yet commercial steamboating on Plains rivers was largely ephemeral. Service on some streams ended as soon as a railroad penetrated the territory. Residents along the Brazos River, for example, benefited from limited navigation from the Gulf of Mexico northwestward to Washington, Texas, a distance of approximately 250 miles. By the Civil War, the Houston and Texas Central Railroad had siphoned away nearly all of the river tra.c, mostly bales of cotton. Even along the Missouri River stagecoaches and later passenger trains quickly attracted travelers, but steamboat freight movements continued, albeit in diminishing amounts. By the 1920s service was nearly gone, lost to railroads and emerging motor carriers. In subsequent years federal dams made long-distance commerce impossible on the upper Missouri, although towboats and barges continued to serve customers between Sioux City, Iowa, and other downriver points. More recently, commercial inland water operators could call at the Port of East Tulsa, Oklahoma, the western terminus of the "canalized" Arkansas River.

Early Roadways

The trails and traces used by roaming herds of bison and traveling Native Americans provided the earliest practical avenues for European Americans who traversed the supposedly "trackless wilderness" of the Great Plains. Yet these original land routes, particularly in Canada, were immeasurably inferior to water routes. They were superceded by an array of "quasi" roads on which ox, mule, and horse power provided practical transport. By the close of the Civil War, immigrants, prospectors, soldiers, traders, and others could move along principal arteries such as the Central Overland Road (or Oregon-California Trail), parts of which were used by the Pony Express; the Smoky Hill Road, which traversed Kansas and Colorado between communities along the Missouri River and Denver; and the old Santa Fe Trail, the direct link between Missouri and New Mexico, first established in the 1820s. Farther north, an extensive oxcart trail system that crisscrossed the Prairie Provinces in the late nineteenth century was the closest Canadian equivalent of the famous American overland routes.

Other roads also became important arteries for commerce. Some were maintained by the military; others were largely private affairs. Several routes in the Dodge City, Kansas, region illustrate the less-remembered byways. The Dodge City.Fort Supply Trail (also called the Military Road), the Tascosa-Dodge City Trail, and the Jones and Plummer Trail connected the famous Kansas cow town and trading center with areas to the south. While coach and horse travel flourished for about a score of years after the Civil War, construction of railroads like the Rock Island and the Santa Fe brought changes. The "iron horse killed off stagecoach service, which federal mail contracts had heavily subsidized, and took over freighting activities, which also had depended upon federal payments for drayage to military posts.

The history of the first major phase of roads on the Plains roughly paralleled the saga of steamboating. Both forms were largely transitory. The stagecoach era lasted but a generation or two for the transport of passengers, mail, and express. However, in the West River Country of South Dakota, stagecoaches rumbled over the mostly unimproved roads until the early part of the twentieth century. As with freight moving on water, overland freight transport by wagon usually enjoyed a longer existence. Significantly, intermodal dimensions developed for both transportation forms. Stagecoach drivers met steamboats at their wharfs and, later, passenger trains at local depots; likewise, wagon teamsters traveled to dock facilities and then to railway freight stations.

Surely the most romantic form of land commerce on the Plains was the cattle trail of the post-Civil War era. For a brief period, a network of these unimproved paths across the grasslands linked the Southern Plains with railheads on the Central Plains, army posts in the Rocky Mountain West, Indian reservations, and other commercial destinations. Altogether, more than six million head of cattle were driven north from Texas from 1866 to 1885. This was one of the few times during the European American period of settlement when the region was integrated lengthwise instead of being laterally connected from east to west. By the 1880s this latter orientation had been reestablished when the barbed-wire fences of settlers closed off the open range. As this grid was laid across the Plains, the cattle trails were dislodged westward: the Chisholm Trail to Abilene, Kansas, gave way to the Western Trail to Dodge City, Kansas, and points north and finally to the Goodnight-Loving Trail, which traced the eastern flank of the Rockies from Texas to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Facing the inevitable closure of the open range, Texas cattle interests made a last, unsuccessful attempt to preserve their industry in 1885 when they proposed a National Cattle Trail linking Texas and Canada, a six-mile-wide cattle highway that would be kept out of private ownership. The day of the cattleman was over, though it still has a powerful place in the American historical imagination.


The railroad metamorphosed life in the Great Plains, penetrating the isolation of the region and making possible modern life. Railroad companies did more than penetrate the Plains with a plethora of main, secondary, and branch lines; they peddled land, some from public land grants; they established towns, usually through town-site subsidiaries; and they vigorously (and at times misleadingly) promoted their service territories as ideal places for settlement.

The Railway Age began much later in the Great Plains than in most parts of the United States and Canada, but it lasted longer. While the 1850s witnessed extensive railroad building in New England, the South, the Old Northwest, and Atlantic Canada, little happened in the West. The 1860s saw some construction on the Plains, most notably the strategic Union Pacific–Central Pacific transcontinental system that sliced through the heart of the region. The first great wave of railroad construction did not begin in the United States in earnest until after depressed conditions, triggered by the Panic of 1873, lifted. During the 1880s railroad expansion boomed. The Chicago and North Western and the Chicago, St. Paul and Milwaukee, for example, covered eastern South Dakota like a web; the two roads spiked down nearly 2,000 miles of track, and this building spree brought the "steam car civilization" to the emerging state.

In the Prairie Provinces, additional incentives for rail building included the desire to consolidate the newly born Dominion of Canada (1867) and the need to confront the rapid –and threatening–westward expansion of the United States. Transcontinental railroads became a national imperative. The Canadian Pacific Railway was chartered in 1881 and completed four years later with the aid of generous government cash and land grants, tax concessions, and rights-of-way. The building of the Canadian Pacific across the Prairies involved a fierce dispute between Edmonton and Calgary. The initial route was planned to follow the northern fringes of the Prairies, but eventually, to Edmonton’s bitter disappointment, a more southerly route was chosen. A larger debate focused on whether the Canadian Pacific should be built along a circuitous and expensive route across the inhospitable and sparsely populated terrain north of Lake Superior or a more direct and profitable course through American territory. The company opted for the all-Canadian route, reflecting the nationalistic policies of the period, but it also created an expensive freight rate structure that was disadvantageous for the Prairie farmers.

The hard times of the late 1880s and much of the 1890s halted rail construction, but a second great building boom marked the period from the turn of the century to World War I. This was particularly the case in the Prairie Provinces. Between 1905 and 1914, two competing and partly parallel transcontinental systems–the privately owned Canadian Northern Railway and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, a joint attempt by the federal government and the Grand Trunk Railway to break the Canadian Pacific’s unpopular monopoly in the West –were constructed to the region’s northern sector, which had been left vacant by the Canadian Pacific’s decision to take the southerly route across the grasslands. Moreover, the competing transcontinentals launched extensive branch line programs in the Prairie Provinces, covering the region with a thick local track network by 1915.

Even though the railroad map of the Great Plains had largely crystallized by 1920, additional trackage still appeared, especially in the Prairie Provinces of Canada. A third wave of rail building took place in the 1920s and continued in some places into the early 1930s, a century after the railroad’s debut in North America. "From all corners of the state come the predictions that South Dakota, within the next few years will see another era of rail building," editorialized a Huron, South Dakota, newspaper in May 1929. "That era, from indications, is now upon us." Indeed, it was.

Rail building in the Great Plains went quickly because it was usually affordable. The generally flat or rolling terrain made construction costs much less per mile than they were in most other sections of the continent. Some Plains pikes were merely rails and untreated ties laid on a gently graded dirt roadbed. When crews of the Union Pacific pushed across Nebraska in the 1860s, they wisely followed the nearly level valley of the Platte River. Shaping the roadbed required little more than the use of inexpensive farm equipment, which semiskilled laborers could easily handle. Only the occasional bridge work posed many financial and engineering challenges. Developmental carriers like the Canadian Northern and the Kansas Pacific built inexpensive lines and made improvements later after revenues increased. Unlike construction in Europe or in eastern North America, most original Plains lines were hardly built for unborn generations. Some exceptions existed, notably the Canadian Pacific, which by 1885 possessed a quality "Dominion from Sea to Sea" route.

Few residents of the Plains ever challenged the notion that the magic touch of a railway, well built or not, promised a bright future for everyone in the surrounding areas. The arrival in 1887 of the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway in the Texas Panhandle village of Quanah prompted a local journalist to predict that the community and its trade area were headed "toward the Ultima Thule of commercial and financial success." Such sentiments were ubiquitous.

Yet a love-hate relationship developed between residents of the Great Plains and railroads. The largest companies, usually the transcontinentals, often held local or even regional monopolies. In Nebraska, for example, distinct Burlington and Union Pacific territories had evolved by the latter part of the nineteenth century. Both roads tried to prevent other firms like the Missouri Pacific, North Western, and Rock Island from entering their "spheres of influence." Although railroad freight rates generally dropped during this period, public perceptions were frequently negative about most carriers.

Antirailroad sentiment on the Plains was expressed in various ways. These feelings frequently led to popular support for construction of additional routes; local governments especially subscribed to issues of stocks and bonds. Individuals similarly responded. They also might make gifts of real estate to the future projects. South of the forty-ninth parallel but most of all in the Dakotas, much talk and some action occurred in the 1890s and later for the creation of "farmers' railroads." Disgruntled shippers (or those who lacked adequate rail facilities) would incorporate the company, publicize organizational meetings, survey the route, and direct construction. Since capital would be limited, farmers and townspeople–anyone who lived along the projected line–would be asked to donate rights-of-way and to contribute their labor. Animal teams would shape the roadbed, and crossties would be harvested from nearby stands of trees. When grading was completed and ties had been furnished, the infant road would be bonded to raise funds to purchase the cheapest suitable rail and rolling stock. The ultimate fate of the finished project usually remained flexible. The road might be sold or leased to a major trunk carrier with the understanding that customers would receive the lowest possible rates and best service. Or, more likely, the line would be operated indefinitely as a cooperative enterprise. Except for several pikes, most notably the Farmers' Grain and Shipping Company and the Fairmount and Veblen, the movement at best produced only "paper" or "hot-air" schemes in the United States. In the Prairie Provinces, the "farmers' railways" played an even more limited role. Prairie farmers suffered from high freight rates, but they were partly mitigated by the dense branch line system, which left few areas in need of rail facilities.

The failure of self-help in the railroad sector, reminiscent of the earlier collapse of state exchanges of the Farmers Alliance (which sought to put control of selling farm produce and buying supplies in the hands of farmers), prompted the disaffected residents of the Great Plains to flock to the standard of the People's Party (Populists) and to make loud demands for public ownership of the railroad enterprise. Not all residents of the Plains, however, considered the railroad industry to be a public enemy. In Nebraska, for instance, townspeople frequently refrained from confrontation with the carriers, realizing that an all-out assault on them might damage their abilities to attract outside capital and therefore hinder development.

While differences emerged between residents of the Great Plains about how they should respond to railroad policies and practices, nearly everyone endorsed industry efforts to develop what once had been considered the "Great American Desert." Railroad companies, which usually worked through their affiliated townsite firms, helped to create communities that benefited the general populace, whether urban or rural. Although railroads sought to profit from lot sales, they primarily wanted to settle the territory along their routes. "There is no attempt to make large sums from the sale of these town sites," explained an official of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, "but rather to build up the country and serve the general interests of the railway company." Settlers on the land meant boxcars filled with grain. A similar sentiment prevailed in the Prairie Provinces, where, in the early nineteenth century, the Canadian Pacific launched elaborate irrigation projects to promote the region's agricultural capacity and settlement.

Railroads left an indelible mark on the Great Plains from Canada to the Rio Grande. Since rails usually preceded settlement, carriers and their town-site satellites selected the station locations, usually every five to fifteen miles along their lines; acquired the necessary real estate; and surveyed lots and streets. A public auction might take place for the sale of the commercial and residential parcels, and newspaper, pamphlet, and broadside advertising would follow to "boom" the infant community, surely a "New Chicago" or a "New Toronto." Sometimes, as in the case of Winnipeg, the reality was more astounding than even the boosters had dared to dream. Situated on the eastern edge of the Prairies, midway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Winnipeg was the natural focus of trunk lines. The transcontinentals made Winnipeg the most important interior transportation point and launched the city into an economic and political boom that is unequaled in Canadian urban history: between about the mid-1880s and the end of the century, Winnipeg matured from an unimpressive cluster of wooden sheds and shacks into the leading industrial, financial, and administrative center of the Prairie Provinces.

Railroad-created communities in the Great Plains often had a look-alike appearance. Author Hamlin Garland called them "flimsy little wooden towns.’’ On the Plains, especially the northern sections, it became common to have Main Street run at a right angle to the depot and tracks. The resulting ‘‘T-town’’ was immensely practical. The retailing core stood directly adjacent to the depot, and beyond were the seat of government (if the community won the bid to become the county seat), churches, and houses. The other side of the tracks likely became the locus of major commerce: grain elevators, coal and lumberyards, and the like. This configuration meant that patrons of these businesses, with their carts and wagons, would not clog the commercial thoroughfare and principal residential streets. Thus the railroad corridor, which sliced through the town, sported a practical symmetry: side tracks beyond the main line for local industries and retail and residential sections segregated for their own functions. Hundreds of these T-towns appeared at trackside, including future state and provincial capitals such as Bismarck, North Dakota, Cheyenne, Wyoming, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Regina, Saskatchewan.

Once the railroad network in the Great Plains was set by the early 1930s, it remained stable until the 1960s, particularly to the south of the forty-ninth parallel. Although several carriers, including the Katy, North Western, and Rock Island, fell into bankruptcy during the Great Depression, court-supervised reorganizations revamped these victims of hard times. The enormous tra.c generated by World War II energized virtually every road. After the war years companies mostly enjoyed a sizable financial reserve to carry them through forthcoming downswings in the economy. Moreover, a replacement technology, the diesel-electric locomotive, which had been widely adopted by the early 1950s, further aided the balance sheet.

Yet all was not well with the railroads that served the Great Plains. Tough and at times unreasonable regulation, products of aggressive and well-meaning progressive reforms early in the twentieth century, forced companies to maintain hundreds of unnecessary small-town depots with agents who might work only a few minutes a day. Companies also had to operate money-losing local and branch line passenger trains. With farm-to-market roads and other highway construction and improved waterways, numerous rail appendages, especially ones that handled mostly seasonal grain tra.c, became financial liabilities. And "full crew" laws, actually "excess crew" statutes, escalated labor costs. A Nebraska measure, for example, required an extra flagman on every intrastate passenger train.

Change, however, was forthcoming. The Transportation Act of 1958 and other reforms permitted carriers to reduce their fixed costs, including closing scores of rural depots (eventually nearly all of them), eliminating most passenger service with the creation of Amtrak in 1971, and abandoning thousands of miles of lightly used trackage. Then, in the 1960s, railroad mergers greatly affected the region. Some roads, for example, the North Western and Soo Line, expanded by acquiring smaller properties, and efforts began for megamergers. That phenomenon struck the region in 1970 with the formation of Burlington Northern, an amalgamation of the Burlington, Great Northern, and Northern Pacific Railroads. Enactment of the Staggers Act in 1980 further relaxed regulation and gave railroad managers more flexibility, especially in matters of rate setting. New labor accords were also reached with the unions. By the 1990s the roads that served the Plains were in good financial health, with supercarriers Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and Union Pacific dominating the region. In 1995 the latter announced that it would acquire the Southern Pacific, a major carrier in Texas and owner of the former Rock Island's Tucumcari line between New Mexico and Kansas City. Trackage unwanted by the rail giants yet still economically viable commonly emerged as a short line or larger "regional" operation. After the early 1980s companies like the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern; Farmrail; Kiamichi; Kyle; and Red River Valley and Western appeared on the rail map of the Plains. Throughout the Great Plains, abandoned rail routes were transformed into a new, more recreational transportation system: bike paths.

Although drastic changes occurred in the railway systems in the United States in the twentieth century, they pale in significance compared to the developments in the Prairie Provinces. Intense competition, overexpansion of lines, and financial exigencies during World War I wrecked the two transcontinental companies, the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Pacific. These companies, together with three other financially troubled railroads, were amalgamated between 1918 and 1923 into the government-owned Canadian National Railway. Further changes occurred in the 1930s, when the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National, distressed by the economic depression, began to cut back their dense branch line network in the Prairies, a process that has continued. The railroads also responded to the economic stress by systematically diversifying their activities. The Canadian National expanded its holdings into marine operations, resource industries, hotels, and radio (early on, the company had launched Canada’s first radio network), while the Canadian Pacific extended its operations to fields such as mining, real estate, and telecommunications, some of which have been much more profitable than the rail operations. Moreover, the two railway companies established the two largest airlines operating in Canada today. The Trans-Canada Airline (since 1964 Air Canada) began in 1937 as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Canadian National, while Canadian Pacific Airlines was founded in 1942 by the Canadian Pacific.

The growing public ownership of railways and increasing government regulation of transportation companies have given rise to intense ideological debates. One of the most controversial issues has been the regulation of freight rates, which in 1903 became the responsibility of the Board of Railway Commissioners, an independent, quasi-judiciary regulation agency. Reorganized in 1938 as the Canadian Transport Commission, the board has faced the difficult task of finding a balance between the railway companies, which have demanded higher rates as a compensation for their loss of patronage and rising costs, and the Prairie farmers, who have pressed for lower rates. More recently, the debate has shifted to the privatization of the Canadian National, which was accomplished in 1995.

Electric Interurban Railways

While the Great Plains could never claim to be the heartland of the electric interurban railway, promoters from Manitoba to Texas made numerous efforts from the late 1890s until the early 1920s to realize their traction dreams. Distinct from the electric street railway, commonly found in the major towns and cities on the Plains after 1890, which provided local service and possibly a short extension into the nearby countryside to serve an amusement park, cemetery, or special facility, the interurban was designed to connect two or more communities with services similar to those provided by steam railroads, hauling passengers, express, and often carload freight.

Interurban enthusiasts believed that their alternative transport form held advantages, at least for modest distances, over their steam railroad competitors. Unlike the railroad, the electric car promised "no cinders, no dirt, no dust, no smoke." Electric roads could be operated with greater frequency than steam lines, since interurbans had generally lower operating costs. Most passenger interurbans ran on hourly or semihourly schedules and stopped virtually anywhere, while steam trains usually made only several daily trips, pausing at a limited number of points. There was also the attraction of transportation at cheaper rates. Typical charges for interurban travel were less than those of steam carriers. This made intercity traction particularly attractive in a period of intense consumer unrest throughout the Plains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the Great Plains, electric interurbans appeared mostly in the central and southern sections. Only one interurban served the Prairie Provinces. The Winnipeg, Selkirk and Lake Winnipeg Railway, partially built in 1904 as a steam road, became electrically powered four years later and developed into a nearly fortymile traction system. No "true" interurban ever operated in North Dakota, although in 1912 the state claimed twenty-six miles of urban trolley lines. South Dakota received only a small interurban in the Black Hills and about twenty miles of electric street railways. Nebraska fared better. Although residents never rode a bona fide interurban, three electric railways with interurban names actually appeared: Omaha, Lincoln and Beatrice Railway; Omaha and Southern Interurban; and the Omaha and Lincoln Railway and Light Company. These firms in reality were urban trolleys with rural extensions, part of nearly 250 miles of streetcar operations in the state. Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, however, built a host of interurbans. Kansas carriers, with about 250 miles of intercity line under wire, chiefly served metropolitan Kansas City, or the Tri-State Mineral Belt of the southeast. A smaller mileage, about 150 miles, laced sections of Oklahoma, but Sooner state companies were more scattered. The principal system, the seventy miles owned by the Oklahoma Railway, radiated out of Oklahoma City in three directions: north to Guthrie, west to El Reno, and south to Norman. Texas had the most interurbans and the greatest mileage. Eleven companies built approximately 500 miles, about 350 miles of which were in the greater Dallas area. Complementing the interurban mileage in these three states were nearly 900 miles of electric street railways.

Scores of interurbans were projected throughout the Great Plains. These "paper" projects proliferated during the two boom periods immediately preceding and following the Panic of 1907. Some schemes were monumental. Early in the century a group of promoters suggested a high-speed electric railway from Winnipeg to the Gulf of Mexico. The mileage of unbuilt interurbans in Texas alone exceeded 20,000 route miles, the most projected in any American state.

An important characteristic of interurbans on the Plains was their relative durability. They often developed carload freight capabilities and could interchange rolling stock with connecting steam roads. Interurbans like the Arkansas Valley Interurban, Kansas City–Kaw Valley, Northeast Oklahoma, and Texas Electric, generally built to steam road standards, became viable freight short lines or switching operations and lasted long after the general demise of the interurban industry during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Several segments of track continue to serve freight consumers. But in general, electric roads failed to develop a competitive freight business and died because of the onslaught of motor, especially automobile, competition.

Autos, Buses, and Trucks

Even though the Great Plains possessed an ample network of rail lines, the appearance of internal combustion vehicles in the early part of the twentieth century prompted residents to demand better public roads. By World War I, good roads associations were pushing hard to lift the region out of the mud and dust. During the 1920s, extensive programs of road improvements, especially paving projects, had been implemented. By the midtwenties the federal government had embarked upon road improvements, and pioneer endeavors such as the 3,331-mile coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, the "Main Street across America," became part of the national system of highways. Whether for short trips or to take an "auto vacation," a rapidly growing number of citizens made car travel part of their daily routine.

More than motorists drove the roadways of the Great Plains. Motor truck operators, largely unregulated by the states until the 1920s and not by the federal government until 1935, siphoned off lucrative shipments that previously had moved by rail. Yet some executives of mid-American railroads applauded the coming of the truck. After all, these versatile vehicles could feed tra.c to important rail arteries, allowing carriers to abandon money-losing appendages and eliminating the need for further branch line construction. This position was, for example, advocated by Ralph Budd, president of the Great Northern Railway.

Bus operators made their debut about the same time in the Great Plains. Resembling early providers of trucking services, these firms were usually small affairs, often mom-and-pop enterprises. But that changed quickly. While trucking remained highly atomized until after World War II, buses in the region tended to be operated by large concerns. The Greyhound Corporation emerged during the formative years of the bus and by 1930 provided coast-to-coast and interregional service.

Railroads, too, played a major role in the bus business. The Union Pacific Railroad is a good example. In 1929 the company purchased Interstate Transit Lines, which mostly served communities in Nebraska, and used the firm to launch a series of interstate passenger routes in the Great Plains and to destinations such as Chicago (with a Chicago and North Western bus affiliate), California, and the Pacific Northwest. Entry by the Union Pacific into bus transportation generated profits and gave residents of the Central Plains even better public transportation. As other carriers did, the Union Pacific used some of its bus routes to make its case to regulators that unprofitable passenger trains could be removed, since patrons had an alternative public transit choice.

After World War II the level of bus service started to decline in the Great Plains and elsewhere. Railroads sold off their bus routes and equipment to other bus carriers, usually to the Trailways System, or else liquidated their assets. Yet, unlike in some parts of the country, some national, regional, and local bus companies remained on the Plains. This usually happened because alternative forms of public transportation were frequently lacking and also because the percentage of elderly customers who could not or would not drive was high.

All forms of motor transport, private and public, benefited from updated highways. By the early 1950s inadequate roadways troubled and even angered residents of the Great Plains. Bridges and roads did not meet travel requirements; often they were too narrow, at times they were clogged with vehicles, and they regularly suffered from physical deterioration caused in part by the same freezing and thawing that produced annual spring breakups. Construction of the Trans-Canada Highway in the 1950s and 1960s (the longest national highway in the world) and, in the United States, an extensive system of interstate highways made possible by the National Defense Highway Act of 1956 best typified this massive modernization. These improvements instantly gave motorists and truckers the power to drive at much higher speeds for longer unbroken stretches. Traffic boomed accordingly. Better roads did not create a transportation utopia, but they were extremely popular.


Because of long distances between major regional centers, residents of the Great Plains early on enthusiastically embraced commercial aviation and quickly developed airmindedness. While barnstormers had been visiting fairs and other outdoor events to perform their daring acts of aerial wizardry since before World War I, commercial aviation emerged only during the mid-1920s. In 1925 Congress passed the Kelly Act, under which the federal government turned over operation of airmail routes from the army to private parties. With mail contracts in hand, commercial passenger operators had the opportunity to make their services financially viable. Since pioneer aircraft could carry few people, subsidies were essential.

Within a decade the Great Plains arguably was enjoying better air service than any other region in the United States. The Plains benefited from stops by the newly established transcontinental carriers, American Airways, Transcontinental and Western Air, and United Airlines. After all, the range of the era's propeller craft was limited, and nonstop flights for major distances were impossible. By the early 1930s nearly a dozen distinctly Plains airlines complemented the ever-expanding network of commercial routes. For example, Braniff Airways linked Bartlesville, Oklahoma, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa; Reed Airline tied Oklahoma City with Wichita Falls; and US Airways connected Denver with Kansas City and provided intermediate stops at the Kansas communities of Goodland and Salina. Canadian carriers, too, bound the country from coast to coast, and firms like Air Canada tied together interior places such as Winnipeg and Brandon, Manitoba.

As with other commercial transportation forms, the aviation industry hardly remained static. Companies emerged, expanded, merged, and failed. Establishment in 1938 of the Civil Aeronautical Authority (later the Civil Aeronautics Board or CAB), which controlled airline routes and fares, brought general stability to the industry. Service in the Great Plains continued to be good after federal intervention, but other regions, especially the Far West, offered better financial opportunities and therefore received greater attention.

When partial federal deregulation occurred in 1978, inhabitants of the American Plains quickly felt this opening shot in the regulatory revolution. The phenomenon took several forms. Trunk carriers like Northwest and United often reduced the number of flights or ended service outright, particularly to less-populated destinations like Jamestown, North Dakota, and North Platte, Nebraska. These large carriers concentrated on maximizing the profit potentials that were inherent in jet aircraft, introduced in the late 1950s. To fill the void, residents of the Plains frequently saw formation or expansion of a host of commuter airlines. Air Midwest, launched in 1965 and based in Wichita, Kansas, for example, moved from being a largely Kansas operation into serving other parts of the Central and Southern Plains. Air Midwest was more successful than most firms; some airline companies have histories that can be measured in months rather than years. With the dissolution of the cab, entry into commercial aviation became relatively easy, but financial risks were frequently high and failures common.

By contrast, in the Prairie Provinces, particularly in Alberta, commercial aviation has grown much more steadily. For example, Calgary and Edmonton experienced the largest increases in passenger tra.c among all major Canadian cities in the 1970s, and Pacific Western Airlines, with headquarters in Calgary, emerged as the largest regional airline in Canada. This growth can largely be attributed to the favorable overall economic development of the region, although the aviation industry in the Prairie Provinces has also benefited from increasing air traffic to northern centers such as Yellowknife since World War II.

The early development of aviation in the Great Plains led to another facet of this transportation form: extensive aircraft manufacturing. Wichita emerged early as an important center for airplane building. By 1928 the city could proudly proclaim itself as the "Air Capital." Companies such as Beech Aircraft Corporation (1932–present), Boeing Wichita (1934–present), Cessna Aircraft Company (1927–present), and Learjet (1962–present) became nationally, even internationally, famous. Beech Aircraft, for one, supplied airplanes to individuals, companies, and commuter airlines like Air Midwest. Kansas aircraft manufacturers between 1908 and 1993 produced approximately 266,500 aircraft, including kits, for the commercial market.


Transportation has been and will continue to be a vital part of life in the Great Plains. A palimpsest of sorts can readily be detected. The region is dotted with remnants of its water, road, rail, and aviation past: the ruts of the Oregon Trail, for example, are still etched into the landscape in places a century and a half after the last wagons headed west. These physical remains underscore the evolving nature of transport. With great distances to conquer, Plains residents repeatedly have demonstrated their willingness to embrace the best and most practical technologies. It is hardly surprising that dependability and speed have been the factors in regional transportation that have enjoyed widespread public support.

See also CITIES AND TOWNS: T-Towns; Wichita, Kansas; Winnipeg, Manitoba / INDUSTRY: Aerospace; Automotive; Canadian Pacific Railway; Fur Trade / NATIVE AMERICANS: Horse / WATER: Rivers.

H. Roger Grant Clemson University

Athearn, Robert G. Union Pacific Country. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1971.

Gard, Wayne. The Chisholm Trail. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

Grant, H. Roger. The North Western: A History of the Chicago and North Western Railway System. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Hidy, Ralph, et al. The Great Northern Railway: A History. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1988.

Hofsommer, Don L. Katy Northwest: The Story of a Branch Line Railroad. Boulder CO: Pruett Publishing Company, 1976.

Hunter, Louis. Steamboats of the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.

Lamb, W. Kaye. History of the Canadian Pacific Railway. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1977.

Martin, Albro. James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Quastler, I. E. Air Midwest: The First Twenty Years. San Diego: Airline Press of California, 1985.

Regehr, T. D. The Canadian Northern Railway: Pioneer Road of the Northern Prairies, 1895–1918. Toronto: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1976.

Rhodes, Jack. Intercity Bus Lines of the Southwest. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988.

Stevens, G. R. History of the Canadian National Railways. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973.

Winther, Oscar Osburn. The Transportation Frontier: Trans-Mississippi West, 1965–1890. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

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