The following is an excerpt from Thinking About the Future, a book sponsored by the Southwest Regional Group of the Nebraska Development Network and edited by DR. Robert N. Manley for the Southwest Nebraska Community Builders.
The McCook Tribune for February 20, 1891, contained an angry editorial. An announcement had just come out of Lincoln that the Legislature had passed law establishing a reform school for girls and that the institution would be located in Geneva.
The decision angered the McCook editor. This was just the latest in a long line of decisions, he wrote, that ignored the western part of the State. “Principles of justice,” were not “firmly established in the hearts” of the law-makers, “else in the location of State institutions the western two-thirds of the State would not be so continuously slighted to the advantage of the more populous and wealthy eastern one-third. Broaden your minds and hearts, gentlemen, to a comprehension of the entire state.”
As a matter of fact, this was not a new problem. Sectionalism developed in the 1860s at a time when the Platte River divided the State into North Platte and South Platte. Oh, how these two sections quarreled. Party allegiance meant little. What was important was whether you were a North Platter or a South Platter.
Railroad construction reinforced the sectional pattern, for the Union Pacific was in North Platte and the Burlington in South Platte.
There was, however, an important difference between how these two giant corporations operated. The U.P. never showed a great deal of interest in the economic development of North Platte. The residents of that section constantly complained about the U.P.’s neglect.
This was not the situation in South Platte where the Burlington was determined to develop the country through which it’s line passed. George Holdrege was responsible for this policy. It was Holdrege who had worked long and hard to convince the owners of the Burlington to extend their line from central Nebraska through the Republican valley and on to Denver. He argued that the line would be profitable.
So, Holdrege had a stake in southwest Nebraska, and he worked ceaselessly to develop the region. He put Swedish and German-Russian immigrants to work laying tracks, reasoning that the wages they earned would enable them to buy farms along the tracks. He tried to get a sugar beet factory for Culbertson, and was constantly bringing Eastern capitalists to look over this new country.
Thanks to George Holdrege and the Burlington Railroad, southwest Nebraska was connected with Lincoln and eastern Nebraska. A strong sectional feeling did not develop in southwest Nebraska.
But in the 1890s the Nebraska Panhandle did not have a railroad. and it was in this part of the State that controversy erupted. The residents of the North Platte valley wanted the Legislature to write a water law that would encourage irrigation. Dominated by eastern interests who had no particular interest in the agricultural development of the North Platte valley, the Legislature did nothing. Finally, Panhandle leaders announced their intention to secede from Nebraska and to join Wyoming – which had the kind of water law the farmers in the North Platte valley wanted.
That declaration stirred lawmakers to action, and the Panhandle got it’s water law.
Another on-going sectional controversy had to do with the location of the State capital. This argument went on for thirty years. Nebraska’s pioneers did not expect the capital to remain in Lincoln. As the central and western portions of the state filled up, they assumed that the capital would be relocated to a more central location – to Columbus, Grand Island, or, the prime candidate, Kearney. Once again, however, eastern interests had their way, and the capital remained in Lincoln. (I’ve often wondered how the history of Nebraska might have been different had the capital been relocated in central Nebraska.)
Then there was the argument over the location of the College of Agriculture. In the early 1900s Westerners demanded that the College be moved from Lincoln to a spot in central or western Nebraska. Broken Bow, North Platte and several other cities said they would be happy to provide funds needed to pay relocation expenses. Again, the east won. The College of Agriculture remained in Lincoln, although the legislature hoped to soothe western anger by authorizing an agricultural high school in Curtis.
Another period of bitter controversy came during the 1930s when North Platte and South Platte argued over the division of Platte River water. Only the intervention of the Federal government calmed that quarrel and enabled Nebraska to get on with developing its public power and irrigation facilities.
As you think about the future, it will be important to think about ways to heal Nebraska’s geographical divisions. Perhaps another George Holdrege will appear. This time, however, he won’t be a railroader. More likely this person will be a telecommunications genius who will minimize Nebraska’s divisions by the innovative application of modern communications systems. It’s worth thinking about.