Early in 1856 several men living in Columbus, Ohio, dreamed of a bold business venture: the establishment of a town along the route of the proposed transcontinental railway! By March they had formed the "Columbus Town Company" and, believing the logical choice for a railroad would be in the wide, flat Platte Valley that stretched from the Missouri to the mountains, they chose to locate their town at the confluence of the Loup and Platte rivers in the Nebraska Territory.
Ten of the 13 men were of German descent, two were Swiss, and one Irish, ranging from 22 to 42 years of age. They traveled on foot from Des Moines arriving 80 miles west of Omaha on May 29, 1856. Using trees from along the Loup, they built a log house with a thatched roof. This served as a home for the colony, until other houses could be built.
The men possessed the pioneer's knack of carpentry, bricklaying, and all the odd jobs on which the growth of a town depended. Some planted trees and developed timber claims, while others set up businesses, ran a ferry, freighted supplies, or put in crops. They experienced many problems -- gnawing hunger, piercing cold, torrid heat, grief, and at times anger, but the will to succeed in this new land held them firmly on-task.
When more pioneers arrived in the new town, a sawmill, grist mill, and a brewery sprang up. The well-established village was an easy choice for county seat when the area north of the Platte was reorganized.
A Methodist circuit rider arrived on horseback to preach the first sermon in the dining room of the American Hotel in 1858. An occasional itinerant Catholic priest also came by to minister to the scattered flock. Since there still were no railroads, men-of-the-cloth visited these far-flung settlements by any means available -- wagon, sleigh, on foot, or horseback. Today 24 Protestant and three Catholic churches serve the spiritual needs of Columbus.
In 1860 the original company house was donated to the town for use as a school. Three months later it was sold for $20.25, and a larger school was built. There are now 3,200 students being educated in the public school system and another 1,250 in private schools. Central Community College's Platte Campus, housed in beautiful modern facilities, is splashed across the bluffs horizon north of the city.
It was ten years after Columbus was established before the Union Pacific Railroad finally made its way west. On Sunday, June 1, 1866, two miles of rails (ten-feet of rail per minute) was laid through the town. Later, the editor of "The Columbus Republican" nostalgically recalled, "We were not excessively pious hereabout in those days, so the whole city -- men, women, and children, about 75 in all -- for an hour or two, watched the passing industrial pageantry."
This "choice location" not only placed Columbus on the UP main line, but later as the hub for branch lines such as the Atchison & Nebraska (Burlington) from Lincoln, and the Omaha, Niobrara & Black Hills (UP) line to Norfolk.
It was 1878 before founders of Columbus had the time to pause in the building of the community to gain a perspective of past accomplishments, or to nurture cultural roots for future generations, by establishing a library association. Another 20 years passed before the Woman's Club was finally granted space in the council room so that a library could be opened one afternoon a week. Today, a 70,000-volume regional library provides material to 20 libraries and 70 schools in eight counties. The Bookmobile and Outreach Program make books available to many more people.
As early as 1929, dirt and sod runways served local aviation enthusiasts. More recently 5,000 feet of paved runways made charter service available, and the runways are currently being extended again. Columbus is the home of the FAA's Automated Flight Service Station that serves the entire state of Nebraska.
The first order of business of the forerunner of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce was a campaign against the removal of hitching posts. Later, the cry, "take Nebraska out of the mud," resulted in paving the old Mormon Trail/Lincoln Highway (U.S.30) and the Meridian Highway (U.S.81), making Columbus the "crossroads of the nation." Bridges over the rivers were improved and a viaduct was built across the busy UP tracks. The Chamber is still at work -- currently promoting a four-lane improvement to Highway 81 as a primary north-south corridor across the state.
During the economic bust -- dust, drought, blight days of the 1930s -- Columbus leaders revived the earlier dream of harnessing water power to generate electricity. By using government money (authorized for self-liquidating projects) it also helped alleviate local unemployment by providing jobs in the midst of the Great Depression. As a result, Columbus was the birthplace of public power in Nebraska. Water, diverted from the Loup River into a canal, continues to produce great quantities of hydro-electric power.
In the mid-1940s, catering to both agricultural and industrial interests, several Columbus men-of-vision created an industrial site, one of the first in the United States. Today, the 47 manufacturing plants provide employment for over 5,000 area people.
"All work and no play?" Not in Columbus! In 1888 a YMCA was established. The first golf course was laid out in the 1900s in Gottschalk's pasture. A municipal swimming pool, located in Pawnee Park, was opened in 1930. A second pool (indoors and heated), doubles as fire protection for a local manufacturing plant, an innovative concept considered to be another "first" in the nation.
Platte County Ag Park, featuring parimutuel horse racing, began in the early 1940s. The 1980s playground of Columbus includes 11 parks, 16 tennis courts, municipal and country club golf courses, three pools, and two bowling alleys. For culture there is Friends of Music, the Arts Council, and the Platte County Playhouse.
A modern theater has replaced "popcorn, peanuts, and movies for a dime at the Swan." Fishing, camping, boating, and water sports are popular at recreation areas along the Loup Power Canal, Lake North, and Babcock Lake, as well as the Loup and Platte rivers. Little League baseball, basketball, and football, AYSO soccer, archery, riflery, and horseshoes also provide hours of entertainment.
From 13 men with dreams, vision, and courage, Columbus has grown to a city of nearly 20,000 residents.
By Irene O'Brien, for Platte County Historical Society, Columbus, NE 68601.
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: Platte County of Nebraska , Margaret Curry; Past & Present of Platte County Nebraska , G.W.Phillips; Eighty Years of Progress ; And Columbus Grew (1928-1948), by Phil Hockenberger; Newspapers dated from 1874, Columbus Public Library; and Archives found in Courthouse & Platte County Historical Society Museum.