PLUM CREEK — In 1865 a trader named Daniel Freeman moved his business after he and his family had fled to Fort Kearney after Native American attacks increased. He relocated his store to an area north of the Platte River, perhaps unknown to Freeman, he had just laid the cornerstone for what would be the community of Lexington.
This was due to the construction of a piece of infrastructure, the railroad.
The current display in the art gallery at the Dawson County Historical Museum, the Union Pacific exhibit and reading room, highlights the importance of the railroad in the building of communities in Nebraska, including Plum Creek, later to be named Lexington, said Executive Director Crystal Werger.
When the Union Pacific Railroad laid its first tracks through the area in 1866, it located a station on Freeman’s claim and named it Plum Creek.
When Dawson County was formed in 1871, Plum Creek was named the county seat, with an election being held at Freeman’s store. The first election recorded 13 votes, with a total of 40 men, women and children listed on the census, according to University of Nebraska Lincoln information.
People began to flood into the county and Plum Creek thanks to the ease of transportation by rail. It was a far cry from the journey on foot or by wagon which many pioneers had taken to reach the promised lands of Oregon and California. In fact the rail lines mirrored the wagon ruts these earlier settlers had worn into the earth.
“I really wanted to do something about the railroad,” Werger said about the current display, “Lexington is here because of it, the railroad had a lot to do with Dawson County being what it is today.”
In 1880 the population of Plum Creek was 344, by 1885 it had quadrupled to 1,392 and the community featured a hotel, steam mill, elevator, shops, warehouses and elevator.
Despite the growth in population, Plum Creek was deficient in one thing, a respectable reputation. The community had earned a bad rap as a hard town, a “cowboy town,” Werger said.
Plum Creek being a stop on the rail line through Nebraska even had international implications.
In Jules Verne’s 1873 classic, “Around the World in Eighty Days,” the French author mentions Plum Creek.
Plum Creek Station was to be the location in which the central character, the enigmatic Phileas Fogg, is to duel against the rude American Colonel Procter, so the Englishman can defend his honor against the Yankee’s insults.
The novel reads "What difference is it to you? Do you know Plum Creek?"
"No," replied Mr. Fogg.
"It's the next station. The train will be there in an hour, and will stop there ten minutes. In ten minutes several revolver–shots could be exchanged."
"Very well," said Mr. Fogg. "I will stop at Plum Creek."
Had the reputation of Plum Creek reached the ears of Verne in France? It is hard to say. Yet the characters were traveling by rail, underscoring the importance of the infrastructure to the region.
It was also the only reason the fictional Fogg could travel across the United States in time to make good on his wager with the Reform Club.
In 1889 the movers and shakers of Plum Creek elected to change the name of the community to something more fitting for a growing town, and to shake the past reputation. A new name, “Corning,” was favored due to the excellent soil for agriculture in the area.
Eventually the name Lexington was chosen, to commemorate the Revolutionary War battle of Lexington.
The communities name changed, but the railroad continued to provide a hub for trade in the community. While travel by rail lessened as the era of automobiles took root, Union Pacific shifted fully to hauling freight.
According to Union Pacific’s website, “It is also the oldest railroad company in continuous operation under its original name west of the Mississippi River. Every day of the week, several hundred trains travel through UP territory, aided by state-of-the-art telecommunications services, advanced fiber optics, and the Harriman Center's computerized dispatching capabilities.”
“I always want to know how something starts,” Werger said about the importance of knowing local history, “You always go back, first it was the trails, then the railroad, if it were not for the railroad, the community wouldn’t be here.”