McCool Junction -- York County
McCool Junction was not always the rich farming community of today, but rather was the land on the western edge of the tall grass prairie. Through this land runs a clear, spring-fed waterway which was named the West Fork of the Big Blue River. The first white settlers came in October 1867 and filed homestead claims along the river. Lumber, nails, and other supplies were hauled from Nebraska City, the nearest source at that time.
The first town platted was known as "Niota" and is in what is now the southern part of McCool Junction. In addition to a cluster of homes, Niota had a post office, a two-story hotel, a general store, and a meeting hall which billed traveling medicine shows. A flour mill was established on the river in 1873.
The citizens of Niota were enthused about the coming of a railroad but were dismayed when the surveyors put the depot two blocks north of town. A new village was platted in late 1886 but, due to the severe winter weather, it was not registered until February in 1887. In that transaction, Niota lost not only its town site but also its name. Renamed for the promoter and general manager of the St. Joseph & Grand Island Railroad, Daniel McCool, the new village was registered as "McCool."
The year 1887 proved to be very busy. Buildings were added daily for the new businesses and families that moved in, with 40 structures erected in the first seven weeks. A newspaper, "The Record," started publication on May 20, 1887, by G.F. Notson and John Albin. Optimism ran high in anticipation of the arrival of the first train, June 3, 1887. A stationhouse was built, and by June 11 a water tank with pumping station was filled. By June 17 the tracks were laid as far as York, linking the new town with the county seat to the north, and Fairmont to the south.
By 1888 a second branch line of the SJ&GI, running east and west, had been built to a junction at the south edge of town. At that time "Junction" was added to the town's name. During boom times, three passenger trains and at least that many freights came through each day. The Burlington later purchased both lines from the Union Pacific and operated them for a time.
Then, to everyone's dismay, first one and then the other line that ran through McCool Junction was abandoned, and in 1984 the last tracks were removed. The old depot is still standing, and there are plans to relocate and renovate this building.
Disasters were a part of the community's existence. In 1874 grasshoppers swept through, eating everything in their path. There were a number of devastating blizzards, as in 1888, that took the lives of livestock and residents who were caught unawares. Fires took their toll over the years, and in May 1913 a tornado hit the town. The area suffered during the drought of the 1930s, and in 1950 a 13-inch rain flooded the streets. All of these things seemed to pull the town together, with neighbors helping neighbors, especially in times of trouble.
We are primarily an agricultural community, with the largest business being the Farmers' Co-op with an elevator and service station. There is a bank, post office, drive-in, honey processing business, several construction companies, auto repair shops, and a number of small independent businesses. McCool's residents, which total 405, include many retired farming couples and a large number of people commute to York to work.
McCool's first school, containing classes for nine grades, was built on the site of the present schoolhouse. Later the 10th grade was added. In 1916 the old school was replaced by a brick building for 12 fully-accredited grades. An auditorium and gymnasium were built in 1936 and new elementary classrooms and a music room were added in 1964. The present gym, lunch room, lockers, and home economics room were added in 1974. Annual enrollment averages about 175 students.
Three churches are located in McCool Junction. St. Paul's Catholic Church, First Evangelical Lutheran Church, and United Methodist Church provide the spiritural leadership and are active participants in the community. They work together on a number of occasions, providing community services on certain holidays.
Despite the fact that Highway 81 divides our village right down the middle, we are a thriving community with a united goal of improving and building for a better environment for the future. The railroad that gave our town its unique name may have vanished, but McCool Junction lives on.
By Jeannette Bellows, McCool Junction, NE 68401