Ghost Town On The River

PrintPrintEmailEmail It was in that little oak-grown gulch, sheltered by the bluffs and washed by the restless river that a new civilization struggled and grew and proclaimed the right to be. Down there on the shore is the spot, where, just forty years ago the twentyninth day of this month, Richard Brown, the Missourian, landed and made the first settlement in the wilderness. In an upstairs room of Senator Tipton’s big house on the hill was stretched the first telegraph wire that linked Nebraska with the civilization of the east and made it a part of the big world. Down in the ravine are the ruins of the building in which ex-Governor Furnas and Chester Langdon printed the first newspaper ever issued in the territory. The first schoolhouse has been converted into a dwelling house now, but high upon the hill stands the big brick high school building, the first built in the state, and, as an old Brownville patriot proudly said to me, braver and more earnest men and women never went out of any school than went out of that one. Youth was earnest indeed in those days before the trivialities and divisions which belong to an older civilization had crept in. … Every one of them meant, in the language of an old Brownville stump speaker, “To rear somewhere in the Missouri Valley a monument high as the thought of man.” Here was the first wedding, the first birth, and the first death on the frontier, and here, struggling with poverty, loneliness for friends across the river, men and women bravely took up that simple and domestic life which is the beginning of every commonwealth.

Brownville happened because of the steamboat trade, and when the steamboat trade went under it carried Brownville with it. All traces of the old boat traffic have been washed away by the encroaching river which changes its course every Sunday. But the time was when fifteen big river steamers used to tie at one time to the Brownville wharf, and unload tons of merchandise which the wagon trains carried west. The steamboat trade was a great thing in those days, and the supplies for the whole western country were brought up the river to Brownville and from there sent by wagon trains to the other settlements in the territory, while hundreds of wagonloads went to Cherry Creek and Pike’s Peak, Col. Brownville was the metropolis and trading center of a large district of the Far West, and to many a homesick fellow returning from the alkali deserts the little town in the hills was God’s own country.

One of the important features in the river history of the town was the Lone Tree saloon, a long, brick building shaded by a huge maple, from which it took its name. There the teamsters of the western caravans used to assemble with the boat crews and exchange stories of the desert and the mountains for stories of the doings of the world and afterwards get gloriously drunk and sing in the streets till morning.

Everybody in Brownville was happy then. People thought the steamer, like a river, would “go on forever.” The teamsters did not know that before their day was over Cherry Creek itself would be a great metropolis, and little Billy Wilson who mixed the drinks was blissfully unconscious that over his future there lay the shadow of Sing Sing and … the electric chair. …

But times have changed since then, and the old river, rich with disappointment and chagrin, has tried to commit suicide by burrowing and burying itself in the sand. It was a great river in its day, a river with a work and a purpose. The channel was narrower and deeper then, and perhaps it even moved faster before it was corrupted by the slowness of Brownville. At any rate it seemed to, and it did great work as it hurried along to empty itself in the great aorta of the continent. The first river steamer in the country ran on the Missouri then, and the Montana and Silver Heels used to bring hunting parties and wealthy prospectors from all parts of the world. The largest Mississippi freight boats could run in the channel and the old Hannibal brought up the steel rails for the Union Pacific road.

In the days of its greatness Brownville was great individually as well as collectively. No town in the state ever had so many brilliant and cultured men in proportion to its population. The men who left Brownville when the crash came now form the backbone of the largest city in the state. All the old ruins about the town suggest that it once reached a high state of civilization. The big houses on the hills with the ruined lawns and terraces were once the seats of balls and receptions, and the little opera house with the mouldy walls and tattered curtain knew, in its flares of lights and color, the throb of music. All the grand balls were held there and the great New Year’s masquerades. There the silver cornet band that was the finest in the state gave its concerts, and the musicians of Brownville, many of whom have since become famous, gave their select recitals. Amateur theatricals were encouraged as they always are in small towns. The drama has become so much a part of modern civilization that if people are where they cannot see acting they turn actors themselves. Play after play was given in the little hall by the Brownville Dramatic Company, and the names of many of the actors may still be seen on the dirty, dusty windows of the dressing rooms, where they were scratched by sportive diamond rings years ago.