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Nebraska...Our Towns

Nebraska...Our Towns

Fort Calhoun -- Washington County

Pictured is the nineteenth annual reunion of the Washington County Vetern Association, which held a three-day encampment August 17-19, 1907, at Fort Calhoun. [Nebraska State Historical Society]
Fort Calhoun, twice Washington County's seat of government, as it appeared in 1900. [John Schroeder collection]
The beautiful tree-lined main street in Fort calhoun, 1989. [Slader]

Fort Calhoun is a focal point in the earliest recorded history of Washington County. Lewis and Clark, on their famed expedition to the Pacific Ocean, held council with the Oto and Missouri Indians on the Missouri River bluff east of what is now Fort Calhoun, on August 3, 1804.

The name "Fort Calhoun" first appears on one of the maps made by Major Long, in 1819-20, designating the fort ordered by Secretary of War, John Calhoun, to protect the fur trade. It does not appear on military records. The "works at the Council Bluff" was, instead, named "Fort Atkinson" in 1821 in honor of the first commander.

The soldiers remained at Fort Atkinson for eight years. They raised thousands of bushels of grain, vegetables, meats, and dairy products. They kept in touch with the outside world through visits from fur traders, delegations to the Indians, inspection officers, adventurers, and occasional world travelers. The fort was abandoned in 1827, and the soldiers moved down river to Fort Leavenworth. The buildings were left to the ravages of time and the Indians.

In 1847-48 Mormon farmers from "Winter Quarters" at Florence, were sent to the area, and later to DeSoto, to supply grain for their westbound caravans. They used the brick and stone from the fort in some of their buildings.

In the summer of 1854, after the Nebraska Territory was opened for settlement, John Goss rowed across the Missouri River from his Iowa home and staked a claim on the fort grounds. Soon thereafter, the Fort Calhoun Township Company was formed, and a cabin built near the old fort magazine.

Early the next spring, in March 1855, E.H.Clark surveyed and platted the town site, and the new village of Fort Calhoun became the county seat. It lost the position to DeSoto in 1858, gaining it back in 1866, only to lose it to Blair in 1869.

Home seekers and speculators flocked to the new town. The pattern of businesses made when the town was young -- a trading center of the farming community, with blacksmith shops, implement houses, cream stations, and the like -- remained until the increase of the commuting population and easy access of food markets, clothing stores, and other business facilities in nearby cities provided alternatives for local residents.

Today, with a population of 680, there is a bank, general store, hardware store, variety store, insurance and realty office, several taverns and restaurants, an ice cream parlor, Indian artifacts and antique store, and Wilkinson Manufacturing.

There are also three churches in town; Baptist, Presbyterian, and Catholic. Service organizations include lodges, American Legion and auxiliary, in addition to Boy and Girl Scouts, Campfire, Future Homemakers of America and many more.

There has been a public school in Fort Calhoun since 1856, graduating its first high school class (10th grade) in 1893. Today, two modern buildings house the elementary and high school, and buses bring students from the surrounding area.

There are two historical tourist attractions in Fort Calhoun: the Washington County Historical Museum, and Fort Atkinson State Park.

The museum, established in 1938, attracts thousands of visitors with interpretive displays, prehistoric Indian and early settlers tools, implements, home furnishings, clothing, and some artifacts from Fort Atkinson. Its library contains archival and genealogical material. Located on Highway 75, there are regular summer hours, and tours by appointment.

The park on the outskirts of Fort Calhoun, with its trees, shrubs, native grasses, nature trail, explanatory markers, visitors' center, and authentic restoration of the barracks, is a delight for nature lovers and historians. There is a booklet on Fort Atkinson with details on its history and restoration.

By Genevieve Slader from an article written by the late Edith L. Neale, historian teacher, and director of the Washington County Historical Museum for many years.