Skip Navigation

University of Nebraska–Lincoln

  • Virtual Nebraska Logo

Virtual Nebraska

Nebraska...Our Towns


Lewis & Clark were first to note the "ideal site for a future city" on the table land between two small streams, which emptied into the Missouri, and Colonel Kearny recommended it for a fort in 1838. When built eight years later, this early "Fort Kearny" was active only two years, because at that time it was "outside the general stream of travel."

John Boulware's ferry at this location continued even after the fort was vacated in 1848, providing a river crossing during the California gold rush. Hundreds of "49ers" poured across into the territory and blazed "short-cuts" which linked up with more-travelled paths going West.

In 1854, when settlement was opened in the Nebraska Territory, the fort's old buildings provided initial shelter and a nucleus for a town. First called "Table Creek," it was a "postal address" in 1853, then named the county seat in 1854. "Kearney City," "Greggsport" and "Prairie City" were other names associated with this area. When surveyed on July 10, 1854, the plat was given the name "Nebraska City." The post office name was officially changed-over on March 14, 1855. Then, with incorporation completed in January 1856, other would-be settlements merged under this name in 1858.

Nebraska City leaped to prominence as an important steamboat port. Because of its favorable position on the river, it was selected as an outfitting point by the great firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell for its western wagon train transportation operations in 1858.

In the debate over slavery, however, the citizens of Nebraska City were about evenly divided. The infamous John Brown, militant opponent of slavery, came through Nebraska City five times before he died for the cause. While not many slaves escaped to freedom using Nebraska's "underground railroad," it stands as a symbol of pride for the community.

Frustrated by the power held "north of the Platte" in the territorial government, local politicians nearly succeeded in getting the area south of the Platte attached to Kansas in 1859. Shortly before the Civil War, the legislature passed an anti-slavery bill over the veto of Governor Samuel Black, who was a resident of Nebraska City. When war came, the town gave strong support in defense of the Union.

The promise of a new, shorter road to the West in 1860 on which a "steam wagon" would run (without the need of rails), local businesses invested mightily. While the steam wagon failed, the improved road placed the town as the leading Nebraska freighting point.

Even with all this activity, and a greater population than that north of the river, Nebraska City was unable to "out politic" her rival, Omaha. However, the city claimed a great victory in 1867 when the state's capital was moved to the salt flats near the Nebraska City cut-off road.

Noting the obvious scarcity of trees in Nebraska, many incentives were offered for plantings. In addition to establishing his own orchard and arboretum, J. Sterling Morton became a political proponent of tree-planting, and was the founder of Arbor Day, now a national observance.

Early industrial development brought the city's population to a record 7,550 in 1890 -- using the adjusted figures for the highly-suspect cencus of that year. By then, river traffic had diminished and railroads were networking out across the prairie. Freighting, travel, and industry declined, as did the population to about 7,000, where it has remained for many years. Present employment includes plastics and garment manufacturing, gas meter production, electric power generation, meat processing, retail trade and manufacturers outlet stores, and service institutions.

Seasonal activity is stimulated by tourism. Attractions include Arbor Lodge Park and the National Arbor Day Foundation which directs a program of education and promotion of tree-planting and appreciation. They also operate the Morton Memorial Orchard, one of several apple orchards which bring thousands to this location each fall. The city has numerous examples of distinctive early-period architecture. Early orchard buildings are being restored, and a large conference center is to be opened early in 1993.

The wide Missouri, at the foot of Central Avenue, attracts visitor interest in the tradition of Nebraska City as a historic river town. It is also enjoyed as a scene of modern river navigation.

By Glenn Noble, with photos sent by Eric Asboe, 1416 First Corso, Nebraska City, NE 18410.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Frontier Steamboat Town , by Glenn Noble; Nebraska Place Names , Perkey, and History of Nebraska , by Andreas; and "The Correctness of the 1890 Census of Population of Nebraska Cities", by Edgar Z. Palmer, in the Nebraska History Quarterly Magazine, December 1951.