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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Harrison -- Sioux County

Harrison, 1903, pop 168. Hotel, forefront, in continuous operation since 1887, frequently fed 100 railroad passengers. (DeHaven)
4th of July 1888. (Ciacco)
Swain land office, directly across from the depot. (Zerbe)
Harrison, 1910, pop 186. Courthouse with steeple, hotel remodeled, depot forefront.
Block 2, original town, about 1904. 1st Courthouse in background (Viele)
Early 1900s Memorial Day parade led by Civil War soldiers. (Johns)
Block 2, 1920s, building beyond hotel was the post office, now moved to Sioux County Museum complex. (County Museum)
Thriving business community circa early 1920s. Two-story building on right was the Opera House, now a Lodge Hall. (DeHaven)
Block 2 original town, 1986. Buildings include: Sioux Sundries, Wackman Corral, Harrison Cash Grocery, vacant lots, Lodge Hall, Whiteaker's Store, and Post office, built 1938. Not shown at far end, new bank building. (Schnurr)
Mayor Joe Schafer (left) and Fredrick Werfson (right), NSHS Director, unveil the historical marker, June 1, 1986.
Mayor Joe Schafer (left) and Fredrick Werfson (right), NSHS Director, unveil the historical marker, June 1, 1986.

When the Fremont, Elkhorn, & Missouri Valley Railroad was constructed across northern Nebraska, a contractor's camp was established on the treeless prairie in Sioux County. This became the location of Harrison. Sowbelly Creek, about three miles from camp, supplied the water for work teams and human use.

When the rails reached camp in June, 1886, there were no settlers within 10 or 12 miles. By fall immigrant cars containing the possessions of settlers were arriving at "the Summit," given that name because the railroad traversed a long steep grade to the crest of the hill before stopping. The elevation, 4878 feet above sea level, makes this the highest town in the state.

The first buildings were temporary structures with board sides and canvas roofs used to shelter the railroad workers. The settlement was platted in August 1886 and called "Bowen" to correspond with the name given to the station. Streets, now all paved, were mere dusty trails. There was need for housing, services, laborers, and supplies for ranchers and settlers. The railroad furnished holding pens for cattle shipped to market, handled great quantities of freight, and established passenger service into Wyoming. For a time two passenger trains ran each direction through the village, and it was common to have over 100 persons dining at the hotel. Today there are no passenger and few freight trains, and all cattle are shipped by truck.

Some homes and businesses had cisterns to catch the sparse rain water from their roofs, or filled them with water hauled in barrels from Sowbelly Creek. Some people drilled wells and erected windmills. The first adequate village well was drilled in 1889. The water system was extended in 1906 so residents would have a safe water supply in their homes. The fire department was first a "bucket brigade" and later a hose cart manned by volunteers. Today the volunteer department operates a modern fire truck and rescue unit. Until 1917 when an electric generator was purchased, residents relied on kerosene lamps or acetylene gas plants for lighting.

On September 20, 1886, Governor James W.Dawes signed the documents to organize Sioux County and named Bowen as the temporary county seat. Officially elected to that honor in June, 1887, the village was renamed "Harrison." The Courthouse, first built of native brick in 1888, was replaced with a modern fire-resistant structure in 1930.

The first term of school was held in a building on Main Street. A schoolhouse was built on Standpipe Hill and dedicated February 22, 1888, with a masquerade ball. Other schools were constructed as the need arose.

Following the Kinkaid Land Law, passed in 1904, the county was flooded with settlers seeking a full section of land. Harrison's economy boomed as the town reflected the need for stores, banks, and services. The population reached 500 compared to the 1987 population of 360 residents.

Homesteaders soon learned that they could not make a living on 640 acres of dry land. The demand for goods and services declined and ranches expanded -- a trend that still continues.

Better roads and modes of transportation have led to a further loss of local businesses and services. Much of the present population consists of retired people. The school enrollment is less than half what it was 40 years ago. Since it is the only town in the county, it continues to provide many of the necessary goods and services, including a modern water and sewage system, as well as a lighted, paved airport. Harrison also has a county museum, senior citizens and VFW buildings, a modern swimming pool, one-day-a-week medical clinic, and four churches.

The first trees appearing in the village were pines cut in the Pine Ridge and placed in the business district to provide shade for those who came to town to celebrate the 4th of July. Today the residential area presents a pleasing appearance with green lawns and many trees.

Harrison hosted the first Nebraska State High School Rodeo, an event held at this location for 20 years. It was also the site of the National High School Rodeo in 1955.

In 1975 Harrison and Sioux County were the first in Nebraska to be recognized simultaneously as American Bicentennial communities. Harrison celebrated its centennial in 1986 with the publication of a county history and the dedication of the State Historical Marker. During the Sioux County Fair and Rodeo there were parades, contests, free barbecue, an ecumenical church service, concert, a Summit Run, and an old-fashioned melodrama "Saga of Sowbelly."

Harrison is the birthplace of Dwight Griswold, Governor, U.S.Senator, and Ambassador to Greece; Harry B.Coffee, U.S. Congressman; and Monroe Bixler, Nebraska State Senator.

Citizens of Harrison are grateful to their forebears as well as to current residents who, through planning, trial and error, and perseverance, have brought the town to its present status. May its future residents enjoy continued success and happiness.

Local historical coordinator: Virginia Coffee, Box 336,

Harrison, NE 69346

Compiled with the help of: Arline Schaefer and Clarence Schnurr