Jim McKee: Nursery Hill became Syracuse, sort of

December 23, 2018

Syracuse and its one-time neighbor Nursery Hill are often thought to be either on the same site or that Nursery Hill simply became Syracuse, but it’s a bit more complicated. If fate had played out a bit differently the current city of Syracuse might never have been born and Nursery Hill would have been on a highway from Lincoln to Nebraska City.

Salt was an important and expensive commodity in the 1800s in inland America, and when salt springs were discovered in Otoe County it was hoped that a prosperous industry, like the one in neighboring Lancaster County or Syracuse, New York, would develop. In 1856 three men incorporated The Syracuse Town Company at a 320-acre site they named Saltville in today’s South Russell Township about a mile southwest of the present village of Unadilla, near the Nemaha River.

Saltville was also strategically placed near an old American Indian trail which meandered from the Missouri River at Nebraska City, headed north of Dunbar, then northwest of Syracuse and south of Unadilla though none of those current villages then existed. A year later what might be termed Second Syracuse was laid out on the north side of the trail and a post office created with George Werner as postmaster. A year later a store joined the log post office.

The Nebraska City-based freighting firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell sought to shorten the then trail to Fort Kearny, which then ran north to Ashland, by straightening the path in a more directly west fashion. This new route followed what was sometimes referred to as the Steam Wagon Road which had 17 road ranches along its route, one of which was called Nursery Hill Ranche as it was near the site of botanist Professor Rockwell Thompson’s Nemaha Nursery.

In March of 1863 Thompson moved the post office across the trail to the south side, renaming it Nursery Hill, which became known as the “first day’s stop out of Nebraska City.” Russell, Majors & Waddell’s Overland Stage Company also favored the ranche at Nursery Hill “with its long barn to accommodate their relay horses.” Just one year later Thompson sold Nemaha Nursery to his brother-in-law Volney Utley who retained the post office name of Nursery Hill but renamed the trail’s major stopping point Union Ranche.

In nearby Section 16 a log house was built in 1862 at what would become the east side of Mohawk Street. Located on the freighting trail, this cabin would become the seed for the new village of Syracuse.

Converse & Thorn platted the village of 24 square blocks in 1871 with streets numbered from First to Seventh, Walnut to Plum and showed the new Midland Pacific Railroad running diagonally through from the southeast to the northwest with the first depot on Fourth Street between Mohawk and Midland streets.

By August another house had been completed, the Pioneer Lumber Company opened and the following year the two stores in Nursery Hill had moved into Syracuse then in June a post office opened. Although an Otoe County Fair had opened in Nebraska City with some success in 1861, Syracuse instituted a second site in August of 1873. The Syracuse based county fair was partially successful due to a small horse racing track which was replaced by an ingenious kite-shaped New York plan incorporating a 1/8th mile, ½ mile and one-mile track. On Jan. 6, 1874 the village of Syracuse was large enough to incorporate.

Nursery Hill’s most notable, though now largely forgotten, visitors were the members of the Capital Commission. On June 18,1867 the three-person commission gathered at the Cincinnati House Hotel in Nebraska City before setting out on their investigation to determine possible sites for the first capital for the new state of Nebraska. Their first stop, before examining Yankee Hill on June 19 was at Nursery Hill south of Lancaster (later renamed Lincoln) on the old 1861 freighting road.

By 1872 the C. W. Ireland and J. F. Abbott store moved from the south side of the old freight trail to Syracuse and were shortly joined by the other Nursery Hill store and blacksmith. In March of that year the Nursery Hill post office was changed to Syracuse.

Today all that remains of Nursery Hill is the cemetery and possibly some of the 1868 stone foundations of the water-powered mill while Syracuse reincorporated as a city of the second class in 1951 and claims itself “a city of churches, there have always been more church members than residents.” What started as an American Indian trail developed as a freighting trail, stagecoach route, continuation of the Steam Wagon Road, the path of the Midland Pacific Railroad and now the four-land, divided Highway 2.

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