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Nebraska...Our Towns

NIOBRARA -- KNOX COUNTY

The history of Niobrara can trace its beginnings to 1856, when a group of men marked their claim on the banks of the Missouri River and built a log garrison. The company formed by Dr. Benneville Shelly was called "L'eau Qui Court."

In 1857 a sawmill was brought upstream from St.Louis by the steamer "Omaha" and immediately put into operation sawing lumber to build a town. A post office was established in 1859 and given the Indian name "Niobrara" for the river that enters the Missouri at that location. (The word meaning, roughly, "spreading water.") Ferry boats, using horses walking on a treadmill, provided the transportation link with South Dakota.

When Knox County was formed in 1877, Niobrara was named county seat. In spite of early hardships, the town continued to grow with a population said to be nearly 500 in 1881.

The Missouri River, responsible for the location of the original settlement, was also the reason for its first move. Spring thaws in 1881 produced record floods, followed by an ice gorge, which caused residents to seek the safety of still higher ground. Recognizing the ever-present danger near the river, people picked up and moved to a new town site a short distance to the west and south. Niobrara's "port" continued to provide goods and services for a large area.

Noteworthy events that made a positive impact on the community include a school built in 1886, the addition of a water-works system supplied by an artesian well in 1891, and the arrival of the railroad. Negative influence, in addition to the threat of floods, was the loss of the county seat in 1902.

The Niobrara Island Park marked its grand opening in 1910. Later, many improvements were made by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The facility was operated by the village through the 1930s at which time it was given to the state, and continues under the Nebraska park system.

Revetment work on the banks of the Missouri was done in the 1930s, as the river continued to gobble up land and make its way toward the town. That work and other projects (paving, storm sewers, and an addition to the high school) were done under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Niobrara recorded its highest population of 761 during this time.

The winter of 1948-49 was one of the most severe in the town's history. At times the only transportation in or out of Niobrara was by helicopter.

In April of 1952, while the Fort Randall dam in South Dakota was being built to prevent flooding, the town was again inundated. With the completion of that project, citizens rejoiced, assured that floods were finally "a thing of the past." Niobrara's centennial in June 1956 was a big event, with an estimated 20,000 people at the two-day celebration.

By the 1960s, however, it became apparent that the river was not through influencing the town's history. Silt, previously washed downstream by the periodic floods, began to accumulate where the Niobrara enters the Missouri. As the ground water level raised, many basements required constant pumping.

Three options were suggested to city officials by Army Corps engineers: abandon the town, build an elaborate dike and pumping system, or relocate to a new site. Citizens accepted the challenge to once again move their town. Site selection was completed in 1974 and lots were sold. Federal funds helped pay a portion of the cost of the move as well as provide for water, sewer, and paving. The move was nearly completed by the winter of 1977. The 1980 census showed 420 people and 213 homes in Niobrara's third location.

In the years since the move, Niobrara's citizens have continued to strive for a solid, progressive community. Through volunteer efforts, a nine-hole, grass-green golf course was completed on the old town site. Niobrara's 125th anniversary was celebrated in 1981 with a parade, historical pageant, and other activities. The Niobrara State Park, having suffered the same fate as the town, was also relocated by the park commission and rededicated in 1987.

Niobrara's history can best be summarized as being charted by the changes in the "Mighty Mo," on whose banks it was founded, and from whose reach it has continuously tried to escape.

By Robert L. Olson, Box 227, Niobrara, NE 68760

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Niobrara Centennial Book , printed in 1956 and updated in 1976.