Skip Navigation

University of Nebraska–Lincoln

  • Virtual Nebraska Logo

Virtual Nebraska

Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Seneca -- Thomas County

The Burlington's roundhouse at Seneca. Division point for 89 years.
Main street as it looked in the 1960s. The large building on the right has been torn down. [Hansen]

The Burlington Railroad pushed through the Middle Loup River Valley into the heart of the Sandhills in 1887. When construction stopped for the winter, the town of Seneca came into being.

A railroad division point for 89 years, this little town soon blossomed with a population of 500 persons. (Some say as many as 800 in its hey-day.) The railroad turntable was operated 24 hours a day, and the round house employed 70 men over three shifts.

After the first two depots burned, a brick one was built. The stockyards east of town annually shipped up to 1,500 carloads of cattle a month during the fall. Potatoes, corn, and rye, raised by the Kinkaiders, was shipped out by the carload. During the 1930s and 40s, scrap iron went the same way.

Ice cut from nearby lakes during the winter, hauled by teams and sleds, was stored in the ice house. From 1890 to 1905, prairie chickens and grouse were frozen, then shipped in barrels to the finest hotels in the East. In the spring, fish were caught, cleaned, and shipped.

The ice house, coal dump, and other buildings have been torn down, including the depot. The latter was demolished just three months before the Seneca centennial.

Highway 2, graveled in the beginning, followed the path of the wagons and railroad, right through the heart of Seneca. The business district flourished and included all the essential shops. These included a fur trading company, a shop that both sold and repaired shoes, and the railroad cafe, open 24 hours a day.

For entertainment there were dances, baseball, roller skating, rodeos, and fishing in both the river and nearby lakes. In the summer the water was dammed from the light plant in a wide cement ditch to make a swimming pool for children. The spiritual needs were met by three churches, and for the end, there was a mortician and cemetery. One church and the cemetery still remain.

One-way streets are not a modern invention. With the high hills to the north of Seneca, the roads became one way, with south-bound traffic coming down the east side and north-bound traffic going up the more gradual slope on the west side. The road cuts were narrow enough that teams and wagons could not meet, and long enough that one could not see the other end when starting through them.

In the late 40s, Highway 2 was paved and changed its route up through the hills. Now all that can be seen of the town from the road is the small sign saying "Seneca" that way.

Not long after the highway moved, the roundhouse closed. With jobs gone, people moved, businesses struggled, and eventually closed. In 1954 the high school closed. Secondary students were bused to Thedford until 1965, when Seneca merged with Mullen, keeping the K-6 school. In 1973 Seneca ceased being a crew-change point, so the hotels and cafe closed. The elementary school closed in 1988.

Seneca has withstood its share of disasters. In the 1930s a tornado destroyed businesses and generally made a mess. Fire destroyed the post office and several businesses one winter night in 1972.

A business which made "hidden gun carriers" for pickups was located here for a while. Riding toys are hand crafted and sent to 42 states. A well drilling service and dress making shop are now the town's only other businesses.

Seneca has a women's fellowship group and the Seneca Quick Response Emergency Team, with one of the few EMS instructors in the state. Seneca has boasted of champion rodeo contestants, a state senator, state cattleman of the year, nationally known artist, and spelling bee contestant.

The official population is 74, but it swells considerably on the last Saturday in July when "Toad and Turtle Day" is celebrated as it has been for the last 15 years. In the summer, kids and horses have the right-of-way.

If you are in the area, take time to drop down the hill into our hidden valley. Enjoy the park and the hospitality of a little town that has heard its death knell and refuses to die.

By Sandy Hanson, Critter Corral, 1900 Adrian, Seneca, NE 69161