The Gilded Age Plains City

The Great Sheedy Murder Trial and the Booster Ethos of Lincoln, Nebraska


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Spatial Narratives

Interpretation and Narrative

Manufacturing and Railroad Infrastructrue

In the eyes of city boosters, the establishment of the state capitol at Lincoln, soon followed by its selection for the site of the State University, was insufficient to assure its sustained economic development. To ensure its future, the city first needed to plug into the regional or national railroad system as it expanded west in the late 1860s. With the arrival of two or three railroads, Lincoln would enable itself to develop as a local market center and regional railroad hub. In turn, this would create the economic context for the development of manufacturing, which, by reducing the balance of trade, would transform the city into a regional center surpassing Omaha or even Kansas City. The premise of early booster planning was rooted in a centrist view of economic development that posited that each place could establish a certain degree of self-sufficiency, and thus a solid, diverse, and sound economic base combining transit, merchandising, services and manufacturing. Only over time would boosters learn that powerful regional and national economic forces were already working against such strategies and that a new kind of Plains urbanism was evolving. That gradual realization in the 1870s and 1880s is at the core of understanding the spatial arrangements of Lincoln's economy, its frustration in developing manufacturing, and the gradual erosion of booster unity as two different visions of how to respond to the problem emerged.

Railroad Infrastructure

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The emergence of the booster ethos was apparent as early as 1869 in the first efforts of town founders and early settlers to bring a railroad to Lincoln. Townsmen sought to convince an outside railroad to build there by altering strategies hammered out back east, but especially in Illinois and Iowa in the 1850s, which involved founding a locally owned railroad and gradually drawing a larger railroad to it. In November of 1869, town boosters called a series of railroad meetings, passed resolutions, and raised petitions to propose that the city offer subscriptions for railroad stock from city credit or taxes. They then approached the nearest railroad, in this case the recently organized Burlington and Missouri River Railroad (B.M.R.R.) building west of Plattsmouth, to encourage them to build a line to Lincoln.

The success of the boosters' efforts was evidenced by the arrival of the B.M.R.R. in Lincoln in July, 1870; however, in the town of about 1500, there existed no laurels upon which booster members could rest. Within a week of the arrival of the outside railroad, before it even established regular service, town boosters led by Charles H. Gere, a local editor, formed a "Lincoln Board of Trade" to "examine the business needs of the city" and stimulate manufactures and trade. They also organized another series of railroad meetings and sent petitions to the city council to advance further the town's railroad interests. The goal of the meetings was to assure that Lincoln became a "railroad center," at which a number of roads converged, as opposed to a one railroad town. Gere argued that only by having several railroads could Lincoln become a mercantile center and a "commercial metropolis." By this logic, boosters convinced residents to respond positively by the requests of the Midland Pacific Railroad for financial support through a bond issue and tax abatements for the construction of the road being built west from Nebraska City. So strong was this railroad center or "hub" vision of the town that for several weeks in the summer of 1870, the Nebraska State Journal published a map showing Lincoln as a metropolis at which five or six railroads converged, an arrangement that would not be in place until 1887. The arrival of the Midland Pacific in April, 1871, as well as the Atchison and Nebraska a year later, assured Lincoln a central place status west of Omaha, with which it acquired a nearby connection via the Omaha and Southwestern Railroad.

The spatial impact of this railroad development on downtown Lincoln became progressively more evident. Indeed, one could argue, the spatial arrangements of downtown, and the city as a whole, were oriented to the railroads. In 1870 the B.M.R.R. acquired a right of way that ran along side the west side of the Lincoln City Plat running northeast to southwest along the Salt Creek Valley. Almost immediately they established a passenger depot at the foot of P Street, amid a broader stretch of railroad lands and yards extending along the corridor to the northeast and southwest. In doing so, they established the entryway, or nodal point, around which the rest of Lincoln would orient itself. In the 1880s the company replaced the small, temporary depot building with a larger brick structure. As the entrance to the city, the depot was soon surrounded by a few hotels, a Wells Fargo express office, boarding and rooming houses, eateries, wholesale companies, lumber yards, a foundry, a brewery, a small meat packing firm, and a cluster of relatively small warehouses. (Figure 1) In 1873, the company management located a major assimilation yard for rolling freight southwest of the depot and major regional repair shops several miles northeast along the line in Havelock, thus securing Lincoln's status as a regional hub within the Burlington system.

By the mid-1880s, several other lines, the Lincoln and Northwestern to Columbus, the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley, the Atchison and Nebraska, the Missouri Pacific, and a spur of the Union Pacific, arrived in Lincoln, transforming it into a regional hub. As in most towns, the railroad station was a center of activity in the city and its clock, an arbitrator of local time, was a main attraction and gathering place. At the depot and in the adjacent yards and railroad district, one encountered the pulse of outside activity passing along the railroad "metropolitan corridor" that crisscrossed the region. Railroad workers clustered in small houses along the lines to the north and south of the depot, but the railroad influence also stretched east across downtown through ticket offices, most of which were located up on Government Square and along O Street. The Burlington and Missouri's ticket office was at the northeast corner of Tenth and O streets, (Figure 2) (Figure 3) (Figure 4) (Figure 5) and the others were either next door or down the street around Eleventh or Twelfth and O streets. Likewise the railroad's influence ran through the corporate offices and the offices of railroad lawyers along O Street, especially in the Burr Block. Throughout all of these venues, Lincoln was, above all, a "Burlington town." The B.M.R.R. Co. exerted direct and indirect influence and pressured both the city's and the state's economy, politics, society, and culture in a variety of ways. And as a regional center in the Burlington system, Lincoln exerted influence on towns and cities across the Great Plains and was connected to systemic forces and directives from company headquarters in Chicago to the furthest extent of the Burlington system on the west coast.

Economic Development

Lincoln grocers and merchants, at the core of the town's economy, took advantage of the broadening web of the Burlington system and worked to make the city a "commercial center" by supplying wholesale goods to a broadening hinterland. In the early 1870s, one or two wholesalers who acquired goods in Chicago or St. Louis sold to wholesalers and retailers in Lincoln and surrounding small towns. By the late 1870s, one local wholesaler gradually replaced his reliance on a larger local wholesaler by purchasing directly from St. Louis and especially Chicago. In addition, the wholesaler sought out sources of goods along the new lines which arrived in Lincoln, making hinterland purchases in Omaha, Des Moines, Burlington, and Quincy, Illinois, as well as, to the southeast, St. Joseph, Missouri, and Leavenworth, Kansas. By 1882, Lincoln had become a center from which Chicago-supplied wholesalers shipped goods as far west as Denver, Cheyenne, and points north. By 1890, more than a dozen commission merchants had established themselves in the city, along side an equal contingent of wholesalers in dry goods and groceries. During the same period a dozen banks, investment companies, land companies, and transfer, storage, and express companies, had established Lincoln's presence as a regional trans-shipment point within the shadow of Omaha. In addition, the town's bankers, land agents, and insurance agents, drawing from the city's natural regional function as a state capital, expanded their services across an analogous hinterland.

As all these interconnected and nested local economic activities began to generate economic growth, Lincoln's population steadily advanced and local demand for goods and services achieved a threshold sufficient to encourage some investment in and development of manufacturing. The immediate needs of a town essentially "under construction" were met by a planning mill and lumber yard, no doubt part of the Chicago supply network, as well as several brick yards and a variety of small machine shops. Additionally, the growth of the town attracted the usual array of local producers of necessities and perishable goods which developed in every growing town. During the 1870s and especially the 1880s, as local population increased from 17,000 in 1882 to 43,000 five years later, small manufacturers of all kinds of goods for production and consumption attempted to set up shop in Lincoln. As in many developing hinterland cities, some local manufacturers responded to the ever rising "tax" Lincolnites paid for importing all their goods by pursuing an import-replacement agenda; they tried to produce everything from agricultural equipment (capital goods) to shirts (consumer goods). As they did, boosters proudly exclaimed that Lincoln's development was now moving from that of a commercial center to an industrial center, and was doing so right on schedule with the booster script, a sure sign of the city's future as a central industrial metropolis.

Manufacturing District

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In a world of unpaved roads, the railroad provided significantly easier, faster, and lower cost transport. Hence the railroad depot was not just a location, but a site of preferred access to the significant cost advantages provided by railroad shipping; because of this, cities clustered spatially much more intensively around the railroad point of entry.. Businesses with heavy freight costs either for raw materials, supplies, or products, sought to locate as close to the railroad depot as possible while, at the same time, they attempted to avoid the high cost of land, and operating, near the business center of town. Invariably, manufacturers and wholesalers balanced out these needs by locating as near to the railroad and each other as possible. In time a foundry, a lumber mill or two, a couple flour mills, a meat packing firm, a cement making firm, a tannery and some bakeries among others developed down on the slope between downtown and the railroad yards in Lincoln. The presence of these manufacturers is evident in early plat maps, directories, and photos showing a pall of smoke across the city, and they present the impression that Lincoln's industrial and commercial growth through the 1880s were on track. (Figure 6); (Figure 7); (Figure 8); (Figure 9) Clearly the city had acquired the significant railroad connections it needed to enable the state capital to become a major merchandising and services center for the surrounding region extending west several hundred miles. A closer look at the evidence in the city directories, however, tells a different story.

In the midst of the boom of the 1880s and early 1890s, as financial and trans-shipping services continued to keep pace with the population growth of Lincoln's hinterland, the expansion of Lincoln's wholesaling function slowed significantly. In spite of good times, the state capital attracted few new operators in the early 1890s which caused local wholesalers already in place to expand operations to meet the burgeoning demand. Even successful firms, however, did not expand dramatically, indicating that the sales region of Lincoln's firms had reached its limit because the companies were unable to generate the sufficient economies of scale needed to meet local needs. In larger part, the rapid expansion of Omaha's, and to a lesser extent, Kansas City's, regional warehousing complexes along the Missouri River gained control of most of the markets left to be opened to the west. The economic downturn of the 1890s triggered a shake out that left behind a few large concerns and by 1900 Lincoln's economy, responding to population loss across the state and within it's own city limits, contracted to its predominantly local functions; the city's limited regional presence had peaked by 1885. For all the boosters' efforts in the 1880s, Lincoln was never able to push beyond its function as a shipping point and trading center "down the line" from Omaha about half-way between Denver and Chicago, connected, for better or worse, with the broader regional and national dynamics of the "metropolitan corridor" and the economic, social, and cultural forces that flowed along it.

As wholesaling slowed, so too did the deepening of capital investment that would have sustained further manufacturing development. Ironically, as Lincoln's railroad connections deepened, the city's mercantile function quashed, not stimulated, manufacturing's progress. Because goods of all kinds could be imported at a lower cost than they could be produced in Lincoln — located, after all, far from both resources and markets — local manufacturers found it nearly impossible to compete. Across the board they found it difficult to generate scale economies and run their operations at a profit. Aware of these difficulties as early as 1874, the Board of Trade made occasional efforts over the years to draw manufacturers from the east to Lincoln. Their attempts included offers to plow makers, packing house operators, brewers, manufacturers of barbed wire, paint and oil, linen cloth, and wool, as well as owners of a foundry and machine shop. A variety of financial incentives accompanied these offers that were drawn from either public funds or raised through a subscription among the members; they included covering relocation expenses, providing a stipend for relocation, giving a short subsidy to help with start up costs, and attempts to convince the city council to provide tax abatement for new businesses. Ironically, all of these efforts invigorated the booster ethos, even as the difficulty they sought to remedy seemed to undermine the booster faith in progress and development.

The nature of Lincoln's predicament gradually shifted booster energy from gaining railroads and boosting the town to trying to deal with its manufacturing problem — though they continued to do both. In the early 1880s, after a pork packing establishment turned them down, the Board of Trade became convinced that the problem was not the manufacturers or Chicago merchants, but rather the regional railroad rate structure. They discussed the issue endlessly in meetings, Round Table discussions, and Union Club debates; they also formed committees and commissions to study the issue and report to the Board. In the end, they concluded that the railroad's unwillingness to extend long haul rates to Lincoln from Omaha and points on the Missouri River discriminated against Lincoln and was the primary source of their problem. They focused their energies on lobbying against the railroads, taking them to court in a series of law suits, and supporting the formation of a State Board of Transportation to resolve the issue. In doing so, they launched a "bite the hand that feeds you" strategy in which several segments of the booster ethos — merchants, lawyers, and politicians who were associated with, employed by, and politically "supported" by the railroads — were unable to participate. The shift of strategy began to undermine booster solidarity by placing self interest too squarely against town booster policy and thus factionalizing while at the same time personalizing town politics and society. Meanwhile, manufacturing continued to lag behind.

In 1890 most local retailers continued to rely on outside sources rather than local producers. Only five grain elevators and one stockyard had set up operations in town, indicating that manufacturers of consumer goods, cultivating among local customers a sense of loyalty, were more successful than manufacturers of capital goods or processors of raw materials. Though the local economy continued to grow, increased competitive pressure continued to suppress further manufacturing development. The story of the only stockyard in town, the Nebraska Stock Yards Company, was indicative of the pressure all local manufacturers felt. The company was formed in 1892 by two packing companies which had previously tried to establish themselves in Lincoln — the Nebraska Stock Yard Company founded in 1884 and the Nebraska Packing and Provision Company founded in 1888. For both companies, intense local and regional competition compelled them to acquire refrigerated meat to dress, and thus continued to reduce earnings and prevent profitability. By 1890-91, the Nebraska Stockyard Company, in which nearly every booster, including John Fitzgerald and John Sheedy both had stock, was in foreclosure. Isaac M. Raymond, with support from Charles Gates Dawes, a local businessman, reorganized the two companies into the Lincoln Packing Company, which capitalized at around $1,000,000 and was supported by several town boosters and lawyers. Intense competition from Omaha combined with the drought of 1894, however, prevented the company from ever achieving profitability; it struggled along for a few years before being sold at a loss to outside investors. Given such pressures, even in the midst of the boom of the early 1890s, the town's manufacturing sector clearly failed to keep pace with local population increases. When the economy contracted in 1893, the production of capital goods remained roughly steady and the shaky manufacturing sector tightened to half of its peak production from just a few years before. Unable to overcome its distance from resources and markets, Lincoln, like many other towns or cities across the Plains, never really launched a serious effort to develop a significant regional manufacturing presence.

Dawes, Charles Gates [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Fitzgerald, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]
Sheedy, John [Narrative] [Brief Biography]

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