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.
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Ten of the 13 men were of German descent, two were Swiss, and one Irish, ranging from 22-42 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 cabin with a thatched roof. This served as a home for the colony until other houses could be built.
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.
The “choice location” not only placed Columbus on the UP main rail line, but later as a hub for branch lines such as the Atchison & Nebraska from Lincoln, and the Omaha, Niobrara and Black Hills to Norfolk.
Buffalo Bill was a frequent visitor to Columbus, being a good friend of the North Brothers. The North Brothers were known for beginning and overseeing the famous group of native Americans known as the Pawnee Scouts. The scouts were renowned for the assistance they provided the American Government during its westward expansion. Buffalo Bill so enjoyed Columbus that it was the site for the first full dress rehearsal of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The wild west extravaganza formally opened in Omaha a couple days later.
During the early part of the century the first order of business for the forerunner of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce was a campaign against the removal of the 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 U.P. tracks.
By 1910 Columbus had a population of 5,000, a sizeable number of inhabitants for those days. It was a strong commercial point for goods going west. The town’s next big growth spurt came in the mid part of the century when the Columbus economy became three pronged: industry, agriculture and power.
During the economic bust, the dust, drought, and blight days of the 1930s, Columbus leaders revived the earlier dream of harnessing water power to generate electricity. Columbus used government money (authorized for self-liquidating projects to help alleviate local unemployment by providing jobs in the midst of the Great Depression. Because of many volunteer efforts to create the Loup Project, Columbus was the birthplace of public power in Nebraska. Water diverted from the Loup River into a canal continues to produce hydro-electric power.
In the mid-1940s, catering to both agricultural and industrial interests, several Columbus men-of-vision created an industrial site. It is believed to be the first designated industrial site in the U.S. Today manufacturing provides employment to over 7,000 area people.
From 13 men with dreams, vision and courage, Columbus has grown to a diversified community of around 21,000.
Adapted from an article by Irene O’Brien for the Platte County Historical Society.