NEBRASKA CITY — For eight decades, a musty underground tunnel called John Brown’s Cave and the rough-hewn Mayhew Cabin have drawn tourists and school kids to this Missouri River town.
The site’s exhibits have focused on the story of slavery and the abolition movement, though there’s been a long-running debate over whether the site was ever a stop for escaping slaves on the famed Underground Railroad or whether Brown, the famed abolitionist, ever visited it.
But now, there’s a bigger question facing the popular attraction — will it ever reopen?
The site, along a main entryway into Nebraska City, has been closed for more than a year after a trio of heavy rains flooded the “cave” and eroded a walkway exit. The shuttered museum that houses exhibits on things like plantation work and origins of slavery now smells moldy and of sulfur gas. The unmowed grass on the property, and a dead mouse near the museum entrance, attest to a lack of maintenance.
The flood damage, for which the property was not insured, has been estimated at between $911,000 and more than $4 million by the foundation that owns the property.
The volunteer president of that group said there’s less than $1,000 in the foundation’s bank account. The lack of money and the failure, so far, of lawsuits against the City of Nebraska City to repair the damage leaves doubts as to whether the attraction will reopen, she said.
“If we don’t get help, this is going to be lost forever,” said Cathleen Van Winkle, a Lincoln real estate appraiser and amateur historian. “And this is vital history, especially now with the racial strife we’re having in our country.”
Most of those interviewed in Nebraska City acknowledge that the cave and cabin are an important tourism asset for Nebraska City, which boasts 10 museums devoted to the history of one of the state’s oldest communities. But there’s a disagreement over who is responsible for fixing up the site, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and just how the place can ever reopen.
Amy Allgood, executive director of the Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce office, said visitors to the city frequently ask about the attraction and when it will be open. But Allgood said she has no answers.
“We would like to know more,” she said.
Some background: The Mayhew Cabin was built in 1854, before Nebraska was a state, using cottonwood hewn on the site.
In the 1930s, the cabin was moved north a few yards to facilitate the construction of Nebraska 2 through town. That’s when the history-minded owner of the cabin launched it as a tourist destination. He built an underground tunnel from the cabin to a nearby ravine to replicate an underground hiding place that, according to legend, used to house escaping slaves at the cabin’s original location. “John Brown’s Cave” was born.
But historians have differed over whether the cabin was ever a stop on the Underground Railroad and whether John Brown ever visited.
The late Jim Potter, a researcher for the Nebraska State Historical Society, concluded in a 2002 article that while Brown had traveled several times between Kansas and Nebraska, there was no proof he ever visited the cabin.
But his research, and a book written by Van Winkle, do say that a group of black slaves most likely did pass through Nebraska City in early 1859; the group had been freed during a raid led by Brown in Missouri. The slaves were accompanied by an associate of Brown, John Kagi, whose sister, Barbara Mayhew, lived in the cabin with her husband, Allen.
Years later, a son of the Mayhews wrote that he once saw Kagi and a group of 11 or 12 slaves eat breakfast at the Mayhew Cabin, as they hurriedly fled northward from Missouri, having passed through Kansas. That same son said there was never an underground tunnel at the cabin that sheltered such runaways.
But then the rains came, flooding a ravine that dead-ends just north of the cabin at least three times during spring 2019. The flooding filled the tunnel, rendering it dangerous and unfit for visitors, according to Van Winkle, as well as ruining a walkway in the ravine used by visitors leaving the tunnel.
Three lawsuits have been filed by the Mayhew Cabin and Historical Village foundation. They maintain that the City of Nebraska City was at fault for diverting storm runoff from a housing area through the cabin and cave site. Van Winkle said the city also failed to maintain a culvert that drains runoff from the ravine through a pipe that runs underneath the Mayhew Cabin museum.
The acting city administrator for Nebraska City, Marty Stovall, declined to comment about the lawsuits. But the city, in a legal answer filed to the most recent lawsuit, said that the damage was caused by “an extraordinary force of nature” and that the drainage culvert is the property of the Mayhew foundation, which failed to maintain it. In addition, the city claims it has sovereign immunity from such claims.
The first two lawsuits filed by the Mayhew foundation, both in 2019, were tossed out after Van Winkle, who doesn’t have a law license, was denied authority to represent the foundation. A third lawsuit was filed this year, but the local attorney who volunteered to represent the Mayhew foundation without pay filed a motion recently to withdraw from the case.
That leaves the future of that lawsuit uncertain. Van Winkle said she hopes to convince the volunteer lawyer to stay on the case or to find another attorney to take up the cause.
15 Nebraska ghost towns
Ghost towns abound in Nebraska
Not all stories are about how the West was won. More often than not, it was lost -- with dreams of getting rich quick and settlements that popped up overnight both fading forgotten into history.
"Ghost town" is the term that came to embody this trend, one abundantly common across Nebraska and the Midwest. Today, Nebraska has 146 cities and 384 villages, according to the state's official website. But Lilian Linder Fitzpatrick's 1925 work, "Nebraska Place-Names," attempts to study the origins of how more than 1,100 communities -- many of which were long gone then -- got their names.
Towns failed for a variety of reasons. Many times, pioneer politics over county seats and railroad routes played a large role. In other instances, isolation and distance from other communities led settlements to gradually fade into the countryside and from memory.
Though they may not realize it, most Nebraskans -- especially those with forebears who homesteaded -- have a connection to a ghost town.
A great-great-grandfather of mine settled near Mariaville, which is now on private property in Rock County, and my Czechoslovakian ancestors who made it to Nebraska in 1870 are buried in Pischelville National Cemetery in Knox County.
We'll take a quick journey to those forgotten communities and 13 other former towns that failed to survive to the present day.
- John Schreier
1. Antioch (Sheridan County)
Antioch embodies the "here today, gone tomorrow" life that typified many young settlements in the West.
The Sheridan County community was originally called Reno, but confusion with the Nevada city of the same name led its leaders to rename it Antioch, after the Ohio city from which a prominent family had lived.
The small town boomed from nothing to more than 2,000 residents during World War I, owing to large deposits of potash -- a potassium compound used in fertilizer and manufacturing -- in alkali lakes nearby, according to History Nebraska. Imports from Germany, now a hostile state, had previously provided most of the potash used in the United States, and businesses sought to capitalize on the Sandhills' bounty.
As quickly as it rose to prominence, though, it faded into obscurity after the war. With German imports far cheaper than Nebraska potash, the last plant closed for good in 1921. Visible along Nebraska 2 are concrete ruins of a potash processing facility, the remnants of this boomtown.
2. De Soto (Washington County)
Famed for steamboat sinkings before and during the Civil War, the early Missouri River town of De Soto could have foreseen its own fate.
The first county seat of Washington County was established in late 1854 and officially incorporated early the next year. Seemingly overnight, it boomed to boast several hundred residents, a dozen stores and taverns and three banks. Just as quickly, all three failed in the bank panic of 1857, with the Colorado gold rush convincing many residents to move west.
And, as was the case with so many communities in that era, the railroad's choice to locate elsewhere was a death knell. The Sioux City and Pacific Railroad instead built its own town, Blair, which has long succeeded De Soto as the county seat.
An 1881 history detailed how quickly the boom town went bust, falling to merely 20 people by that time -- an illustration of how quickly cities came and went in Nebraska's earliest years.
The De Soto name lives on in the area, with the De Soto Bend National Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri River. In that park is an exhibit displaying many artifacts recovered from the Bertrand, one of the doomed steamboats.
3. DeWitty (Cherry County)
Though the vast majority of homesteaders lured to Nebraska by the promise of free land were white, not all were. Nowhere was that more evident than DeWitty.
A vibrant community of roughly 200 African-Americans, some of whom were slaves freed after the Civil War, settled along the North Loup River in the northern Sandhills on what's now U.S. 83. Though it wasn't the state's only largely black community, it was the most successful.
Though little is left beyond a pioneer cemetery and a handful of building foundations, DeWitty -- later renamed Audacious -- once boasted a post office, school and a variety of businesses. The school was notable because it was integrated between black students from DeWitty and white students from nearby Brownlee, which was all but unheard of in the late 19th century.
While the town no longer exists, its memory lives on through descendants and historians who share stories about Nebraska's most prominent black settlement.
4. Dobytown or Kearney City (Kearney County)
Though the official name for this small community three miles west of Fort Kearny was Kearney City, the name Dobytown -- a reference to the handful of earthen buildings that appeared to be constructed from adobe -- stuck.
Unlike many settlements set up for homesteaders, Dobytown sprung up to provide soldiers and pioneers services that weren't typical of military bases. To quote the History Nebraska marker at the town site: "Gambling, liquor and disreputable men and women were its principal attractions." Its famous customer was Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who despised its whiskey.
It became the first county seat of Kearney County when its borders were established by the Legislature and had a city government, seemingly overnight.
The town boomed to become a major outfitting point on the western migration, in addition to a Pony Express station. But its days were short-lived after the nearby Union Pacific Railroad passed outside of town and greatly reduced traffic. Fort Kearny's closure in 1871 sealed the demise of Dobytown, which was abandoned shortly thereafter.
5. Hecla (Hooker County)
Named after an Icelandic volcano by the Grand Island and Wyoming Central Railroad, the siding for cattle transportation grew into a tiny town that persisted for several decades.
The Hooker County Historical Society notes the town never exceeded 11 permanent residents. Despite its size, it had a general store, pool hall and school. Those working on the railroad and cattle drives could nearly triple its population -- though they'd often have to sleep in the store or a barn.
Though the depot closed in the 1930s, Hecla's stockyards operated for another couple of decades. By the 1960s, however, nothing remained at the site where the town had stood. A History Nebraska marker now marks its former location along Nebraska 2.
6. Lemoyne (Keith County)
Unlike other ghost towns, a town named Lemoyne still exists in Nebraska. The small community, which boasted 82 residents in the 2010 Census, is nestled along the north shore of Lake McConaughy.
But that's the second iteration of Lemoyne. The first, often referred to as Old Lemoyne, is deep beneath Nebraska's largest lake.
Lemoyne Jacobs arrived in the area in 1875. He owned the land that would house the original town site and tirelessly promoted it. His persistence paid off when it secured a Union Pacific rail line in 1909 before being surveyed in 1911. Within a decade, it boasted more than 200 residents.
By 1937, however, the Tri-County Association informed Lemoyne that the town had to be relocated. A new project would flood the land, requiring the young town to move to higher ground.
The Kingsley Dam, which was completed in 1941, forced residents of the Keith County burg to relocate, and several of its original buildings moved to New Lemoyne (though the "New" was long ago dropped) or to other cities entirely.
During a drought that dropped Big Mac's water levels to record lows in 2004, a few pieces of the old town site emerged. A couple of old building foundations and other bits of the original Lemoyne could be seen for the first time in nearly seven decades.
7. Mariaville (Rock County)
Though the West was hardly the land of outlaws it's often portrayed as being in movies and TV shows, they certainly existed on the Nebraska frontier. Those characters were far more complex than portrayed.
In the case of the short-lived town of Mariaville, one outlaw's generosity is credited with helping keep the town afloat.
The Peacock family was the first to settle in this area of north-central Rock County, and they opened the general store and post office at the site. It was named Mariaville after their daughter, Hatti Maria. Naming town sites after the first white child born was a common practice.
A story passed down over the ages, which appeared in the 1988 Rock County Centennial book, credited notorious horse thief and convicted killer Doc Middleton -- who later performed in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show -- for buying dinner for his gang and slipping $10 to $20 under his plate after a meal.
This store was, for a time in the early 1900s, operated by my great-grandfather, who left his life as a doctor in Chicago for the pioneer life of Nebraska.
After a long, difficult journey from their life of luxury, my great-great-grandparents came to settle in the vicinity of Mariaville. It was here that my great-grandfather, whose love of the Sandhills' wild beauty and natural bounty has been passed down for generations, was born.
While that tradition endures, the store and town itself are long gone, located on private property northwest of Newport.
8. Meadville (Keya Paha County)
Not all ghost towns stay dead and buried forever -- Meadville is proof of that.
The town on the north bank of the Niobrara River in Keya Paha County, named after Civil War veteran and early settler Merritt Mead, was never large, despite its early role as a stop for travelers heading west.
But it endured all of the hallmarks of communities that long ago faded from the map. First, it lost its post office -- twice. Then, its general store closed, too. (We'll get back to that.)
The toughest blow was the rerouting of Nebraska 7, which connected Ainsworth to Springview, that came straight through Meadville. Though what's known as Meadville Road still exists, it's no longer the major route it once was after being largely replaced by U.S. 183 a few miles to the east.
Meadville was all but abandoned for some time. But local businessmen resurrected the general store in the 1990s. Though the facility recently changed ownership, it remains open.
With a park containing a popular river access point, too, Meadville remains on the map despite being a ghost town for many years.
9. Montrose (Sioux County)
In Nebraska's northwestern corner, a single building remains where a town once existed.
Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, built in 1887, has stood alone for years, and the occasional Mass is celebrated there. Without the church and its adjacent cemetery, though, no tangible reminder would mark where Montrose -- which peaked at 24 residents in 1910 -- had been in the present-day Oglala National Grassland.
The town's enduring claim to fame happened before it had even been platted.
Just north of the future townsite, a U.S. Army guide shot, killed and scalped a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hand in an ambush during what became known as the Battle of Warbonnet Creek. It was purported to be the man's first kill, coming shortly after Gen. George Custer's forces were massacred at Little Bighorn.
The scene would play out time and again during stage shows later hosted by that soldier, who had a prominent residence in the state when he wasn't touring the world. His name was "Buffalo Bill" Cody.
10. Nonpareil (Box Butte County)
When voters in southern Dawes County, tired of traversing nearly 60 miles to the courthouse in Chadron, elected to break away and form their own county, Buchanan -- later renamed Nonpareil -- was the first community to pop up in the new Box Butte County, named for a local landmark.
As such, the town -- which took its second name from a small newspaper type, given that its founder, Eugene Heath, ran a newspaper -- became the first county seat in 1886. Wikipedia muses that it's because the town, like the type, was so small, peaking at 50 residents.
An 1888 election to confirm Nonpareil's position wasn't well received by the upstart town of Alliance, so much so that armed guards stood outside the courthouse to protect the records.
That distinction, however, would be short-lived. Nonpareil fell victim to the politics that dominated the settling of the West and led to the demise of many former county seats.
A land company succeeded in bringing the county seat to Hemingford in an 1890 election. only to see it moved to Alliance, where it has since remained, in 1899. The courthouse was transported from Hemingford to Alliance by rail later that year -- on a rail line that missed Nonpareil.
Bohemian settlers built a second Nonpareil roughly 8.5 miles northwest of Hemingford. Records from the Knight Museum and Sandhills Center in Alliance indicate the town existed from about 1925 to 1946, and the former school building nearby is still standing.
Little marks the site of Box Butte County's first townsite, however, and nothing marks its location alongside that same railroad that bisects the county.
11. Pischelville (Knox County)
Czech heritage remains strong in northwestern Knox County, near where the Niobrara River flows into the Missouri River.
Descendants of many of the first Czech immigrants who moved to that area of northeast Nebraska in the 1870s still live in and farm their corner of what locals call the Bohemian Alps. Pischelville, named after early settler Anton Pischel, is one of several such defunct settlements in the area. Many of them also bear Czech names.
Though the former townsite is no more, its cemetery -- designated as a national Czech cemetery -- connects past with present. Interspersed among the headstones with inscriptions in Czech are more recent burials of their descendants who remained in northeast Nebraska.
My first ancestor who came to Nebraska is buried among them. Sent from Chicago to present-day Knox County by a Czech organization, Jan Schreier -- who later Americanized his first name to "John" -- and his family settled in the region in 1870 before moving into Verdigre. His great-great-great-grandchildren still live nearby.
12. Rock Bluffs (Cass County)
Rock Bluffs, situated between two hills alongside the Missouri River, was a major player in Nebraska's earliest days, when it once was a legitimate rival to Omaha for power. Yet, as the Journal Star wrote in 2016, the community "stumbled over about every obstacle possible to growth, dooming it (to) obscurity."
Occasionally referred to as just Rock Bluff, the town is marked by only a cemetery and a former one-room schoolhouse that was converted to a museum after it closed in 1969. They belie the fact that Rock Bluffs was once a vibrant center of commerce for riverboat traffic and other businesses.
While the ultimate cause for its demise was that it was bypassed by the railroad -- a common story in that time -- for Plattsmouth, Rock Bluffs' history still intrigues.
The community was home to world-champion boxer Perry Graves and a short-lived college called the Naomi Institute. There also are stories of curses by Oto tribesmen forcibly removed from their home, a haunted cemetery and a pair of unsolved murders.
Though Rock Bluffs, one of 51 towns organized in Cass County that no longer exist, is gone, a much newer settlement lives on just to its west: Beaver Lake.
13. St. Deroin (Nemaha County)
It's hard to find a more accessible ghost town in Nebraska than St. Deroin. Founded in 1854 as one of the earliest settlements in Nebraska Territory, it's located entirely within Indian Cave State Park.
Named after Joseph Deroin, a prominent half-Oto trader who owned the land it occupied, the town challenged Brownville's claim to being the first platted in the state. (The "Saint" was presumably added shortly thereafter, to evoke feelings of larger cities St. Louis and St. Joseph.) Its namesake, a colorful and controversial character, was later shot and killed while attempting to collect a $6 debt. His killer was acquitted.
Peaking in population in the 1870s at roughly 300, the town's demise from that high point was slow. Floods eroded the Missouri River steamboat landing, eventually forcing all traffic to Brownville, and the railroad elected to pass St. Deroin by. A 1911 flood was its death knell.
The school, which remained in operation until 1944 and was restored by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in 1978, is joined by the reportedly haunted St. Deroin Cemetery as the only visible reminders of the town that once occupied this popular state park.
14. Sedan (Nuckolls County)
Sedan is no longer an incorporated town, but it remains a hub for commerce in south-central Nebraska as a satellite site for a local farmers co-op.
Founded as Coy, the town opened its post office in 1900. The name was changed to Sedan, after a French city, in 1906. Never a big community, its population reached a high-water mark of 35 in 1950 before fading into obscurity. The post office closed three years later.
However, Aurora Co-Op operates grain elevators in Sedan, although the site has a postal address of Edgar, a nearby town to its northwest. The elevators are visible from miles away, owing to the flat landscape in the area, and made headlines following an accidental 2013 explosion in which two people were injured.
15. Spring Ranch (Clay County)
Few ghost towns take that mantle as literally as Spring Ranch, which still commemorates a history that some consider haunted.
Founded in 1860 along the Little Blue River, within sight of the Oregon-California Trail, Spring Ranch -- often referred to as Spring Ranche in early texts, to differentiate itself from an actual ranch -- began as a trading post for settlers heading west. The town that sprung up, though, was devastated by a Cheyenne and Sioux war raid in 1864 that left several people dead.
Undeterred, a new Spring Ranch was built in southwestern Clay County in 1870. Noted for its mill, it grew into a small but hardy community of roughly 100 with the businesses typical of towns in that era.
In 1885, amid whispers that a widow named Elizabeth Taylor had murdered her husband and ordered a barn burned, a vigilante mob hanged Taylor and her brother Tom Jones before they could be tried in court.
The specifics vary from story to story, but the bridge over the Little Blue where the deed was done remains known as the "haunted bridge." Taylor, her husband and her brother are buried side by side in the town's cemetery.
By the 1950s, the town was all but vacant. A handful of deteriorating buildings and other signage, however, marks the site -- as does the bridge.