Most of Nebraska’s towns are named for people, but the second largest source is from a local “descriptive.”
Blue Hill, Grand Island and Guide Rock are examples. Some, like Table Rock and Falls City, are named for sites which no longer exist. Table Rock itself even has photo references, but most more resemble a mushroom than a table, which may result from a separate, one time, formation called, interestingly, Mushroom Rock.
In 1855 the Table Rock Town Co. surveyed and platted the village they named for a rock formation on the north fork of the Nemaha River, which was described as looking like a table with three legs, large enough to sit under.
Apparently there was another rock formation nearby which resembled a mushroom and, though stories disagree, was apparently pushed over as being a potential danger. The actual “table rock” had disappeared by 1869, perhaps destroyed by lightning or simple erosion by weather. No photos of the table rock survive, explaining perhaps why the picture of a mushroom-like formation is sometimes labeled Table Rock.
A year after the survey, Charles Giddings led a settlement colony from Pennsylvania and New York to the area, prompted in part by the promise of a railroad. In 1856 an election to determine the county seat was held, but because the results of the Table Rock precinct were not signed and thus not official, a second election held Nov. 4 gave the prize to Pawnee City by 16 votes. The following year a flouring mill opened at Table Rock, and the Nebraska Settlement Co. purchased the Table Rock Town Company. 1858 was a disastrous year with much of the town wiped out in a flood, resulting in about 90% of the population abandoning the site.
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The first train from the Atchison & Nebraska Railroad arrived Nov. 10, 1871, while the railroad built the Abell House Hotel and a depot. Just 10 years later a second flood caused the town to relocate “up” a mile to the west, with the arrival of the Republican Valley Railroad while the population reached an estimated 400. A second mill was then built, and a cream station established, which prospered and was later sold to Beatrice Creamery.
The first major industry came as a vast vein of high quality clay, as much as 70 feet thick, brought about the first brick production in 1882. In 1889 Sutton’s brickyard opened as the Table Rock Clay company with a capitalization of $4,000. Clay was then “mined” and moved to the production sites by a narrow gauge railroad. Names and owners changed over the years, but a major boon came in 1898 when William Sutton patented a 300 foot circular, continuous oven to bake bricks. Coal-fires burned around the edge of the circle through 24 “cells” with dividers engineered to also burn. The clay itself was so good it was exported to the Buckstaff Brothers brickyards in Lincoln while the Table Rock paving bricks themselves were also utilized in Lincoln’s streets and judged as virtually perfect.
In 1901 Table Rock Clay Company was producing over 6 million bricks a year, and in 1904 the then two yards merged. After more name changes with on-again and off-again production, the brickyards finally closed around 1927. Max Scherer of Lincoln salvaged what bricks remained around the brickyards in 1974 with only the tall smokestack and lake formed by clay removal remaining as evidence of the once thriving industry.
A two-block park/town square area was developed in downtown Table Rock in 1882 with commercial buildings erected around it. On one side, in 1882, G. R. Martin built a 45-by-72-foot opera house. The three-story building, as most opera houses, had businesses on the ground floor as well as the front of the second floor. The main floor of the auditorium had dressing rooms adjacent to the stage and a kitchen below the balcony which had a raked floor. The two-story tall auditorium featured a 10-by-10-foot skylight while the stage had a trap door at center stage and tracks for moving scenery. The extant stage curtain was added in 1899. Through the years the opera house was home to the Z.C.J.B., held movies, a basketball court, hosted dances, plays, speakers and high school graduations before closing in 1955. Between 1963 and 1965 the building became the property of the Table Rock Historical Society.
Today the opera house and newspaper office are open museums while the lone remnant of the brickyards is the tall smokestack south of the village. Table Rock has come a long way since 1858 when Rev. Chivington was said to have prayed “that the Lord send people here and make them so poor that they couldn’t get away.”