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Revisiting the forks of the Platte
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Revisiting the forks of the Platte

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It’s one of the most historic spots around North Platte, and one of the hardest to see.

Lying 4½ miles south-southeast of downtown, the “forks of the Platte” unites the Platte River’s north and south branches for a 310-mile run to the Missouri River.

Both the North Platte and South Platte, and many of their tributaries, rise in the Colorado Rockies. The southern branch runs 439 miles northeast into Nebraska, while the northern heads north into Wyoming and southeast through the Panhandle on its 716-mile journey.

Access to the forks is controlled by the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, which diverts water into the Tri-County Canal — bound for farmers in Gosper, Phelps and Kearney counties — before the combined Platte runs even half a mile.

Central officials allowed The Telegraph to document what the North Platte-South Platte confluence looks like two centuries — or maybe three — after the first written accounts.

Spanish explorer Don Pedro de Villasur, traveling north from New Mexico, traveled down the Platte with a 100-person party until he and 44 others were killed by Pawnee near present-day Columbus on Aug. 13, 1720.

The dead included the Rev. Juan Minguez, a Franciscan missionary. Because Villasur’s records suggest it reached the Platte near its forks, North Platte Catholics typically celebrate an outdoor “Field Mass” along the South Platte during June’s Nebraskaland Days.

Members of the expedition of U.S. Army Maj. Stephen Long — the same one who dismissed the Plains as the “Great American Desert” — saw the forks on June 22, 1820.

That was while Long was camped six miles away, according to an 1823 account of the journey by Edwin James, a scientist in the group.

Two decades later, Army Lt. John C. Frémont — “The Pathfinder” — camped on the “tip” between the two rivers as his expedition blazed the classic route of the Oregon Trail.

“Between the streams is a low rich prairie” running west to the valley’s division near present-day Sutherland, Frémont wrote.

“It is covered with a luxuriant growth of grass, and along the banks is a slight and scattered fringe of cottonwood and willow.”

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But though Frémont found the Plattes’ confluence with little trouble, its exact location “was a puzzle to most emigrants” who followed him, the late Merrill Mattes wrote in “The Great Platte River Road” in 1969.

He quoted Army Pvt. George Gibbs’ 1849 journal: “The division takes place a little below our camp ... but the forks separate so gradually, and the main stream is so filled with islands, that the exact point is not easily noticed.”

One Charles Gould wrote that he “passed the division without knowing it,” while an L. Sawyer took part in “debate as to where the forks are,” Mattes recorded.

Frémont found 18 inches of water in the South Platte near the junction, compared with 3 feet in its northern sibling.

But since Central finished Kingsley Dam, Lake McConaughy and Lake Ogallala in 1941, North Platte River water has been diverted below the latter into the NPPD Canal.

After running into and past Sutherland Reservoir and Lake Maloney, that canal dumps into the South Platte near North Platte’s Community College’s North Campus. (Some South Platte water returns that way, too, when the Korty Canal in Keith County is in use.)

The Platte’s union point gives a temporary lie to its “mile wide and an inch deep” reputation, said Central senior district biologist Dave Zorn.

Depths range from 6 to 8 feet between the confluence and the Tri-County Canal diversion dam, he said. It’s deepest near the banks.

You won’t find sandhill cranes stopping in water that deep during their twice-annual migrations, Zorn said. “It’s deeper and faster-flowing, and they typically roost in sandbars or water that’s 6 inches (deep) or less.”

But animals nonetheless are plentiful. Two different species of gulls, sandpipers, American avocets, greater and lesser yellowlegs, egrets, pelicans and killdeer have been seen. So have bobcats, coyotes and whitetail deer.

“There’s a pretty rich diversity of both plant and animal species, because there’s an abundance of both riparian forest types and wetland types,” Zorn said.

Deep sand deposits on the south bank attract endangered interior least terns and piping plovers, like beaches at Lake McConaughy and sandbars throughout the Platte system.

As part of its environmental obligations, Zorn said, Central enhances their habitat at the forks with some of the sand it regularly dredges to ease water flows down the Platte and into the Tri-County Canal.

Central’s prime canal links Jeffrey, Midway and Johnson lakes south of Interstate 80. Water not bound for irrigation customers goes through the J-2 hydroelectric plant south of Lexington, then back to the Platte.

Zorn said Central typically offers periodic tours of its system, though not this year due to COVID-19. So “there is the potential for people to get to see this confluence area,” he said.

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