- Historic Sites
Ghost Town On The River
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
Willa Gather was a college student when she visited Brownville, in southeastern Nebraska, in the summer of 1894. Since her year of birthis uncertain, ranging between 1873 and 1876, she was somwhere between seventeen and twenty. She came to gather material for a newspaper article commemorating Brownville's fortieh anniversary, but what she found was a ghost town.
Willa Gather was a college student when she visited Brownville, in southeastern Nebraska, in the summer of 1894. Since her year of birth is uncertain, ranging between 1873 and 1876, she was somewhere between seventeen and twenty. She came to gather material for a newspaper article commemorating Brownville’s fortieth anniversary, but what she found was a ghost town. Her essay, reprinted below for the first time since she originally wrote it that same year, is still one of the most charming pieces ever written about that peculiarly Western phenomenon, the town that quickly burgeoned and just as quickly died.
It is almost unheard of to find a town in Nebraska that has a past; it is sometimes rather difficult to find one that has a present, though all of them have, or think they have, a future. A country cares very little about its early history and traditions until it has had a great many trials and disappointments, until the first feverish impetus of its growth has been checked and it settles down into that quiet, steady course of honest labor and honest gain, which is the only honest way of living. Then it has time to look back on whatever was beautiful or brave in its history, and begins to appreciate the talent and worth that it overlooked or pushed aside in its frenzied hurry to be great. Nebraska has not reached the retrospective age as yet, and in the western part of the state, at least, there are few people who know anything about the sleepy little town on the Missouri where the beginnings of Nebraska history were made.
Brownville is built in a little horseshoe-shaped guldi. Behind and on either side of it rise the high, wooded bluffs and in front of it flows the yellow river. Across the river run the bluffs, with intervals of green meadow land, and back of the town, over the ridge of the hills, lie the rich orchards and fruit farms for which Nemaha County is noted. The site looks out over four states, across the river Missouri and Iowa, on this side Nebraska and Kansas. The town is built back into the little ravines, and the dusty roads, which the inhabitants still respectfully call “streets,” run up the wooded ravines and across the hills. It does not take one long to see that the town has been what it is not. Here and there all over those stately hills are handsome residences gone to rack and ruin, terraces plowed up in cornfields and sloping lawns grown up in wheat and sunflowers. The main street is lined with empty brick buildings and gaping cellar holes where the buildings have fallen down or been torn away. The white stone pavements and gutters are growing with pale, lifeless-looking grass. The rotting board sidewalks which run over the hills clatter and creak when one steps on them, like rickety ladders. The emptiness of the place is something awful. Most of the houses down in the gulch have inhabitants of some sort, but those on the hills are in all stages of dilapidation. The further up one goes the more desolate it becomes.
It is as though there had once been a high tide of prosperity there, and when it went out it had left for its watermarks rows of ruined houses and stranded homes. Even the Lone Tree saloon is falling to pieces, and that, in a western town, is the sure sign that everything is gone. Further up the street is a big hole and massive stone foundation, which promised a handsome building, but before it got above the foundation the tide went out, and most things in Brownville went out with the tide. But today Brownville people always speak gravely of that hole as the “Masonic Temple.” The dilapidation is nowhere unsightly or offensive, nothing could be offensive in that magnificent background of giant oaks and elms. It is a gentle, sunny, picturesque sort of decay as if the old town had lain down to sleep in the hills like Rip Van Winkle and was busy putting in thirty years.
Everything in Brownville is tired. I saw more hammocks there than I ever saw in my life before. They seem to be characteristic of the place. Even the tired, spiritless little freight that creeps along the stub road into Brownville stops often to rest in the shade. It utterly lacks the railroad sense of responsibility and hurry. If the engineer’s hat blows off, he stops his engine and goes to hunt it and he generally waits to catch a few catfish before he climbs up into his cab again. If his hat doesn’t blow off, the wheezy little engine stops anyway, from sheer habit, and in the shade of the big tree snores faintly as though it were fast asleep.
But much as Brownville has lost, it has retained something which most towns in the state do not have, a history. It has great traditions of which any town might be proud. It is different from other towns because it was the birthplace of a new and great commonwealth. When viewed in the light of their own history those crumbling wind-racked buildings have a deeper meaning than mere ruin and decay and become almost sacred. 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. There was high life there then, and many handsome and stately women have swept in their evening dresses through that dark, dirty hallway that leads from the hotel to the opera house, and many of the romances begun there have not ended yet, though the chandeliers are broken and the music is dead and many of the dancers have grown gray and dance no more.
Here and there between the old buildings are vacant lots where the ruins have been torn down altogether because of the danger to passers by. Lots that fifteen or twenty years ago sold for six thousand dollars would not bring six today. Lots are never sold in Brownville nowadays except cemetery lots.
On the little hill to the east stands the Episcopal church where the elite of ancient Brownville met to worship. The ruin and neglect of the place is pitiful. The stained glass windows are broken in, the walls black with the litter of mould, the carpet white with plaster fallen from the ceiling, the prayer benches broken and the curious [curtains?] torn, the bishop’s chair warped and split, the altar cloth so motheaten that it scarcely holds together, the Bible swollen and blistered by rain, and even the white marble cross shattered before the altar. Over the door is painted in gold, “Peace Be Within Thy Walls.” Well, there is peace enough and there is likely to be as long as the walls hold together. The ruins of any church are pitiful enough, but this little church savors so strongly of cassocks and gowns and “world without an end, amen” and general eliteness, that the ruin and shabbiness is almost grotesque. It has been more marred than the other churches in the town because it possessed beauty, originally, and had something to lose.
Across the street stood the white frame church, the first ever built in Brownville. Many old Brownville people will remember it by the sweet and silvery tone of its little bell. All church people of all denominations worshipped there in unison, and Senator Tipton was the first pastor. Now the church is held by the Adventists who do not seem to mind the general decay. Among other misfortunes which have happened to the old church, a colony of mice have taken up their abode in the organ. As they have made nests in all the pipes, one would think that as a musical instrument it was well-nigh useless, but every Saturday morning with a faith in the miraculous which becomes his profession of faith the Adventist organist sits down and by great exertion finds a few keys which somehow still manage to produce tones, though usually his ardent efforts are answered only by the indignant squeaking of the baby mice, who object to the draught.
One of the historic buildings is the old brick hotel, now called the Marsh House. It, too, is only a ruin that suggests former prosperity. The house is held together by iron rods and supports, its old, hardwood banisters tremble to the creaking of the stairs, the marble basins in the office are cracked and broken, the Brussels carpets are so faded that it is impossible to distinguish their former pattern, strips of cotton are tacked on the ceiling to keep the plaster from falling down and the long, winding halls lead to empty chambers. Yet even now one can sit on the upper verandah and look down over the dark streets with their broken, ragged outline of falling and fallen buildings and conjure up memories of the time when those dirty, broken, glass fronts were ablaze with light, when the streets were full of ox teams and loaded wagons bound for Pike’s Peak, and the teamsters were singing and twanging their banjos in front of the Lone Tree saloon, and on that same verandah the cabin passengers and wealthy traders sat and smoked and looking out over the river watched their steamers lying at the wharf, and listened to the hoarse whistle of the boats as they came around the bend in the bluffs, with their dancing lights and train of sparks and cinders blown back into the darkness, and the throbbing and beating of the engine that seemed to thrill the lonely, sand-split water of the old river. Merchant princes of the South and foreigners of renown have stopped at the old hotel, and foreigners of title have faced that crumbling verandah and watched the moonlight trembling in the wake of the steamers. Yes, ruins are always pathetic, but these are especially so because they are only thirty years old. The town calls to mind that scathing epigram which Heine applied to de Musset, “A young man with a brilliant past.”
After the steamer trade was no more and the railroad trouble began, most of the better class of people got out of Brownville. Today the town is a little Pompeii buried in bonded indebtedness. If the whole town were sold under the hammer tomorrow, it would not bring the amount of its railroad bonds.
The present population of Brownville is composed mostly of “river folks” and a nondescript people who have come up the river from nowhere. People of heavy calibre do not settle in a deserted village. The people who live there now are the usual river town population. They moved in and married the washerwomen and servant girls of the old residents and bought the big houses for a song, and cut down the great cedars and oaks in the yard for firewood, and ploughed up the terraces for a potato patch, and are contented after the manner of their kind. Their boys run away from school to go fishing and swimming, and they know nothing but the river. The only ambition they are ever guilty of is that vague yearning which stirs in the breasts of all river boys, to go down the river into the big world some day, clear down, as far as the river goes. But they never go. They build a skiff and live on catfish and driftwood and play their banjos and sit around on the sidewalks, wherever they are strong enough to sit on, and hold their hands. They are thoroughly content, they never agitate themselves enough to worry about the dilapidation of things. Their lives drift along in the sunlight as slowly and peacefully as the old white ferry-boat, which is the last of the steamers, and whatever vain regrets they may have are silenced by the monotonous roar of the river.
But even the river has its moods and changes, and it is not altogether unlovely. In the early morning it is still and dusky, cold and colored like tarnished silver. Along the shore it is darkened by shadows and in the distance it is hidden by mists. At noon it is yellow as ochre and rushes frantically along in little waves crested with dirty foam. Maddened by the heat and scourged by the wind it writhes between its banks like a thing tormented. At night it is calm and deeply peaceful. All its troubles cease when the stars come out. By night it forgets that it is not clear and beautiful like other rivers. It murmurs on between its banks, telling the bluffs stories of the old days, of red men and of white, how it once bore the civilization of all the West on its bosom and was necessary to history. How the big boats used to swing around its thousand curves and the bands of music on their deck play to its thousand hills, and so, all the night long, it sings its sad old heart to sleep.
The only person I met who seemed to me at all above the dead level was a young girl who even dared to laugh and make jokes at the old town. But when I noticed an unusually large diamond on her third finger and heard her singing Gounod’s waltz song from Roméo et Juliette to a caller that night in the dark, I understood her elation and reckless indifference. I suppose one could be desperately in love, even in Brownville. Indeed one would be likely to have it in the most exaggerated form just because there is nothing else to do. The only thing which I saw which looked modern or up with the times was a glimpse of a young man’s room I caught through an open door at the hotel. On the wall were six panel photographs of Lillian Russell. If Lillian only knew how vastly much it means to be great, to be even heard of in Brownville, she would take another husband on the strength of it.
In spite of the heat and the dust and the fact that toilet soap cannot be procured in the town, one is sorry to leave it. One becomes attached to the trees and the quiet and even the dilapidation. The world that troubles and frets and struggles seems so incalculably far away. Effort seems like a fable. One begins to wonder if anything is worth exertion. The temptation is strong to stay there among the sunlit hills and eat lotus forever. I am afraid I should have done so had it not been that in that country, people who eat lotus also have to drink Missouri River water. The place in itself is beautiful with that complete and restful beauty which leaves one nothing to wish for but unlimited leisure. I had not been there long before I understood the feeling of the old Indian chief, who, when he lay dying, sent for Governor Furnas and asked him to bury him high up on the bluff, sitting upright in his chair, with his face to the east so he could see the sun rise and watch the steamboats go up and down the river. The governor buried him so and for aught I know his bleached bones sit there yet, in these days when steamboats are no more, looking out over three states, watching the silver folds of mist loop and unloop themselves along the bluffs of the river, rising and descending like the curtains of an air theatre. Watching those glorious river sunrises as the light changes the little clouds into ridges of burning opals, and through the rifts of the great cloud behind which the sun hides, the light sifts down in a golden shower upon the hills of Missouri until at last the veil of mist and cloud is eaten through and through with the inner glory and is utterly consumed in light, and the sun rises in his fullness, throwing a band of light across the river like a thread of gold drawn through riffles of clouded silver. …