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Nebraska...Our Towns

St. Helena

Cedar County

The ferry landing on the Missouri. The town sites of St.James and St. Helena were chosen because of their proximity to the river. St. Helena had a good stone landing, making it the choice for the big paddle wheelers. Water transportation, the only kind at that time, made this early town "a port." Later when the river changed its course, St. Helena lost one of its primary advantages. [Nebraska State Historical Society]
Road construction between St. Helena and Box Valley was the largest in Cedar County and one of the largest in Nebraska under the CWA. [Nebraska State Historical Society]
Aerial of St.Helena, 1974. This town of just over 100 was once a river-port. In 1869 it took the county seat from its neighboring town of St. James, only to lose it to Hartington in 1885 when that town was created in the center of Cedar County. The newspaper reported, "...there went the lawyers, the newspaper, many businesses and inhabitants..." but, this town not only survived, but continues to work together for improved roads, safe drinking water, and better recreational facilities for its community.

While many towns are celebrating centennials, St.Helena, an early "river town," has passed its 132nd anniversary and is still counting.

Soon after the Nebraska Territory was organized in 1854, settlement started all along the Missouri River. "St. James" was started in 1856 and the next year a group from Minnesota, led by Carl Meyer, settled farther west at a place they named "St.Helena Townsite." A post office was established in 1857.

While bringing a saw mill upstream from St. Louis in 1858, Meyer interested others in the town. Lewis Jones helped get the town organized and file the necessary papers. A large group of Swiss emigrants, calling themselves the "Missouri Colonization Society," also arrived.

St. Helena had seven buildings by 1859, when a "cyclone" ripped the roof off of one, and scattered the contents for miles. The community endured, and Evan Snowden Jones, the first white child born in Cedar County, arrived in September.

When the sawmill burned the next year the settlers agreed that "it must be rebuilt at all hazards." They also pooled their resources to build a store and saloon for Peter Nissen, and promised to haul his goods free from Sioux City so they could have "someway to pass the evenings, come winter."

St. Helena, with an excellent rock landing, was a "port of entry" for many hundreds of emigrants who came directly from Europe via the Missouri River. They contributed much to the development of the region. Many huge "stern wheelers" frequented this port.

The Civil War, however, divided families and friends, who had come from Missouri, into two hostile camps -- some joining the Union army while others preferred the Southern cause. It took a generation of young men from the community, and slowed the growth of the settlement.

The fear of Indians was also very real. Families in two nearby communities were savagely killed in 1863 and Dr.Lorenzo Bentz was murdered by Indians a few miles from St. Helena the next spring, so when a report came that "10,000 Indians were coming..." it caused a real panic.

St. Helena became county seat in 1869, and as such was the seat of justice for Cedar County, with tales of trials and hangings. The town, with the exception of Mill Camp and those living near the dock, was located on the hill nearly 200 feet above the river. It claimed, then and now, one of the outstanding views in the State of Nebraska.

There was great excitement when a railroad company, the Covington, Columbus & Black Hills, (CC&BH) announced plans for a railway from Cedar County south to the Platte River and west to the gold fields. The venture laid some track, but eventually failed.

Later during a flood, the "Big Muddy" decided to change its course, cutting a new channel that left St.Helena "high and dry." As late as 1952 floods regularly brought devastation to the lowlands, but completion of Gavins Point Dam stabilized the river at this point. The clear water is now a "fisherman's paradise."

St. Helena had a public school and a large Catholic school system for many years, and still supports a consolidated parochial school and elementary grades.

With very little business activity, this isolated town of 105 people was named as "the most economically depressed area in Nebraska" in 1979. Citizens from St. Helena worked for over ten years to get a paved road to the town, but their request had gone unheard. Finally, in 1980, their dream became a reality.

A "safe drinking water project" took longer and a more creative plan. It includes 240 rural subscribers and two small towns, totaling 280 square miles in two counties. Completed in 1981, it finally ended the need for the "outhouse" of various models and size.

St. Helena's third area of expansion is recreational development. When the town didn't have even one decent park for its only source of entertainment -- baseball -- a committee raised nearly $13,000 for this purpose.

This peaceful farm community doesn't look much like the boisterous town of old. While present-day residents are still rugged individualists, they work together to form a close-knit community.

From material submitted by Ruth Bender, Village Clerk, St. Helena, NE 68774.

 

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: St.Helena, 125 Anniversary , 1983; and many other historical stories and booklets.