Cattle Rode Rails

Part 6:


To read the previous five parts of this series, click here.

Railroads were extremely important to the expansion of the beef industry and the start of exporting beef. When the steam engine  and technology of railroads came about in the early 1800s, the options were endless in moving large, heavy cargo – livestock included.

Enjoy this history by Alan Newport, full story here.

Cattle Rode Rails, Roads
After walking everywhere for 10,000 years, cattle went mobile with steam and internal combustion engine.
By Alan Newport

The Bible tells us that in 1400 B.C., when Jacob went home to meet his brother, Esau, after years of estrangement, he drove all his livestock all the way.

When Julius Caesar mounted a campaign against the migrating Helvetii in 58 B.C. in what is now Switzerland, he drove a herd of cattle with him as a movable feast.

When Francisco Vázquez de Coronado crossed the Llano Estacado in 1541 seeking the golden city of Quivira, he took 500 head of cattle as part of his expedition’s food.

When Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving contracted to supply beef to the U.S. Army in New Mexico and farther north, they drove cattle there on foot.

That’s how cattle were moved. In fact, it was that way from the time they were domesticated, possibly 8,000 years ago or more.

Yet when the steam engine and the technology of railroads came about early in the 1800s with the power to move large, heavy cargo, it was inevitable the movable feast would soon be aboard.

The first cattle shipments in the U.S. were made by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the 1830s.

The railroads rapidly pushed settlement west across the continent, and by the mid-1860s, trains were hauling cattle from the Great Plains to the East to provide beef to the masses.

H.H. Halsell, who spent much of his adult life in cattle drives across Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, relates the first time he saw a locomotive in 1871 while still a boy near Marshall, Texas. He was camped with his father near Marshall, and when his father went on an errand, he told Halsell he could go three miles northeast to see a train.

Halsell says he walked until he found the tracks, and in boredom waiting lay down for a nap be­tween the rails in the warm sun.

He says: "I was aroused by an awful noise — bells ringing, whistles blowing and such a roaring of car wheels as would almost wake the dead. I got one wild look, saw the thing belching out fire and smoke, and off that high grade I tumbled, tearing through a cotton field."

Later, of course, he would take part in the great transition from droving herds of cattle to hauling them in mechanized vehicles, the brief piece of our American history which combined the old and the new.

But times were changing fast. Only 100 years after trains began to move cattle, the internal combustion engine and cheap oil began to alter the way cattle moved once again. The forerunners of the semi-trailer began to move a few cattle almost simultaneously in this country and in Australia and Europe.

A historical document for North Dakota says that by 1940, most cattle in that state were hauled to stockyards and slaughter plants by trucks. The reason this happened, the document says, was because shipping by rail had become too expensive.

Today, of course, cattle are hauled only by truck and trailer. Trains are no longer considered practical, perhaps more than any other reason, because of their limited geographic reach.

Trucks are simply part of our business today. They carry cattle from all parts of the nation to the winter wheat belt and to summer grazing throughout the Great Plains, then on to feedlots and then to slaughter plants.

Not long ago someone estimated the average steer travels 2,500 miles by truck in his short lifetime. That may or may not be accurate, but there is no question the true figure is in the hundreds of miles.

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