Volume 11, No.1             Buffalo County Historical Society  January, 1988

by Alice Shaneyfelt Howell

          The power from the Kearney Canal, completed July 4, 1886, set in motion the plans for Kearney to become the Minneapolis of the West (Buffalo Tales, September 1978). Lake View (Kearney Lake) was filled, the first power was generated, and the spectacular growth of population and industry known as the "boom period" was well on its way.

        At the beginning of 1887 there were less than a dozen permanent brick buildings on main street, then known as Wyoming Avenue, between present 18th Street to the south, and 24th Street to the north. Neither the impressive city hall with its clock tower nor the Buffalo County Court House had been built. There were three brick churches, Presbyterian at 23rd and 1st Avenue, Catholic between 5th and 6th Avenues on West 26th Street, and the original part of the church between 25th and 26th Streets on Avenue A, now the Kearney Community Theatre. There were three brick schools - Whittier, Emerson and Bryant.

        Downtown building construction completed in 1887 included the first Midway Hotel, the Hamer Building, present Ayers Clothing, at 22nd Street and Central Avenue; the St. John & Barnd Bldg., now Hellman's Fashions at 2210 Central Avenue; the Hecht Building, now Claussen's Shoes at 2214 Central Avenue, and the Masonic Temple at 2224 Central Avenue. A news item in the Kearney New Era of August 20, 1887 states that "fully 100 new houses have been erected since May 1, and they are mostly occupied by eastern people who have made Kearney their home." There is no listing of houses but research has revealed that the spacious home of J. D. Hawthorne at 2120 4th Avenue was completed in 1887, also the homes of P. G. Hamer, 321 West 27th Street; Warren Pratt, 809 West 22nd Street; and George Downing at 2112 3rd Avenue.

    A flourishing and longtime business growing out of the three lakes which were a part of the Kearney canal and reservoir was the ice industry. For many years Kearney furnished most of the natural ice for central Nebraska, before the advent of artificial ice plants and electric refrigerators. The ice from the lakes in the late eighties and early nineties was just about the finest to be had. Kearney Lake at that time was 40 feet deep in the center, and the water was unusually clear.

        The first year, according to the, Kearney New Era of January 8, 1887, "the Nebraska Ice Company gave employment to 45 men at the reservoir this past week, cutting and putting up ice, besides about as many more hauling it to the cars. They have loaded and shipped 15 cars to Holdrege, and have contracts for 30 more, making a total of 900 tons for that place. The company also expects to ship 400 tons to Minden as soon as they can obtain the cars. The temperature Friday morning was 22 below zero."

        Juan Boyle was the lessee of all of the Kearney Lake privileges, and he, along with the Nebraska Ice Company of Omaha, built an ice house in the early part of the winter. It was located just east of the power house on the south bank of the lake. It was a massive frame structure described as follows:

The building has two gables running south and the room inside is separated by 8-inch wall. The building is double walled, there being a dead air space of two feet between the walls. This is filled with sawdust. The partition wall is also filled with sawdust. Ten carloads of sawdust were required. The building is 104 x 84 feet with 24-foot posts, making each room l00 x 80 feet on the inside. Each partition will hold about 25,000 tons of ice.
        The Union Pacific at that time was the largest patron of the company. They used not hundreds but several thousands of cars of ice, which were shipped to Grand Island  and North Platte. At the latter city they were used for icing Pacific Fruit Express refrigerator cars. So great was the demand for the Kearney natural ice that the Union Pacific had a side track which ran along the east bank of the canal tail race. This helped in the shipping, as ice was shipped winter and summer to many cities and towns in the state. On September 10, 1887, a carload of ice from the ice houses at Kearney was shipped to the Nebraska State Fair.


Skaters on the Lake Kearney. 
       Sunset on Kearney Lake. Note icehouse at left. 
        In its first few months of operation, labor problems were encountered. The New Era of January 22, 1887, carried headlines: THE ICE MEN STRIKE. The story follows:
    An overbearing foreman caused the ice cutters and loaders to strike; the foreman would deduct a full hour's pay if they lost fifteen minutes in time, whether the loss was the fault of the company or not. The men were getting only 15¢ an hour, and during the short days $1.20 per day was about the most they could earn. The strike was for 20¢ per hour. The matter was settled by compromise, $1.50 for nine hours work (about 16 1/2¢ per hour).
        A few days later a second strike was inaugurated by the teamsters who thought there was too much work for too little pay. An advance of 60 percent was sought, which the company promptly refused. The company's manager said he could get all the teams necessary at their present price and doesn't propose "to be bulldozed into paying more."

        The putting up of ice was not without its dangers, and each winter there were many narrow escapes from drowning, not only by the workmen, but many times the skaters. Many a life was saved by the prompt use of long ice pike poles. The danger did not all lie in the work on the lake, but many workmen would get hurt in the ice-conveying machinery and cutters as the ice houses were being filled and the ice carried on an endless chain.

        Kearney customers were delighted with the new supply of ice so close at hand. It was suggested that $5 or $10 ice tickets purchased at the office or from the driver would save annoyance and inconvenience. Heretofore all ice used in Kearney had been hauled from the Wood River and the demand each summer far exceeded the supply. A pleasant Sunday afternoon in winter found many sightseers at Kearney Lake, witnessing the cutting of 18-inch ice, the clearest and purest to be had.

         Icing Union Pacific cars at North Platte.         -S. D. Butcher Photo

        Meanwhile, Mr. Boyle continued his efforts to make Lake View a great pleasure resort for winter, as well as summer activities. The ice company kept the lake free from snow in order to make the best ice, which was ideal for skaters who would throng the lake by the hundreds in the afternoons and evenings. The lake was lighted with arc lights for night-time skating. Late in 1887 a toboggan slide was constructed and one dozen toboggans were ordered for added fun and pleasure.

        Other evidences of growth mentioned in issues of the Kearney New Era of 1887 read as follows:

    Jan. 22: There were nearly 100 teams counted on Wyoming Avenue at one time Saturday afternoon between Greeley Avenue (27th St.) and the railroad track, besides half as many more hitched on the side streets and put up in stables.
    Mar. 19: W. A. Downing sold 46 sets of double harness during the first ten days of March.
    Apr. 30: There have been a great many trees set out this spring and if they all live it will only be a few years until the treeless appearance of Kearney will be a thing of the past.
    Oct. 22: Public drinking fountains for man and beast have arrived and the locations selected.
        And from the Court House items of January 22:
    The Board of Supervisors were in session four days, from Tuesday to Friday, inclusive. The county paid nearly $300.00 for their services. Did they earn their money? Did they do any more or better work than three men could have accomplished in the same length of time? These are nuts for the poor taxpayer to crack.
        The business community of 1887 included eight druggists, thirteen physicians, five harness shops, 26 attorneys, three banks, four newspapers, four jewelers, six meat markets, and four saloons. License for each saloon cost $1,000.00. School teachers' salaries were $25.00 to $40.00 a month. Corn sold for 20¢ a bushel, hogs at $4.50, and a good cow $25.00.

        Such was the City of Kearney at the beginning of 1888.

Kearney New Era, 1887; Platte Valley Tribune, "More Than Forty Years Ago", August 6, 1937
Proofread 11-25-2001
Revised 3/12/2003


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