Tuesday, February 11, 2020

You Can See Economic History in Nebraska's Satellite Imagery

The accessibility of satellite imagery has opened up a treasure trove of interesting things that might otherwise remain hidden in plain sight. I've past mentioned scarchitecture in this blog before, where the historic tracks of railroads, canals, roads, and other transportation systems can result in oddly-angled buildings which offer clues of the past.

Others have noticed geography playing a role in other arenas of history as well, as geologist Steven Dutch noted that the more Democratic Black Belt in Alabama matched up nearly perfectly with a 100 Million year old rock formation. (Wired)

Similarly, I noticed something interesting in regards to my abandoned railroad map, with regard to the proximity of three railroad lines that had significant portions of their routes that were never built. These were three related branches of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad that never reached their full extent in central Nebraska. Today we explore why they were never completed.

These were the lines that ran from Palmer, NE to Burwell, NE along a 70 mile route; Palmer, NE to Sargent, NE, along a 75 mile route, and Greeley, NE to Ericson, NE along a 20 mile route. These are shown below in blue, with the unbuilt sections in pink.

Image: Google Maps, Abandoned & Out of Service Railroad Lines
I call this little oddity the Three Fingers area, given how it looks on the map. And after quickly searching online, I came to learn that there is a reason that none of these lines was completed.

Old Chicago Burlington & Quincy Depot at Burwell, 1983. Image: Stu Nicholson, RRPictureArchives.net
The Burwell Branch, along with the branches to Sargent, NE and Ericson, NE, were all intended to run farther north into the Black Hills, however economic and drought troubles of the 1890's, most notably the Panic of 1893, quite literally derailed these plans.

"First Train into Sargent, Custer County, NE, October 25th, 1899"
The Ericson Branch was the first line to be abandoned, with the last train arriving there in 1940. What was built along these branches was usually poorly maintained, but the Burwell and Sargent Branches each survived until the early 1980's, which is surprising, because as early as the 1920's, the Chicago Burlington & Quincy noted these lines were unprofitable. Ultimately, they were abandoned by the Burlington Northern, after having been passed on from the CB&Q.

Despite never having been operated, each of the unbuilt sections of grade are still quite visible on satellite imagery, with the exception of the grade which ran through what would become the Calamus Reservoir. At least thirty miles of the Sargent Branch continuing north of Sargent is plainly visible on satellite imagery, continuing until nearly Brewster, NE.
  • 41.65435, -99.38339
41.65435, -99.38339
Here's the Burwell grade as it extends past the Calamus Reservoir:

41.90571, -99.29619
The Ericson grade continues on as Cedar River Rd north of the town.

41.79088, -98.69342
So, the economic downturn of the 1890's remains immortalized in our satellite imagery, at least in central Nebraska, and even though these routes were never completed, the grades themselves tell a story of railroad lines that wouldn't make it past construction.

Thanks as always for reading!

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