NPPD, historical society working to preserve Oregon Trail ruts

The twin brick strips and steel hoops beyond testify to the Oregon Trail's path on O'Fallon's Bluff, now home to an Interstate 80 rest area near Sutherland.

SUTHERLAND — A group of Cherokee and whites were traveling along what was then known as the Great Platte River Road. It was part of the Oregon-California Trail and they were headed west. They became afflicted with cholera and passed away near Sutherland.

The group was made up of Cherokee, led by Dr. Jeter Lynch Thompson, one of the first Cherokee medical doctors, and a group from Missouri, led by Judge Lewis Bolling Tully. At one point, 14 members traveled ahead of the main company and were afflicted with cholera. Eight of them perished.

Their final resting place could be in danger as the future progresses onto that same land. A proposed 220-mile long transmission project, 345,000-volt transmission line, known as the R-Project, by the Nebraska Public Power District would pass through this area.

R-Project and historical ruts

The R-Project is part of necessary upgrades to prevent power outages. It will run from NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland to NPPD’s existing substation east of Thedford. It will then proceed east and connect to a second substation in Holt County.

In 2012, that area saw several issues with power. The summer was unusually hot, straining the system to its breaking point. Farmers needed power for irrigation and, with the increased heat, residents were demanding more electricity for their air conditioners. The new line will provide more reliable electricity and relieve congestion on the transmission lines.

The proposed powerlines would run near the Sutherland rest stop, where there are ruts from wagons that traveled along the trails.

“Part of our job with OCTA (Oregon-California Trails Association) is to protect and preserve the trail for future generations,” said Amanda Gibbs, OCTA Nebraska chapter president.

The Nebraska State Historical Society, which maintains a historical marker on the site, has become involved. The marker is at the end of a path that leads away from the Sutherland rest stop. It is there that ruts from wagon trains remain, etched into the land.

The review process for NPPD has taken several years because all the organizations involved need to work out compromises and review the relevant laws. The process is completed in four steps, including identification of historic properties and potential detrimental effects to them.

“That’s where we ran into lengthy discussions among parties about what to include,” said Jill Dolberg, deputy state historic preservation officer with the State Historical Society. “We are making headway.”

Dollberg said because the ruts cannot be moved, it won’t be possible to excavate.

“With this scar left on the landscape, you can’t dig it up and move it,” Dolberg said.

NPPD has been working on the project since 2012, looking at ways for the line to avoid areas of potential historical significance or that would disrupt natural habitats. At the Sutherland rest stop, NPPD has already looked into ways to avoid damaging the ruts.

“We’ve looked at using other building techniques, such as using helicopters to pull the lines instead of by taking them over land,” said Mark Becker, supervisor of media services with NPPD.

American burying beetle

In the past, on projects such as the one in Ainsworth, before a project began, NPPD gathered endangered American burying beetles and moved them to a different location until they had finished building their wind farm. However, the beetle can fly and relocated quickly, so this method has not been recommended in several years.

The newly proposed site would also endanger another habitat of endangered burying beetle, according to Bob Harms, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist. The beetles were, at one time, widespread throughout the central and eastern U.S. The beetles need a large, expansive habitat, such as the Sandhills, which has dwindled because land has been converted and other animals, such as skunks and raccoons, move in and compete for resources.

As part of the National Environmental Policy Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to consider the effects of its permits to the natural and human environment before taking action. Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, Fish and Wildlife has spoken with organizations such as OCTA and the Nebraska State Historical Society to get feedback on the situation as part of its preparations of an environmental impact statement, which is expected at the end of 2018. Becker said NPPD will work with Fish and Wildlife.

“This is a project that helps Nebraska, but we also want to look at anything else to have less impact on the land,” Becker said.

The permit will likely hinge on the potential danger for the beetle. It cannot be issued if, during the process of injuring or killing the beetle, which would happen as part of NPPD’s work, it would cause the extinction of the species. Fish and Wildlife officials will have to decide if they will outright reject the permit or if there will be acceptable losses to the species.

“We don’t take issuance of these permits lightly,” Harms said.

Potential remains

Among the records of people traveling the California Trail to search for gold, many are filled with stories of cholera. Several first hand accounts tell of the passing of the mixed group who perished on the trail.

The Aug. 20, 1849, edition of The Cherokee Advocate wrote they had received word that Thompson and 14 others in his company traveled about two to three days ahead of the main company. When they were just past the Platte River, they were struck with cholera and eight of them died. Those who died were Cherokees Samuel W. Bell, Brice Martin, William Parks, Elijah Blythe and James Henry; slaves Purly and Markham; and Judge Lewis Bolling Tully.

Detailed primary and secondary sources put their graves near the Sutherland ruts. Gibbs said OCTA does not want to lose the site.

“Not a lot of people know it’s there,” Gibbs said. “Education of the site is the biggest thing.”

Dolberg said everyone needs to know if there are human remains on the site before moving on. If the results are positive, it will have a large impact on confirming a small part of life along the trail.

“That’s what makes it unique,” Gibbs said. “You have someone of prominence, blacks and Cherokees traveling together.”

Dolberg said the State Historical Society’s first choice would be to move the line. If that were not possible, they would like to minimize any effect on the landscape.

“Whatever we do, we’re going to have to work together,” Dolberg said. “And we’re going to have to be creative.”

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