Liquid Salvation in Chadron, NE

In the 1840s, a French fur trapper by the name of Chartran settled down by two large ponds in the Nebraskan Panhandle to trade furs with Native American tribes in the surrounding area. Over the course of about ten years, his single trapping lodge in the grassy hills blossomed into a growing village with many adventurous and hardworking young families. Although the trading business proved popular and successful, in 1884, a railroad was built ten miles north of the settlement and stole away all trading business. In order to survive, the entire town picked up and moved the full ten miles—literally overnight—across uneven prairie to the railroad where they quickly rebuilt their lives and formed what has now become the town of Chadron, the place I now call home.

Those abandoned ponds that had once supported life in a bustling settlement now serve as Chadron’s city dams, multipurpose bodies of water that continue to give life to the town and many of its inhabitants. These ponds are the essence of Chadron: steady and unchanging through all phases of life. Small children are taught to swim in its waters, passionate teenage couples conceal themselves in turn offs of its road to steam up car windows, and old men wake early in every season to catch stocked bass and sunfish from its depths. Everything about these ponds scream “small town,” they are picture-perfect Western Nebraska.

Beyond the ponds sit innumerable buttes, and although these are usually covered with a moderate layer of snow by mid-October, this year we are enjoying an extended fall (which is fitting, seeing as I just moved away). Massive, yellowing ash trees currently line the road which circles and cuts between the two blue ponds.  A soft breeze carries the smell of pine from the buttes and local rancher’s herds of cattle quietly groan in the distance.  Beautiful and simple, the dams decorated my drive to town every day; I watched the seasons change by them, but never saw a change within them.

Chadron’s dams are so much more than two bodies of water, though you wouldn’t be able to tell this by just looking at them. On two separate occasions, the city itself was saved from destructive fire as huge helicopters lifted 5000 gallon buckets of liquid salvation from the ponds’ deep bellies. Modern irrigation pipes continue to refresh rancher’s fields from their outreaching streams. My entire hometown depends on these seemingly unimpressive bodies of water, and has for the entirety of its existence; there is nothing more definitive of Chadron than these abandoned, blue masses.

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