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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Salem -- Richardson County

Salem was established very early in territorial history. While its first school may not have been a soddy, the children's attire was comparable. [Nebraska State Historical Society]

Salem was founded by John Singleton, J. W. Roberts, and Thomas Hare in late 1854 on land which they purchased for $50. Named for Salem, Illinois, the town was laid out in January 1855 on the rise between the Great Nemaha River and its "North Fork." The settlement, which had a post office as early as January 4, 1856, figured prominently in the county's first election, narrowly losing the county seat position to "Archer," north and east of "the falls."

The first postmaster was J. C. Lincoln, a distant relative of Abraham Lincoln who had a marked resemblance to the nation's president. Arriving in Nebraska in 1855, he operated a general store and later was part owner of an elevator.

In 1857, when it was discovered that Archer was actually inside the "Half-Breed Tract," Senator Charles McDonald, who lived in Salem, "obtained passage of a bill for removal [to Salem]." An addition was made to the original plat, giving a large area to the county for a courthouse and public buildings. This made the town's shape similar to that of the state of Nebraska. During the building boom it was said, "...everyone who owned a hammer could find employment." A population of 694 was recorded in the 1860.

When Salem became the county seat, however, the people of Archer who moved to Falls City "plotted to get the seat moved to that location." The battle was so hotly contested that in the 1860 election, two men were shot to death in the hotel after an incident near the polling place. A "poll watcher" sent to Falls City by Salem was said to have been involved.

Salem made a gallant effort to regain the position in 1871 when bonds were voted upon to build a brick courthouse. Although it failed, Salem became "a city" electing Samuel Roberts its first mayor.

After losing the political battle, the population dropped to just over 300. However, the town experienced an economic upturn when the railroad finally made its way across the county. Started several years earlier, the reorganized Atchison & Nebraska Railroad was building westward from Rulo toward the capital city at Lincoln. On September 19, 1871, Frank Firth, construction superintendent wrote in the Railroad Gazette , "...trains are now running from Atchison, Kansas, to Salem, Nebraska, 61 miles." Railroad historian Alfred Holck notes that after the rails reached Humboldt, three trains -- each way, daily -- were operated to Atchison, with the "express" clocked at five and a quarter hours. A second line constructed from Nemaha in 1883 made Salem a "rail junction."

Because the banks of both forks of the river were well endowed with walnut, cottonwood, and oak, a large portable 12-horsepower sawmill was built by W. R. Graves north of the bridge, which was able to turn out 12,000 feet of lumber per week. Salem also had a brickyard, with many of the early buildings built from native kilns.

By 1878 a three-story mill had been built on the west bank of the North Fork. By the early 1880s five men worked round-the-clock turning out about 40 barrels of high quality flour daily.

Salem developed its own Chautauqua after the original assembly held in New York. Booking "big names" such as Rev. DeWitt Talmage, and William J. Bryan, who lectured on finance, crowds of 5,000 people were not unusual.

By 1900 Salem's population was back up to 533. Then, in 1910, a terrible fire burned almost the entire town. The wherewithal to rebuild was not available. In the aftermath of that event, the town, just seven miles from Falls City, "went into decline." The advent of the automobile was cited as a primary cause for the shift in population to larger towns.

The school district, once operating a sizable K-12, closed the high school in the 1962, and some time after 1985 closed its elementary school. The town, on the BN's "coal run" to Rulo, still has a post office, and the village board meets on the first Tuesday of each month in the village hall. Services are held each Sunday in the United Church of Christ, which stands on top of the south hill. Residents of this quiet community of 227 enjoy the quiet beauty of their small town, which is less than a dozen years from the 150th anniversary of its founding.

From material found in the "History of the village of Salem" by Ray Marsh; Andreas History of Nebraska ; The Hub of Burlington Lines West , by Alfred J. J. Holck; and the Nebraska League of Municipalities handbook.