Benkelman Railroad Depot, 1893. (Dundy County Museum.)
District 11, Dundy County, sod school, 1904. (Nebraska State Historical Society.)
Chief Street, 1930. (Nebraska State Historical Society.)
Originally called Collinsville, the town's name was changed to Benkelman in 1880 when J.G. Benkelman established one of the largest cattle shipping points next to the town.
At the end of the Civil War, Texas had no satisfactory market for its excess cattle. Speculators brought huge herds and moved them north for final fattening before shipping to Omaha, St. Joseph, Chicago, and Denver.
The Dundy County area was carpeted with thick buffalo grass and many varieties of tall grass which offered free grazing. Collinsville was an excellent shipping point, but the Nebraska embargo on Texas cattle, combined with the "Homestead Act" and the settlers it brought, resulted in the open range beginning to break up.
Early in 1882, the railroad built a depot and the town relocated north of the track. It was destined to become a flourishing town. In the south central part of the county at the junction of the north and south forks of the Republican River, and on the main line of the Burlington Railroad, it had great advantages. It became a shipping point for grain, livestock, and cream.
On February 8, 1887, the Village of Benkelman was incorporated. In 1888, Hiawatha, Ough, and Allston were putting up stiff competition with Benkelman for the county seat, but Benkelman didn't join directly in the controversy. Instead, it quietly built a courthouse and the county commissioners awarded the county seat to Benkelman soon after the courthouse was completed. Another courthouse replaced the original in 1918.
After a severe drought during the late 1890s many of the “homesteaders” of the area were ‘starved out’ and returned ‘back east’ or moved on to other parts of the country, leaving a low population in 1900 of 2,434 only to swell again through the next 3 decades to a height of 5,610 in 1930. During this time period, farming became easier with the introduction of equipment that outdated the horse and one row plough. Much of the grassland was broken up for farming, thus preparing the way for the devastating effects of the “dustbowl” days of the early 1930s. The poplulation again dropped when settlers moved on to make sure their families survived.
In 1895 there were 22 towns listed in Dundy County Nebraska. Only 4 of these settlements remain "on the map"; Benkelman, Haigler, Parks and Max.
The majority of the county is still farm and ranch land. The soil north of the Republican River is rolling sandhills, broken with spring creeks, canyons and small lakes. If you look at it from the air, you will see mostly circles from the irrigation pivots on the tops of the hills and grassland and roads entwining around them.
Points of Interest
General Custer in Nebraska State Historical Marker, located near the viaduct south of Benkelman on Highway 34, marks the area where Gen. George Armstrong Custer commanding six companies of the 7th Cavalry camped June 22 to 30, 1867. As dawn broke June 24, Custer’s camp was attacked by a band of Sioux Indians, led by Pawnee Killer. The raiders wounded a sentry, parlayed with Custer and his officers, and rode away.
The Texas Trail Canyon State Historical Marker, located five miles east of Haigler, marks the canyon which served as a checkpoint for cattle which passed through this area as part of the cattle drives from Texas to Ogallala, Nebraska, in the late 1880s. It is said that 150,000 cattle were moved through here in 1886, the last year of the trail drives.
Nature's Gift: The Highway 34 Springs
Since times unrecorded, springs from the Ogallala Formation relieved travelers through the Republican Valley. In 1930 Benkelman citizens improved a nearby spring to benefit motorists on NE 3 (later US 34). The 1935 Republican River flood destroyed the original spring and highway. When the highway was relocated, this rest area was established in 1941 at the site of another spring. The highway was relocated again in 1970 and the state deeded the rest area to Dundy County. Local residents restored it in 2008.
General Custer Historical Marker.
The Highway 34 Springs.