Water, A Frontier Problem

The above rig drilled a deep well for C. Layton and his mother in Custer County, Nebraska, in 1889. NSHS RG2608-3537

The above rig drilled a deep well for C. Layton and his mother in Custer County, Nebraska, in 1889. NSHS RG2608-3537

One of the most serious problems facing the plains pioneer was that of obtaining an adequate supply of water. Without such a supply, he couldn’t exist. The early settlers who located in the valleys along streams were fortunate. They could get water from springs or from the streams themselves. When wells were dug, an abundant supply of water usually was struck at twenty or thirty feet.

Those who went on to the high plains, however, faced a different problem. Water was not to be found at depths of less than 100 feet, and frequently it was necessary to go to 300 feet. Well digging there became a dangerous profession requiring a high degree of skill. In one incident, Nels Christensen, a veteran well digger, was at the bottom of a well 280 feet deep when a rope, which had pulled a half bucket of dirt almost to the top of the well, broke. As the load plunged toward him, Christensen threw himself against the side of the well, hoping to escape what seemed a certain death.

To learn what happened to Christensen, read page 228 of “Water, A Frontier Problem,” by Everett Dick (Nebraska History 49, Fall 1968). The article has more about Nebraska’s colorful well diggers, including Joseph “Dutch Joe” Grewe, famous in the 1880s and 1890s for his prowess as a well digger in the Valentine area. Also covered are well digging by hand and by augur; drive and hydraulic wells; and the use of pumps, windmills, and irrigation on the frontier. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor for Research and Publications

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