Fort Robinson Christmas Miracle of 1882

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HistoryFort Robinson Christmas Miracle of 1882

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Fort Robinson has seen many tragic events in its long history, including the Cheyenne Outbreak and the senseless death of Crazy Horse. However, one uplifting story is among the tales of woe, just in time for Christmas.


Camp Robinson, begun as a temporary encampment during the Indian Wars, was renamed Fort Robinson in January 1878. Through the years Fort Robinson was continually expanded and became one of the largest military installations of the northern Plains.

Garrison life was fairly normal at the post, with the officers’ families joining them as soon as quarters were available. The first women and children came to live at Camp Robinson in the winter of 1874-1875. Not all of the ladies were impressed by the post. When Surgeon Valentine T. McGillycuddy’s wife joined him at Camp Robinson on December 13, 1876, she noted in her diary: “Commenced enjoying the camp. Finished.” With social activities aside from dances restricted to warm weather activities such as horseback rides, hikes, and picnics, Christmas was a highly anticipated event for everyone at the fort, especially the children.

Since the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad would not reach Fort Robinson until 1886, supplies had to be brought from the nearest rail point, 125 miles south at Fort Sidney. On December 10, 1882, then Corporal Martin J. Weber was ordered by the Post Commander of Fort Robinson, Major Edwin V. Sumner, to travel to Fort Sidney to retrieve the Christmas goods for the fort, accompanied by a six mule team and its driver, a man named Fry. However, what was normally an uneventful six-day journey would soon turn into a fight for survival as they battled the elements across the open country of Western Nebraska.

Corporal Weber described the trip in an essay published in Winners of the West in 1934:

“We started about December 10 on a six day’s journey. The weather was ideal, clear, sunny days, and we arrived at Fort Sidney on time but were delayed two days owing to the non-arrival of the goods that were coming on the Union Pacific Railroad. They finally arrived the morning of the 18th. We loaded our wagon at once and pulled out for Fort Robinson 125 miles to the north. The weather had turned cold and frost began to fly through the air indicating a storm. We made good time that first afternoon, camping just before dark.”

The next morning saw the blizzard that had been threatening the previous day finally unleash its fury. Weber and the mule team managed to reach shelter at Camp Clarke, a hamlet consisting of little more than a hotel, saloon, and post office that had been sprung up after the building of the 2000 foot long Clarke’s Bridge over the North Platte River in 1876. Here they rested briefly, telegraphing a report of the storm to the Fort Robinson post commander and enjoying a hot breakfast and coffee before setting off once more into the whirling maelstrom over the protests of the bridge tender and his wife.

“As much as we disliked to leave the snug quarters and hot meals (we were to enjoy for the next three days only a ration of frozen bread and bacon), we bid them goodbye and headed into the storm. Without shelter or fire for three days and two nights, when we thought each day would be our last, we traveled over an open country for about fifty miles and had to break trail all the way, it being 30 to 40 degrees below zero. The mules were going home, and that was the only way we were able to make them face the blizzard. We had plenty of oats and corn for the mules and the horses, and at night we tied them so the wagon would act as a windbreak, and we covered them with blanket lined covers. We would spread our tent on the snow, roll out our bed, and pull part of the tent over us and let the storm howl.”

On the night of December 23, the frozen travelers reached Running Water, a stage station located near present day Marsland, Nebraska. They were now only twenty miles from their destination. At 4 am, they arose, fortified themselves with hot coffee, and set out, following the trail broken by the Black Hills and Deadwood stagecoach traveling in front of them.

By the time the party reached Breakneck Hill, a road which is still in use today, the skies had finally cleared, and they were only five miles from Fort Robinson. After making it safely down Breakneck Hill, crossing White Tail Creek, and breaking trail across the valley, Weber and Fry reached the fort at 2 pm on December 24, 1882.

“I rode ahead to report to the commanding officer. When I passed the officers’ quarters the kiddies were all out running up and down the walks for the first time in five days, having been housed up on account of the storm. When they saw me, they began to shout ‘the Christmas Wagon has come!’ The officers and men, hearing them, came out and asked if it was true. They could hardly believe it until the teamster drove his six weary mules up and we began to unload the Christmas goods. Even the officers were willing to help. So old Santa arrived, and there was a Merry Christmas after all had given up hope of seeing either. ”

Corporal Weber had been snow-blinded during his journey and was forced to wear dark glasses until he recovered. After being discharged from the Army in 1884 as a first sergeant, the same year that he married a woman named Mary Bendixson, he operated a ranch on the White River until 1905, when he sold the property and established a grain elevator and feed store in Crawford, Nebraska. Martin and Mary later moved to the sunnier climes of Long Beach, California, where they lived with their son, Roy. Martin died December 10, 1941 at the age of 81, and is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Long Beach, California.


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