Poor Niobrara, Nebraska! The Missouri River is threatening to turn this Nebraska town, its newest town, into an island (at least for highway traffic). Niobrara is also one of Nebraska’s oldest towns. It was established in 1857, a scant three years after the Nebraska Territory opened. It has the Mighty Missouri to thank for being both one of the oldest and now the newest.
Niobrara is situated at the confluence of the Niobrara River and the Missouri, and the original town had easy access for steamboat traffic. The town thrived and by 1880 had a population of 850 souls.
A year later things took a serious turn for the worse. The Missouri was clogged with an early spring ice jam, and water, a lot of water, inundated the town. After the flood waters subsided the town faced some serious choices: They could stay put and take their chances with the fickle Missouri; they could leave; or they could move the town.
Heroically, and after much wrangling, they chose to move the town. Yup, they jacked the buildings up off the ground, put them on rollers, and with draft animals and winches and, no doubt, a lot of back liniment, one by one the buildings were moved to a new site uphill toward the south.
That location served the town nicely for seventy years, and then things changed. In 1952 with the completion of Fort Randall Dam, the periodic flooding of the Missouri that scoured the sediment from the mouth of the Niobrara ended. Then in 1956 when Gavins Point Dam was completed, the town was trapped in the middle.
As sediment built up in the river, water levels rose until by 1972 the water table was so high that buildings in Niobrara had from six inches to three feet of water standing in their basements. And the water was not done rising.
Once again citizens of the town faced the same three choices, all bad, that they had in 1881. They could abandon the town, stay put, or move. And once again they chose to move.
As in 1881 and 1882, the decision to move was hardly unanimous, and the conversations could get heated. What the citizens now faced was losing their old family homes and businesses and moving into brand new government-built buildings. It would all be brand new, but it would have the look of a military base.
When the new town was finally dedicated on July 4, 1977, it had lost fully one third of its population, falling from 600 to 400 residents. But at least they were on high ground.
That new town site has served the citizens well for 35 years, but now the Missouri has conquered the manmade dams, and Mother Nature’s muscle is forcing water levels to all-time highs.
I think it is safe to say this crisis will not force Niobrara to move once again, but it does threaten to isolate it from the rest of the state. Let us think well of the poor town that has suffered so much at the hands of the river.
You can read more about the times Niobrara moved in a Nebraska History article, “Niobrara Nebraska: The Town Too Tough to Stay Put.”
—John E. Carter, Senior Research Folklorist, Research & Publications