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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Gretna -- Sarpy County

Gretna, in eastern Sarpy County, reflects the urban development taking place just beyond the metro-sprawl of Omaha and the cities nearer the river. On a frosty morning, the big, new water tower stands as a sentinel atop the hill east of the growing city.
Main Street of Gretna, looking south (not dated) [Heritage Society]
The Fourth of July Parade, 1914, down the main street of Gretna.
Gretna's main street on a winter day in 1987, looking south. Traffic from Hwy. 6 now rerouted around the town. [Heritage Society photos]

A settlement called "Forest City" in western Sarpy County was the actual beginning of Gretna. Several dugouts and log cabins were built in this vicinity by Irish immigrants in 1853. Known as "a lively group," many stories are told about their "carryings on." A pre-emption claim was filed by Wesley Knight and streets for a town were survayed in 1854. Incorporation papers were filed in 1858.

It is said that "Ranger" Jones was among the first inhabitants. Living in a large dugout a few miles north in "Jones' Ravine," he headed a gang of outlaws who collected tribute from prospective settlers. If they refused to pay, he would kill them, or run them out of the area. Not long after Nebraska became a territory, Jones left for "parts unknown."

Forest City was on the main road between Omaha and Ashland. Before a bridge was built across the Platte, Jake Palmer ran a ferry -- $1 for team and wagon, .50 for man and horse. A stage line ran from Omaha to Lincoln for a time, but it was not a "paying proposition," so it was abandoned.

It was not until the Burlington Railroad started building a line between Omaha and Ashland that a real town started to take shape. The line was built a short distance from the Forest City settlement, so the people, one by one, moved to the railroad right-of-way. The new town, located on "common school lands," was given the name "Gretna" for "Gretna Green" in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, the home of some of the Scottish residents. A deed was purchased by the Lincoln Land Company in April, with a plat surveyed and recorded on August 9, 1886. In a short time Forest City was no more.

The first Catholic Church in Sarpy County had been established at Forest City by the Irish immigrants. The Gretna church, St.Patrick's, was dedicated in 1895. The Erwin Memorial Methodist Church was built in 1900, and Resurrection Lutheran formed in 1910. At that time the population of Gretna was said to be 466.

The first school was located across the road from the LaBorde Cemetery just outside town. Between 1887-89, this one-room building was moved to a lot in Gretna. A brick building replaced it in 1898, and in subsequent years, grades 10 and 11 were added. In 1910, when the building was doubled in size, a complete full 12-year system was offered. An auditorium and gym was built in 1936, at which time the newspaper noted, "...dedication of this building is a sign that Gretna is beginning to crawl out of its shell." A number of new schoolhouses have been constructed since then.

Soon after the fish hatchery was established in the early 1900s it was noted, "The Nebraska Game & Fish Commission's railway car, now on the track in Gretna, soon will begin to make the annual distribution of game fish in the lakes and streams of the state." The state facilities continue to provide an ever-increasing variety of fish.

At one time Highway 6 passed directly through Gretna. In 1931 it was re-routed to pass to the east and south. Initiated as a safety factor, due to the heavy volume of traffic, it was decried by shop owners as "bad for business."

The following year, one of the many local newspapers challenged people to be proud of their town and "...make Gretna the town it ought to be." Stating, "...every dollar spent away from town just helps set it back," they urged citizens to patronize local shops as much as possible, "so merchants will see to it that you get all the items you need." While an immediate change was not evident, the town did establish more local pride and purpose.

Between the late 1950s and mid 1960s, Gretna grew from a small town of 350 into a busy community of 750. Westplains housing development was annexed, followed by Fairhaven, and Meadow Terrace. Prior to the 1986 centennial, West Ridge, Devonshire Estates, and North Park were developed. The business district also added more shops and services.

With a new comprehensive plan in place in 1963, Gretna kept pace with its needs. Voters approved the bonds for a new swimming pool and an ordinance to create a public library in 1968. The centennial year was celebrated in 1986 with a unique historical calendar, produced by the Heritage Society.

The 1980 population of Gretna, 1,600, reflects the urban development just beyond the metro-sprawl of Omaha.

By Jane Graff from the Gretna Heritage Society centennial calendar and exerpts from Gretna Heriage . Photos supplied by Anne Koch.