A traveler on the Mormon Trail in 1861 wrote "...we have seen Indians, all were friendly." Postmarked "White Cloud," the letter was mailed from the stage station that became the town of Wood River.
A few families lived along the Wood River by 1859 on campgrounds or a "ranche," bartering with travelers on their westward trek. In 1862 Sioux Indian attacked, killing four members of the Smith and Anderson families.
A few years later, the cry went out..."Indians are coming!" and every one in the valley dashed eastward in a mass evacuation, only to find that this time it was a false alarm. Reassured by the soldiers at Fort Kearny, prayers offered by the traveling French Priest at Irishman Moore's log house, and the "Methodism" preached at Jackson's store, the settlers cautiously returned to their homes.
After the rails were laid in 1866, a depot and boarding house, called "Wood River Station," was built near Moore's claim. Jackson's store and the post office moved, but progress was at a standstill until the railroad was completed to the west. Then migration really began! Trainloads of people, Civil War veterans and second generation colonists from the eastern states, arrived to take up homesteads.
By 1873 western Hall County could be compared to a three-ring circus. Wood River, Cameron (on Prairie Creek six miles northwest), and Alda were all involved. The UP, in an effort to "centralize their depots," moved the Wood River Station two miles east. The town was re-platted and 30-or-so buildings were put on skids, and pulled down the railroad track with teams of horses to the new location. Jackson's store moved again.
A vast movement of German and Danish-born families came in the 1880s and settled in the "bottom land." They experienced Indian "window-peekers" and beggars, as this was on the Indian trail of the Platte, now I-80.
With "no feed for the horses...or seed to plant," the drought of the 1890s gave no choice but to go east and beg. Wood River businesses extended credit for the transportation of supplies and hoped the survival of the farmers would preserve the town. Some farmers gave up near Cameron which enabled Amish Mennonite families to purchase land and build a religious home. Near Shelton the Seventh Day Advent Academy began.
The second growth period began with the coming of the telephone, electricity, and mobile transportation. Wood River was no longer an isolated community but connected with Grand Island and Kearney by the Lincoln Highway.
An irrigation well was dug east of Wood River in 1912, but it was another generation before an efficient way was found to keep the water in the sandy ditches, too late for the drought of the 1930s.
Despite supplying young men and women for the armed forces during World War II, the population grew as workers were needed at the Cornhusker Ordinance Plant. Farm families, moved from the hill-country to the north, bought irrigated farms, and established a Lutheran church in 1943.
Today western Hall County is mass-irrigation. Ag-technology, experimental acres, and demonstration plots by various hybrid seed companies are found everywhere. The latest innovations in machinery, techniques, herbicides, etc., are demonstrated during the annual "Husker Harvest Days" located on the old munitions plant grounds.
Wood River, with 1,300 inhabitants, supports the growth of agriculture with huge grain terminals. The 45 businesses supply the needs of the townspeople, farmers, and the retired. There is a senior center, low-cost housing, and a 66-bed nursing home. A nice park, baseball diamond, and tennis court, plus a golf course and swimming pool south of town provide activities for all.
The Nebraska & National Groundwater Foundation has recently selected a site near the Wood River interchange to locate. Our town is still very much on the main-stream of travel, making this an ideal location for this "first" groundwater study program.
The Class of 1989, with several generations looking on, will be the 100th class to graduate from Wood River school. Oh yes, should you see the town evacuating, don't worry! Its just that our students have won another tournament, and everyone is on their way to "State."
By Maxine Rathman, Rte 2, Box 245, Wood River, NE 68883
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: "Wood River Sunbeam," on microfilm; Birth, marriage, and death records of southwest Hall County; Hall County History, 1890 and 1920; and a book presently being written about Wood River and southwest Hall County.