Before roads and Google Maps, they blazed the original Cowboy Trail.
At 5:40 p.m. June 13, 1893 — 120 years ago today — a western Nebraska sheriff stood in front of nine horsemen and a crowd of 3,000 spectators on a dirt street outside the Hotel Blaine in Chadron.
Dawes County Sheriff James Dahlman — who years later moved east and was elected Omaha mayor — cautioned the riders to be careful and to take care of their horses. Then Chadron Fire Chief J.O. Hartzell stepped to the hotel veranda with a Colt revolver and fired a shot into the air.
The Chadron-to-Chicago Cowboy Race was off — at a trot. It ended 13 days later on the grounds of Buffalo Bill's Wild West extravaganza at the world's fair.
The race weathered opposition and scrutiny by humane societies and controversy about the rightful winner, but the stunt captured the imagination of the nation as a test of frontier men and their horses. It was America's longest horse race.
“It put Chadron on the map. It's one of the things we're known for,” said Belle Lecher, director of the Dawes County Historical Museum south of Chadron.
The museum's race artifacts include a pearl-handled, single-action Colt Army revolver given to the winner and the brown cowboy boots worn by the runner-up. There's even the tanned hide of the first — but not winning — horse to arrive in Chicago. It's hanging on a museum wall.
Accounts about the roots of the race vary. Some say it was suggested as a lark. Others say showman William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody spurred it on as a way to publicize Chicago's Columbian Exposition and his own Western show set up next door.
Promoters billed it as a 1,000-mile horse race across three states. The purse was $1,000. Cody added $500 in prize money. Newspapers touted a turnout of hundreds of riders. Organizers expected about 30 on race day.
Chadron-to-Chicago Cowboy Race
On June 13, 1893, the Chadron-to-Chicago Cowboy Race began. It ended 13 days later on the grounds of Buffalo Bill's Wild West extravaganza at the world's fair. Riders could take any route east but were required to check in at Long Pine, O'Neill and Wausa in Nebraska; Sioux City, Galva, Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Waterloo, Manchester and Dubuque in Iowa; and Freeport, DeKalb and Chicago in Illinois.
View Cowboy Race in a larger map
Eastern humane societies expressed dismay and called the event a national disgrace. Officials from animal rights organizations went to Chadron for the start and trailed the race on trains to monitor the health of horses. They found no abuse.
Newspaper accounts and articles in Nebraska History magazine say Chadron streets filled with people the Tuesday afternoon of the start. Spectators climbed atop roofs. They peered out second-floor windows. They lined the street east of the hotel for half a mile. Jester's Freak Band, a cornet group, gathered in the shade of the telegraph office and played rousing tunes.
Fans cheered their favorite riders as they approached the starting line for a group photograph. The loudest cheer went to the local favorite, Doc Middleton of Chadron, a former outlaw and horse thief who is said to have stolen 2,000 horses during a two-year period.
The nine official riders hailed from Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado and Kansas. The low turnout was attributed to fears that humane society opponents would scuttle the event at the last minute.
Riders could take any route east but were required to check in at Long Pine, O'Neill and Wausa in Nebraska, Sioux City, Galva, Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Waterloo, Manchester and Dubuque in Iowa, and Freeport, DeKalb and Chicago in Illinois. The route across northern Nebraska closely follows an old railroad line now converted into the Cowboy Trail, a hike-bike-horseback byway.
The start was anticlimactic. A few riders trotted eastward on one horse with their spare in tow. Others paced their horses at a walk.
Middleton was the last rider to leave town, according to a story in the next day's World-Herald:
“He was surrounded by hundreds of people, all trying to shake his hand and bid him godspeed. His wife and two beautiful little children pushed their way through the crowd. Mr. Middleton, upon seeing them, reached down and took his children and kissed them, and then his wife. The scene brought tears to the eyes of many. As he left the city he remarked: 'Boys, I am last now but may be first at Chicago.' ”
Middleton was among the first three to reach Long Pine on June 16. The others were Josiah “Joe” Gillespie of Coxville, Neb., and Jim Stephens of Ness City, Kan. Stephens also was known as “Rattlesnake Jim” because he wore a blue ribbon with a mosaic of rattlesnake rattles on his white cowboy hat.
The World-Herald report from Long Pine, June 16: “The question is, will the men stand the long ride? The humane society should give them some attention. The ladies are pulling hairs from the manes and tails of the horses as mementos, and if they have a hair left when they reach Chicago it will be surprising.”
From Wausa, June 18: “Doc Middleton had to forbid the people from pulling hair from the tail of his horse, such was the rush of people to get mementos of the race.”
From Sioux City, June 20: “Doc Middleton … is out of it. When he dropped his second horse at Coleridge yesterday, it was all up with him. … Middleton will remain in the city a few days and ship his horses to Chicago.”
Middleton actually rode on to Dubuque but trailed far behind the leaders. The riders attracted crowds in communities across Iowa and Illinois.
In Moville, Iowa, Stephens stopped for dinner and was found suffering from “a slight hemorrhage of the lungs, caused by the constant jolt of riding in a slow trot.” A doctor gave him medicine and a prescription to fill along the way.
In Waterloo, Gillespie and Stephens' arrival was delayed by a stop in Cedar Falls to make $10 by riding around a circus ring.
The riders crossed Iowa in five days. Seven riders remained for the final stretch across Illinois.
John Berry of Chadron, riding a stallion named Poison, was the first rider to reach Cody's show grounds. He arrived at 9:30 a.m., June 27. He covered the final 150 miles in 24 hours. Berry, a railroad scout who helped plan the event, was barred from officially competing because he helped select the route. He rode in protest.
Although bronzed and bearded, Berry's slight physical stature surprised onlookers. “Why, he's only a little bit of a man,” someone said. Berry wore shabby brown trousers, a blue shirt and a cloth cap, with the brim turned down around his head.
It didn't matter to Buffalo Bill. Cody shook Berry's hand and said: “You are the first man in. You are all right, John. You are all right.”
Two hours later, Emmet Albright of Chadron galloped to the finish line and reined up his horse in a flourish. He later was disqualified when organizers learned that he shipped his horses in a railroad box car from Dixon, Ill., to Chicago under an assumed name.
Shortly after 1 p.m., a boy perched on a telegraph pole shouted, “Here they come!” Gillespie rode to the finish with his horse at a trot and waving his cowboy hat to cheering spectators. He was the official winner. Gillespie dismounted, shook Buffalo Bill's hand and slipped out of the crowd to eat and sleep.
Sixteen minutes later, Charles Smith of Hot Springs, S.D., finished second.
Although Berry was not an official entrant, the other riders recognized that he rode a fair race. They allowed him to receive $175 from Cody's purse and a saddle from Montgomery Ward and Co. for being the first man into Chicago.
Gillespie was declared the winner. He received $50 from Cody, $200 from the Chadron purse and the Colt revolver.
The race harnessed folklore fame for Chadron and tongue-in-cheek fun in a World-Herald follow-up story.
The newspaper lamented that it was humiliating that a rugged cowboy, one of the ''wild men of the range who wear leather clothes and drink petrified whiskey” didn't win.
Instead, the newspaper reported, the first rider to Chicago was a railroad man with a tenderfoot name, instead of a cowboy whose name suggested the wild life of the roundup, such as Rattlesnake Jim.
Contact the writer:
Correction: During the Cowboy Race of 1893, the late arrival of two riders in Waterloo, Iowa, was attributed to a stop they made in nearby Cedar Falls to make $10 by riding around a circus ring. Their detour destination was misidentified in a previous version of this story.
Read more about the race