The North Platte Valley Beginnings and Lake McConauhy
By Tomas England
As Ogallala began to develop as the center for the cattle industry, ranchers began to develop the land north of town. The open range was found to be a suitable location to pasture cattle in the area. In particular, the North Platte Valley displayed an excellent abundance of fertile land for livestock. The North Platte River snaked its way through the valley surrounded by an array of wild fruit such as grapes, chokecherries, plums, and many other varieties.
The north side of the valley was dotted with cedar trees that easily offered a fuel source for settlers in the valley. A profusion of wildlife could be sustained in the river valley. Deer, elk, antelope, prairie chickens, and prairie dogs all made their home across the area. Although the valley appeared as a paradise, it did come with its share of dangers.
In particular, the North Platte River was unpredictable with spring floorings and dangerous quicksand. The river was a life source, but also a burden. The winters were brutal with temperatures reaching well below freezing. Blizzards were common in the valley. Summer months were hot and at times dry, but this did not deter pioneers from settling in the area. By the 1880’s, most of the North Platte Valley land holdings were under the two largest cattle companies in the area; The Ogallala Land and Cattle Co. and the John Bratt Co.
As settlers began to arrive in the area beginning in the 1880’s, they desired to till the soil and stake a home in the valley. Most of the early settlers took up Timber Claims which allowed anyone eighteen or older to claim 160 acres of land if ten acres of trees were planted and cared for eight years.
Most of the early settlers homes were made of sod as mature trees were not in an over abundance. Sod homes were easily built in the valley and provided protection from winter and summer temperatures. Early settlers were hard workers and determined to survive in the valley. According to Lorna Wendt, the earliest settlers were “W.P. Holloway, John Kelly, W.A. Wilkinson, Lucien Waugh, B.G. Mathews, Adam Miller, Harvey Knight, Cornelius Fenwick, and J.J. McCarthy’s, Winterer brothers, the Sillasen brothers, Jim Ballinger, Hank Chestnut, the Mannons, John Irwin, F.Q Feltz, and many more.”
Eventually, the valley welcomed the branch line of the Union Pacific Railroad. This allowed for area towns such as Keystone and Lemoyne to thrive. Other towns in the valley such as Belmar and Martin developed. Most of these were “flag stops” along the railroad and contained very few permanent populations. These stops were stopped at only if a flag was waved. During the stops the train would pick up freight and passengers.
The pioneers worked hard in the valley. The abundance of wildlife provided meat and the wild fruit trees provided a fresh source of produce. Cow chips were used extensively as a fuel source in the valley. Settlers that could not thrive in the valley packed up and headed back east. By 1935 construction of Kinglsey Dam began. This would forever change the valley. The land was purchased from valley residents, but many were not offered the true dollar amount their land was worth. Homes, fences, barns, and whole communities had to be moved out of the valley. All that was left were foundations and memories. The eastern side of the valley continued its way of life, but the relocation of the railroad deeply hurt the communities that depended on the railroad.
The valley has also reaped the benefits of Kinglsey Dam over the past seven decades. Lake McConaughy has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state. In the 1980’s the dam began producing hydroelectric power and continues to provide irrigation for farmers throughout the area. The men and women who settled in the valley are a true testament of the endurance and fortitude that makes up the spirit of Keith County today.
Keystone: A Community of Pioneers
As the valley began to develop, the area that would soon become the community of Keystone was nothing more than pasture land for cattle. Settlers began to farm hay in the valley surrounding the future community of Keystone. The largest problems for settlers were fording the river to carry it to Ogallala to be shipped to market. As settlers continued moving into the valley, a need for a school became evident. A sod school house was built near the headquarters of the Ogallala Land and Cattle Co. Ranch of Cornelius Fenwick. A Sunday school was started in the sod school beginning in 1888, and the first church, the Evangelican Union Church used the same sod house.
The first post office was built in a sod house at the Fenwick ranch. May Fenwick was deeded the first postmaster. Even with this growth, the future community of Keystone was only beginning. With the settlers pouring in to the valley and a fire that had devastated the Ogallala Land and Cattle Co. headquarters, they moved west to Wyoming where settlers were far and few between. The land was sold to Ware-Costin Cattle Co, and finally to Mr. William Paxton. By 1906, the land of the future Keystone Community was up for purchase.
Baseball Game in Keystone
On July 20, 1906, a barbeque and dance were held to celebrate the founding of Keystone. The town was named after the brand that William Paxton used on his cattle. The first building was built by Cornelius Fenwick. The frame structure became his home and post office. Keystone began to swell with development in 1906. The first bridge across the North Platte River was built, easily connecting Keystone with Ogallala. Settlers could now easily make their way to Ogallala for entertainment in its saloons.
The development of the Union Pacific line coming through the North Platte Valley opened up a world of development. Keystone and the rest of the valley were now connected to the rest of the world. This development provided work for local settlers as they were hired to build the grade for the tracks. The newly laid tracks allowed for easy shipment of cattle and other livestock to important markets east and west of Keystone.
The first substantial school in Keystone replaced the sod house built several years prior in the valley. The school offered first through eighth grade, as well as the first two years of high school.
Bill Paxton Jr. began to operate his father’s ranch in 1905. His wife Georgia Paxton formed a small group with the little girls of the town called “King’s Daughters”. The group made it their duty to provide Keystone and the valley with a church. The group raised $700 while the Paxton family matched the rest of the cost to build the church. The church would be a Protestant and Catholic Church.
The church cost $12,000 to build and was given to the community. This Church still exists in the valley today. Upon completion, it was 18x40 feet and sat about seventy-five people. The church pews were built on hinges that could fold to reverse seating. One end was used for Catholic mass, while the other was used for Protestant services. The church was used until about 1949. The last Catholic mass was in 1929, while the last Protestant service was in 1949.
In 1907, the first business opened in Keystone. B.G. Mathews and his wife offered a stock of goods to the village. The store contained food and clothing for residents in the valley. A year later, Lauris Sillasen purchased the store and offered hardware and coal in the business for residents. John Welpton opened The Welpton Lumber Co. in Keystone that same year. This store offered lumber, hardware, coal, and other supplies for building. Welpton and his partner R. H. Barber also opened an office for his bank in the small lumber store. This was Keystone’s first bank.
By 1909 Welpton and Barber opened a brick building west of the lumber yard.That same year a depot was built south of the bank allowing a place for passengers to await the arrival of passenger trains through the valley. A year later, in 1910, the Scully Hotel was opened. By 1914, an addition including more rooms and a dance hall were added to the hotel. As Keystone continued to grow, the need for social activities arose. Many people attended dances at the Scully Hotel, but more social activit,es were desired. Clubs began to form for all ages. The first library was established, and in 1908 a new building was dedicated. Books were donated and given to the library. Books were very important to residents residing in the valley.
A new school was built in 1917 giving the community a high school offering all four grades. This high school was used until 1945 when the last class graduated. The building was razed in 1951, and a brick grade school was built in its place. The valley grew to a population of 175. According to resident Lorna Wendt, “as time went on there were stockyards, an elevator, livery barns, fine lumber yards, hardware stores, three general stores, a library, school, church, hotel, substantial bank, creamery, and later garages.” The first gas station opened in 1923 through the Sinclair Oil Co. It later closed and reopened in 1948, before closing for good.
Keystone grew to be a self sustaining community well into the 20th Century. Times began to change for the valley in 1935 when work on The Kingsley Dam began. In 1941, the dam was completed. This construction caused the railroad to move several miles north of the community. The railroad was the main bloodline to the community. After the railroad was moved, many businesses closed their doors and the community returned to its ranching roots. Today, Keystone is one of several unincorporated communities in Keith County. It remains a leading community in the ranching industry and continues to produce generations of men and women who aren’t afraid of hard work.
Lemoyne: Early Years
As the North Platte Valley began to fill with settlers, the petitioning of a branch line from The Union Pacific Railroad became an obvious desire for the ranchers and farmers in and around the valley. The sight that would become Lemoyne was originally owned by an easterner named Lemoyne Jacobs. Jacobs arrived in the valley area around 1875, during the height of the cattle drives. Taking a job in the area, he worked in KeithCounty for three years before heading north to the Black Hills during the gold rush days.
Main Street Lemoyne
He returned in the early 1880’s to Keith County, purchasing land in the North Platte Valley. Jacobs worked tirelessly with other settlers to bring the railroad through the valley. He allowed the railroad to build through his land, thus the future town of Lemoyne was named in his honor. The railroad was completed to Lemoyne in 1909, and two years later in 1911, the town was surveyed.
During this time, U.P. built a small stockyard in the town. The first store in Lemoyne opened in 1911 to Mr. and Mrs. Albert Price and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Wheeler. During the construction of their store, they utilized the section house. Their store was a combination store that served as a creamery and general merchandising store. The store was built of cement blocks, a rather substantial building to the valley area. They soon began to offer meals to ranchers that pushed cattle to the shipping pens while in town.
A year later, S.C. Bullock purchased the store and leased land to the Welpton Lumber Company. As the Kincaid Act was passed, the lumber company saw fit to provide the community with lumber and hardware needs. George Parrish soon began operating a dray line. He also opened a livery stable in the community. Beginning in 1918, area businessmen pooled their money together and built the first hotel in Lemoyne at a cost of $3,500. Not long after a barbershop opened in the community.
In 1916, a bond was passed to build a bridge across the river. The bridge was constructed by the Western Bridge Construction Company. Although there were several districts in the area, the Lemoyne School began October 2, 1915, with 19 students enrolled. In 1919, a new school building was erected in the community. Lemoyne began to grow rapidly and soon boasted a population of about 200 residents. By 1924, the school was looking to add on to offer all four years of high school.
The first church in Lemoyne was the Bethany Presbyterian Church, built in 1914. In 1919, enough funds had been raised to build a substantial building for the church. The structure cost $5,000. George Adams began the Lemoyne State Bank and operated it until it was moved out of the valley after Kingsley Dam’s construction. Gus Samuelson opened Samuelson’s General Store in 1926, and continued the business even when the new community of Lemoyne was started.
With the construction of Kingsley Dam, Lemoyne began to change. Some residents resisted the change and fought to save their town. But eventually, in the fall of 1937, The Tri-County Association began providing information regarding mass relocations to valley residents. The community of Lemoyne would be dismantled piece by piece and be relocated to the hills just north of the original town. The relocation of Lemoyne meant that many families would choose to move their businesses and homes to new communities. Many homes were relocated to different locations as well. After Lemoyne was relocated north of the valley, it was aptly renamed “New Lemoyne”. The term “new” never caught on with residents and today the small community is still referred to as Lemoyne.
For the last seventy years LakeMcConaughy has become synonymous with KeithCounty. Not only is it Nebraska’s largest recreational lake, but it stands as a symbol of achievement. LakeMcConaughy’s story began with the simple need for irrigation in Nebraska. Weather patterns in Nebraska often cycle through periods of drought and rainfall, but farmers began finding ways to provide rainfall in these dry times.
Irrigation was nothing new to the state. In fact, in the 1890’s irrigation ditches began being built to harness the PlatteRiver. A Holdrege grain merchant named Charles McConaughy envisioned a way to use spring flooding as irrigation for farm fields. In 1913 the Tri-County Supplemental Water Association was founded and McConaughy was named president. Another founder, George Kingsley, was named vice president to the organization. These two men pushed their idea of using Platte water for irrigation in the central part of the state. These men desired to see canals built that could bring water to Central Nebraska’s farmers.
Leaders of the organization took to WashingtonD.C. where they proposed the idea for irrigation in the PlatteValley. After meeting with Secretary of State, Franklin Lane the group was awarded $10,000 to survey the PlatteValley. For the next twenty years, the organization dealt with many political battles. In 1929, McConaughy died never seeing the fruit of his labor.
Finally, in 1935, a diversion dam was built near Keystone, Nebraska. As the United States headed into the Great Depression and a major drought, the state created Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. This new organization took McConaughy’s idea of irrigation canals and created the idea of a massive reservoir and dam that would hold water used in irrigation.
Roosevelt’s PWA awarded 20 million dollars to the project. The location of the dam was chosen to be west of Keystone because of Brule Clay in the area. The project would consist of a dam sprawling 3 miles long and a reservoir that would measure 22 miles long and 3 miles wide in some areas. This would be Nebraska’s largest construction project.
The first step was driving 80 foot long interlocking sheets of metal over one hundred feet into the Brule Clay. This would act as the dam’s base. Clay was then packed around the metal sheets. Loess Soil was pumped over these sheets where it hardened to form the dam’s structure. Outlet conduits were built across the dam’s base allowing for the outlet of the reservoir’s water supply.
Next came the construction of the Morning Glory and control tower in 1937. Eventually the Morning Glory, named for its shape, would reach over 170 feet above the river. It was built as a flood control outlet. If water flows became too high, gates could be opened and water would be let out of the dam. The control tower was built at a whopping 185 feet above the river. The tower was created to control water flows out of the dam.
Workers began living at the base of the Morning Glory in a town called “Kingsleyville”. This town would provide homes to the workers and their families. A school was even present for the children. During the dam’s construction phase, many lawsuits were filed against CNPPD&ID over land. Domain rights allowed the land to be transferred to TriCounty as funds were made available.
Two dredges were brought in, and began the movement of 26 million cubic yards of dirt to build the dam. The movement of the material for the dam created the small lake now known as LakeOgallala. After the completion of the dam, one million blocks would be required to be placed on the face of the dam to prevent erosion of the surface. By 1940 the final cleanup of the valley began. A large canyon was carved near the dam to act as an overflow. However by 1941, the project was completed and a dedication ceremony was held on the top of the dam. The new reservoir was aptly named LakeMcConaughy while the dam would be called Kingsley.
In the 1980’s, the need for more power brought about the construction of the Kinglsey Hydro Plant. The construction cost a whopping $49 million, officially opening in 1984. Since its construction LakeMcConaughy has become a number one tourist attraction. For a number of years Kinglsey Dam remained the second largest earthen dam in the world until it was surpassed. Even today, the lake boasts some of the state’s best fishing and recreational activities.
Keystone by Lorna Wendt 1974
Keith County News : Keith County native recalls pre lake North Platte Valley by Beverly Pollock
Keith County News: 1976 Original Town of Lemoyne Now Lies Under McConaughy by Cora Bauman
Lake McConaughy a Geographical Portrait by Robert Richter