Orleans, located along the Republican River in Harlan County, is a town whose existence was linked with two railroad lines. A post office established nearby in 1873 called Melrose, changed its name to Orleans in March 1878, either for a town by that name in Massachusetts or for one in France.
The Republican Valley Railroad Company organized in Nebraska in 1878 "in the interest of the CB&Q Railroad Company." It planned to extend a rail line from near Hastings southward to Red Cloud, then westward, eventually ending in Denver, taking them through the existing communities of Republican City, Alma, Orleans in Harlan County. Hearing Indian tales of the river's behavior following heavy rains, surveyors staked the route on the "second tier" of land north of the river, deciding it was unwise to risk their investment along the banks of the notorious Republican.
Grading started at Naponee (Franklin County) in mid-November 1879 and was completed across Harlan and Furnas counties to Indianola (Red Willow County) by the end of February. Despite the amount of hand labor that was needed, and unavoidably poor living conditions for the works, construction proceeded with remarkable speed, ranged from a half mile to just over a mile per day -- weather permitting. Rail laying continued westward. Orleans was declared open to traffic on Leap Year Day, February 29, 1880, and enjoyed "terminal status" until the end of April when the line reached Arapahoe.
The town of Orleans had organized and was ready for business when the railroad arrived, having filing formal incorporation papers in August, 1879. Officially platted by D.N. Smith, well-known town locator with the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad, its businesses, schools, and enthusiastic citizens paved the way for rapid develope.
The railroad's presence was appreciated even more when needy settlers were given construction jobs by A.E.Touzalin, general manager on the B&MR, to help them through a period of drought experienced in 1881.
There was a dam and "flour and feed mill" just north of Orleans operated by Orson Kellogg Olmstead who also served as postmaster. His granddaughter Dorothy, who lived in Orleans in the early 1900s, remembers Orleans as having a "large open space" from their home diagonally across to the post office. The "town square," location of the library, would appear to be what was recalled.
A branch line from Orleans to St. Francis, Kansas, on what was called the O&K line, along the Beaver Valley, was proposed in 1887. Construction was let in February and by July, 1888, it was completed to St.Francis. B&MR's service on this 143-mile branch consisted of daily-except-Sunday passenger service and Monday-Saturday freight. During lean years, a mixed train and tri-weekly freight served the area.
Regularly-scheduled stock trains operated from the early 1900s through the 1940s for a substantial movement of livestock, and great quantities of milk and cream. Farmers brought their 10-gallon cans to the nearest depot or siding for shipment on either a passenger or mixed train. (Stops to load and unload cans every few miles, these slow-moving trains were referred to by travelers as "milk-runs.")
The "St.Francis Local" hauled an express-baggage car behind the engine for loading cream eastbound and returning empties westbound. All-steel army "kitchen boxcars" were converted for this use following World War II. Cans with "way bill form" attached, arrived at the large creamery at Orleans on a regular basis until the 1960s with as many as 1,000 cans of cream. The St.Francis branch was one of the most productive on the CB&Q in so far as carloadings were concerned, which in turn provided commerce and jobs for Orleans and other towns along the line.
Like many rural Nebraska towns, the peak population of nearly 1,000 was registered in the 1930s. The Orleans depot closed on August 10, 1979, when the Oxford-based mobile agency was implemented to handle the local traffic at that location. Its current village status is maintained by a population of over 500.
From material gleaned from The High Plains Route , by Richard C. Kistler, and James Reisdorff, South Platte Press; Perkey's Nebraska Place Names ; and "The League of Nebraska Municipalities" 1987.