CRAWFORD — By comparison, theUnited Statesis still in its infancy; especially for those “out west,” where some living today are just a few generations removed from the early settlers. Much of that history took place right here in the Nebraska Panhandle, which gets writer Kelly Wood, of Crawford, “all jazzed up.”
Wood unintentionally became a part of Box Butte County History in 1967, when a UFO prank (see sidebar), “got out of control real quickly.” Around that same time, Wood and his adventurous band of buddies, sought fame and fortune in a more deliberate manner.
As a 16-year-old student atHemingfordHigh School, Wood and some friends went in search of “Lame Johnny’s lost gold.” The crew spent the summer excavating a cave in the Pine Ridge area.
“We found the blade of a shovel inside the cave,” said Wood. “It was just a blade. The handle had rotted away. We also found a coin dated 1877.” The year is of note, as you will read later.
The boys continued to dig all summer and eventually the cave collapsed on them.
“We barely got out of there,” said Wood.
While Lame Johnny’s treasure was never found, “It was a heck of a way to spend the summer,” said Wood.
That adventure inspired Wood to write a fictional novel titled, “Korin McKenna and the Black Hills Gold.” The book is set in 2001, but Wood said the characters and their adventure is loosely based on that childhood summer. The book is still in progress and Wood is searching for a publisher.
While doing research for the novel, Wood sought out information on the Sidney-Deadwood Trail, also known as the Sidney-Black Hills Trail. He searched the Internet, the Nebraska Historical Society archives and several museums in Deadwood, S.D. He was surprised to find how little is known of the trail, which at one time hauled 70 coaches per day, from Sidney, Neb. to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
“I have enough information for my book,” said Wood, “but if this information is truly lacking, I would like to help preserve it.”
The history of the trail dates back to 1874, when General George Custer and 1,200 troops set out on an expedition into the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. The military objective was to explore routes and locate sites for future posts, as well as to determine if the Hills were rich in gold deposits, as had been rumored.
The Treaty of 1868 with the Sioux prevented the whites from encroaching on Native American lands. While the military hoped to dispel the rumors of gold and dissuade the whites from traveling to theBlack Hills, the expedition backfired. Large deposits of gold were found and word spread quickly. By 1875, miners ignored military warnings and flocked to theBlack Hills. Mining towns such as Custer,HillCityand Deadwood were established.
At first, futile attempts were made by the military to protect the land and the treaty. TheU.S.government later attempted to purchase theBlack Hillsfrom the Sioux, but negotiations failed and military leaders disregarded the treaty.
In 1876, the rush was on. As prospectors traveled north, severalNebraskatowns vied to become a supply point.Sidneyoffered much potential as the main point for departure for miners. The railroad town already had a trail stretching north, used by military troops and freight wagons. The trail was well protected with troops marching betweenFortSidneyandFortRobinson.
Prospectors could also opt for theCheyenne-Black Hills Routebut, as Wood explained, theSidneyroute was shorter and less treacherous. With the construction of the Clarke’s Bridge over the North Platte River, near modern-dayBridgeport, theSidneyroute became the preferred trail of many.
One of the men who sought these Black Hills riches, was Cornelius Donahue ofPhiladelphia. Donahue walked with a limp, either contracted from a childhood injury or polio, which earned him the name “Lame Johnny.”
According to a Deadwood Magazine article, Donahue attendedGirardCollegeinPhiladelphia, then went to work on a ranch inTexas, where he learned the “finer tricks of horse thievery.”
Donahue showed up in theBlack Hillsin the spring of 1876. He tried his hand at prospecting, but was unsuccessful. Thwarted by his efforts to earn an honest living, Lame Johnny resorted to his old ways of cattle rustling and stealing horses. He allegedly took on a new venture in robbing coaches traveling on the Sidney-Deadwood Trail and is said to have joined forces with Archie McLaughlin, Charles Carey, Frank McBride and Bill Mansfield.
A special “treasure coach” called the “Monitor” was scheduled to arrive at the Canyon Springs Station one October evening in 1878. Wood said the Monitor carried no passengers and no freight and was heavily guarded and armored. It only carried valuables, which included 600-700 pounds of gold, worth about $16 million on today’s market.
The formidable modifications made to the coach weren’t enough to dissuade a group of five bandits from robbing it as it pulled into the station. The bandits are said to have killed one man and wound two more, before making off with the treasure.
“Most don’t believe (Lame Johnny) had anything to do with it,” said Wood. “It wasn’t his style. He was just a lowly horse thief.”
Regardless of who did it, Johnny paid the price for the robbery. Later, he was arrested for attempting to steal horses from the Pine Ridge reservation. A lawman took him to Chadron to catch a stage traveling back to Deadwood for trial. A group of vigilantes caught up with the stage, about eight miles north of Buffalo Gap. The men demanded to know where Johnny hid the Monitor’s gold. Either refusing to answer, or he simply didn’t know, Lame Johnny was shot, then hanged and buried near by with his chains and shackles still attached. Today, a small stream north of Buffalo Gap is called “LameJohnnyCreek.” Some of the Monitor’s treasure was recovered, but not the gold.
That’s where the legend began: a legend that inspired a few high school boys to set off digging in a cave, which later inspired a book, which later inspired Wood to attempt to recover some of the Sidney-Deadwood Trail’s missing history.
“I was having such difficulty trying to locate good information on (the Sidney-Deadwood Trail),” said Wood. “I was afraid if I didn’t do something about it, that piece of history was going to be lost.”
Wood’s goal is to develop a GPS map of the Sidney-Deadwood Trail that can be overlaid on a current road map or plat map. He also wants to plot where various stations once stood. Most of the trail runs through what is now private land. There may be some ruts or relics remaining, but Wood said he is well aware that most of the trail has been plowed under or paved over by now.
A couple of historic monuments in the Panhandle area mark various points of the trail. One is located 10 miles west of Hemingford, on Hwy. 71. The other is also located on the same stretch of road, south of Crawford and just west of the Marsland area. But those are just two spots on the trail that stretched 267 miles passing the Greenwood and Court House Rock stations, the North Platte River near Bridgeport, Red Willow, Snake Creek, Point of Rocks, Running Water, Red Cloud Agency and Carney’s Stations.
Wood is seeking the help of these landowners, or anyone who may have information on the Sidney-Deadwood Trail and its stations. Those wishing to share tips and information can contact Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.