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Jim McKee: Harrison is a little town with a big history
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Jim McKee: Harrison is a little town with a big history

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This photo shows Harrison’s Main Street about 1905. The Sioux County courthouse is at the far right of the photo, the building with a cupola.

Sioux County, in the northwest corner of Nebraska, borders on Wyoming and South Dakota, sometimes relating to its neighbor to the west, calling itself Wyobraska.

Sioux County is a large county in terms of size, but Harrison, its county seat, is virtually the only town in the county and even then, is unincorporated. It is not the only unincorporated county seat in the state; Harrisburg in Banner County is likewise unincorporated, and is far from being the smallest county seat in terms of population, as Stockville in Frontier County has only about 30 residents, yet Frontier County has five incorporated towns.

Before statehood in 1867, Nebraska’s panhandle extended west to the Rocky Mountains, then, what would become Sioux County, was suddenly shortened by two-thirds and a decade later the Legislature redefined its new borders while, in 1877, the entire county’s population was estimated at 550.

By 1882 the entire area was termed simply “North-western Nebraska” while the new population was estimated to be 800 plus about 300,000 cattle. Observers were quick to note that, although early explorers had generally referred to much of the area as desert, it was actually crossed with streams of running water with fertile land covered with grass, though the reported presence of forests were a myth.

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1884 brought the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad, which established a camp and siding at a point they named Summit for its elevation of 4,876 feet, making it the highest of any townsite in the state, though at that point in time the railroad noted that there was absolutely no population within a 10 mile radius of the siding. The following September, Sioux County was again redefined and redivided as Sioux, Dawes and Sheridan counties. The railroad reached the camp at Summit in June of 1886 and adjacent land, which had been homesteaded by Henry Anderson, was sold to Edw. T. Cook who, that August, platted the village of Bowen over the site of Summit. One of the first buildings completed was the 1886 Harrison House Hotel on the northwest corner of First and Main streets near the depot.

In late 1886 a post office application for Bowen was rejected by the federal government as there was already a village of Bowen located in Washington County. A new application was forthcoming for the town, now to be named Harrison in honor of U.S. President Benjamin Harris though some said it was in fact named for a clerk on the F. E. & M. V. Railroad named W. H. Harrison. At that point there were four post offices in Sioux County -- S. E. Smith Ranch, Montrose, Harrison and Bodarc, which claimed a general store and even a newspaper in addition to its post office.

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In the autumn of 1887, after a brief contest with Bodarc, Harrison was made the county seat and the following year a masonry, two-story courthouse, on the edge of the above photo, was completed with the brick burned in Sowbelly Canyon about three miles from Harrison. Harrison was incorporated in April of 1888 and claimed to have a newspaper, hardware, hotel, general store, drug store, newspaper and two saloons. Another history shows Harrison’s incorporation in 1889 with an optimistically estimated population of 250.

With the passage of the federal Kinkaid Act of 1904 settlers were allowed to claim an entire section of 640 acres of land. This grant gave 10 million acres of Nebraska land to the concept which included Sioux County. This allowed the county’s population to double to 5,599 during the first decade of the 20th century while Harrison grew from 168 to 186. Although Harrison continued to grow, reaching its high point of 500 in 1940, farming proved uneconomical, even utilizing a full section. The Interstate Canal, which would irrigate over 400,000 acres of land, did help considerably, though farms began converting to larger, more economical, ranches causing Sioux County’s population to slowly decline continually through the Great Depression.

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In 1920 a well near Agate in Sioux County predicted it would provide the first commercial production of oil in Nebraska, but the dream was short lived. 1930 did see bonds issued which allowed construction of a new two-story, $100,000 courthouse at Third and Main Street but in 1939 a WPA account of Harrison described “many vacant buildings … along the wind-blown street, the general store, with its hitching rail is a frame building of weather-beaten grey.”

Today Harrison’s population is about 250 with many popular tourist-oriented sites drawing visitors including Toadstool Geological Park, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Agate Springs Ranch, Fort Robinson State Park, the Warbonnet Battlefield and the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill, and one travel writer opines “all the adjectives in the world cannot describe the sheer, Jaw-dropping beauty” of Sowbelly Canyon about three miles east of Harrison. The 1886 Harrison House Hotel still offers nine guest rooms and an excellent restaurant at 115 Main Street while a nearby coffee shop/café offers a 28 ounce coffee burger, the world’s largest hamburger.

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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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