Standing on the balcony of the Blaine Hotel in Chadron, Neb., a thousand miles west of Chicago, Jim Hartzel pointed a pistol into the air and said earnestly, "Boys, the hour is now arrived for the cowboy race from Chadron to Chicago to start." Nine horsemen, all in a belligerent mood, were lined up before the Blaine Hotel. "I trust you will take good care of your horses," Hartzel continued, for the benefit of two humane society officials who were trying to stop the race, "and I know you will conduct yourselves as gentlemen and uphold the good name of Chadron and the State of Nebraska."
Then he fired the pistol. It was 5:33 on the evening of June 13, 1893. The regimental band of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry began to play; some 3,500 spectators lining the street leading out of town broke into cheers. To the astonishment of the journalists present, the riders started at a walk. "There was no grand dash," wrote the reporter for Harper's Weekly, the leading national news magazine of the time, "no spurt at the start. The horses ambled off."
The nine riders, who included one nationally famous gunman, Doc Middleton, a mysterious newcomer known as Rattlesnake, a stagecoach driver and six cowpunchers, moved out of Chadron together and jogged along the road past Pine Ridge, southeast of town. Barely on speaking terms, the racers kept together to the town of Rushville. It was after dark when they arrived. Middleton, a sinister looking character in boots, jeans and a white sombrero, his black beard tucked into the handkerchief around his neck, stabled his two horses, Jimmie and Geronimo, and registered at the Rushville hotel to get a good night's sleep. After some hesitation John Berry, the stagecoach driver, did likewise, followed by the others, with one exception. Joe Gillespie, a genuine cowboy, gray-haired, extremely fat but light on his feet and a gifted rider, went on through Rushville and slept in the open with his horses. He was the first away in the morning....
What became known as The Great 1,000-Mile Cowboy Race actually began as a joke. Emmett Albright, a Texas cowboy living in the town of Crawford, not far from Chadron, cooked up a gag that 300 cowboys were going to race across the prairie to the Chicago World's Fair. He planted the story in eastern newspapers with the aid of a newspaperman, never identified. In Albright's story the cowboys, on arriving in Chicago, would demonstrate range skills—riding, cutting out cattle, and so on. It was expected the show would attract thousands to the Union Stockyards.
Upon seeing their gag in print, Albright and his newspaper crony improved on it. Various portly businessmen in Chadron and elderly farmers living around the countryside were pictured as eagerly enrolling to ride to Chicago. It was printed that Jim Hartzel, the deadliest shot in Nebraska, was certain to enter. Jim was the town fire chief. Another contender was Win Satterlee, described as "a daring rider and great favorite on the range." Win was the 11-year-old son of the owner of the Blaine Hotel.
The livery-stable sophisticates of Chadron were convulsed; it was the funniest thing that had ever happened to the town. Then letters began to pour into Chadron from all over the world. The jokers had unexpectedly touched on one of the hottest subjects in military and humane-society circles. In the preceding fall the German and Austrian cavalry had staged a Berlin-to-Vienna endurance race—360 miles—that turned into a ghastly parody of a military exercise. Of the 230 horses in the race, more than 30 died or were disabled. One fell off a bridge, and others were kept going by injections of morphine. The German officers held back, hoping to let Prince Frederick Leopold, the cousin of the Kaiser, enter Vienna first; Leopold, whose horse broke down after 11 hours, kept the animal doped for the remaining 74 hours. An Austrian, Count Starhemberg, won the $5,000 first prize with an elapsed time of 71 hours 20 minutes, but his horse died.
Most of these horses were Thoroughbreds, but many of the best performers were wiry little Hungarian horses of uncertain ancestry. In England, where the poor showing of the German cavalry was a revelation, there was a movement to find new sources of cavalry mounts, and General George Benjamin Wolseley (he became Sir George) was investigating the use of western cow ponies. General Wolseley was a veteran of heroic reputation dating from the Indian Mutiny and an aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. More important, he was the younger brother of Viscount Wolseley, who helped create the modern British army. So all Europe was following the news from Nebraska.
Albright and his friends were stunned to find their thousand-mile horse race being taken with the utmost seriousness. The Chadron newspaper sternly editorialized that in the future local pranksters should keep their jokes to themselves. But interest had mounted to the point where a public meeting was called in Nelson's Opera House to discuss the race. A first prize of $1,000 was raised. Buffalo Bill wired from his Wild West show at the Chicago fair that he would add $500. He had been queried by General Wolseley about shipping range horses to England for the cavalry. A race committee was set up, and rules were worked out. Only western cow ponies could be used, and only two horses to a man, with ordinary 35-pound range saddles, the saddle and rider to weigh not less than 150 pounds.
Some mighty strange cowboys entered. Doc Middleton was the former head of a gang of thugs known as the Pony Boys who had terrorized northeastern Nebraska, across the state from Chadron. His pal, Kid Wade, had been lynched, the gang had been broken up and, after serving a jail term, Doc had become respectable, settling down as a Chadron gambler.
The day before the race was to start, an unknown who called himself Rattlesnake Jim Stephens arrived in Chadron with two fine horses, saying he had ridden 500 miles from Kansas in 11 days to enter the race. He looked like a dime novel character, with his hatband of rattlesnake rattles.
Emmett Albright was prevailed upon to enter. He couldn't get out of it, since the city fathers were grimly announcing that the whole thing was his idea.
These spectacular figures overshadowed the genuine cow-punchers in the race—Dave Douglas, a teen-age rider, old Joe Gillespie, Joe Campbell from Denver and two South Dakota boys, George Jones and Charley Smith.
Almost as the horses were lining up, John Berry entered the race. Berry came about as close to being the classic figure of the western good man—opposed to the western bad-man—as was possible for a creature of flesh and blood. He was slight, soft-spoken, modest, hard-working, intelligent and kindly. His reputation as a hero stemmed from the fact that he had kept the mail stage running to Fort Niobrara during the Indian wars, which lasted until 1891 in the country through which he drove the stage. Since he had no suitable mounts of his own, he rode the horses of Jack Hale, a South Dakota rancher: Sandy, a bay gelding, and Poison, a magnificent 5-year-old stallion that was a mixture of Kentucky Thoroughbred and western range stock.
Doc Middleton and his cronies immediately withdrew from the race. They refused to ride if Berry rode. They said he was disqualified because he had helped the race committee plan the route. The start was delayed all day. Berry finally agreed to forfeit the prize if the judges ruled against him, in order to get the race started. So Doc Middleton came back in, but with the conspicuous bad feeling of a notoriously dangerous man.
Early in the morning of the second day of the race Joe Gillespie heaved his 185 pounds on Billy Mack, his chestnut gelding and, leading his gray, Billy Shafer, headed into the hills east of Rushville. The route ran due east through the Sand Hills, a desolate extension of the Dakota Badlands, to the first control point at Long Pine. In wet weather travel through the Sand Hills wasn't so bad, for the roads and trails packed hard, but in the summer the dry sand dragged heavily. The hills were like desert sand dunes, but thinly covered with grass. They shifted constantly under the wind from the Rockies. Big bare sandy hollows, known as blowouts, formed between the hills. The whole terrain was an enormous sponge, soaking up rain and rivers and releasing the water in isolated pockets and valleys.
In midmorning Doc Middleton and Rattlesnake Stephens, riding hard, passed Gillespie, who, however, kept them in sight. Middleton was riding as if evading the law, which in fact he had often done in the Sand Hills. He had a hideout almost in the middle of them, where the famous Sand Hills bird sanctuary is now located. Middleton's strategy was simple: he was going to ride the others out at the start of the race, relying on his private knowledge of this unknown region. He was willing to burn out one of his horses, since he planned to be so far ahead he could get through the easy country of Iowa on Geronimo alone.
Where he stopped on Wednesday night and Thursday night is not recorded. At 4:45 on Friday afternoon he rode into Long Pine—phenomenal time in view of the nature of the country. But Gillespie and Stephens were still keeping up with him. Forty-five minutes later Emmett Albright rode up to the control point. The others were scattered halfway across the Sand Hills, Berry in last place. If anyone knew the Sand Hills better than Middleton, it was Berry. He had been the first homesteader there, a place now called Johnstown, not far from Middleton's hideout. Berry certainly did not try to make speed through the sand. He walked his horses, often walking with them. He never used a whip or a spur. Instead of racing in bad terrain, he used the time to win the confidence of the horses, thus letting strange mounts become thoroughly familiar with him at the start of the race. Beyond the Sand Hills, and before Long Pine, the road entered steep, wild, wooded hills and the fossil-filled canyons around Bone Creek. Here Berry also rode slowly. He was nearly a day behind the leaders.
Middleton was away early on Saturday morning. The headquarters of the Pony Boys had been in nearby Bassett, at the Martin Hotel, and Doc wasn't popular around there. He pounded on through Stuart and Atkinson to O'Neill, the second control point, 59 miles from Long Pine. His strategy seemed to be working: Dave Douglas dropped out of the race at Atkinson; he had worn out one horse trying to catch Middleton in the rough country and wouldn't go on with only one mount.
Beyond O'Neill the road ran over level country, where limitless acres of wild hay were harvested commercially each fall, the old stacks standing like small mountains beside the road. Middleton continued to ride hard, checking in at the third control point, Wausa, 58 miles beyond O'Neill, and driving on toward Coleridge and Sioux City. John Berry registered at O'Neill 13 hours after Middleton.
At Coleridge, Middleton left his horse Jimmy, who had begun to go lame. He started from there at 5 o'clock in the morning, jogged slowly but steadily all day, making four stops to feed Geronimo, and at 7:30 in the evening came to the Missouri River opposite Sioux City, where a large crowd had gathered. As the cheers rose, the outlaw doffed his white sombrero and waved it in triumph. "I am a little tired," he said, "but will get over it with a good night's rest. My horse is in good condition, and I believe I am a winner, even if I have but one horse."
While he was talking Joe Gillespie galloped up on Billy Mack, still leading his fresh horse Billy Shafer. To Middleton's astonishment, the fat man was in fine shape and in good spirits and said he would be first in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune, which was now carrying news of the race on its front page, said, "Many practical horsemen who saw his mounts share his opinion." Before Middleton had grasped the fact that Gillespie was barely behind him (and with a fresh horse) he had another shock: Rattlesnake Stephens rode up. But there was worse news for the outlaw. Only an hour and a half behind the leader, John Berry arrived at the river at 9 o'clock.
Middleton never got over his astonishment, chagrin and hurt pride. Disregarding outlaw ethics, he whined, complained and charged everyone with trickery. Early next morning Gillespie and Stephens started ahead of him. Before Middleton was under way Berry crossed the river and hurried on into Iowa, willing now to ride ahead of Middleton. Forty miles from Sioux City, Rattlesnake Stephens had to leave his horse Nick. He tried to keep up with Gillespie, with only one mount, General Grant, and did so for a considerable distance: Gillespie and Stephens both checked into the control point at the little town of Galva, Iowa, at 6:45 on the morning of June 21. Berry was exactly one hour behind them. All rested there briefly, Berry leaving 10 minutes ahead of the others. In the 66 miles to Fort Dodge, Stephens passed Berry, to arrive 20 minutes earlier.
Torrential rains had started. Berry was again nursing his horses, traveling more slowly but keeping up by taking shorter stops at night. Between Fort Dodge and Cedar Falls—99 miles—Berry again got the lead, but they were all close together. As they approached Cedar Falls, Stephens and Gillespie both passed him, arriving half an hour earlier. Berry continued to ride another three hours, bedding down at about 10 that night.
The race was now nationwide news. The Chicago Tribune reported that Middleton, the best known of the racers, was hopelessly in last place. There was a curious and unexplained fear that foul play would stop Berry. The Tribune reported that his horses were guarded at every stop: "The greatest care was taken to keep the crowd away from the animals, and there is a rumor current that an attempt will be made to poison them." Another Chicago paper sent a reporter to Waterloo, Iowa to accompany the lead rider on a bicycle. But local wags spoiled this bit of journalistic enterprise. A weary rider on a jaded nag posed as a racer and was whisked off by the reporter to a hotel for dinner. He filled the reporter with imaginary tales of his exploits while the real racers passed through town.
Joe Gillespie had stuck with Rattlesnake Stephens ever since leaving Rushville. Now that Stephens had only one horse, Gillespie relaxed. Coming into the town of Manchester, Iowa, 43 miles before Dubuque, he was startled and pleased by the sound of music in the streets and found himself riding into a circus parade. A picturesque character, and now a popular favorite, Gillespie was persuaded to join the parade. As he believed himself safely ahead, he then went to the circus, where he entertained the crowd by riding a trick mule. He then resumed his solitary ride through the checkcrboarded farm country.
But both Berry and Rattlesnake had passed him. Berry crossed the Mississippi River bridge at Dubuque, nearly 800 miles from Chadron, at 12:30 Sunday afternoon, June 25. Rattlesnake crossed at 2:30, Gillespie 20 minutes later. However, this was Rattlesnake's last effort; his only horse, General Grant, was playing out, and now he fell back.
Berry did not know where the others were. He was no longer eating, partly because of the time required, partly to keep down every ounce of weight. New rainstorms struck, and Joe Gillespie, who had no coat, began walking, tying his horses together and leading them. Somewhere around Stockton, Ill., about 40 miles toward Chicago from Dubuque, Berry decided to ride straight through. He reached Freeport, Ill. at 7:20 in the morning, Gillespie coming in at 9:45. Unexpectedly, one of the South Dakota boys, Charley Smith, rode up with two fine mounts, Dynamite and Red Wing, just as Gillespie was leaving at 11:30, and left with him.
Berry rode the 68 miles to De Kalb in 12 hours and 20 minutes. He left there on Poison at 10:50 in the morning, an hour ahead of Gillespie and Smith, in darkness and rain so heavy he could not see the road. Humane society officials were now riding in buggies, accompanying each racer. Berry stayed close to his escort. Gillespie and Smith, however, left De Kalb suddenly, and when the agents assigned to them discovered this and tried to leave also, they found it impossible to hire carriages, and Gillespie and Smith went on without surveillance.
Berry did not stop for feed and water all night. At 7 in the morning he saw the smoke of Chicago and began to worry about the effect that stone roads would have on his horse's feet. The morning grew hot, and at suburban Hey-wood he stopped and gave Poison a spoonful of water. He finally entered the city on Madison Street, which was already becoming crowded with morning traffic. At California Avenue he turned into John Boulevard, asking his way of bystanders. Berry's jeans were mud-covered, his features were red and swollen and he was barely able to hold up his head. His eves were puffed and red from exposure. People stared at him with their mouths open and waved him on. He hit Ashland Avenue and then 22nd Street, after which he reached Michigan Avenue and easily went on to the fair grounds.
A tremendous crowd filled the street in front of the entrance to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Traffic was stopped. A small boy atop a telegraph pole saw the lone rider approaching and let out a yell. A mighty cheer rose from the crowd as Berry jogged up at exactly 9:30 in the morning.
Colonel Cody ran out to greet him, saying, "Berry, old man, I'm glad to see you! How do you feel?"
Berry replied in a hoarse whisper that couldn't be heard. He slowly lifted his leg over the saddle, stepped down and fell to the ground. He put his hand over his eyes, probably, said the Chicago News reporter, because they were swollen from lack of sleep. The cowboys of the Wild West show led Poison to a stable under the grandstand, treating "the noble animal" like a sick infant. They rubbed his joints with liniment and wiped his mouth with a sponge. Berry meanwhile had recovered his self-possession. "I'm all right," he said, "but dreadfully tired." He had covered the thousand miles (set later at 1,040) in 13 days and 16 hours, the last 130-plus in 24 hours and the last 80 miles in nine hours and a half. Humane society veterinarians examined Poison and pronounced him in fine shape.
"Western range horses," cried Buffalo Bill, "are the hardiest and best horses for cavalry use on the face of the earth!"
At 11:13 Emmett Albright, fresh and rested, galloped up on Outlaw. By this time, however, no one took the joker seriously. He was charged with having loaded his horse on a boxcar in Manchester, Iowa and again from De Kalb to the outskirts of Chicago.
Berry was given a drink, slept for half an hour on a sofa in Cody's apartment and appeared at a luncheon Cody had improvised for horsemen and reporters. The crowd continued to grow all day, until the adjoining streets were impassable. At 1:35 the luncheon was interrupted by shouting—Joe Gillespie had just ridden up on Billy Shafer. The fat man was in excellent spirits, and his horse was in better shape than Berry's Poison or Albright's Outlaw. "He's the best hoss I ever thro wed a leg over," said Gillespie. "Give him a little rest and two quarts of oats and he'll throw off another fifty miles this afternoon."
Twelve minutes later Charley Smith galloped up on Dynamite. He smiled cheerfully, but "limped a little when he dismounted." Either Smith or Gillespie might have beaten Berry. But the road they took from De Kalb to Chicago was several miles longer than that taken by Berry. Giving the humane society official the slip was costly. He was so angry that when he eventually caught them "he was not disposed to keep the pair from going wrong" when they took a longer route into Chicago.
Rattlesnake Stephens, who had just arrived in De Kalb, wired his protest against giving the prize to Berry, but the race committee decided in Berry's favor. Middleton, who left Freeport 11 hours behind Berry, reached De Kalb five hours behind Stephens and George Jones. The outlaw had lost his spirit; nothing more was heard from him.
The great Chadron-to-Chicago 1,000-mile race was called the most remarkable feat of endurance of men and horses to be found in the record books. There is some justification for the claim. The scheduled time of the Pony Express from St. Joseph, Mo. to Sacramento (1,980 miles) was eight days. Actual runs came to more than 11 days, though Lincoln's inaugural address was carried from St. Joseph to Sacramento in only seven days and 17 hours. But the Pony Express riders (Colonel Cody among them, in his youth) changed horses every 10 miles, and it was considered remarkable that they covered 75 miles a day. The riders in the cowboy race covered more than 70 miles a day every day for two weeks.
Had the race been carefully planned they could have made better time. But the control points were merely stations where humane society veterinarians examined the horses; otherwise, the cowboys found their own livery stables, feed and hotel rooms, or, like Joe Gillespie, slept in the open. These factors, together with the differences in the country traversed, made any comparison with the German-Austrian cavalry race academic. Yet it was obvious that as horsemen the cowboys surpassed the best of the European cavalrymen. In racing 360 miles the Germans and Austrians lost 30 out of 230 horses in a fair-weather cross-country ride. This was one-seventh of the total—pretty close to combat losses. The cowboys rode more than a thousand miles, much of the way through country as wild as could be readily found, killed no horses and brought some of them to Chicago in first-class condition.
What surprised the Americans about the German-Austrian race was the naiveté of the Europeans. The German and Austrian authorities really thought their cavalrymen had done something wonderful. Here the distances from one town to another were so great that a ride of 360 miles was commonplace. A cowboy's horse was his most prized possession, if not his only possession, and to lose one on a ride from, say, Denver to Santa Fe (367 miles) would have stamped the rider as a lunatic. The cowboy race was a triumph in another sense. John Berry became a renowned frontier figure for his exploit. Doc Middleton, disappointed by the failure of his honest endeavor, returned to crime and died in jail in Wyoming.