Salmon caught in the Platte and Missouri Rivers? Black bass and pickerel in the Elkhorn?
This fish story that dates to 1873 has largely been lost to the annals of time, and how it happened almost defies logic — what are the chances? — but trust us, it is true.
For almost a decade some of the best freshwater fishing anywhere in the country was in eastern Nebraska’s waterways. What made for an angler’s delight were a rainy spell, a railroad trestle collapse between Elkhorn and Waterloo and an aquarium car on a Union Pacific train bound for California. That’s right. An aquarium car.
Our yarn starts in 1873, when the California Fish Commission chartered a Central Pacific Railroad fruit car to be sent to New England to be fitted as an aquarium. The mission: Stock California’s waterways with non-native species. The man in charge: Livingston Stone of the United States Fish Commission.
It was front-page news for the San Francisco Examiner, which printed a letter Stone wrote to the fish commission and included this prophetic excerpt:
“I think I shall be able to start with a good supply of fishes, but the chances against getting them across the continent alive are enormous. Still, everything will be done that experience and care can dictate and while we will prepare for the worst we will hope for the best.”
He hadn’t counted on a rainy spring in Nebraska.
In New England, Stone was collecting his living fish. From his account in a federal fisheries report published in 1876, upward of 60 black bass and 11 walleyes from Lake Champlain, 190 yellow perch and 12 bullheads from the Missisquoi River, 110 catfish from the Raritan River, 20 tautogs (blackfish) and 1,500 fresh-water eels from Martha’s Vineyard, 1,000 eastern trout from Charlestown and 162 lobsters and a barrel of oysters from Massachusetts Bay. The black bass, bullheads, catfish and some of the lobsters were “full-grown and heavy with spawn.”
All went into the aquarium car. It held a 5-ton covered tank that was the width of the car, 32 inches deep and 8 feet long. At the other end were an icebox and “the reserves of sea-water, six large cases of lobsters and a barrel of oysters.” Portable tanks were in the center of the car. Four passengers, including Stone, slept on top of the 5-ton tank.
At Albany, New York, 40,000 fresh-water eels from the Hudson River were loaded. At Chicago, 20,000 shad and shad eggs and perhaps some salmon were brought on board to stock the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
The train went on the U.P. line in Omaha on June 8. Aside from some eels and a few lobsters that had perished, Stone wrote, “everything was promising well.”
Until dinner time that Sunday afternoon. Stone:
“Suddenly there came a terrible crash, and tanks, ice and everything in the car seemed to strike us in every direction. We were, everyone of us, at once wedged in by the heavy weights upon us.”
A trestle over a flooding slough east of the Elkhorn River, 400 feet long and 12 feet high, had weakened from the soggy conditions. The front of the train, which included a mail car behind the aquarium car and then several passenger cars, tumbled into what the Omaha Republican newspaper called 10 feet of water in a rapid current.
The U.P. roadmaster riding in the engine, 35-year-old Michael Carey of Omaha, died in the wreckage. His was the first burial in the newly consecrated Holy Sepulchre Cemetery at 48th and Leavenworth Streets, and the only death from the accident.
Stone and the others in the aquarium car swam around the car and climbed on the engine to reach safety. All others on the train survived.
“Growing up in Gretna, I remember the old-timers talking about this,’’ said Greg Wagner, a longtime spokesman for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “They’d refer to it as ‘The Wreck.’ ”
How about the fish in the aquarium car? Stone, in The Omaha Herald the day after the accident, said:
“The fish have all been lost in the Elkhorn River, which at the present time (is) very high and muddy, and no doubt, all of the fish soon perished in that water so that even Nebraska will not be benefited by the sudden fish planting.”
The tautog (blackfish), lobsters and oysters didn’t survive. The others apparently thrived, according to these newspaper accounts.
At the time:
Omaha Republican: “When the fish car went through the trestle work it sunk completely under water, where it toppled over and the fish escaped into the slough and thence to the Elkhorn. At least a million of small fry were then let loose into a Nebraska stream. The river is quite muddy now, so some of them will probably die but the greater portion will live, increase and multiply.
“It is not very joyful news to the owners of the fish or to those who may have to pay for them, but it is a big thing for the Elkhorn River, which is thus magnificently stocked free with the finest varieties of fish.”
Three years later, in 1876:
Kansas City Journal: “At Plattsmouth, some fishermen hauled a seine in the Missouri and among the fish taken were a large number of salmon from six to 18 inches long. These fish, it is believed, came from the Elkhorn. … So it will be seen that the accident is proving a benefit to Nebraska and it demonstrates that salmon will flourish in our streams, as muddy as they are.”
It should be noted that the salmon could have come from stockings by the U.S. Fish Commission along the Missouri from the Floyd River at Sioux City, Iowa, to Council Bluffs in 1875. Isn’t there a little wiggle room to every fish story?
Four years later, 1877:
Nebraska State Journal: “We are reminded of the great washout whereby $20,000 worth of ‘fish seed’ was spilled into the running waters by the sight of some of those very fish which have been caught by the boys in the river and lakes hereabouts. Black bass … trout, pickerel, pike and salmon, as well as eels, have been captured in sufficient quantities to demonstrate the fact that this whole water course has been well stocked with these beautiful and excellent fish.”
Omaha Herald: “Now we are beginning to realize on our home fisheries. Yesterday Sheely Bros. received a shipment of salmon taken from the Elkhorn at Waterloo. Our readers will remember that a few years ago … spaun (sic) went into the river. Nice thing, wasn’t it?”
Even seven years later, 1880:
Omaha Daily Herald: “Fishermen are catching large numbers of black bass, pickerel and other choice fish from the (Platte) river near Ashland, the progeny of those spilled into the Elkhorn river a few years ago by an accident to a car filled with live young fish from the Atlantic seaboard.”
Finally in the early 1880s, the great fishing dried up in Nebraska.
How did the hooks come up empty? We don’t know for sure. Certainly some of the exotic species fared poorly. Another contributory factor could be this concern of the Nebraska State Journal in 1879: “There are parties who own seines and drag the waters clean of fish at all seasons. Fishing with nets should be stopped at once.”
Did California ever get its fish? Yes. After the wreck, Stone returned to New England for an immediate retry, this time bringing only shad to California. On the trip west, he asked that the train be stopped at the wreck site so he could bring on 50 gallons of Elkhorn River water for the remainder of the trip to California.
A year later, he delivered a carload of the eastern species to California in eight days. His legacy is such that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s hatchery in Shasta, California, is named for him.
Since then, this story has been largely forgotten. Some details were included in a 1963 publication of the Game and Parks Commission, “A History of Fisheries Resources,” by David J. Jones with illustrations by Frank Holub.
In Nebraska, the wreck and the subsequent fishing boon spawned the interest to start a private hatchery near Gretna in 1877, so game fish no longer had to be imported, and a state fish commission was created two years later. That agency is now the Game and Parks Commission.
Transporting fish nationwide by rail continued until truck and air travel became more feasible and economical after World War II, as explained in a 1947 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service historical booklet.
Raquel Espinoza, Union Pacific senior director for corporate communications and media relations, found the booklet in the railroad’s archive. She said the Union Pacific Historical Museum in Council Bluffs had no mention of the 1873 wreck in its files.
The Fish and Wildlife Service history, interestingly, begins with Stone’s shad-only trip — the one after the wreck — and places it a year later in 1874.
It said the trip was made in Fish Car No. 2. But after reading this fish tale, you now know what happened to Car No. 1.
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