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Picturing history: North Platte, Nebraska, on the Mormon Pioneer Trail, near where the odometer was modified for a wagon

One of the significant sites along the Mormon Pioneer Trail in the state of Nebraska is the present-day city of North Platte. This city is situated at the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte rivers which then become the Platte River flowing eastward to Plattsmouth, Nebraska. There it merges with the Missouri River.

A re-creation of the odometer on a covered wagon. The original was designed near North Platte, Nebraska.
A re-creation of the odometer on a covered wagon. The original was designed near North Platte, Nebraska.
Kenneth Mays

The members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and countless others followed the Platte River west for hundreds of miles to the confluence at the city of North Platte. They then had to choose to follow either the North Platte River or South Platte River. Most travelers, including Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers, chose to follow the North Platte River in a northwesterly direction rather than the South Platte River.

Of interest to students of Latter-day Saint history is the fact that near the eastern edge of the city of North Platte, Elder Orson Pratt modified a design for an odometer that could be used to measure the distances traveled. The device was then physically crafted by Appleton Harmon, a skilled pioneer. It could then be implemented by attaching it to one of the wagons in the pioneer company.

Up to that point, William Clayton had been keeping track of the miles traveled by counting the revolutions of a wagon wheel which had a cloth tied to it (360 revolutions equaled one mile). This was a most tedious job in addition to his other responsibilities on the journey. Clayton was much relieved to be able to utilize that mechanical device. He later published a guide for future travelers making the trek across the plains (see "We'll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus 1846-1848," by Richard E. Bennett).

There are, at present, several historical markers and plaques located in the vicinity of North Platte, Nebraska, interpreting the importance of North Platte on the route to the West.