The Gilded Age Plains City

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


Explore the City

Spatial Narratives

Interpretation and Narrative


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In 1869 the State legislature of Nebraska designated Lincoln as the site of the State University and the city directed building to the vacant land just to the north of the town settlement, on the edge of downtown; the University's fateful decision to settle there thus intertwined campus and city life indefinitely. After initial organization, the University undertook the construction of a main, central building on campus called University Hall and opened its doors to students after the hall's completion in September 1871. An Italianate structure with a tower, (Figure 1) University Hall stood at the north end of Eleventh Street as one of the tallest structures in town. The tower became a favorite vantage point for photos of Lincoln as well as a noted landmark captured in many photos; the hall was also well-known, however, for its shoddy construction and poor foundation which assured its replacement in due course. (Figure 2), (Figure 3), (Figure 4), (Figure 5); (Figure 6)

In the 1880s, under the leadership of Chancellor Charles Bessey and Regent Charles Gere, who was also editor of the Nebraska State Journal, the small University, with only a handful of professors and students, steadily expanded. Three new structures were built to the south, west and east of University Hall — a library, a science lab, and a theater and arts building — and a new, more research-oriented curriculum was established. George Howard, the first historian at the University, established a graduate program in 1883. In the summer of 1891, the arrival of Charles Canfield further broadened the University's activities, and in spite of hard times, he expanded the graduate programs, hired research-oriented faculty from top universities around the country, established the library, and pushed for new buildings. Charles Canfield was also an unparalleled proponent of university education and traveled widely across Nebraska to urge more young Nebraskans to go to college. During his four year tenure, University enrollment tripled to nearly one thousand students.

Most students stayed on campus, though many boarded in homes just across R Street and on Tenth Street. Though it is unclear just how many students were drawn into downtown to recreate, work, or socialize, it is known that as a University student, Willa Cather had a job at the Nebraska State Journal on P Street and also regularly visited the Moore family whose house was at 1304 P Street. That local concerns existed about students, protected by in locus parentis rules, and their close proximity to Lincoln's demimonde is evidenced in a photo from University Hall Tower south on Eleventh Street — on a building near P Street, the wall facing campus bears the large painted sign, "The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is Eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Figure 7)

Moore, Robert Emmett [Brief Biography]

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Directed by Timothy R. Mahoney, Plains Humanities Alliance, in collaboration with the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.
Funded by the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, the Nebraska Humanities Council, and the Plains Humanities Alliance.
© 2007–2008, University of Nebraska–Lincoln