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It can be argued that the automobile did more to change the way Nebraskans live and work than any other single invention, and it managed the revolution in only a couple of decades.

In July 1862, when Henry Ford was only 1 year old, Maj. Joseph R. Brown drove his Prairie Motor off a steamboat at Nebraska City. This massive steam-driven vehicle, a sort of railroad locomotive that did not run on rails, had 6-foot-high front wheels and 10-foot back wheels and was the first self-propelled road vehicle west of the Mississippi River.

Although there were only four experimental automobiles in the United States in 1895, the following year the first Ford was built, setting the stage for a transportation revolution. Probably the first automobile in Nebraska showed up in Nebraska City when Col. W.F. Hayward bought a 1901 Locomobile steamer. A year later, Lincoln sported its first automobile.

Aware that the state needed to get a handle on controlling the impending nuisance, W.L. Hand introduced the first automobile registration law in the Nebraska Legislature. It required each owner to pay a $1  fee to the secretary of state. The registrations were simply numbered from 1 on as they were received in Lincoln.

The owner then had to make his own “plate” with his number “in Arabian (sic) numerals each no less than three inches in height” and affix it to the back of his car and keep it clean. Most owners affixed metal numbers on leather, but some were simply painted.

The most quoted section of the law required the driver of an automobile to stop “until the driver of any frightened horse could get past.”

The first year of registration showed there were 571 vehicles, which neatly doubled the second year, and by 1910, 15,000 vehicles had paid fees totaling $18,617 to the state.

The Omaha World-Herald foresaw a rash of pedestrians being run down by autos, and in 1910, with an obviously tongue-in-cheek editorial, it suggested each car be equipped with an air-powered cartridge, which, on impact with another auto or person, would discharge a cloud of tiny license tags over the accident site so the offending driver couldn’t simply drive off.

If that suggestion proved impossible, why not release chloroform and gas the driver or better yet pack dynamite under his seat to blow him out of the car? For some reason, none of these suggestions saw the light of day in the Legislature.

In 1908, the Model T Ford was introduced at $850, which, a mere decade later, dropped to $290 thanks to the assembly line, making an automobile a realistic possibility for many Americans.

In 1911, the state Board of Irrigation became the state Board of Irrigation, Highways and Drainage as Nebraskans began demanding more and better roadways. At the same time, registration fees doubled to $2 and the top speed anywhere in the state was set at 20 mph. But no license was yet required for drivers.

The secretary of state clarified Nebraska law in 1913, instituting permanent registration numbers and stated the numbers could not be sold but could be inherited. At that point in time, one in 50 Nebraskans owned a car, but in Omaha, where autos competed with an efficient and inexpensive network of trolley lines, only one in 100 owned an automobile.

With the number of cars rapidly increasing, Capital Mutual Insurance Co. of Lincoln became the first in Nebraska to write insurance policies on automobiles in 1915. The following year, the state began issuing metal license plates that would be in a different color every year.

The first federal aid to Nebraska highways followed in 1918 as a 5.5-mile section of O Street was paved from Lincoln to Emerald. That year, with more than 200,000 motor vehicles in the state, registration was increased to $10 a year, and in 1925, the first gasoline tax of 2 cents a gallon was introduced.

In 1922, the state broke down the number of cars registered by county and assigned prefix numbers to the license plates. The most cars were registered in Douglas County, so it became 1; Lancaster County, 2;  and so on to Hooker County, which trailed at 93.

The system prevailed until 1951, when, for unclear reasons, the prefixes became letters -- with Lancaster adopting an L and Douglas the X. This proved so unpopular, it reverted the very next year and lasted until the number of vehicles in the three most populous counties necessitated forgoing all numbers to a combination of numbers and random letters in 2002.

In the 20th century, the automobile made it possible for suburbs to spring up and shopping centers to develop outside the concentrated downtowns. It fueled school consolidation across the state and, as the government responded to demand for surfaced roads, it caused small towns and villages to wither as regional shopping areas captured sales and population.

As gasoline, taxes and fuel prices increased beyond what was not even imaginable two decades ago, it is impossible to predict what might break the automobile’s intrusion and impact on virtually every aspect of our lives.

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Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at


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