Between the period when Columbus was founded and the turn of the century, the development of Platte County was divided roughly into three eras. The first of these constituted the pre-railroad years preceding 1866 when the settlers formed a community in name only. Their life focused upon their farms and homesteads. Their greatest battles were on a basic economic level against the enemies of flood, blizzard, pestilence and drouth. They acted as their own producer, distributor, consumer. The nucleus of their entire world was their home.
The second phase of development followed the all-important advent of the railroad when the first formed physical structure of the community became evident. Columbus was now connected by a lifeline of iron and steel with the rest of the world. As the men mastered the prairie and pushed back the wilderness, the town grew up. Commerce spread. It became a community in substance as well as form, and tradesmen appeared to supply the goods and services which Platte County was beginning to exchange with the rest of the middle west and the nation as a whole. But the real growth of this phase lay in the civic structure which was daily taking shape.
The third development was in the years of industrial revolution just before the twentieth century. This hinged upon the socio-economic maturing of the rich agricultural country that was Platte County. The second period had given Columbus the format of a town, watched it attain the stature of a county seat and business center, and now it was ready for the expansive moves of the machine age. Men had stopped fighting prairie wolves to battle a more nebulous foe --production records and their own crude standard of living. Now they were to consolidate the gains they had wrested from an unwilling earth.
In the early 1860's, Columbus made one important stride. The postal service, which had straggled in every week from the East, was stepped up to a tn-weekly delivery. Fewer than eight hundred people lived in Platte County that year because of the Civil War and the stories which were told about the restless, vicious Indian tribes who participated in massacres in Minnesota and the West.
Although the American Hotel was the only establishment of its type in the town, every house was a ranch, every floor a lodging and "every table a cake-and-pie stand," to judge from the accounts of those who lived along the famous East-West trails. It was an uneasy time, a time when no one knew what would happen to the new territory, nor --- for that matter to the country as a whole, following the four year-long war of Rebellion in the 1860's.
On January 1, 1863, a law was passed which determined much for the future of this region. The Free Homestead Act showed the way. It now remained for the railroad to make that way a physical possibility.
The school population of the town of Columbus in October, 1860, was forty-six males and twenty females of which thirty-five lived east of the Meridian and thirty-one west of it. G. W. Stevens was the town teacher, receiving a salary of one dollar a day, and the student body included not only Columbus children but the Barnums from over the river and the Hayes' "from the creek over."
A Mormon by the name of Gladden moved into the community that year from Nauvoo where he had been with Brigham Young. Discredited by the latter, he returned with a small group of followers --- Coon, Platte, Stowe, Sellars, Gallup and Hoagland -- to settle on the north side of the Loup above Monroe.
A Catholic congregation was organized that same year. The first church edifice built in Columbus was from lumber which Patrick Murray hauled from Omaha free of charge.
The fall of 1861, the first one-story schoolhouse, built exclusively for educational purposes, opened its doors in Columbus. It stood west of Eighteenth Avenue, on Eighth Street, and one hundred and fifty-four students attended it in the late 1860's although the fund for its maintenance was only $157.34.
The town was beginning then to feel the first tightening controls of organization. It was
The History of Platte County Nebraska
growing from an amorphous, struggling community into a small city with all the problems and responsibilities which that entailed. On May 16, 1861, the Board of Commissioners of Platte County met and voted in favor of paying a county clerk one hundred dollars per year to fulfill the duties connected with this office. The county treasury, also, began to feel the effects of taxes and levies attendant upon ferry rights and other privileges. A tax of five thousand dollars was being urged for the purpose of constructing a bridge across the Loup; meanwhile, Frances G. Becher and Joseph B. Beebe were granted licenses to maintain a ferry on the river for a five year period.
In spite of the consolidation of the little string of colonies which had scattered themselves across the rolling upland of Platte County, these were years when the settlers knew hardships reminiscent of the colonists of New England two hundred years before. The winter of 1863 was a fierce, blizzard-ridden period when men and ox teams waited for the storms to break in order that they might set out after fresh supplies. Pioneer wives watched their cupboards with fearful eyes and no reassuring arm of transportation or communication reached out across the prairies to the families who waited alone.
On Shell Creek northeast of Columbus, John Kumpf set out with John Marohn to go to the county seat for supplies. The storm, which had been swirling about the region for days, grew worse and Kumpf, who had delayed longer in Columbus to await the mail, was lost on the return trip. He was found the next day, frozen to death in the snow, clutching a crucifix as he knelt in a final, desperate prayer.
After the fierce winter, the thaw in the spring of 1868 brought ever increasing hardships to the pioneers. Stock was drowned, homes flooded, and property washed away in the wake of huge melting ice gorges which swept all before them.
Again and again these seasonal tempests returned. In May, 1873, the Platte County newspapers reported that the volume of water in the Loup was so great that sixty-eight feet of the bridge over the north channel was swept away and four thousand dollars in repairs had to be invested by the taxpayers. It was proposed at that time that a superstructure strong enough to hold combined wagon and railroad loads be built since "a railroad southward is only a question of time ......
Meanwhile, commerce made its slow inroads on the settlement. A man by the name of Marshall Smith established a small branch business house at the west end of the Loup bridge where he exchanged groceries for other produce and sold supplies retail.
In these first struggling years, lumber was extremely scarce on the prairie. Most of it had to be hauled in from Omaha and logs found drifting down the Loup River were frequently used for building log cabins. Rodents and snakes were virtual inhabitants in the damp sod houses. And from time to time raging prairie fires swept across the plains.
Every fall and spring the grass, dry from long days in the hot sun, was eager timber for fires started by Indians, hunters or campers in the region. To protect his home and haystacks. from the ravages of the fire, each settler broke a narrow strip of sod around his house. At some distance inside that, he broke another narrower strip and burned the grass between. This was called a "fireguard" and early in the fall the farm children helped their fathers to burn these strips.
A red glow against the sky was always the sign of a distant prairie fire. Sometimes a high wind drove the flames faster than a horse could run. Blazing tumble weeds and sunflower heads were caught up in the gust and whirled hundreds of yards across the prairie. The front of the blaze was termed the "headfire." It ran with the wind, jumping fireguards and even rivers in its path, until the level prairie looked like a lake of fire with a thick cloud of smoke rising over it. Backfires were started and men worked all night in the effort to save their crops, their homes and their lives.
A typical news item from the Columbus paper in 1878 had this to say about the prairie fire menace: "Captain Brown lost all his small grain; Henry Kluck, stables, hay and grain, saved house and furniture; Gus Kluck, grain, hay and considerable wood; Mike Burke, all his grain, hay, cattle sheds and corral; Larry Burns, all his personal property except house and granary; Mr. Barnes lost everything except house and furniture. The fire also burned a threshing machine belonging to the Jenny Brothers."
Fires in individual homes were also frequent and dangerous in the early days because of the lack of modern fire fighting equipment. In one tragedy the three children of Mr. and Mrs. Robert McPherson died in a blaze which leveled the McPherson home located at McPherson's Lake, seven miles east of Columbus. Mrs. McPherson, the daughter of James McAllister, had been visiting a neighbor with her husband when
|The Makings of A Community||
the blaze started, spreading so rapidly that rescue was impossible.
Epidemics and tornadoes both took their toll in those first trying years. "A cyclonic thunderstorm," wrote the local editor in the '70's, "passed through the sparsely settled section east of Columbus causing considerable damage to crops in its path. A wagon belonging to John Fechsel was picked up and carried several hundred yards, then set down again without being damaged."
But all was not dreariness and fear in the stories of those days. The following is an account published in the New York Times, February 1, 1867, of a Union Pacific party from the East consisting of about one hundred and sixty people --- business leaders, congressmen and military officials, who were visiting the West for the first time on the newly constructed road of the Union Pacific.
"The train had been supplied with every comfort . . . and soon after starting the guests were invited to partake of an excellent lunch..
They reached Columbus a little after nightfall on the first day's journey. The train was halted before a brilliantly illuminated encampment (Columbus had no street lamps then, but it is possible that torches were used) which covered several acres. After an hour or two of friendly conversation and a sumptuous supper, an Indian war dance was staged by a band of Pawnee braves."
The party remained in Columbus overnight and the following morning witnessed a mock Indian battle arranged by Major Frank North for the entertainment of the eastern visitors who distributed presents among the braves and squaws before continuing their journey by rail.
It was in 1865 that George Francis Train, the famous Nebraska press agent who did so much to publicize Columbus as the proposed future capital of the United States, assertedly purchased five thousand lots in Omaha, a thousand in Council Bluffs and several hundred in Columbus. Train saw that the town of Cleveland, three miles northwest of Columbus, which had been laid out in 1857 by a rival promotion group, was a commercial menace to his dreams for Columbus. He therefore purchased the only actual property which constituted Cleveland its hotel. He moved it into the county seat where he reconditioned it and named it the Credit Foncier Hotel (this was the name of his land company). It later became known as the Meridian Hotel.
Train was just one of the promoters and "idea" men who moved among the settlers and farmer-emigrants of Platte County at the time, the railroad first went through. Eccentric, egoistic though he was, he probably did more than any other individual to bring eastern capital and thousands of homeseekers into Nebraska.
It was around 1869 that a large colony of Poles moved into Platte County, settling at Columbus, in Loup, Butler, and Burrows Townships. They added breadth to a community which already embraced emigrants from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Though small, Columbus even in those years bore the imprint of many centuries of foreign culture. Strange accents and. the prairie adaptations of older, native costumes, gave it a cosmopolitan air that struck a note of incongruity in the little settlement.
After the advent of the railroad, free homesteads, preemptions and even railroad lands at five dollars an acre were made available and real estate boomed in the frontier country. Once' the Civil War was ended, an avalanche of native American settlers flowed into Platte Valley, absorbing every possible homestead site.
The school lands in the county were offered for sale June 28, 1870. The railroad lands for sale consisted of every other section for a distance of twenty miles on each side of the railroad tracks. Many availed themselves of the opportunity of getting land on these terms (school lands required a ten percent down payment, the balance to be paid in yearly payments for their holdings). Since the railroad demanded the same down payment and the balance paid back at the end of ten years, there was a rush to bid on school property and the early realty offices of Gerrard and Taylor; A. G. Stevens; C. A. Speice and J. E. North, were kept busy as the city grew and expanded.
When the first communal
boundary lines were drawn, fences had to be built and corrals put up for horses
and cattle. Hogs and even old hens were occasionally staked out, and cultivated
fields, farm buildings and orchards took the place of the open wastes and 'prairie
dog' towns which had bounded Columbus since the land was ceded over by the
Indians. Democracy flourished, however,, and one early pioneer reports: "Each
newcomer was cordially received by the few settlers in the neighborhood . .
. it mattered not if he had no covering for his feet other than that provided
by his Creator, and his coat was like unto Joseph's raiment. I have
The History of Platte County Nebraska
seen them thus attired at church occupying the front seats."
From the time in May, 1866, when the Casement brothers, like characters in a folk legend, entered the eastern borders of Platte County with their gang of disciplined railroad workers, rhythmically laying the ties which connected Columbus with the rest of the continent, until 1876, the decade was one of progress in every phase of physical, social, political and moral development. Wheat began to be raised for export and additional facilities were needed to augment Becker's Mill which had always been able to grind all that was raised within a fifteen mile radius. By 1876, half a million bushels of grain were being shipped out of the county for sale and the taxable acreage of Platte County had grown from 6,225 acres in 1860, to 186,180 acres. Live stock numbered 11,206 head, and almost the only thing which was imported into the community was flour.
The town of Columbus felt the increased tempo, too. Franz Henggeler was turning out fifty pounds of cheese daily on his Shell Creek farm and a broom factory was started in that year. In addition to the hotel, the town boasted boot and shoe shops, harness makers and tin shops, and a sprinkling of business establishments.
Power for manufacturing in this period was obtained from Shell Creek and Looking Glass Creek and local leaders, looking ahead some fifty years, announced that "the immense hydraulic force of the Loup yet waits and tempts whatever ingenious and enterprising capitalists will enrich themselves and the country by the manufacture of flour, cloth, oil and starch."
One of the first moves toward an organization of the community was made in 1873, when the Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 was initiated in January. Five months later the volunteer fire-fighting group purchased a hook and ladder truck for eighteen hundred dollars and the Columbus Engine Company Number 1 was also created by joint action of the inhabitants of the town. A hand engine, costing two thousand dollars, was donated by the city to the company.
By 1882, fire-fighting equipment for Columbus had grown to include a hose cart, one thousand feet of hose and a two thousand dollar fire house, which the city erected in Frankfort Square. The membership of the hook and ladder company in 1882 numbered eighteen and its officers were: Byron Millet, president; George Fairchild, foreman; Byron McAllister, first assistant; D. M. Minert, secretary; Herman Oehlrich, treasurer. Forty active members belonged to the Engine Company, under the following officers: E. D. Sheehan, foreman; Julius Rasmussen, first assistant; and Charles Wake, foreman of the hose cart.
The city was divided into neighborhoods for the purpose of giving fire alarms; each district was provided with a telephone to communicate with the central office. The general fire bell was always rung followed by the proper number of rings for the district endangered. Tolling of the bell signified that it was a false alarm or that the fire was out. Thus did the volunteer firefighters know where to report for this --- one of the most important civic duties that could be performed. In 1888, the town had expanded to the point where the following nine district break-downs were needed: the residences of C. A. Speice, A. Jaeggi, J. E. North, L. Gerrard, J. M. MacFarland, C. Ziegler; Clother House, Grand Pacific and the central office (fire station).
The fire department, however, continued to perform with the aid of the city's primitive hand or horse-drawn ladder wagon until the formation of the W. Y. Bissel Hose Company on July 2, 1887. At that time it purchased new horse-drawn equipment and attained the status of the department as it exists in present-day Columbus. Active in the organization of Bissel company were: G. G. Becher, S. J. Downing, E. C. Holud, C. M. Taylor, H. Arnold, C. H. Pearsall, V. H. Weaver, George Harmon, H. C. Newman, F. Becher, David Loeb, Martin Orleans and Henry Hockenberger. Elected to serve as trustees were: C. M. Taylor, S. L. Downing, I. Sibbersen and J. G. Becher.
In the twenty-seven years between the time it was organized and the turn of the century, only fifteen men served as chief of the Columbus Fire Department. They included: J. B. Wells, D. D. Wadsworth, R. H. Henry, J. A. Baker, G. W. Clother, H. P. Oehlrich, E. D. Sheehan, August Lockner, James Pearsall, George Fairchild, John M. Monahan, R. Jenkinson, D. H. Smith, Louis Schwartz, J. N; Kilhan and Albert J. Galley. The latter served almost twenty-eight years as chief of the department and resigned in 1930 after becoming chief of police. At the time of his retirement "Bert" Galley was made honorary chief for life.
In later years the Columbus Fire Department achieved an enviable record in both fire-fighting and fire prevention. Fire damage in one year reached the low of eighty-one cents per capita and averaged $1.46. This record was
|The Makings of A Community||
The Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company Number 1, of the Columbus Fire Deportment in 1906. Top row, left to right: Albert Kuchnel, Charles Gillett, Joseph Honey, John J. Smith, Tony Roesch, Eilert Mohlmon, Joseph Fischer, Paul Roth, John Abegglen, John Pittmon, Fred Ernst, C. E. Lund. Second row: John Wittko, Joseph Schmidt, C. A. Pittmon, Lester Jenkinson, Tony Vogel, Henry Imig, William Krumlond, A. J. Galley, Martin Langley, and Henry Herchenhon.
maintained in spite of weather hazards of freezing temperatures and deep snow and the gradual antiquation of motorized equipment.
The department received a stimulus in terms both of pride and performance in 1909 when the city council ordered a Seagrave combination chemical and hose truck, thus supplying Columbus with what was then the third piece of motorized fire equipment in Nebraska. The ancient hook and ladder wagon was made over into a trailer and the fire-fighting company moved into a phase of mechanized development commensurate with its position in a community with the stature of Columbus.
No fire department in the state has been more active in promoting civic improvements for the advancement of its area. This vital link in Columbus' municipal existence had come about at a time when men realized their need to work together and fight off danger toward the building of a better town, and the city always honored the men who served as officers of the initial J. B. Wells, chief and president; D. D. Wadsworth, assistant chief; J. P. Becker, second assistant chief; James E. North, secretary; and J. G. Compton, treasurer. They also honored and remembered the eighteen men, farmers and settlers, who volunteered to serve in the hose company at the sound of the alarm.
Active in the building up of Columbus at the time of its post-railroad expansion was the firm of Murdock and Son. As contractors and builders, the elder Mr. Murdock and his son employed between ten and fifteen men in some of the town's early building projects. Coming to Platte County in 1878 from New York, the two started a staple and fancy grocery outlet and branched into the construction business when it became apparent that the commercial and industrial life of the town was growing with phenomenal rapidity.
The establishment of a waterworks system was another concern of the community in those years. Great progress in this civic development were the years 1886 and '87. The Columbus Water Works and Light Company was organ-
© 2005 for the NEGenWeb Project by Ted & Carole Miller