Sunday, January 22, 2017

Large Cattle Drives Ravage Idaho Range and Herds, Railroad Needed [otd 01/22]

On January 22, 1881, the Idaho Statesman described the substantial herds being driven over Idaho rangelands, both from the states to the west and by in-state stockmen. Counts taken on the main trail in Wyoming, and estimates from other routes, suggested that during the previous year perhaps a quarter million head had been driven into Wyoming from Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
Cattle after they reach Wyoming, 1880s.
Wyoming Tales and Trails, online.
By far the largest drives originated in eastern Oregon, with some from Washington. The Statesman article, with a follow-up five days later, described the problems this caused for resident stockmen: the drives were stripping bare a wider and wider swath of trail forage, local cattle were swept into the moving herds and lost, or ranchers had to assign riders to identify and recover their own stock.

The Statesman writer said, “The transit of these immense herds across the stock ranges of central Idaho is an evil of the first magnitude to our farmers and small stock growers.”

Some commentators suggested that stockmen in northern Oregon and in Washington route their herds across the Idaho Panhandle. They claimed the distance to Cheyenne via the northern route was actually less, when the diversions required to avoid major mountain ranges were taken into account. The forage was also supposed to be better.

Whatever the accuracy of these statements, few drovers followed the suggestion, staying with the route through southern Idaho. Thus, in the Statesman’s opinion, “If the same number of cattle should be driven for two or three years more they will consume all the grass in the Snake river valley.”

A related but growing problem was the tendency of some stockmen to over-graze their own range. The presence of trail herds only aggravated that situation. This kind of competition raised the potential for clashes among cattlemen, even without the increasing presence of sheep bands.

The Statesman concluded, “The only practicable remedy for this, and the only hope of the afflicted is in the advent of the railroad, which will take the cattle at or near the points where they are purchased and collected.”
Laying track in the West. National Archives.

Fortunately, that remedy was not too much longer in coming. Less than three months after the newspaper articles, investors organized the Oregon Short Line Railroad. They planned to run the "shortest possible rail line" to connect Granger, Wyoming, to Huntington, Oregon.

OSL tracks reached the Idaho border during the summer of 1882 and were halfway across the state by the end of the year. Towns like Shoshone, Gooding (then called Toponis Station), and Bliss soon became gathering points for cattle and sheep to be shipped east out of Idaho.

The line had almost made it to the Oregon border by the end of the following year. Stockmen in western Idaho began to plan for shipments on the new line. Herds that might have gone to Winnemucca, or other points in Nevada, could now be shipped locally.

The coming of the railroad did not, however, totally end long drives within or across the Territory. As late as 1889-1890, some stockmen found it more economical to drive herds deep into Wyoming before consigning them to rail cars.
References: [B&W]
J. Orin Oliphant, On the Cattle Ranges of the Oregon Country, University of Washington Press, Seattle (1968).

1 comment:

  1. Another great post! Good reminder that our ancestors did not live in a bubble. They were affected by what was going on around them. My g-grandparents’ 1869 homestead was on Boise R. south of present day Notus. I think the Ore. Trail was on n. bank. Cattle drives may have been a problem for them. Abt 15 yrs later they moved further downstream, still on s. bank, w. of present day Parma. Whether cattle drives were a factor in the move, I, of course, do not know, but it is something to consider.