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Crossing the Platte, the meanest of rivers

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History Nebraska

The South Platte River near present-day Hershey, photographed in 1866.

“This is our experience crossing Platte River; the meanest of rivers – broad, shallow, fishless, snakeful, quicksand bars and muddy waters – the stage rumbles over the bottom like on a bed of rock; yet haste must be made to effect a crossing, else you disappear beneath its turbid waters, and your doom is certain.” — 1862 emigrant diary, quoted in Merrill Mattes, “The Great Platte River Road.”

Mattes writes that some travelers referred to the “Coast of the Platte” because the broad river on its sandy bed looked almost like an ocean shoreline in the distance. He quotes a traveler named James Evans who saw the river swollen with spring rains and snowmelt:

“From the sandhills, it had the appearance of a great inland sea. It looked wider than the Mississippi… Judge my surprise when I learned that it was only three or four feet deep… The water is exceedingly muddy, or I should say sandy, and what adds greatly to the singular appearance of this river, the water is so completely filled with glittering particles of micah or isinglass that its shining waves look to be rich with floating gold.”

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