Before Trenton was started, there was a place a quarter-mile west called "Trail City" where people settled along the hillside between Elm and Bush creeks at the cattle crossing on the Republican River. Cowboys working the great herds on the Texas-Ogalalla trail from 1869-84 also "wet their whistles" on their way by. The settlement soon included, besides the saloon, a store, post office, newspaper, school, and assorted homes and barns made of sod or dug into convenient hillsides. This area is presently known as the Pow-Wow grounds, where Indians held their dances from 1923 to 1956.
In 1873 Governor Furnas granted permission to organize a county named for Phineas W. Hitchcock (surveryor-general and U.S.Senator). Culbertson was named county seat since it was the only town, not counting the little cattle-trail crossing.
In those days, the Republican River valley was the hunting grounds of the Pawnee, who held their spring and fall hunts on the buffalo range between the Platte and Smoky Hill Rivers in Kansas. It was on the summer hunt of 1873 that the Pawnee hunting party of 700 men, women, and children were massacred by Sioux Indians in what is now called Massacre Canyon. This greatly weakened the Pawnee tribe and ended forever the buffalo hunting.
Homesteaders continued to pour into the area. After years of talk and promises, the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad finally extended its line through the area. The tracks reached the middle of Hitchcock County in 1882, at the little settlement of Trail City, and a small depot was built.
Almost immediately it became obvious that the town site did not please either the railroad company or the people. "...it is too hilly and uneven. Not at all suitable to be the site of a thriving village." So a new location was chosen further east. In 1885 the railroad sent for Anselmo Smith to survey and plat the new town, which was named "Trenton" for Trenton, New Jersey. A new depot, 24 by 56 feet was completed in June 1886.
In October 1885 there had been only 20 people in the town. By January the population was 160, with practically every line of business having moved into the new town from the original area. The following spring a bridge over the Republican was completed, bringing trade in from Cornell. Churches were also organized and Trenton was "thriving."
Trenton was incorporation in 1887 with a population of 239. More settlers arrived on every train, and promoters began to clamor, "...Culbertson must give up the county seat."
There was a total crop failure in this area in 1890, so car loads of relief arrived by train for distribution. Even though times were hard, the teachers and pupils of the "brick schoolhouse on the hill" asked that a sidewalk be built from Railroad Street to the north end of the village. Their request was granted.
A plan for a suitable waterworks was discussed in 1893 with bonds approved for $2,000. Everybody was happy to have good water, but the system just about broke the town. Indebtedness plagued Trenton for many years. Citizens worked for low or no pay to keep things going.
In 1894, after three elections, Trenton was voted the new Hitchcock County seat. On the night of October 1, 1893, "...brave men, with an order from District Judge Uelty, drove to Culbertson with lumber wagons and took possession of the county records." The matter is still not a safe topic of discussion, for obvious reasons.
The first courthouse in Trenton was a small building (now a Hitchcock County Museum). A fine brick courthouse was built in 1906 and served until 1969 when a third building was constructed.
In 1935, Trenton's 50th anniversary, the local paper boasted, "...it is a beautiful little town with fine homes and business houses, white way lighting system, fine school, modern churches, graveled streets, curbs and gutters, and nearly 900 happy people residing there."
Trenton was inundated by the 1935 flood on the Republican. A dam built in 1949 closed the original rail line to the town. The old depot is still at its original location, but has been painted pale green instead of the traditional Burlington-red. It stands empty as does a small brick depot bruilt on higher ground in 1952 along the present Burlington-Northern route north of town to Denver.
Trenton's peak population of 1,300 was recorded in 1950, with the current population about 800. As the center for government, related businesses and services provide a degree of economic stability. However, agriculture continues to be the primary industry.
Trenton's annual Harvest Festival and Pawnee Pow-Wow is held on the first weekend in August. Indians come to commemorate the last battle between Indian tribes that took place near Trenton on August 5, 1873. They pow-wow around a large Indian Arbor with archery contests and dancing, and everyone joins in the home-coming.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: A Century of Progress , Trenton, Nebraska 1885-1985, published locally. A family heritage edition, soon to be published.