Volume 10, No. 4              Buffalo County Historical Society        April 1987


WHEN WATERTOWN WAS A TOWN


by Alice Shaneyfelt Howell

(Note: Much of the information on Watertown was taken from research papers of Alvin R. Jones, of  Amherst, his daughter Lana Lee Gosch, and Connie Hazzard, a former reporter for the Kearney Daily Hub.)

        Watertown was one of the railroad stations established in 1890 when the Kearney & Black Hills Railroad built a branch line up the Wood River valley northwest from Kearney. It was a town that did not survive, but for three decades it was the center of a thriving community even though it never had more than four houses and two stores and its population never exceeded fifteen or twenty.
        

        J. S. Veal had built a country store in the early 1880's where Watertown was later established. There was a pioneer cemetery about two miles north, and a sod schoolhouse had been built one mile south when School District No. 101 had organized in 1886.

        The railroad brought the first train and freight service into the area. All of the town locations and their stockyards were determined by the Kearney Black Hills Railroad Company. Watertown was four and one-half miles southeast of Miller, and it was seven and three-tenths miles on to Amherst, the next town to the southeast.

 


Watertown Depot and Elevator
-Photo by Nora Oertwig

        Steam locomotives needed water and this is how Watertown got its name. An elaborate water reservoir and windmill, with 5 1/2-inch cylinder, was built to the southwest on high ground. An underground 4-inch pipe system carried water to the steel standpipe which was located along the railroad tracks. A swinging arm was extended over the locomotive to fill its reservoir with water. When the Schukar family came to Watertown in 1896, Carl Schukar managed the water system for the railroad until it was discontinued. The well was eventually sealed shut.


        Soon after the railroad came through, a grain elevator with a capacity of 10,000 bushels was built. A. L. Fitch appears to have been the first operator. Oldtimers have told about his white horse circling the horse-powered steel elevator, lifting the grain into the bins. In 1948 the elevator was closed, and was later blown down by a windstorm, after being blocked up to be moved to Elm Creek.

        The stockyards which the railroad built were used for cattle and hogs which had been driven to Watertown to be shipped to Omaha and Kansas City. In Bassett's History of Buffalo County, Vol. I, it is stated that "In 1914, 25 cars of hay, grain and livestock were shipped from Watertown."
 
        The Union Pacific took over this branch line in 1898. The 65-mile segment from Kearney to Callaway had been completed. While the line never did realize its first ambitions to build to the Black Hills, a 37-mile extension to Stapleton was completed in 1912. Although some grading extended westward, no rails were ever laid beyond Stapleton. The first McKean motor car of the Union Pacific inaugurated motorized passenger service on this line in 1905. The motor car made daily stops on the Kearney branch line and was widely used by people traveling to and from Kearney and other stations on the line, and often used by students going to and from high school in another town. The sound of its special horn was missed by residents along the railroad when, a half century later, the final run of the passenger motorcar was made in 1955.
       

 



Watertown Sod School, 1895, Mate Veal, teacher.

             Pupils: Blanche 18, Delia 16, Ernest 11, and Sadie 11, Hanks; Mable 11, Edith 10, Crapa; Orrin Veal, 8; Rachel Shoop, 17; Etta 19, Edward 14, Elma 12, and Lucinda 10, Hannemann; Edwin 19, Elsie 17, Walter 13, Ena 11, and Ruby 4, Thiede; Albert 17, Walter 15, Flora 14, Laura May 11, and Fred S. 8, Thomas; Jessie M. 20, Clarence 17, and Blanche E. 12, King; Bert A. Fitch 17; Lizzie 17, Joseph 13, Esther 11, Mary 9, and John 7, Cherry; Cora Howerton 7; Nelson 18, Vernil 13, Hitchcock, and Fred Nash 14.
           
Taken by Harry Carson, an early roving photographer, with a Plate Kodak.

-Photo: Courtesy of Alvin R. Jones


         The Watertown post office was established on October 17, 1890 and was located in the new depot. Thomas J. Quail was appointed the first postmaster. Five weeks later, on November 22, 1890, John S. Veal became the postmaster and served until May 3, 1894. Some of the other Watertown postmasters were Alva L. Fitch, Abram R. Jacoby, Ernest G. Burrington, and Lester V. Stubbs. The post office was discontinued on September 30, 1920 when Watertown mail was sent to Amherst to be distributed. The Watertown depot was moved to Riverdale and served that village for several years.       


        A new frame school was built in 1896 replacing the sod school. In 1905 a bell tower was attached to the new schoolhouse, and in 1913 a horse barn was built on the school grounds. In 1914 the 9th and 10th grades were added in an extra room, and Watertown District 101 became a two-room, two-teacher school until declining enrollment ended the two extra grades in 1928. This school was officially closed in 1970.

 

Watertown had no churches. The Methodists held worship services in the sod school when fourteen members organized for services in 1891. Immanuel Lutheran Church, which was built in 1884 and was located two miles east of the town, was sometimes referred to as the Watertown Lutheran Church, but only because of its being on the rural mail route out of Watertown.


        There was a great deal of development in the area during the early years of the village. William Osborn had a blacksmith shop, and Carl Schukar, in addition to his duties for the railroad, operated a cream testing station. He also kept daily weather records for many years before World War I, and in wintertime started the fire in the school house for the teachers. Charles Major operated the Watertown elevator for many years. He lived two miles south of the village in a two-story sod house which his father, Frank Major, built around 1884. For three decades the stores, sometimes one and sometimes two, sold just about everything from school supplies, groceries, furniture, and Quick-Meal stoves to buggies and a few pieces of horse-drawn farm machinery. Store owners were J. S. Veal, A. L. Fitch, Jess Hanks, Henry and Abbie Elliott, Dave and Fred Whitesel, Nora Stubbs and her son Lester, J. F. Mackey, E. G. Burrington, A. R. Jacoby, Mrs. Laurie Trumbull, and William and Lydia Dersche. The last store burned in 1920 when the Dersches were owners. That same year the home of Alva L. Fitch, who had lived in Watertown from its early beginnings, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.
      

  This 2-story sod house, built in 1884 by Frank Major, was located two miles south of Watertown. It had wood floors and was plastered with native gypsum. In the picture are (l. to r.) Mrs. Major and her husband Frank, Mate Veal Jeffery, Cecil De La Barre Haase, Kate and Jessie Major, Charlie De La Barre and Fred Cheney.                                                                                                   -Photo: Courtesy of Claude Curd

 

   In the 1880's Henry Zarrs built a brick house one mile southeast of Watertown and made the bricks on the place. He was a bricklayer and worked on the Midway Hotel when it was being constructed in Kearney. In 1889 Alva Fitch and Mr. Zarrs built a brickyard. Carl Voss was hired to do some of the work. It was in operation for ten years. Bricks stamped with a "W" have since been found in the surrounding area.


        A flour mill was built along the Wood River southeast of Watertown in the 1890's. In the early days the Wood River carried a great deal more water and there was enough flow to use a wooden water wheel. A dam was built across the river and a mill pond formed behind it. The mill closed around 1915 but part of the limestone foundation and pieces of iron can be seen at the site a mile southeast of Norman Abel's farm and about five miles from Watertown.


        There was also a limestone quarry a mile east and half mile south of Watertown in the Alfred Trampe pasture.       


        During the early years F. B. Crapo, a farmer who lived in the hills north of Watertown, owned and operated a sorghum press. Farmers who grew amber cane could haul it to the press for processing into blackstrap molasses or sorghum for the family kitchen.       

 

Social life in Watertown included literary debates at the school, with teams traveling to other schools as well. Box socials were held quite often, and dances were held in the store building when it was empty. Outdoor shows were held at the depot and people sat on a few planks, brought their own chairs, or sat on the ground.


  

                        Mr. and Mrs. R. A. Acheson and their daughter in their home, Watertown, 1903.

-Photo by Solomon D. Butcher

Nebraska State Historical Society Collection.

   Watertown was one that didn't make it. After the store and the Fitch house burned in 1920 the town began to decline, and by 1930 practically everything was gone in the way of establishments. After the closing of the elevator in 1948 there was no longer a market there. Although once a regular stop on the Kearney & Black Hills Railroad, by 1967 the population had dwindled to three, and now (1987) the townsite is a farmstead and the once-busy railroad branch line which created Watertown has discontinued all service beyond Riverdale.

 

SOURCES

     Alvin R. Jones research; Kearney Daily Hub, August 6, 1971; National Archives microfilm, Post offices in Buffalo County; Ehernberger and Gschwind, Smoke Across the Prairie, 1964; S. C. Bassett, History of Buffalo County, Vol. I; Personal interviews with Viola Mueller and Gladys Anderson, April, 1987.

 

Proofread 3-18-2004


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