Lincoln: History

Saline Deposits Attract First Settlers

As early as 1853, salt companies were sending men to study the possibility of salt manufacture in the salt flats northwest of the present city of Lincoln. Actual processing by any salt company did not start until the early 1860s, but it was never commercially successful, and efforts to manufacture salt were abandoned around 1887. However, Captain W. T. Donovan, representing the Crescent Salt Company, settled on the west bank of Salt Creek near the intersection of Oak Creek in 1856. He named his claim Lancaster. By 1859 the area had sufficient population to be considered for organization of a county. Donovan participated in the committee that was to determine the site and name of the county seat. It was named after Donovan's home town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Lancaster was a compromise choice between North Platters—who favored Omaha, the territorial capital since 1854—and South Platters—who vied for a capital site south of the Platte River. Ultimately Lancaster was chosen and a new name proposed: "Capital City." Lancaster was finally renamed Lincoln, after President Abraham Lincoln. August F. Harvey, a state surveyor, replatted Lincoln in 1867, setting up a grid system of streets lettered from A to Z, with O as the division point, and north and south blocks numbered. In the heart of downtown were four square blocks for the state Capitol and a proposed university. The city plan also called for the planting of more than two million trees, mostly oak, which would line boulevards and parks. The attention to the natural landscaping of the city is a civic responsibility each generation of Lincolnites since has taken seriously.

In December 1868, the state government moved its property in covered wagons to hide the transfer of power from armed Omahans upset with the relocation. Local investors feared that Lincoln would not remain the state capital long since it numbered just 30 inhabitants in 1867, but within a year 500 people lived there, and new businesses started to develop. One event in Lincoln's history at this time symbolized the early difficulties. A herd of 1,000 Texas longhorns collapsed the wooden bridge over Salt Creek at O Street, but the wild herd blocked local officials from locating the cattle's owner and monetary restitution for the bridge's reconstruction was never obtained.

State Capital Weathers Troubled Times

At the first meeting of the Nebraska legislature in Lincoln in 1869, immediate action was taken to authorize land grants for railroad construction and a bill was passed to establish the University of Nebraska. The Burlington & Missouri River railroad line reached Lincoln in 1870, the same year the population reached 2,500 people. One popular rumor of the time was that Lincoln was built over an underground ocean that would provide a source of saline springs with commercial potential, but nothing of this sort materialized.

In the 1870s Lincoln suffered a difficult period. The state's first governor was impeached, a depression hit the local economy, and the legality of transferring the capital was questioned. Grasshoppers infested the area for more than three years. Saloons, gambling, and prostitution flourished, prompting the formation of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which set a moral tone that dominated local politics until Prohibition. Lincoln reversed its fortunes in the 1880s, as public services were introduced, businesses prospered, and a reform party was victorious in 1887. But as the new mayor and city council began cleaning up the local government, a crooked judge had them arrested and convicted in a circuit court case that was eventually reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Twentieth Century Brings New Challenges

At the turn of the century William Jennings Bryan dominated the political life of Lincoln, running unsuccessfully for president as the Democratic candidate in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Bryan published The Commoner, a weekly newspaper with a circulation of more than 100,000 after his defeat in 1900. Bryan was an oddity—a radical Democrat in conservative Lincoln. During World War I, segments of Lincoln's German population openly supported the Central Powers. A misplaced sense of American patriotism gripped the Lincoln populace and local German culture was shunned. The University Board of Regents conducted a hearing in which 80 professors faced charges of "lack of aggressive loyalty" and three were asked to resign.

The Capitol structure built in Lincoln in the 1880s began to settle into the ground, and one corner had sunk eight inches by 1908. Serious concern for the condition of the Capitol prompted a contest to select the best new cost-effective design. All the entries except two involved the traditional federal dome style. The winning design featured a 400-foot tower that could be built around the old Capitol, saving Nebraska nearly $1 million in office rental and making it possible to defray the costs of construction by the time the new capitol was completed in 1932. Its design revolutionized public and government buildings by ushering in a modernist style.

Lincoln today is a typical "All-American" city, boasting clean, healthy air and safe streets. Answering a question about where he sees Lincoln by the year 2006, former Mayor Mike Johanns (now the state governor) declared: "Lincoln will continue to be a vibrant and healthy community with a unique sense of place. Growth will continue to occur at locations carefully chosen in the 1990s, maintaining Lincoln's interface with its agricultural hinterland. Lincoln in 2006 will still be one of the best cities in which to live in the United States."

Planning for Lincoln's Future

Current community planners have continued this vision by actively working to develop the downtown area. In 2004, a comprehensive plan was drafted by the Downtown Lincoln Association that included a civic center, hotels, and additional parking. Residents enjoy cultural amenities along with outdoor and professional sports. Meanwhile, Lincoln has been cited by Population Connection's Kid-Friendly Cities Report Card as number 17 of 80 on "Kid-Friendly Cities" 2004 list and Child magazine's "Best Cities for Families" in the twentieth position. Further, it has been featured as an economical travel destination by AAA in 2005. And with a diversified business climate, population growth, and increase in the area's workforce, it follows that Lincoln would be tenth on a Expansion Management list of "Best Places in the U.S. to Locate a Company."

Historical Information: Nebraska State Historical Society, 1500 R St., PO Box 82554, Lincoln NE 68501; telephone (402)471-3270. American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR), 631 D St., Lincoln, NE 68502-1199; telephone (402)474-3363; fax (402)474-7229; email