Early Settlement | Organization | County Seat Troubles
Part 2: Investigation of Treasurer Van Sickle
The Agricultural Society | Progress of the County | Storms
Prosperity of the County | Schools | Public Buildings
Part 3: Kearney Junction: Troubles with Cowboys
The Murder of Milton M. Collins
Part 4: Kearney Junction (cont.): Criminal | Bank Failure
Religious | Lodges and Societies | The Press | Education
Business Interests | Buda (Kearney Station).
Part 5: Kearney (cont.): Biographical Sketches
Part 6: Kearney (cont.): Biographical Sketches (cont.)
Part 7: Kearney (cont.): Biographical Sketches (cont.)
Part 8: Gibbon: Biographical Sketches
Part 9: Shelton: Biographical Sketches
List of Illustrations in Buffalo County Chapter
[View of Kearney]
Kearney Junction is situated in the Platte Valley, on the main line of the Union Pacific Railroad, at the point where the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad in Nebraska, forms a junction with it. It is 195 miles west from Omaha, and l36 miles west from Lincoln. Its elevation is 2,115 feet above the level of the sea . Its location is a particularly pleasant one. At this point, the low valley lands of the Platte River extend nearly three miles north, when the surface of the land begins gradually to rise like a gently sloping hillside only a few feet in height. This inclined plane extends perhaps about one-fourth of a mile before the summit is reached, after which come the comparatively level prairie lands. The town of Kearney Junction is located at the point where the gently sloping hillside begins. The junction of the two railroads and the business part of the city is on the level land, as is the greater portion of the resident part of the town, though it extends north to the summit of the slight elevation mentioned.
The event that led to the laying out and building up of Kearney Junction was the construction of the line of the Burlington & Missouri Railroad in Nebraska, to connect with the Union Pacific Railroad at some point near Fort Kearney. The survey was made, and it was decided to form a junction somewhere between Kearney Station and Elm Creek, on the Union Pacific Railroad. The next thing was to select a location favorable for the laying-out and building-up of a town. Accordingly, D. N. Smith, who had charge of the town site interests of the Burlington & Missouri Railroad, was sent out to select a favorable Location and survey a town site. Taking with him an old-time friend and associate, Rev. A. Collins, of Iowa, he started out upon this expedition. They proceeded first to the house of Moses H. Sydenham, who had resided at and in the vicinity of Fort Kearney since 1856, arriving there during a blinding snow-storm, in the early part of April, 1871. The storm continued for three days. As soon as it abated, under the guidance of Sydenham, they proceeded to the railroad, and soon a selection was made on Section 2, Town 8, Range 16. A survey was made to find the corners of the section, and D. N. Smith concluded to lay out the town site here, it to consist of the entire section which it was intended to survey and plat as soon as the railroad should be completed. This land belonged to the United States Government, and was open to entry only by actual settlers. Therefore, Smith decided to employ four men to pre-empt the entire section. He at once set to work to carry out this plan, and, within a few weeks, four men had settled on the section, each laying claim to 160 acres. According to the laws relating to the settlement of Government lands, each man could enter 160 acres of land, and, after living on it for six months, was permitted to prove up, and, by paying $2.50 per acre for it, was given a deed. Two of those men were George E. and James Smith, who now reside here. A small house, about sixteen feet square, was built of rough boards in the center of the section, so that each corner of the house should be on the land belonging to a separate individual of the party, thus making, one house answer the purpose as a residence on each of the quarter-sections claimed by these four men. These men were all young and unmarried. Early in May, this house was completed, and Rev. A. Collins, having decided to locate here with his family, and to cast his fortunes with the proposed new town, arrangements were made that all should live together. At this time, there was no house, nor neighbors for a distance of several miles. Though the railroad passed close to the house, the nearest station was at Kearney Station, about six miles distant. The first family to arrive was that of Mr. Collins, who arrived May 11, 1871. The household goods had been sent from their place of embarkation in Iowa by teams. It was expected that they would have arrived by this time, but they were delayed on the road, and the family had to live in a rather primitive manner for the some days. Mrs. Collins relates that, on the evening of their arrival, they all took tea, using a box for a table, a newspaper for a table-cloth, ate from tin plates and drank their tea from tin cups. This, however, lasted but a few days, when the teams, cattle and household goods arrived. About this time, an addition was built to the house for the accommodation of Mr. Collins' family. During the summer, all of the above-name parties continued to live here, also Alfred Gay, who came at the same time. Considerable improvement was made, but no accession to the population was made, as the railroad was not expected to reach this point till the latter part of the following year. A post office was established in the summer of 1871, and A. Collins appointed Postmaster. Though somewhat lonely, this little party passed a very pleasant summer. The Pawnee Indians passed through here quite often on their hunts, and generally stopped, frequently several hundred camping near this settlement. No injury was ever done by them, as they were always friendly toward the white people. Indeed, they had been of so much service in fighting the Sioux and protecting the Union Pacific Railroad from their depredations that they were allowed by that railroad company to ride free of charge on all freight trains, and the tops of moving freight cars were often seen literally covered with Indians.
Among other events of 1871, late in the summer and early in the fall, the Platte River went nearly dry. There was but a slight flow of water, and this in little rivulets through the vast beds of sand, and many were the shallow ponds left in the river bed. Many of these were filled with fish, and whenever the little party wished fresh fish, the young men would go down with pitchforks, and in a short time would come in with a sufficient supply.
As stated on another page, when the Platte was flowing with its usual volume of water, the greater flow was on the opposite side from which the wind blew. This, with the channels flowing through the sandy bed, and ever changing, furnished many interesting experiences to parties who had to ford the river. The river at this point is about a mile wide, and it was several years before a bridge was built, and at first it was forded on horseback or in wagons, but after a short time a flat-boat was constructed and was drawn across by oxen. This method was quite satisfactory, as, whenever the sand bar or sand island came in the way, the boat was drawn over it, and but few mishaps took place, other than that, many times getting into a deep channel, the cattle had to swim through.
The first death occurred early in 1872. Pleasant Rogers died of hemorrhage of the lungs. He died at the home of A. Collins and was buried near Kearney.
The first church organization was formed here October 20, 1871, it being of the Methodist Episcopal denomination. Rev. A. G. White, then Presiding Elder, assisted by Rev. A. Collins, performed the service. This meeting took place at the residence of Mr. Collins. The church organized with five members, viz.: Rev. A. Collins, Mrs. Louisa E. Collins, Mrs. H. E. A. Sydenham, Alfred Gay and Hannah Jay. Previous to this time, and ever after the arrival of Mr. Collins, church services had been held from time to time with considerable regularity. February 25, 1872 a Sunday school was organized at the house of Mr. Collins. At the time of organization, there were but two children in attendance, the remainder being grown people. During the spring and summer of 1872, this Sunday school was kept up, and people attended from the country for a radius of more than ten miles.
Though D. N. Smith at first intended to lay out the town of Kearney Junction on Section 2, he finally decided to locate the town on Section 1, which joined the old site on the east. This land was owned by the Union Pacific Railroad Company, but, by careful management, the land was finally secured, and, in September, 1872, the entire section, comprising 640 acres , was surveyed and duly platted as a town site, and called Kearney Junction. This site was owned at first exclusively by the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad Company. The first lot disposed of was presented to Mrs. Collins immediately after the survey. Differences arose between the two railroad companies, and finally, to adjust the matter amicably, one-half of the lots were disposed of to the Union Pacific Railroad Company. Besides this tract of 640 acres, there were laid out on the south half of Section 35 two additions, by Perkins & Harford. The southwest quarter of Section 36 was also laid out as an addition to the original town site. On the south, a part of the northwest quarter of Section 12 was laid out in town lots by A. Collins, who, during the summer of 1871, had entered a homestead claim on the northwest quarter of this section, to which he removed from his residence on Section 2 in July, 1872.
In the spring of 1872, it had been decided to locate the town on Section 1, and a few settlers had come in during the ensuing summer. The first to locate here was John Mahon, who started a blacksmith shop here early in the summer. David Anderson erected the second house here. F. M. Dart erected a small store and put in a stock of general merchandise. John Murphy erected a hotel, which was known for several years as the Murphy House, and is now known as the Harrold House.
During the same summer of 1872, the schoolhouse was built. This was a small frame building, then standing on the south side of the railroad track, near where the court house now is. This building is now on the north side of the railroad, on Main street, occupied as a printing office by the Buffalo County Journal. The first teacher was Miss Fanny Nevins, who still teaches in one of the departments of the Kearney school.
The first child born was Kearney, son of V. B. Clark, born during the fall of 1872.
The first marriage that took place in Kearney was that of Col. W. W. Patterson to Miss Pattie M. Giddings, August 29, 1872. The marriage ceremony was performed by Rev. A. Collins, and the witnesses were Milton M. Collins and George E. Smith.
After the town was laid out, it continued to grow quite rapidly until the railroad was completed, in December, 1872, and during the winter it still continued to grow. By spring, there were probably twenty buildings in the town. The Burlington & Missouri River Railroad Company had built a large and commodious depot at the point where their railroad formed a junction with the Union pacific Railroad, and the latter company had built a large depot on their line a few rods distant, and began stopping their trains regularly. Previous to the laying out of Kearney Junction, Kearney Station, five miles east of this point, was the nearest railroad station.
In October, 1872, a weekly newspaper, the Kearney Times, had been established by Clapp & Cunningham. Early in February, 1873, Webster Eaton started the Kearney Daily Press, and immigration began to pour in. The adjacent country settled up rapidly, and the town was continually thronged with strangers seeking homes in the new town or vicinity. The business done in the town was immense It was impossible to shelter all who came, and many had to live in tents until houses could be built. Building went on rapidly. This continued throughout the summer. There was never a time when there were not several houses in progress. There were great anticipations for the future of the young city of Central Nebraska. From its location, it was confidently expected that it would soon become the capital of Nebraska. With all this bustle and excitement, there were but few criminal events. It is true that there were some drunken broils and some troubles with cattle-herders, but this year there were no troubles of any importance. Taking into consideration the crowds of strangers that daily thronged the streets, the town may have been considered comparatively quiet. Churches and Sunday schools were organized. The permanent settlers were from the more thoroughly educated, intelligent and refined of the citizens from older settled places, who came here to establish pleasant and quiet homes and enter upon the business avocations of life, in a town having the many natural advantages possessed by Kearney.
The town had by the close of the year a population of more than one thousand, and it was proposed to incorporate Kearney as a city About a year previous, at a meeting of the County Commissioners at Gibbon, January 11, 1873, Kearney was organized as a village, upon a petition of the citizens asking that they be incorporated. The first Board of Trustees were E. B. Carter, John Mahon, D. B. Marsh, L. R. More and J. S. Chandler. The first meeting of the board was held January 16, 1873, and E. B. Carter was elected Chairman. During the early part of the year 1874, building still went on, and the population increased very rapidly, and on the first Tuesday in April 1874, it was voted that Kearney be incorporated as a city, and Nathan Campbell was elected Mayor. The first City Council met on the 13th of April, 1874.
At the time the city of Kearney was laid out, and for many years previous, the country about this place had been occupied by the owners of large herds of stock as a herding ground. As the land about Kearney began to be settled by farmers, trouble began between them. The cattle owners disliked to give up their herding grounds, and allowed their stock to run over and destroy the crops of the farmers. From this cause there had been many dissensions and serious quarrels, but there were no general outbreaks, or no lives lost on either side until in 1874, when matters began to assume a serious aspect. At this time the most of the Government lands in Buffalo County, and the northern part of Kearney County, south of the Platte, had been settled by farmers, and the cattle men had given up their claims to them. The old Fort Kearney military reservation, a tract of ten miles square, however, which still belonged to the United States Government, was occupied by the herders. This reservation comprised some of the very finest grazing lands in Central Nebraska, and was covered with herds of cattle continually. These cattle were driven to and from the reservation, and, many times while there, were allowed to wander away from the care of the herders and trespass on the farms of the settlers, and much damage was frequently done to the crops, for which the cattle men generally refused to pay. Thus much bad blood was stirred up between the herders and settlers, and many of their quarrels resulted in hard words and blows, and frequently in threats of instant death at the hands of the herders, who continued to heap abuse on the settlers, and no depredation was of too mean or cowardly nature for them to commit. But bad as they were on ordinary occasions, when at their occupation, it was when they visited the town of Kearney that their diabolical nature was shown at its worst. Those herders were continually armed with heavy pistols, and when visiting the town in squads, with the reckless manner peculiar to the cowboy, they would ride to the saloons, and after becoming half-crazed with whisky, ride up and down the streets with their ponies on a full run, and with unearthly yells and whoops, fire their pistols at any object that attracted attention, or fire them in the air with no manifest object other than to frighten the peaceful citizens. It was the chief ambition of these lawless herders to be regarded as dangerous men, and to terrify the settlers. These things had been going on to a considerable extent ever since the foundation of the town, but it was not until the summer of 1874 that they culminated seriously. About this time the cowboys began to become more bold and reckless. Stock was wantonly allowed to destroy crops of the farmer, and whenever they came to Kearney it was but expected that some lawless act would be committed before they departed. When crazy with liquor, they would dash up and down the streets firing their pistols. On many occasions they would shoot into business houses. Whenever this began, the people generally left the streets, fearing that some straggling bullet might reach them. The Harrold House was located south of the railroad track, and many times when guests were resting on the front piazza the herders would be seen coming in from a distance, and as soon as they came within range, the whizzing pistol shots warned them to seek shelter.
On one occasion, when shooting recklessly up the street, a bullet went through the dress of a little girl. On another, a man stood leaning against a post, and as a party of herders passed, they began shooting at the post to see if they could hit it without touching the man.
Of course the greater part of this mischief was done with no intention of wounding any one, but simply to inspire terror in the breasts of the citizens. Yet there had been many cases wherein injuries had been inflicted on the citizens, and as this reckless, dare-devil custom was one not to be encouraged, the citizens at last organized themselves into an armed band, to assist the City Marshal in preserving law and order. Bill Bland, a desperate character, aspired to be a leader among the herders. Among the other desperate and dangerous cowboys was a character known as Junebug, but whose real name was Schoenberg, and another known as Texas Spence. They were all from Texas.
On one occasion, during a general row, City Marshal Bricker went to try to preserve order, when Bill Bland came out and shot at him. During the trouble that then ensued, one of the cowboys, named Peeler, was shot in the neck. A few days after, Texas Spence started a row by firing his pistol into a saloon. It was attempted to arrest him, and there was quite a skirmish on the streets. Two days after, along in the evening, a party of from twenty-five to thirty herders rode up the main street of the town to where now, as then, is located the implement warehouse of A. L. Webb. From there they went across the street to City Marshal Bricker's office looking for him, but not finding him, they then rode to Weibel's saloon, nearly opposite the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad depot, where they remained some time, but were pursued by about thirty men, and finally driven across to the south side of the track, over around the old Methodist Church, which then stood there, not far from the court house. Here the cowboys rallied and started to ride up the street, but the citizens were thoroughly organized and determined to put an end to the annoyances by the herders, and, as they came back toward the railroad track, several shots were exchanged between them. Shoenberg was wounded. Texas Spence was shot through the body, and fell helpless from his horse with a mortal wound. Though unable to move his body, he was struggling and trying to get his hand to his revolver. Though the wound would have been mortal, it is said that through fears on the part of some of the citizens that he would be able to reach his revolver, he was, in the excitement of the moment, struck on the head a stunning blow that hastened his death. This event closed the fight for that day, and the herders, finding themselves too few to cope with the citizens, took refuge in flight.
For some time after this, some caution was exerted by the herders when coming into the city. But immediately after Texas Spence was killed, they camped on an island on the Platte, where they remained for about a month, making plans and waiting for reinforcements to capture and burn the town and bridges. This plan was, however abandoned at last, as the citizens had become so thoroughly organized and armed that it could only result in certain death to the parties so rash as to attempt it. The citizens drilled each day, and the Burlington & Missouri Railroad depot was used as an armory. Guards were stationed out day and night, and every precaution taken to guard against surprise.
These troubles with the herders were kept up until September, 1875 it, when a party of herders, who had been driving a herd of horses from the north, in returning committed many depredations. On the night of the 16th, this party camped on the south side of the farm of Milton M. Collins. He was the son of Rev. A. Collins, who had been County Judge, and was one of the leading citizens of Kearney, and one of the most quiet and inoffensive young men in the community. He was only about twenty-three years of age, and lived on his farm adjoining the city on the south, and only a few rods from the residence of his father. His crops had been many times seriously damaged by the ponies of the herders, but he had always born his losses patiently.
On the morning of September 17, he discovered a herd of forty ponies in his corn-field, with all indications of having been there all night. After consulting with his father, he decided to shut them up in a corral until the owners should come for them. Soon two herders came up, and it was ascertained that the party were camped on the place, but out of sight from the house. They asked young Collins how much they should pay for the damage done. He told them to look around themselves and see what they thought would be right. These ponies were owned by Jordan P. Smith and Cooper. The latter was one of the herders present, and, upon looking around, he said that he was perfectly willing to pay $10 for his half. The other herder thought this would not be enough. Cooper said he would see Smith, the "boss," and then they would return for the ponies. Milton Collins, not caring so much for payment for the damage done as to get rid of the herders peaceably, went over to his father. From there they could see some parties taking out some of the ponies and putting others in. This movement he could not understand, and after some time, as the herders did not return for the ponies, he rode over to his own home to see if he could see anything of them. This was in the afternoon. Not seeing them, he rode toward town to see if he could see them, as he wished them to take the ponies away, fearing that they would break out, and that having secured them, he would be held responsible for their loss if they should get away. On his way he met an acquaintance, Mr. Crowell and stopped. While talking, Jordan P. Smith, accompanied by three more cowboys, rode up. All were apparently intoxicated. Smith asked Collins where he was going. Collins replied. Smith had previously that day in a saloon sworn to kill Collins. He now started for Collins' corral, and told Collins to come, at the same time ordering Crowell to stay back. The latter, however, hurried to his house, secured his rifle, and followed. Smith asked Collins why he shut up the ponies, and when he attempted to explain, told him if he opened his mouth, he would blow his brains out. On arriving at the corral, Smith told Collins to turn the ponies out, and when he started to get off his horse, was told that if he moved he would be shot. But it was too late for him to stop. Just as he was dismounting Smith fired shooting him nearly through the heart. Several shots were fired at him as he lay on the ground, by the drunker herders, only one of these shots taking effect. Rev. A. Collins, his father, came rushing out, but as he came near he was stopped with threats of death. Mrs. Collins, wife of the dying man, then came running out, and they were soon permitted to take the body into the house. In a very few minutes he died on the floor of his house, with his infant child playing at his side. About the time Milton M. Collins ceased to live, the herders returned and looked in at the door. The mother of the murdered man was at her own home, not far distant, and seeing that there was some difficulty, started to go over, when she was met by Alfred Gay, a particular friend of the family, who started to take her to the house of her son. They were met by the herders, who threatened to shoot Alfred Gay, but they at last desisted.
As soon as the news of the murder could get to the city, the citizens of Kearney were in arms, and on their way to the scene of the tragedy. By this time the band of herders, thirteen in number, were on the road and making their escape. They crossed the Platte on the bridge south of Kearney, and then scattered out through the sand hills, taking a general course west up the Platte River. There were about twenty men in pursuit, under the leadership of Deputy United States Marshal D. B. Ball. There were also in the party E. C. Calkins, B. H. Goulding, S. W. Switzer, Judge Westervelt and John H. Roe. They pursued the cowboys for many miles up the Platte Valley and through the sand hills, and finally eleven of the party were captured, but Smith, the real murderer on this occasion, and one other, escaped. On their way back to Kearney with their prisoners it was feared by the captors that other parties of herders might be lying in wait for them; therefore, as the trip was made during the night, the greatest precaution was observed. So much had been suffered at the hands of the cowboys that it was determined by the greater number of the party to lynch the prisoners. D. B. Ball, who had charge of the party, besides being an officer, was a conscientious Christian; but tired nature gave way, and he was compelled to get into one of the wagons to go to sleep first giving orders that on no account should he be awakened. As soon as Ball retired, arrangements were being made to shoot or hang the eleven, but two of the party protesting vigorously, it was at last determined not to undertake it. When the long bridge across the Platte was reached, it was feared that the herders would be assembled to rescue the prisoners; therefore, as a precaution the prisoners were all made fast in one wagon, and orders given that, in case of an attack, the driver should jump from his seat, and the first fire of the party be directed to the slaughter of the prisoners. It is related of one honored county official that he became so frightened that he lay close to the bottom of the wagon all the way over. But they got over the bridge in safety. The herders had not yet become aware of the capture of a number of their band. After the arrival of the prisoners at Kearney, there were still threats of lynching, but as the real murderer of Collins was not among them, better counsels prevailed. It was decided, however, to put a stop to the depredations of the herders, even if harsh measures had to be resorted to.
It will be remembered that only eleven of the cowboys had been captured at the time mentioned, but the succeeding day Jordan P. Smith, the murderer, and one associate, were captured on an island of the Platte not far from Plum Creek. He was also brought back to Kearney, and for some time it was feared he would be taken from the jail and hanged by the citizens, but it was finally concluded to allow him to come before the courts and stand his trial. He was at the next term of court indicted, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged; but on some technical point of law he was granted a new trial and a change of venue to Lowell, where he was again found guilty, but only of murder in the second degree, and was sentenced to the penitentiary for thirty years. He was, however, given another trial; and a change of venue to Juniata, where he was found guilty only of manslaughter, owing to having been drunk at the time the murder was committed, and it was recommended by the jury that the judge use clemency in his sentence; but Judge William Gaslin, the terror of criminals, sentenced him to confinement in the penitentiary for a term of ten years, the longest term possible for the crime of manslaughter.
Smith and his associates were wealthy, and money was spent freely and where it would do the most good, in the attempt to save him from punishment; and as Judge Collins, the father of the murdered man, was the principal witness against Smith, frequent attempts were made by the herders to murder him also, but his house was continually guarded by the citizens, and the greatest caution was exerted to prevent a surprise. On several occasions the presence of mind of Mrs. Collins saved her husband from putting his life in danger. The cowboys were also desirous of removing Mr. Crowell, the other principal witness; but, being cautious, he was never injured.
After the murder of Collins, the citizens organized so thoroughly that the cowboys soon became more quiet and generally were careful not to commit any overt act that would bring the vengeance of the citizens down upon them. About the only serious disturbance after this was during the summer of 1876, when a large, ruffianly-looking fellow, dressed as a cowboy, and armed to the teeth, came to the city, drank freely at the saloons, then swaggered about the streets, flourishing his pistols, telling what terrible deeds he would commit, and claimed that his name was Smith, and said he was from Texas, and was a brother of Jordan P. Smith, and that he had come to execute vengeance on the citizens for his imprisonment. This was allowed to go on for some time, when Robert Stimpson, the City Marshal, attempted to arrest him, but he resisted, struck Stimpson with his quirt, and attempted to shoot him; upon which the Marshal drew his pistol and shot him dead. It was afterward learned that this man Smith was neither a Texan nor a cowboy, but a man who came down from Plum Creek on a drunken spree, and passed himself as a herder from Texas to inspire terror in the breasts of the citizens. It has been thought by many that the death of Smith was unnecessary, but so much trouble had been stirred up by these vicious characters, that it is not surprising that much foolishness, or attempts at violence, should cease to be endured either by the officers or citizens, and it is probable that he would have killed the Marshal if possible.
The last event put an end to these skirmishes between citizens and herders. Law and order had at last triumphed over the brutal propensities of the half-drunken desperado. It must not be understood in these troubles that all the cattle owners or their herders took a part. In fact, the owners were generally opposed to this course, but were powerless to restrain their men, who were generally of a rough, reckless, dare-devil character.