“Water Clear and Pure, & Excellent for Drinking:” Exploring the Solomon

 

Robert McBratney, Newspaper Man, Railroad Man, Explorer Man (Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.)

Robert McBratney, born in Columbus, Ohio in 1818, held quite a few jobs during his career: lawyer, printer’s apprentice, delegate to the 1861 presidential election, newspaperman, and, by 1861, registrar of the Land Office in Junction City in northeast Kansas, but it was abolitionism that first drew McBratney to Kansas.

The western territories had a case of railroad fever, and companies sprang up to lay routes into the territories. One such company was the Junction City, Solomon Valley & Denver Railroad, which formed in September 1869. The new company’s board of directors needed to hire a president who could not only lead the business, but who could also lead an expedition along the Solomon River to sell the region to settlers and railroaders. They wanted someone smart and ambitious who could observe and report with clarity. Robert McBratney and his journalism background fit the bill.

The journey began October 14, 1869 and was not an easy one due in part to its size. In addition to a senator, a geology professor, and a state agent for the sale of railway lands, McBratney brought along one cook, one ambulance driver, one servant, and almost a hundred state troops to serve as protection. McBratney kept a detailed diary of his trip, available to read in full here.

Issues plagued the journey almost from the start. McBratney complained about the wind in an October 18 entry, near what is now Glasco. He wrote, the party “concluded to go into camp, one of our mules being very lame & the day being very raw and windy [and…] very disagreeable.” Later, on October 22, the party awoke to “a strong northern blowing filled with snow, that fairly stings the face.” The snow abated long enough for them to hit the trail, but resumed later “with almost blinding fury.”

Despite these difficulties, McBratney fell in love with the Solomon Valley. He wrote, “this is as fine a contre [sic] as any in the state.” The wildlife of the region filled him with wonder, and he reverently observed, on October 28, that “the hills were nearly covered with buffalo. We have seen more of them today than altogether. Saw also deer, elk, and antelope. Also gray wolves, thousands of prairie dogs, coyotes, and sage hens.”

He declared “the water of the Solomon and its tributary is clear, pure, and hard.” McBratney’s final verdict? “One snort of the iron horse in this valley would do more to people the wilderness we have traversed, than an army with banners.” The Solomon River, according to this early exploratory expedition, was fully capable of housing both industry and communities on its banks and bends.

The Junction City, Solomon Valley & Denver Railroad never came to be, but the Union Pacific did build a branch line through the valley after McBratney’s letters to eastern periodicals enticed settlers. Present day towns like Minneapolis, Delphos, Glasco, Simpson, and Beloit pepper the banks that so enamored McBratney.

Find out more about McBratney’s expedition and the Solomon Valley’s water story at Valley Highway 24 Heritage Alliance’s exhibit Living Off the Water: the Challenge to Tame and Sustain Life in the Solomon Valley, a Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution partner program on display at Bull City Cafe in Alton from August 12 to September 2, 2017; at Mitchell County Historical Society in Beloit beginning September 11, 2017; Stockton Public Library, October 7 to October 28, 2017; and Glasco Community Foundation’s Corner Store, November 4 to November 25, 2017.

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A Laboratory on the High Plains: Joe Kuska of Colby

Joe Kuska digs a soil sample at the Colby Branch Station (photo courtesy the Thomas County Historical Society)

Joe Kuska digs a soil sample at the Colby Branch Station (photo courtesy the Thomas County Historical Society)

Raised on a farm in the Great Plains, Joseph B. Kuska graduated from the College of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska. He joined the staff at the Colby Branch Station in 1914. The Colby Branch Station, an agricultural experiment center, was opened by an act of the Kansas Legislature in 1913. Northwest Kansas farmers, concerned with erratic rainfall, drying winds, temperature extremes, and periodic drought decided a branch station might help find solutions to the difficult growing climate. Soon the United States Department of Agriculture partnered with the branch station to research how to farm in dry conditions.

Joseph B. Kuska’s leadership of the Colby Branch Station left a lasting impact where “except for a few years,” he served as its chief until 1951. According to a 1964 50th anniversary history of the Branch Station, Kuska’s “firsthand knowledge of farming practices in the Great Plains, his good judgment, energy, and enthusiasm were in large measure responsible for the success of the work.”

A significant part of Kuska’s job dealt with water and how it impacted farming in the arid High Plains. Under Kuska’s guidance, the Branch Station studied “moisture storage under different methods of fallow; moisture storage with a basin lister; conservation of winter moisture; available moisture in soil at seeding time and its effect on yield and penetration of rain.” Ultimately, they found that “the dry land farmer, to be successful, should follow a flexible system. This applies to his cropping systems, tillage methods, and cultural practices.” Adaptability and flexibility were the ingredients for successful farming on the High Plains.

Yet the 20th century brought change to Kansas agriculture. In the 1970s the center pivot irrigation system replaced the ditch irrigation system of the 50s and 60s, ringing in a new era of irrigation. The use of center pivot irrigation to grow crops like corn in Western Kansas opened a new line of research of farming the Great Plains.

The Branch Station, now called the Northwest Research-Extension Center (NWREC) and operated by Kansas State University, continues the research that Kuska started. These days, NWREC seeks more conservation-friendly alternatives to center pivot irrigation methods. For example, in 1989 Kansas State University started an initiative to test and advocate Subsurface Drip Irrigation, which irrigates crops using buried conduits and pipes slowly emitting water right into the soil. According to their website, NWREC “is committed to developing and promoting new irrigation technologies that will be environmentally and economically efficient while conserving and protecting limited water resources.” Many believe that with the decline in aquifer levels and the high financial cost of irrigating, dry land acreage is a good fallback. Thus, a century after Joe Kuska signed on, the Branch Station in Colby continues to lead the way in water and farm research.

To learn more about Colby’s water story, be sure to visit the Water/Ways  Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and Scarcity and Abundance: Water in Northwest Kansas, both on view at the Prairie Museum of Art and History from August 12 to September 24, 2017.

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