Skip Navigation

University of Nebraska–Lincoln

  • Virtual Nebraska Logo

Virtual Nebraska

Nebraska...Our Towns

LINCOLN -- LANCASTER COUNTY

The Nebraska Territory was only five years old in 1859 when a handful of settlers near the salt basin in the southeast part of the territory met to organize Lancaster County. They platted a town named "Lancaster" on the east bank of Salt Creek and designated it the county seat.

Salt was a precious commodity on the prairie, especially for preserving meat, and the Lancaster settlers envisioned a lucrative industry. In sunny weather a crust of salt would form on the ground, and even greater quantities could be obtained by pumping the brine into vats and boiling away the water. Bagged and hauled to Nebraska City, the commercial potential of Lancaster's salt was never great, and was extinguished when J. Sterling Morton developed his salt mines in Kansas.

The little settlement of Lancaster had only a few dozen residents in 1867 when Nebraska was declared a state. A three-man commission chose Lancaster as the location for the state's capital over Ashland, Yankee Hill, and several other sites because of its "mineral wealth," and the sizable tablelands that stretched east southeast across the prairie.

The Lancaster location would be a victory for out-state legislators over Omaha's interests, in a long-standing political struggle that split the state along the Platte River. Omaha, largest city and the territorial capital, was viewed as "too remote" from the rest of the state in its location at the eastern boundary. The proposed capital site, 55 miles southwest on the western edge of "inhabitable lands," was felt to be "more central" in a state over 450 miles wide. It met with great favor by those living south of the Platte, who were determined to place the capital on their side of the river.

In an attempt to block the selection, a legislator from north of the Platte moved that the new capital city be renamed "Lincoln," knowing that many south-Platters had been political opponents of the Great Emancipator. When the motion was promptly seconded by a key anti-Lincolnite, both the site and the capital city's name were settled.

A substantial town site was platted, with wide streets, park land, a campus for the yet-to-be-founded state university, and an ample capitol square. These key locations were emphasized by giving the streets that approached them extra width. Land was set aside for a county courthouse, market square and city hall, churches, a high school, five elementary schools, and a state historical and library association. Nearly 3,000 house lots and 400 business sites were also provided.

To insure a firm economic foundation for the capital, the legislature located not only the state government in Lincoln but also other major state institutions -- university, penitentiary, and insane asylum. By doing so they also initiated a persistent strain of local humor regarding legislators who should instead be serving their terms in prison, professors who might belong in the asylum, and asylum inmates who could do a better job than one's opponents in the Legislature.

A city out on the prairie -- even a capital city -- could not to be taken seriously without railroad service. Voters approved bond issues in 1867, 1868, and 1869 offering bounties as high as $100,000 for "the first railroad to arrive in Lincoln." Each offer carried a deadline, and as those dates elapsed, new incentives were approved. The Burlington & Missouri River Railroad claimed a $50,000 prize when locomotive No.1, the "Hurricane," steamed into Lincoln on June 26, 1870. The Midland Pacific arrived in 1871, and the Atchison & Nebraska in 1872. These lines later reorganized as part of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy system, which made Lincoln a rail center. Additionally, the Union Pacific (1877), Chicago & North Western (1886), Missouri Pacific (1886), the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (1892) extended lines to Lincoln. City and county bonds to attract rail service exceeded $500,000 within this period.

Housing the state government in an appropriate capitol was fraught with problems. Construction of the first capitol began in 1867. Designed by a Chicago architect, it was hurriedly built using limestone quarried in Gage County. The building was occupied and the state books were removed to Lincoln on December 3, 1868. The final cost was nearly double the original appropriation of $40,000. However, as early as 1875 senators were banned from applauding or stamping their feet, out of concern for the structural stability of the building, which was crumbling before the elements. Its replacement, built in stages from 1880 to 1883, cost nearly $700,000, but it too was relatively short-lived.

During this period Lincoln's population of 2,500 in 1870 grew to 7,000 by 1875 and 13,000 by 1880. In the 1870s and '80s additions were platted and land was annexed in every direction but northwest, where the railyards and Salt Creek proved barriers. The burgeoning city, with 55,000 residents in 1890, attracted young men who would have national impact in the coming century. Among them were William Jennings Bryan and a young military instructor at the University of Nebraska, John J. Pershing.

The worldwide depression in the 1890s hit Lincoln hard, resulting in a population decline to 37,000 by 1900. The arrival of a significant influx of Germans from Russia, who became Lincoln's largest immigrant community, helped bolster the city in the early decades of the 20th century. Their distinctive churches and houses are recognized in the South Bottoms Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The presence in Lincoln of the University of Nebraska helped attract a number of private colleges, which spawned satellite towns just outside the city. East of the Lincoln city limits, Nebraska Wesleyan University opened its spacious new campus site in 1888. The resulting settlement was incorporated as "University Place" the following year. The strongly Methodist town's population reached 5,000 before joining Lincoln through annexation in 1926.

Just beyond University Place to the east, Nebraska Christian University was established in 1889. It was renamed Cotner College in 1890, the same year its community incorporated as "Bethany Heights." That town grew slowly, counting only 360 residents in 1900, 750 in 1910, and about 1,100 in 1920. The residents voted to join Lincoln in 1922, but they had to wait four years until University Place's annexation made them contiguous to the capital city. Cotner College outlived the town by only seven years, closing its doors in 1933.

Union College, a Seventh Day Adventist institution, opened southeast of Lincoln in 1891. The town of "College View" was incorporated in 1892, already boasting 1,000 residents. Annexation by Lincoln came in 1929, by which time the town's population had grown to 2,900.

Another suburban town, "Havelock," was formed northeast of University Place in 1890, alongside the new shops of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad. Incorporated in 1893, the bustling, blue-collar town had nearly 1,500 residents by 1900. Friction between Havelock and the neighboring college town was reflected in events such as a dispute in 1908 over extending a streetcar line through University Place to Havelock. The Methodist town's opposition evaporated when Havelock leaders threatened to license saloons on their common border. Havelock grew to 3,602 residents by 1920 and actively opposed annexation by Lincoln, until a strike by the Burlington Shops in 1922 dragged on without resolution. The 1930 census counted 3,653 individuals in Havelock -- essentially stagnant from a decade before. At that time, annexation was approved by a 2-to-1 margin. The formerly autonomous towns are still counted among Lincoln's distinctive neighborhoods.

Nebraska's second capitol building, which had started displaying structural problems early in the 1900s, was overcrowded and outgrown by the 1910s. In 1919, following the "War-to-end-all-wars," a commission was created to build a new capitol. Omaha architect Thomas R. Kimball played a crucial role as advisor to the commission. He devised a two-stage competition, the first for Nebraska architects, the second for the top Nebraskans plus a slate of nationally prominent architects. In 1920 the monumental tower design of Bertram G. Goodhue was chosen.

Construction proceeded between 1922 and 1932 as funds could be appropriated (in accordance with the Nebraska constitution's prohibition against state borrowing), Nearly $10,000,000 were expended on a building of exceptional materials and design which is recognized as a National Historic Landmark. This collaboration of architect, builders, sculptor, mosaicist, philosopher, landscape architect, craftsmen, and other artists produced a building of global significance. It is not only a monument to Nebraska's heritage, but has proven to be of enduring functional and artistic value.

While the Goodhue Capitol was being built, Lincoln was maturing as a city in other important ways. The "planned city" of 1867 had grown since that time with little coordination or system -- beyond extending the original grid. In the early 1920s the Chamber of Commerce commissioned studies which proposed zoning regulations, which were adopted in 1924. State legislation extended the city's zoning jurisdiction three miles beyond its corporate limits in 1929, creating a potent tool for the community to guide its growth. These first steps toward city planning were expanded in 1948 with the creation of a Planning Commission, followed in 1952 by the adoption of the community's first Comprehensive Plan to coordinate public improvements and private development. Lincoln continues to be a city recognized for its efforts to plan for its future, guarding the quality of life while promoting efficient growth.

The 1920s also saw major expansions in the city's medical facilities. Saint Elizabeth Hospital, founded in 1889, was the city's only general hospital for more than three decades. Then in 1922 a bequest from William Jennings Bryan, including his home Fairview, created Bryan Memorial Hospital. In 1925 Lincoln General Hospital opened, supported by private philanthropy and a city bond issue, followed five years later by the opening of Veterans' Hospital east of the city. All four of those institutions continue to make Lincoln a regional medical center, along with Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, founded in 1958 on the site of an early sanitarium, and the Lincoln Regional Center, which had its origins in the State Insane Asylum.

The growing University of Nebraska was bursting at the seams of its original campus north of downtown in the early 20th century, when a relocation to its ample Ag campus two miles to the east was considered. The decision to expand the original campus guaranteed a needed anchor for Lincoln's downtown. Nebraska Wesleyan and Union College continue as educational, cultural, and social assets to the wider community.

Trade schools also drew students to Lincoln, teaching business and barbering, typing and tractor driving. Now, the Southeast Community College campus, established east of 84th and "O," provides nearly round-the-clock scheduling of post-secondary courses in numerous specialized and technical fields for students of all ages.

Wide-open skies and flat lands made Lincoln's location synonymous with flying. Charles Lindbergh was one of many who learned to fly at the Lincoln flight school in 1922. After his rise to fame, Lincoln's small municipal airport was dedicated as "Lindbergh Field" in 1930.

Aviation has had a major impact on the city. Lincoln Army Air Field, established in early 1942, became a key element of the city's involvement in World War II. Over 25,000 aviation mechanics received training in Lincoln and an additional 40,000 troopers were processed for combat through the facility. The Army Air Field, which closed at the end of the war, was reactivated as Lincoln Air Force Base in 1952 during the Korean War. It operated through 1966, then resumed its role as a municipal airport, prompting Lincoln's annexation of "West Lincoln," a small community that incorporated in 1887 on the west bank of Salt Creek.

Annexations and an ever-growing population brought Lincoln's census of 80,000 in 1930 to nearly 99,000 by 1950, a moderate but remarkably steady growth, averaging 1% per year. As the residential area extended eastward, the "Miracle Mile" development along 48th Street during the early 1950s. The relocation of the Bankers' Life Insurance headquarters from downtown to 56th and "O" in 1959, and the development of the adjacent Gateway Shopping Center provided challenges to downtown's retail and office dominance. While retailing has declined, downtown remains the community's center for entertainment, employment, education, and cultural activities. UNL's Sheldon Memorial Art Galley has housed an important and growing collection of American art in a modern landmark building since the 1970s. Lied Center for Performing Arts is the newest addition to the downtown cultural scene.

With Lincoln's 1990 census enumerated to 192,000 residents, the public schools maintains 35 elementary schools, 7 junior highs, and 4 high schools, with more facilities on the drawing boards. There are also a sizable number of quality parochial schools.

As Nebraska's capital city, Lincoln has a special relationship with the rest of the state. Perhaps that is why the Lincolnites feel a strong sense of responsibility for stewardship of the Capitol, its Environs, and the city's heritage as a whole. Since the 1970s the city and its residents have been active in the preservation of landmarks and historic districts, from fine residential sections, to quaint bungalow districts. The thriving Haymarket Landmark District, at the west edge of the original town site, illustrates a renewal of the vision now realized -- a capital city on the prairies of Nebraska.

By Edward Zimmer, Ph D., Historic Preservation Planner, Lincoln/Lancaster County, 555 South 10th Street, Lincoln, NE 68508.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Andreas' History of Nebraska , 1882; History of the City of Lincoln, Nebraska, 1889, Hayes & Cox; Lincoln and Lancaster County, 1917, A. J. Sawyer, ed.; Lincoln, Nebraska's Capital City, 1867-1923, Lincoln Chamber of Commerce; Tower on the Plains: Lincoln's Centennial History, 1959, Neale Copple; Lincoln, the Prairie Capitol , 1984, James L. McKee; A Harmony of the Arts: The Nebraska State Capitol, , 1990, Frederick C. Luebke, ed.; The Hub of Burlington Lines West, 1991, by Alfred J. J. Holck.