Fort Construction

Money was scarce in the Loup Valley are in 1874. Pioneer families such as the McClimans, Goodenows, Freys and Freelands were on the cutting edge of civilization and endured many hardships. Besides drought, grasshoppers, prairie fires and the usual challenges, they were effected by the national economic panic of 1873. Cash money was a rare commodity. Even the meager produce of these early years was cheap. A maximum of five cents per dozen eggs could be expected. Adverse growing conditions caused the price of corn to rise from twenty-six cents to sixty-four cents between 1873 and 1874. That only represented the price paid in population centers so it only had a relative effect upon the barter-based economy on the frontier.

Camp Ruggles was established on the North Loup River a few miles below the ‘Forks’ in April of 1874. This Army camp was greatly welcomed by the settlers. The sixty men stationed there received a minimum of thirteen dollars per month with regular paydays every two months. The army was paid in greenback script, somewhat suspect and often discounted, rather that hard silver or gold. At least it brought cash to the area! The settlers sold a fair amount of local commodities to the soldiers themselves, more to the officers’ families and still more to the Quartermaster and Commissary Departments. The respective diaries and reminiscences of both Truman Freeland and Maude Goodenow relate the importance of these sales. However, it was not until the decision was made to build a permanent fort, that a significant economic impact by the military presence was felt in the valley.

When construction of the new “Post on the North Loup River” (later to become Fort Hartsuff) began in September of 1874, a major boost was given to the local economy. Congress initially appropriated $50,000 to build the new post. Mr. Fred O. Graham was named construction superintendent at the handsome monthly rate of one hundred and fifty dollars. He organized and supervised work crews into teams constructing steam-powered saw, shingle and lath mills. Other crews were put to work cutting, trimming and transporting timber from the Jones and Cedar Canyons four or five miles up-river. Gravel digging, loading, hauling and screening was a high priority project, since the new post was to be constructed of a poured lime-cement-gravel aggregate. Labor crews set about digging four-foot deep foundations, while rough and finish carpenters and masons, mud-mixers, blacksmiths and others were busily engaged.

By the end of September, through December of 1874, an average of well over one hundred citizens were employed and kept on the rolls of the Quartermaster, Lt. Thaddeus Hurlbert Capron of the Ninth Infantry Regiment. During the month of November, ninety-six men were employed, most receiving one dollar per day. In addition, other workers who could supply a team of draft animals, received daily compensation of two dollars and fifty cents. In November, an additional thirty-two men were so employed. These citizen teamsters supplied eleven yoke of oxen, twenty teams of horses and one span of mules. They were earning cash money! Money that could buy flour and window glass and cartridges and calico and new-fangled coal oil lamps and dozens of other necessities and luxuries not accessible before the army came to build the new fort.

The citizen laborers and soldier sentries worked very hard the entire autumn and early winter of 1874. Through the effort and leadership of master craftsmen, (the like of N.G. Clement of Mira Valley) several buildings were completed by Christmas. Enough progress had been made that a holiday ball was held in celebration.

Sometimes other entertainment was available to the laborers and artisans who worked ten-hour days for six days per week. On one occasion a large herd of elk was observed coming from the hills on the south side of the valley to the river to drink. This placed them to the north and west of the present village of Elyria. All citizens with rifles or other guns dropped their hammers, trowels and shovels and headed off on a short but grand hunt. They were joined by off-duty soldiers and quartermaster escort wagons to bring in the kill.

A feast of elk steak was held under the ‘paulins of the open kitchens. It is well that these workers and soldiers enjoyed the sport and feast, for within seven years all the elk would be gone from the valley and the soldiers’ duties here ended. Most of the settlers stayed. The grand pay of a dollar a day helped many a homesteader hang on. The fruits of their labor are today represented by the prosperous agricultural economy in the Loup Valley region.