Because of its location, 1,733 miles from Boston and 1,733 miles from San Francisco, Kearney has been called, "Midway City of the Nation." Its newspaper, "Kearney Daily Hub," established in 1888, was named with visions of becoming the hub of the nation. The city has had its ups and downs as indicated by its population figures: 245 in 1873, 12,000 in 1893, 6,202 in 1910, and 21,158 in 1980.
Although Nebraska Territory was not created until 1854, the area was already well-known as the main east-west route along the Platte River. Kearney is near the southern-most point of the Platte. Westward travel on the Oregon, Mormon, and California Trails had reached such proportions by 1848 that Fort Kearny, southeast of the present city, was established to protect travelers on the trails.
The transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad was built through the area in 1866. It was not until the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad, which ran south of the Platte, connected with the U.P. line at that point, that "Kearney Junction" came into being.
A town was laid out by W.W. Patterson, representing Smith, agent for the land company, Moses Sydenham, who had been postmaster at Fort Kearny, and the Rev.Asbury Collins, a Methodist minister. When it was formally incorporated in 1873, the word "Junction" was dropped and it became the "City of Kearney."
The town, like the fort, was named for Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, known for his distinguished military service in the Mexican War. When application was made for a post office at the Fort in 1857, the name was misspelled, with an extra "e" added. The town has retained that spelling, but the fort later corrected it in their records.
The junction of the railroads gave early settlers great optimism and faith in the future of their new town as a transportation center. Construction of a bridge across the Platte River south of the city provided a safe crossing for travelers and homesteaders. This improvement helped to make Kearney the county seat, which it took from Gibbon in 1874.
The dry years of the 1870s stimulated interest in irrigation. One of the city's first projects was a canal that would not only carry water for agriculture, but also provide a source of power. The 16-mile Kearney Canal was finally completed in 1886. The ability to supply the community with power generated from the water in Kearney Lake was the key to rapid expansion of industry in Kearney.
"A Minneapolis of the West," said Col.W.W. Patterson, Kearney's chief promoter. The prairie town mushroomed into a metropolis almost overnight. By 1890 Kearney had the first all-electric street railway system in Nebraska and the first west of the Mississippi River (except St.Louis), plus electricity for its homes, streets, churches, and industry. Impressive business and public buildings were built, including a five-story opera house and a city hall with clock tower.
A unique factory for this city on the plains was a cotton mill that operated for ten years, manufacturing cotton sheeting.
The State of Nebraska located its Boys' Reform School near Kearney in 1879. It remains today, known as the Youth Development Center for Boys. The Kearney Military Academy for Boys opened in 1898 and continued until 1923.
The collapse of the economy in 1893, not only in Nebraska but nationally, plus three consecutive years of severe drought, brought about an end to Kearney's boom period. The city lost population, factories were idle, homes vacant. Eastern investors left, but the people who remained continued to work and rebuild.
A new Kearney was in the making. The original town planners had laid out wide streets, and the expansion of the 1880s left many fine dwellings and architecturally impressive buildings downtown, as well as attractive parks, the canal, lake, and power house. The hopeful citizens continued to sing the glories of the community, the beauty of the city, and in general, its desirability for anyone and everyone as an ideal place in which to live.
In 1903 Kearney was chosen as the site for a new normal school. Now known as Kearney State College, it is currently the largest state college in Nebraska with a 1987 enrollment of 9,108. The State Hospital for the Tuberculous was located in Kearney from 1911 to 1972. Kearney Army Air Base was established east of the city during WW II and continued until 1949.
The educational resources, both public and private, are well accounted for on all levels -- elementary, high school, and college. The community currently supports 38 churches. Two large hospitals, Good Samaritan and Richard Young, have made Kearney the state's largest medical center outside Lincoln and Omaha. Their excellent facilities serve central and western Nebraska.
As a college town and county seat, Kearney's population (1987) stands at 23,500 and growing. Its main core of economy consists of wholesale and retail sales, manufacturing, tourism, farming, and cattle feeding.
The City of Kearney and industry mix well because of immediate access through key routes for shipping and travel -- Interstate 80, U.S. Highway 30 and State Highways 10 and 44, as well as daily passenger and freight air service, and Union Pacific freight service. Hilltop Mall on the north edge of the city and downtown Kearney Centre offer the best in shopping.
The city's attractions include historic homes, fine parks with recreational facilities, libraries, museums, and art galleries. The establishment of the Museum of Nebraska Art in the former downtown post office building offers an outstanding cultural center to the whole state.
The City of Kearney, now in its second century, promises continued growth in business and industry, and the "good life" for its most important asset -- its people.
By Alice Howell, 2208 Avenue C, Kearney, NE 68847. With help from Philip Holmgren, Robert Ayres, Glennis Nagel, Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce, "Kearney Daily Hub", and Buffalo County Historical Society.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: History of Buffalo County Volumes I & II, 1916, by S.C.Bassett; Where the Buffalo Roamed, 1967; Kearney Centennial Book, 1973; and Tales of Buffalo County, Volumes I, II, III, 1978-1986.