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Excerpts from the diaries

1869, Nebraska. Richards leaves rural Wisconsin to seek his fortune in frontier Omaha, where the Union Pacific is frantically trying to complete its section of the transcontinental railroad. He takes note of the town itself as he looks for work.

“Went to the car shops of the U.P. yesterday afternoon and applied for a job. If I were a mechanic of any kind could get work in an hour. As it is I may not get anything to do. Several of their men quit last night as they have not been paid off for more than two months & the Co. is owing more than two million dollars in this city.

      “In the evening went around to see the town after dark. Visited the Academy of Fun which is a low theater & beer hall. Their performances were not very chaste surely.”

Once he gets an entry-level job with a surveying party west of Omaha, the going is tough, but he finds compensations.

“Bean soup must suffer when us fellows come in hungry. No mail when we came to camp. But after I had gone to bed I heard some one shout Hurrah for Tom. We were out of bed in a twinkly. He swam the river at Willow Island but came near getting drowned. Was carried down stream two miles. After getting the mail he went up above Brady Island to cross the river and yesterday traveled over fifty miles. Swam the river with the letters tied on his head.”

“25 [miles walked] Had the hardest day’s work today I have ever done. We left camp at 5 o’clock in the morning and did not get in until 6 in the evening. Had nothing to eat and not much water in the afternoon. I was about played out when I reached camp and ate the largest meal I ever did.”

“Camped at sundown on open prairie with not a tree nor a shrub in sight. After eating our supper of buffalo steak, bread, and tea, we lay under the wagon and talked and watched the stars. It is a beautiful evening after the storm. This is the first rain we have had in the daytime since I have been on the plains, although we had frequent rains in the night. We divide the guard tonight between us.”

“Resting today with a vengeance. Blessings on the man who invented Sunday. Truly it is the poor man’s day. Had rice for dinner instead of beans. Don’t like the change. We will all feel like working tomorrow much more than if we had worked today. If we had found no water to camp on would have been compelled to work. The country here is terribly rough and hard to travel over. I will be glad when we get onto the level once more.”

“I never saw anything to compare with the mosquitos that were on duty last night. We took the precaution of smoking & whipping them out of the tent before turning in & stretching a mosquito bar across the mouth & when we lay down & could hear them outside like a swarm of bees and all quiet within, we thought we would have a good nights rest. I dreamed that I had been captured by Indians, tied to a tree and they were dancing around me and every time one went around he’d flip a porcupine quill into me, generally in some tender spot. Finally they charged simultaneously & I awoke to find the tent filled with our American Platte river Cousins & every one as he passed was spiking into me.”

And an apparent buffalo suicide.

1873, Wyoming. The southern boundary survey gets off to a bad start:

“…At the edge of the bluff found the west end of the line incorrect. Ran on to 4th [mile] found the line as previously run too far south. Returned to edge of bluff and reran it, but made it a random line to camp. In going over it the first time, Matt accidentally shot Mack through the outside edge of his right foot with his revolver, while both were firing at a large rattlesnake. Campbell ran 5-1/2 miles to camp and brought back a team in a little over an hour. The team took a load of wood from the bluff and taking Mack, went to camp. We proceeded with the work. Reached camp at 5:00 p.m., 12 hrs. between meals. After supper, dressed Mack’s foot; not a bad wound—only through the flesh. 10:00 p.m. Have been working with [astronomer MacConnel]—taking observations. Sky full of light clouds, making it slow work…. List of attractions tonight—Mosquitoes—first and nearest—[brother Lon, the survey contractor] out of camp—whereabouts unknown—level broken—line crooked this soon—Mack wounded and weather cloudy—and all hands tired—rather bad but jolly still.”

1874, on Wyoming’s western boundary survey:

“We’re delayed by an accident to one of the mules (Dandy Pat) who tipped over backwards off a cliff forty feet high, made two complete revolutions lengthwise, and landed square on his back in the stream. Alighting upon the pack was all that saved his life, for it broke the force of the fall, also broke our large Dutch oven, busted a seamless sack containing sugar & 50 lbs. washed away, and smashed the pack saddle all to pieces.”

“On the line at 6 A.M. This is the third morning in succession that we have had wet clothes to put on to start with and it is getting slightly monotonous not to say unpleasant, with the thermometer almost down to freezing to put on wet pants, drawers, stockings & shoes.”

“Arose at sunrise a little stiff. We slept one on each side of the fire and

while we kept it going we were warm and slept, but not very good. Went in to town to breakfast, then wrote a letter home. Bought a few things needed in camp, talked about the mines. The main camp is the one we visited called Iowa Bar. There are about twelve log houses there & five saloons, so many Bars that I could not distinguish the ‘Iowa.’ ”

“Going down Sunday we were caught in a rain storm and as it cleared up, we saw the most beautiful rainbow possible to see— We were in a cañon and the rainbow was reflected or made against the side of the mountains to the east of us & not more than 500 feet away. We watched it almost spell bound until it faded away. I never expect to witness a more beautiful sight in nature. We were in a deep cañon, a small stream of clear crystal like water running at our feet while all around us rose the mighty mountains towering thousands of feet above us, some robed in green, some covered with dense black pine forests, while all were crowned with a wreath of snow, and spanning the largest one, the rainbow formed a crown upon its brow, that the grandest of earth’s monarchs might well covet. The ends rested near its base on either hand & the Zenith of the circle illuminated the snow upon its summit with colors that no artist pencil could approach.”

Preparing to cross the dreaded Snake River:

“No one seemed to feel very enthusiastic either on the subject of our national Independence or what was of more moment the success of our raft— We launched her safely, she floated like a duck but when two men boarded her with poles their best efforts failed to get it 50 feet from shore. As this was the narrowest point we could find, and it was 450 feet wide there— We knew that rafting was a failure.

      “We had thought of building a large one that would take our whole outfit at once, & cut loose from the shore near the mouth of Gray’s fork, and make a landing where we could. We might have done this, but could not cross our stock that way. It would have been risking everything on a single chance and I determined to only try it as a last resort.”

1874, Yellowstone, while hunting on the return from the western boundary survey

“I had gone but a short distance when my left foot slipped and something seemed to snap in my left knee. Only a little sprain, and no time to nurse it. But it grew worse. . . . There was no human being, aside from our party, within 50 miles, and I was unable to travel, under ordinary circumstances. ...No one could find me or help me out of the scrape I was in.”

1884 and 1885, his exploration of Bighorn Basin and return to stay:

“Slept tolerably well last night in front of a fire place with my overcoat

on and my saddle blankets for a bed. . . . Finished survey & rode to W.P. where stayed all night.”

“Reached our destination ‘the Big Horn’ at the mouth of No Water at 10 A.M. Am glad to get here. It is a month yesterday since we left home & two weeks today since we left Rawlins. Our great difficulty lay in getting from Kirby Creek across here 25 mi’s & it took 4 days through very rough mountains with no water. The season is a dry one & water is unusually scarce. The Big Horn is very high. We have a pleasant camp, have unloaded our wagons & find nothing broken. It has been a hard disagreeable trip but a firm purpose & a good deal of energy brought us through.”


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