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Jim McKee: Plattsmouth thrives with river traffic
The Missouri River at Plattsmouth looking upstream. This photo, which shows a steamboat near the Main Street Wharf, probably was taken by the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad. (Courtesy photo)

Other than the Pawnee and Otoe who were the first inhabitants of the Plattsmouth area, Lewis and Clark made the first recorded visit on July 21, 1804, and took a small boat about a mile up the shallow, sandy Platte River from its mouth at the Missouri River.

Trader Manuel Lisa passed through on May 10, 1811, the John C. Fremont expedition camped nearby in 1842. Libeas (Libias) Coon carried groups of Mormons across the Missouri River from Coonville (later Glenwood), Iowa, in 1846.

With permission from the federal government, Samuel Martin, also from Glenwood, brought logs across the frozen Missouri in 1852 and built a trading post on the river called Old Barracks at what would become Plattsmouth's Main Street.

In September 1854, the Plattsmouth Town Co. formed and, along with Bellevue, Nebraska City, Florence and Omaha City, became a contender for the territorial capital.

The Plattsmouth post office opened Dec. 23, 1854, and the town was named the county seat of Cass County in the next March.

Steamboat traffic began favoring Plattsmouth that year and, though it did not succeed, the Legislature incorporated the Missouri River & Platte Country Railroad to connect the river port with Fort Kearny. With the 1857 recession, hopes receded and, as one reporter said, Plattsmouth became "one of the dullest places imaginable."

In January 1860, the Legislature gave a 20,000-acre land grant to establish a steamboat connection up the Platte to Fort Kearny which also, obviously, died a birthin.'

Gen. Robert Ramsey Livingston, M.D., who arrived in Plattsmouth in 1859, established the first Civil War military company in Nebraska before troops were even called for, owned the Plattsmouth Herald, became the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad's surgeon/physician and was the city's mayor from 1873 to 1866. His greatest community achievement, however, came in 1869, when he was one of the primaries in convincing the city to issue an initial $50,000 in bonds for the railroad and give them land in the city in consideration of their making Plattsmouth the railroad's headquarters in Nebraska.

In July 1860, construction began for the Nebraska terminus, and in October the engine American Eagle was ferried across the Missouri River. Without a bridge, all freight cars from the east still had to be ferried across the river, but on Sept. 12, 1880, the longest railroad bridge across the Missouri was completed on two pneumatic caissons, 60 feet above the water line.

With the completed eastern link, Plattsmouth sought a trailhead for cattle drives but failed as Schuyler proved more accessible to the northbound trails from Texas.

With the railroad, Plattsmouth blossomed and suddenly "prosperity (was) ever prominent. … You see no poor. … The whole city was a marvel of beauty."

By 1882, 500 men were employed in the 14-acre train yard, and a decade later the extant $68,000 courthouse was completed and the 1870 prediction of a population of 6,000 was within sight.

In 1892, the Missouri Pacific Railroad arrived, a new Burlington river bridge was completed in 1903, and ferry service ultimately ended when a wooden automobile bridge opened in 1911.

Although a modern $640,000 U.S. 34 bridge replaced the wood structure in 1929, with the imminent depression the population dwindled to 3,795 and the railroad began moving its shops. The last function was transferred to Havelock in 1968.

Today, Plattsmouth again thrives, with its Main Street, courthouse and bridge all on the National Register of Historic Places and a population approaching 7,000.

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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