Nebraska: "Flat Water"

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When you hear the name "Nebraska", the first thing you think of is probably "corn" and "cornhuskers", at least that was what always passed through my mind.

No longer.  Now having come roughly halfway across this long (430 miles) state and finding myself in Central City, I have gained a keen (I would even say "palpable") sense that it means "flat river".  That's because, from one end to the other, I'm following Route 30 / Lincoln Highway, and it was easy for the surveyors who laid out the Lincoln Highway (our nation's first transcontinental road) to follow the Platte River.  You guessed it, which I also did long ago, that "platte" is French for "flat", and that decidedly is what this river is all about:  flat, flat, flat.

That's why it meanders about across the state, breaking up into different channels and side waters.  There's an old folk saying that the Platte River is a mile wide and an inch deep, which accounts for the strange, flat bottomed boats with airplane engines mounted on them that people have to skim across the surface of the river with its shallow, sandy bottom, somewhat in the manner of the airboats in the Everglades.

Nebraskier ("Flat Water") — that's exactly how around 1714 French fur trappers and explorers transcribed the name given to the river by the Otoe people, which the French translated as "rivière platte".

Also living around here were the Pawnee, and I was privileged to have the opportunity to run along the Dark Island Trail which passed by their tribal ceremonial grounds.  Following that trail, I crossed the Platte on the 1,072-foot long, old wooden Bader Bridge, which is breathtakingly full of character:

Dark Island Trail Is A Beautiful Bridge Hike In Nebraska

Other notable trails that historically passed through this area are the Oregon, California, Mormon, and Bozeman trails.  When I am in Grand Island, I will run through the winter stopover of the Mormon people as they headed to the west.
Henceforth, whenever I see or say the name "Nebraska", I will have visions of a shimmering expanse of water flowing from the western end of the state all the way to Omaha ([actually Umoⁿhoⁿ or Umaⁿhaⁿ] in the Omaha language means "Upstream People" or "Against the Current" [source]], where its waters join the Missouri, which enters the mighty Mississippi at St. Louis, five hundred miles to the southeast.

Selected readings


  1. Jason M said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 10:03 am

    Pick up Willa Cather’s My Antonia (or read on iPad like me) while you’re there!

  2. mg said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 1:59 pm

    I have driven across Nebraska a few times, thanks to my penchant for cross-country road trips. I love my friends in Omaha (which, btw, has a fantastic zoo thanks to Mutual of Omaha (remember the Wild Kingdom TV shows?) Even so, the flat straight interstate across Nebraska has to be one of the most boring drives I've ever done, which is why I love the song "I Hate to Wake Up Sober in Nebraska".

  3. John Spevacek said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 4:01 pm

    Get off the interstate and out of the river valley. The Sandhills are gorgeous and not flat at all.

  4. Ryan said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 8:23 pm

    The old saying is much better — that William Jennings Bryan, Senator and Presidential candidate from Nebraska, was called the Boy Orator of the Platte bc HE was a mile wide and an inch deep.

  5. François Lang said,

    June 9, 2024 @ 8:50 pm

    First thing I thought of:

    Albeit quite a bit to the south.

  6. KeithB said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 9:01 am

    IIRC, the Eastern end of the transcontinental railroad started there, and they were making much better progress then the Western said which almost immediately hit the Sierras.

  7. Jerry Kreuscher said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 10:15 am

    You might enjoy the account of going through that area in a stagecoach in 1861 in Roughing It if you haven't read that. That's also a very funny book except for chapter 19 and the account of the Mountain Meadow Massacre.

  8. Jesse W said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 10:25 am

    This is probably the closest location to my hometown that I'll ever see mentioned on LL (I grew up on a farm 40 miles to the north of Central City).

    While the Platte River valley makes transportation in any form about as easy as one can hope for, it leaves much to be desired in terms of scenery. The northern parts of the state is more interesting in that regard; in addition to the Sandhills, I'm fond of the areas along the Cowboy Trail, the Niobrara River (another Omaha-Ponca word that translates to approximately "wide-spreading water"), and the Pine Ridge region:

    On a more on-topic note, if you haven't read much about Czech history in Nebraska, I'd recommend doing so. The University of Nebraska (which has a Czech department) has a good starting point:

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 1:44 pm

    Against an upbeat narrative of Czech-immigrant contributions to Nebraskan culture must be weighed less happy historical moments regarding non-Anglophones, like the passage amidst WW1-era xenophobia of the no-teaching-German-to-schoolchildren law found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Meyer v. Nebraska and the highly unfortunate

  10. maidhc said,

    June 10, 2024 @ 6:51 pm

    The Oregon Trail had to follow rivers because the animals pulling the wagons needed water. That's why it swings north in Wyoming, following the Platte River.. The exception on the California branch of the trail was the infamous "Twenty Mile Desert" east of Fernley NV. There the emigrants watered their animals at "The Sinks of the Humboldt" (near Lovelock NV) and made a night-time dash across the desert to the Truckee River.

    The railroad had a similar need for water, but the railroad company was able to dig wells, so they straightened out the route through Wyoming, which was later followed by the Lincoln Highway, and modern I-80. Most of the drive through Wyoming is pretty dull also, although Wyoming has a lot of wonderful scenery. But the railroad went for the flattest possible route.

  11. John Swindle said,

    June 11, 2024 @ 5:03 am

    My parents met in Central City eighty-something years ago. She was a school teacher, he was a preacher. She was chaperoning students who were ice skating. He was brilliant on roller skates, so I suppose he must have known how to ice skate.

  12. Mike Maxwell said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 3:58 pm

    Our family went across Nebraska in 1958, on vacation from Illinois to the Grand Canyon. As we drove for mile after mile along that river, my father (who was completely unable to carry a tune) made up a song "sitting on my fat prat on the flat Platte". I was 8, but I've never forgotten this memorable occasion.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2024 @ 10:32 pm

    @Mike Maxwell

    First time I ever heard the word "prat" ("buttocks").

    Where was your father from?

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    June 13, 2024 @ 5:43 pm

    "Prat" is a very common term of abuse in the U.K., Victor — typically used in contexts such as "What a prat !", "You prat !" or even just "Prat !". Arguably interchangeable with "Twat", which refers to a different part of the (female) body. There is also something called a "pratfall", q.v.

  15. maidhc said,

    June 13, 2024 @ 7:14 pm

    "Pratfall" is a common term in the world of slapstick comedy.

    OED's earliest evidence for "pratfall" is from 1903

  16. Victor Mair said,

    June 13, 2024 @ 7:22 pm

    "Pratfall" I knew quite well, but was unaware of the etymology.

  17. M. Paul Shore said,

    June 13, 2024 @ 10:59 pm

    Regarding the Niobrara River (as mentioned in Jesse W’s comment above), ever since I was a child the name “Niobrara” has seemed to me—in its English pronunciation, of course—to be the most beautiful-sounding of all geographical names, for reasons that I can only speculate about, with those speculations not necessarily being meaningful to others. I think I may have first heard the name on television, in a song; does anyone here have any idea what the song might’ve been?

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