Skip Navigation

University of Nebraska–Lincoln

  • Virtual Nebraska Logo

Virtual Nebraska

Nebraska...Our Towns

grandisland1jres.jpg (14333 bytes)
Courtesy of Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer 

GRAND ISLAND -- HALL COUNTY

Transportation -- the moving of people and goods -- has been the basic element of Grand Island's existence.

The 1857 German immigrant settlement, sponsored by the Chubb brothers and Barrows Town Company of Davenport, Iowa, was made along the Platte River Road. It was a calculated investment based on the belief that the national capital and a major railroad would be built through the Platte

 Valley along the same trails that the Indians, the military, and the 49er's followed on their way west.

grandisland2jres.jpg (9902 bytes)The settlers were directed to choose a location near the island in the Platte which French fur traders had documented as "La Grande Isle." From their settlement at the eastern end, the island extended about 40 miles west of Fort Kearny. The town site company was right about the railroad. However, their prediction that the capital would be moved to the center of the nation was never realized.

As transportation developed, Grand Island got not just one, but three rail lines, making it "the hub of the wheel." The Union Pacific Railroad arrived in 1866. The St.Joseph & Western rails (later St.Joe & Grand Island) reached Grand Island in 1879, and the Burlington line in 1884.

grandisland3jres.jpg (19292 bytes)
Courtesy of Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer

The railroad's support for the city's location and the diversification of local industry had much to do with its steady growth from 30 people in the first year to nearly 40,000 in 1980. As a UP division point, train crews and sometimes engines were changed here. This brought a large increase in population, as workers and their families moved to the prairie to establish homes, schools, churches, and civic groups. The railroad also supported the development of the city by providing water lines for fire protection -- a mutual benefit to both entities.

 

grandisland4jres.jpg (7420 bytes)As automobile travel became popular, highways 2, 30, 34, and 281 all passed through Grand Island, with I-80 just to the south. The development of the airport added yet another dimension to transportation available to and from Grand Island.

Agriculture was enhanced by the availability of transportation for shipping livestock and produce from Grand Island and bringing material in for local industry -- grain, sugar beets, etc. Numerous industries have come to Grand Island because of transportation and the work-ethic of the people who live here.

grandisland5j.res.jpg (9095 bytes)Grand Island developed naturally as the Hall County seat, with a new beaux-arts architectural style courthouse completed in 1904 as a tribute to the cultural appreciation of its citizens.

World War II brought the construction of the Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant which produced bombs and artillery shells for that war, as well as for the Korean, and Vietnam wars that followed.

grandisland6jres.jpg (14235 bytes)The Grand Island Arrasmith Airport was expanded to meet the training needs of the US Army Air Force. In the 1940s, the crews met their airplanes there and final training took place, with the next stop overseas. Today the airport is used by pilots from SAC at Omaha for "touch and go" practice, as well as for commercial and private air traffic.

The Soldiers and Sailors Home built for the veterans of the Civil War is today's Veterans Home. A Veterans Administration Hospital was built in the 1950s.

Early settlers had a healthy respect for the sprawling Platte River, especially in the spring, when melting snow in the Rockies came rushing downstream, gathering momentum, carrying away property, and sometimes lives. The Platte River today appears deceptively calm due to upstream dams. Now, as in early times, the Platte Valley plays host to thousands of migratory birds, especially the Sandhills cranes, on their flights in spring and fall.

grandisland7jres.jpg (8993 bytes)
Courtesy of Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer

The last major flood in Grand Island was in 1967, when a very heavy rainfall did not drain away from the city and about a third of the community flooded. The city has been struck a number of times since 1857 by "cyclones." But the most violent activity occurred June 3, 1980, when a "super cell" of seven tornadoes terrorized the community for nearly five hours, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.

Many noteworthy people with Grand Island connections include:

-- actor Henry Fonda, whose birthplace is now preserved at Stuhr Museum's Railroad town.

-- artist Grant Reynard, who had his beginnings here.

-- the Abbott family. O.A. Abbott, lawyer, helped to organize Grand Island's school. He served at Nebraska Constitutional Conventions and was the first Lt.Governor. His daughter, Grace, was director of the Child Labor Division of the US Children's Bureau. Another daughter, Edith was dean of the nation's first School of Social Work at the University of Chicago. Prior to that appointment, she worked at Hull House in Chicago.

grandisland8jres.jpg (10352 bytes)-- Bobby Reynolds was an outstanding athlete at Grand Island Senior High and at the University of Nebraska. He earning All-American honors in his sophomore year at UNL, and was named to the National Collegiate Hall of Fame in 1984.

Grand Island, one of Nebraska's "big twelve" cities, was begun as a commercial enterprise and has prospered largely because of the economic success which transportation made possible. A great deal of the history of this Nebraska town is preserved at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, opened in 1967.

By Sharon Hughes, 908 W. Louise, Grand Island, NE 68801.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: "Island In the Prairie" Caroline Converse (out of print); Prairie Pioneer Press (Stuhr Museum); The Town Builders; Robert Manley; Schimmer's Sand Krog, Resort on the Platte, Robert Perry; Sheep King, the story of Robert Taylor, Perry; and The Bartenbach Opera House.