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Lewis and Clark were first to note that the area around present day Nebraska City would be an “ideal site for a future city” during their expedition to explore the west from 1804 to 1806. The first beginnings of Nebraska City can be found in the establishment of Fort Kearney in 1846. Fort Kearney was founded within present-day Nebraska City, near the banks of the Missouri River between North Table Creek and South Table Creek. The Fort Kearney military post consisted of a log blockhouse and was set on a hill overlooking the Missouri River near the current site of Nebraska City. The significance of the fort relied on its location on the Missouri River, which facilitated better transportation, making Fort Kearney an important supply fort for the U.S. Army operating in the region. The activity associated with the fort helped to provide employment opportunities for early settlers coming to the area. Shortly after its establishment, the fort was abandoned and the opportunity to create a city near the fort did not materialize. Nevertheless, the ferry operated by John Boulware and located at the Nebraska City site to facilitate travel by army personnel over the Missouri River continued in use after the fort was closed. This ferry was utilized by hundreds of “49ers” as they crossed the Nebraska Territory on their way to California.
In 1854, Otoe County was created with the passage of the Kansas – Nebraska Bill. This opened up settlement across the Nebraska Territory and in that same year, the town’s first building was constructed. Nebraska City was initially recognized on December 20, 1853, with the opening of the Table Creek Post Office. Table Creek was a “postal address” in 1853. In 1854, the community of Table Creek was named the seat of Otoe County and on March 4 of the same year, the community changed its name from Table Creek to Nebraska City. Upon the name change from Table Creek to Nebraska City, Nebraska City remained the County seat for Otoe County.
Nebraska City was platted in June of 1854 and incorporated on March 2, 1855. The original plat of Nebraska City is located in the downtown of present-day Nebraska City. The grid system of roads associated with the original plat of the city was designed to provide the easiest transportation for freight to move from the river through the city and to the west. All of the city’s roads were laid out parallel and perpendicular to the Missouri River segment between the North Table Creek and South Table Creek. On March 16, 1855, Kearney City, located to the southeast of Nebraska City, became incorporated. This area is more commonly known today as “Kearney Hill”. The grid system of Kearney City was far different than its neighboring community as the roads were rotated on an axis, compared to the roads in Nebraska City. The alternate directional grid roadway network in Kearney Hill is still very distinguishable today. In addition to Kearney City, a third community named South Nebraska City was incorporated on January 26, 1856, and was located directly south of Nebraska City and north of South Table Creek. As a separate community, this area also developed a system of roads all its own. Roads in South Nebraska City shared the same directional alignment to the Nebraska City roads; however, they were shifted to the east/west, causing the roadway corridors of both communities to not be in a straight alignment. The impact of this orientation of roadways in the two communities resulted in roadways that do not follow the overall city’s grid system and a number of plats that are markedly smaller than the typical development pattern of the city. In December of 1857, all three communities were finally formed into what is now known as Nebraska City.
Early settlers of Nebraska City were well aware of the lack of significant wooded areas resulting in a lack of building materials. To combat this situation, the state began offering many incentives for local land owners to plant trees. In addition to establishing his own orchard and arboretum, Nebraska City pioneer and resident, J. Sterling Morton, became a political proponent of tree-planting and was the founder of Arbor Day which is now a national observance. In addition to his efforts in the creation of Arbor Day, J. Sterling Morton was a local, state, and federal politician ending his political career in 1897 as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland. Mr. Morton’s Nebraska City home, a 52-room mansion constructed to resemble the White House in Washington D.C., was originally built in 1879. In 1923, this structure was converted into Arbor Lodge; a state historical park and arboretum.
Two years after the Civil War ended, on March 1, 1867; Nebraska officially became the 37th state in the Union. The introduction of Nebraska as a State helped to attract new settlers and the location of Nebraska City as a good crossing of the Missouri River spurred new development in Nebraska City. The first growth boom happened when the railroad came to town and the local economy shifted from transporting goods on the river to one based on the growing railroad network. In April of 1871, the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad was constructed and situated in the middle of the newly formed city and this, in turn, led to an increase of industries in the area. With easy access to rail as well as barge traffic from the river, businesses were able to thrive.
Manufacturing industries have played a very important role in the growth of the community. Early industrial development brought the city’s population to a record of 7,550 in 1890. With a prime location next to the Missouri River and immediate access to railroad transportation, local goods were able to access markets across the developing areas of the continental U.S. The emphasis of manufacturing activities in Nebraska City was based upon agricultural needs. As people in Nebraska City and the surrounding area realized the agricultural potential in Nebraska, the need for plows, machines, and metal wares were highlighted; local industries were uniquely suited to supply these items due to the advantageous location along major transportation routes. In 1888, S.H. Calhoun Jr. printed a promotional book praising the advantages that Nebraska City possessed in terms of industrial growth.
Nebraska City experienced a decline of industrial activity and population beginning in 1900. River traffic diminished and railroads initially concentrated in Nebraska City continued networking across the prairie. Freighting, travel, and industry declined as did the population to about 7,000, where it has remained for decades. Present employment includes plastics and manufacturing, natural gas meter production, electric power generation, meat processing, retail trade, education, healthcare, and service institutions to name a few. In 2015, a renewed emphasis on small business creation and entrepreneurship led the City to partner with private industry on the creation of an infrastructure of fiber optic communications within the City.
Nebraska City has endeavored to maintain its historic buildings and places, resulting in many Nebraska City buildings being listed on the National Registry of Historic Places as well as Nebraska’s Historical Registry. Due to the City’s historic small town charm and proximity to the major population centers of Omaha, Lincoln, and Kansas City, the tourism industry developed and thrived. In 1968, Nebraska City created its iconic AppleJack Festival. This event draws seasonal tourism to the community and was recognized in 2015 as a Top 10 fall harvest festival by USA Today. In 1972, the Arbor Day Foundation was founded by John Rosenow who also oversaw the construction of the Lied Lodge and Conference Center in 1993. The Arbor Day Foundation is a million-member nonprofit conservation and education organization with a mission to inspire people to plant, nurture, and celebrate trees, and its Lied Lodge and Conference Center offers a resort-like atmosphere for conferences, management retreats, family reunions, and weddings. Recognizing the history of the area and the tourism draw, the Missouri River Basin Lewis & Clark Center has attracted visitors from all 50 states and numerous countries every year since it was built in 2004. The 3-story, 12,000 square foot facility sits on a scenic 79-acres wooded bluff overlooking the Missouri River giving today’s visitors a sense of why Lewis and Clark made note of this area over 200 years ago.
In addition to its unique history, the arts also contribute to the tourism draw in Nebraska City. In 2001, the Kimmel-Harding-Nelson Center for the Arts was formed in Nebraska City. The Center annually hosts between fifty to sixty visual artists, writers, composers, and interdisciplinary artists from across the country and around the world accommodating up to five artists at a time for stays that vary from two to eight weeks. This artist-in-residency program has helped shape the face of arts in Nebraska and the region, including contributing to the creation, in 2013, of a community arts project entitled “An Enchanted Arboretum”. This project consist of seventy-one (71) stylized tree sculptures designed by professional artists and Nebraska City students. Twenty-five (25) six-foot tall professionally-designed tress are placed outdoors in public spaces throughout Nebraska City, and forty-six (46) four-foot tall student-designed trees are found around town inside or outside businesses and private homes and yards. “An Enchanted Arboretum” was the pilot project of Nebraska City’s Arbor City Initiative, a grass-roots community effort dedicated to promoting the town as “Arbor Day’s Hometown – Where Great Ideas Grow”.
Throughout the history of Nebraska City, the economy has centered on the Missouri River and agriculture. Today, Nebraska City and Otoe County remain along and/or near critical transportation paths such as Interstate 29 to the east and Interstate 80 to the north. Nebraska City gains access to the both interstate systems via U.S. Highway 75 and State Highway 2. Highway 75 is a two lane roadway while State Highway 2 is a limited access 4-lane highway connecting the City of Lincoln and Interstate 29 via the J. Sterling Morton Beltway located along the southern edge of Nebraska City. Although river traffic has diminished over time, local river access serves traffic up and downstream to other terminals and markets.