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Nebraska...Our Towns


Dawson County

Gothenburg Schoolhouse, 1886. In 1887 this building was enlarged with another two-story addition. When a brick school was built in 1892, this structure was cut in two and moved down town. One part used as the city hall, the other part as a post office and store.
Gothenburg Schoolhouse, 1886. In 1887 this building was enlarged with another two-story addition. When a brick school was built in 1892, this structure was cut in two and moved down town. One part used as the city hall, the other part as a post office and store.
Hotel Gothenburg, built in early 1880s by Charles and August Nelson. Front Street is now Highway 30.
Downtown Gothenburg, looking north up Lake Avenue, 1900s. [Butcher Collection],
Downtown Gothenburg, looking north up Lake Avenue during Gothenburg's centennial, 1985.[Buss]
Aerial view of Lake Helen and Gothenburg, 1986. Looking northeast across the very flat farm lands of Dawson County. [Gothenburg Aviation Photo]

Gothenburg, located in western Dawson County, was founded in 1882 by Olof Bergstrom and J.H.MacColl. The town's name illustrates perfectly the duality of the ethnic groups, Swedish and German, that were so important in the growth of the town. Gothenburg is named after the Swedish city of Gotenborg, but received its German-style spelling because the railroad asked a German how to spell it -- or so the story goes.

Even so, there is no denial that these two groups, and their individual personifications, Olof Bergstrom and William Ehmen, were important in the town's development. Bergstrom not only founded the town, but also laid out two additions, and then to assure its growth, made several trips to Sweden to bring people to the area. Ehmen did much the same thing, platted his own addition to the town, and brought Germans immigrants to Gothenburg. Ehmen Park, laid out in 1885, is named for him.

Gothenburg was founded during a prosperous decade. Because of this, the town experienced a flourishing increase in size and substance. Admittedly, things did get rather wild sometimes. Guns were shot off in the middle of the night, and every time North Platte "cleaned house" of its gamblers and prostitutes, some would try to set up business in Gothenburg. But this was, after all, a pioneer town.

Gothenburg matured and by the late 1880s and early 1890s, it was capable of great dreams and had the capacity to achieve them. Bergstrom proposed that Gothenburg become an industrial city. To do this, a canal dug, bringing water from the Platte River to a canyon just north of the town, which was dammed. Lake Helen was the name given to the reservoir. A power plant was built and electricity generated.

The race was on! All sorts of factories were planned, and a few were even built. Unfortunately the Panic of 1893 put a stop to things and Gothenburg's "boom days" were over. For the remainder of the century Gothenburg experienced little growth. However, that flurry of activity left things that most small towns could hardly hope to have. A large lake, a power house, and a downtown of substantial brick buildings, including a three-story hotel and a turreted, three-story opera house.

The years 1900 to 1930 were again a golden era for Gothenburg. The weather and crop prices were good, and new crops, such as alfalfa, were introduced, so the town could not help but prosper.

New stores were put up, imposing homes were built, and trees -- oak, cottonwood, and elm -- were planted. A Carnegie Library was opened in 1916. Two new parks were laid out, and one of them, Lafayette Park, dedicated during World War I, was named after the Marquis de Lafayette. In 1922 a country club was organized with its golf course located northwest of Lake Helen. Four years later, a Spanish-style club house was completed on the golf course.

At about this time, things were beginning to unravel again. Farm prices and land values went down and, following the stockmarket crash, came the depression of the 1930s. Things slowed in Gothenburg once again.

Those prosperous years, however, created the town that is basically still here. That period is responsible for providing some of the town's trademarks -- fine homes, well-kept yards, and streets shaded by large old trees.

Today Gothenburg is a farm service community of some 3,500 people. It has over 150 businesses, a newspaper, "The Gothenburg Times" established in 1908, and a theatre operated by the Gothenburg Community Playhouse, where movies and plays are presented. A community hospital opened in 1950. Over-all, the town is dominated by the huge Farmland Service Co-op Elevator.

The Pony Express station in Ehmen Park has become another town trademark, where 50,000 people visit it each year. There are a few present-day factories in Gothenburg -- the Goshen Rubber Company, and Boise Crane Industries -- that keep alive those old dreams of the 1890s.

The opera house burned in 1912, the Houston Hotel in 1979, and the power house was torn down in 1984. Lake Helen was nearly lost too, due to silt deposits, but was saved by dredging in 1978-81 and is now a popular recreation area.

Today Gothenburg is a town well-situated in the rich agricultural land of the Platte Valley.


By Keith Buss, 503 Lake Avenue, Gothenburg, NE 69138



ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Nebraska Folklore, 1959; The Early History of Gothenburg, by the P.V.C. Club of Gothenburg, 1951; A Century of Progress 1960 for Gothenburg's Diamond Jubilee; and Gothenburg -- 100 Years Proud, 1985, Gothenburg Centennial Committee.